Technology's most (and least) reliable brands

Note to tech companies: When you don't deliver on your promises, watch out. Customers have long memories--and they hold grudges. And if you wrong them, they won't come back. Just ask Curtis Gans and George Schwarz.

Gans, who lives in Lovettsville, Va., favors HP these days but says that he is no longer a fan of Dell: "I've had relatively good service from HP, and sufficiently terrible service from Dell," says Gans, a faculty member at American University in Washington, D.C. He soured on Dell a year and a half ago, following a couple of bad tech-support calls. The low point occurred when a disc became stuck in his Dell PC's CD-ROM drive. A Dell tech support rep instructed Gans by phone to dismantle his PC, and then "ended his workday and left me with a machine in pieces on the floor." Even worse, the tech never got back to Gans, who had forgotten to write down the man's name or number. In the end, Gans paid a "local geek" to repair his PC. As a result, Gans is done with Dell: "I will never buy from them again."

Schwarz, of Amarillo, Texas, holds the opposite opinion. "I've found HP to be incredibly unresponsive to customers," says Schwarz, who publishes a small local newspaper, the Amarillo Independent, and who has four HP computers--three at work and one at home. Though Schwarz considers his HP systems to be reliable, he's had it with HP support. The vendor never responded to two of his written queries--the first on the subject of shipping HP systems via UPS, and the second regarding problems with downloading HP software updates. In a separate incident, an HP technician wouldn't help him repair an out-of-warranty system, even though Schwarz had originally contacted HP about the problem during the machine's warranty period. Will he buy from HP again? "The answer is no. In fact, the answer is hell no," he says adamantly.

Vendors cringe at such stories, but they say they're working to improve their customers' experience. Says Dell vice president of customer support Dick Hunter: "There are no silver bullets in this. What we're trying to do is go back to the basics, which is taking care of the customer's problem on the first call."

On the other hand, when tech companies consistently deliver rugged, reliable products, customers are eager to talk about it. Allen Brooks, a computer support professional in Austin, Texas, owns three Lenovo ThinkPad R61 laptops, plus an older IBM R51 portable. "I consider them like the old Checker Cabs--big and bulky but really sturdy," he says. "We like the keyboards. Everyone likes them. They're pretty much indestructible unless the user really gets mad and throws one through the window."

Who's the best?

It has been two years since PC World last asked its readers to rate the service and product reliability of the leading computer and peripheral vendors. This time more than 60,000 of you--nearly double our previous survey's number of respondents--weighed in.

As they did two years ago, PC World readers gave their highest praise to Apple, Canon, and Lenovo. The worst performers overall were HP and Lexmark.

Apple and Lenovo (formerly IBM) remain the most admired notebook vendors, each garnering higher-than-average scores in five categories, including customers' overall satisfaction with their service experience and with product reliability. Apple did well in desktops too, as did eMachines, which Acer recently acquired. People who bought systems built at mom-and-pop computer stores reported more reliability problems but were very happy with the service they received. No vendor stood out in the MP3 player section, though Apple, Sony, and Toshiba scored slightly better than average in some areas.

Routers, too, had no superstars, but Cisco and Linksys earned better-than-average marks on two criteria each. Canon posted positively stellar marks in both the printer and camera sections, with excellent scores in eight of the nine categories. Samsung did well in printers, too, and Panasonic, Nikon, and Sony finished high among cameras.

Dell, whose customers have flogged it in recent years for its poor tech support, earned mixed scores. Readers grumbled about lengthy hold times for Dell's phone support, but they praised the vendor's ability to resolve desktop and notebook problems. Dell's printers didn't fare nearly as well, however, receiving low scores on reliability and ease of use.

CyberPower, a California-based vendor that builds gaming PCs, earned unusually low marks in four desktop reliability categories--a repeat of the vendor's performance two years ago. CyberPower CEO Eric Cheung responded that his company's component failure rate is within industry guidelines, and that CyberPower is working to improve its tech support offerings by expanding the capacity of its support center.

The biggest surprise in this year's results is HP's poor performance. In our survey two years ago, HP--which is now the largest computer manufacturer in the world--did well, aside from a few poor ratings for its printers and Compaq-brand laptops. (HP makes both HP- and Compaq-brand products. Though we rated HP and Compaq products separately, our evaluation of HP's overall performance includes scores for both product brands.)

Respondents were less kind this time around. Readers put HP near the bottom in diverse categories (desktop PCs, laptops, printers, and digital cameras). In desktop PCs, problem areas span both support and reliability. Readers who own HP cameras or printers reported a higher-than-average incidence of problems arising at some point in their product's life. (As we went to press, the company announced that it will stop making its own cameras early next year. For more, see "HP Zooms Out of Camera Business.") Readers also say that HP products are more likely than competing models to arrive with "out-of-the-box" problems. Jim Kahler, HP's director of consumer warranties, had no direct explanation for his company's poor showing in reliability. HP's reliability rates, Kahler says, "are dramatically improving across our product line. Our product quality metrics are trending in the right direction."

