Reliability and Service: Technology's Most (and Least) Reliable Brands

Illustration by Otto Steininger
Every year, consumers purchase millions of computers and peripherals. And every year, millions of those devices break down.

For anyone who plans to buy a piece of hardware, the overall reliability of a vendor's products and the quality of its service are important considerations. Unfortunately, much of the information that people use in deciding which product to buy is fragmentary and anecdotal--not the kind of data you'd want to base a three- or four-figure decision on.

To obtain some hard data about which vendors have done the best job over the past year, we recently polled approximately 45,000 visitors to PCWorld.com, asking them about the mechanical soundness of their tech products--laptop PCs, desktop PCs, HDTVs, digital cameras, and printers--and about the quality of the tech support they received when those products required service. For similar evaluations of smartphone vendors, see "The Smartphones You Can Rely On."

Perhaps the most surprising thing about our most recent survey results is how closely consumer opinions about reliability and service this year match those we reported last year (see "Product Reliability and After-Sale Service, 2008").

Manufacturers that did especially well relative to the competition in our 2009 reliability and service survey, by category.
Once again, Apple and Canon were far and away the favorite brands in our survey, earning high marks across the board on measurements of both reliability and service. Apple won top honors in notebooks and desktop PCs, while Canon dominated the field in printers and cameras.

But a number of other companies made impressive gains. Vendors that enjoyed markedly improved ratings in their survey results over the past year include Toshiba among laptop makers, Sony in desktop PCs, Brother for printers, Pioneer among HDTV brands, and Nikon in cameras.

At the other end of the ladder, our list of cellar dwellers did not change much, either. Across the board and in every category we tracked where it had a significant presence, Hewlett-Packard ranked as the least-reliable manufacturer in the survey. Among manufacturers that experienced momentum in the wrong direction were Dell (which took a disappointing tumble in both laptop and desktop PC reliability), Sony (which sank in televisions), and Fujifilm (in cameras).

After watching HP turn in dismal results on our survey for the past several years, we asked what was happening. Why were our readers rating a top-tier company as subpar in reliability and support, year after year?

Jodi Schilling, vice president of HP's American customer support operations
Jodi Schilling, vice president of HP's American customer support operations, says the company is aware of the issues and took measures in 2009 to rectify the situation. Schilling says, "We're trying to move to a leadership position in service and support, and that's taking a large investment and some time."

Schilling and Brent Potts, vice president of HP's Web support operation, say that the company is focusing on three key areas: the initial design of its products, the products' operational performance and reliability, and the way the company supports its products. The last of those seems to be getting most of the attention: HP says that it is ramping up its online FAQ archive, has radically expanded its forum-based support (where experts and users can get together to talk shop), has introduced video-based tutorials, and has built a new program called HP Ambassadors around a team of 50 experts who reach out directly to more-vocal customers (read: major bloggers) to help solve problems.

On the other hand, as welcome as those changes sound, HP has not announced plans to increase its staff of tech support representatives. Hiring additional reps would no doubt be expensive, but it might also fundamentally change the experience that HP's customers have when they call tech support for help.

Schilling says that the company's changes are already having a positive effect--one internal metric shows a 20 percent improvement in overall customer satisfaction in 2009--but she cautions that the cumulative effect of its various tweaks will take time to become visible in surveys like ours.

To see the results of this year's survey for a particular category of products, click the appropriate link below:

Laptop PCs

Desktop PCs

HDTVs

Digital cameras

Printers

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