Hewlett-Packard wasn't the only vendor to feel some heat this year. Lexmark earned poorer-than-average marks on six of the printer measures--similar to its showing last time. Other lowlights include Averatec laptops, Epson and Xerox printers, and Kodak cameras. On the bright side, some vendors fared better this time: 2Wire improved in the router category, Brother moved up in printers, and RCA stepped forward in MP3 players.

Are service and reliability improving overall? Anecdotal accounts from readers indicate that long waits on hold, clueless support reps, and slapdash workmanship haven't gone away by any means. But other respondents report a largely hassle-free experience, albeit one garnished with occasional gripes about quirky or hard-to-use features. The good news: Industry analysts tell us that many companies are improving.

Reliability getting better

Hardware vendors hit their low point in reliability three or four years ago, says Gartner research VP Leslie Fiering, who tracks reliability issues. Price wars had impelled vendors to cut corners in design and engineering, as well as to unload a great deal of the quality-assurance testing they once did to component suppliers, Fiering explains.

"Well, guess, what? Suppliers were not totally honest. Certain things were not caught," says Fiering. Industrywide problems, including (in 2005) faulty 60GB notebook hard drives and (more recently) problems with defective and exploding batteries, affected just about every vendor, she says. Computer makers were then forced to reexamine their cost-cutting efforts, and concluded that they had made a mistake. "All that money they thought they were saving on the front end, they were hemorrhaging on the back end through warranty support," she says.

Since then, vendors have improved the reliability of their products somewhat by increasing system testing and by hiking the penalties they impose on component suppliers who deliver junky equipment. In a 2006 Gartner study of enterprise PCs, Fiering estimated that reliability had improved by about 25% since its nadir a few years earlier.

Tighter system integration has been another boon to reliability. A few years ago, the average desktop PC motherboard held an assortment of video, networking, and modem cards--each one a potential point of failure. Computer manufacturers now integrate these features into chips included on the motherboard. As a result, the computer operates using fewer independent components from fewer vendors, and the chance of system failure is much reduced.

Better support

HP fell sharply in the eyes of PC World readers this year. Asked if he'll buy from HP again, George Schwarz of Amarillo, Texas, says: The answer is no. In fact, the answer is hell no.

Readers continue to complain about thick-accented phone support representatives. Several Dell and HP customers we interviewed griped about the language barrier. "When you talk to somebody and you can't understand their thick accent, normally they don't get what you say either," Schwarz says. Vendors, however, have been working diligently to remedy this particular problem. "A lot of overseas organizations have addressed the language question more effectively," says Gartner hardware analyst Ron Silliman. "It's true that you may run into an accent, but it's less likely that you'll run into slipshod call center procedures."

When it comes to support personnel who are based overseas, "you're dealing with, for the most part, a very highly educated and extraordinarily polite and patient pool of people who are doing their best," says Gartner's Fiering. "In all the calls I've made, I've run into only a couple of people who I've had a hard time understanding," she adds.

Vendors say that they've listened carefully to their customers' complaints and are making the necessary adjustments among their support staffs. "We've put in very rigorous prehire screens on voice and grammar," says Dell's Hunter. "We now know that people coming in the door are quite capable."

HP tells a similar story. Resolving the accent issue is "a pretty significant focus on our part," says Kahler of HP. "We're monitoring our partners and our call center sites very closely for language skills, and making sure we're hiring and training for language and cultural sensitivity."

Of the major computer vendors, Dell and Hewlett-Packard received the largest proportion of customer complaints about hold times for phone support. Both vendors report that their studies show they've shortened the wait in recent months. "When a customer waits for tech support more than 7 to 8 minutes, they start getting angry," says Hunter, adding that Dell now averages a queue time of 2 minutes, down from 6 to 8 minutes 18 months ago. HP's in-house stats are similar: 80 percent of customers who phone in get their call answered within 3 minutes, and the maximum wait is 6 to 7 minutes.

Those numbers may be rosy, but our readers beg to differ. Desktop users, for instance, slapped Dell and HP with worse-than-average grades for phone hold time (an average of more than 10 minutes for Dell owners and close to 12 minutes for HP owners). Both Dell and HP laptop users complained that they were left on hold for around 11 minutes on average.

Get off the phone

Vendors continue to fine-tune their support offerings, including online chat and automated diagnostic and repair tools designed to wean customers away from phone support. Breaking that habit may be difficult, however. JupiterResearch forecasts that the number of service queries handled online will double by 2012, but that the telephone will remain most users' preferred support tool.

Not everyone prefers the phone, however. Younger users, who've grown up with the Internet, prefer online over phone support, according to HP's Kahler. Roger Kay, technology analyst and president of Endpoint Technologies Associates, agrees: "People really like good self-help. If they can go to a Web site and do a self-diagnosis quickly, and then download a driver or call up a diagram that shows how to install a piece of hardware, they really like that."

Help tools such as HP's Instant Care allow a technician, with the customer's permission, to take control of the computer's desktop through a broadband connection. This interactive approach is often superior to phone support, proponents say, particularly for novice users who scratch their heads when a tech adviser talks about msconfig or the printer driver. "It enhances the troubleshooting process, and takes some of those communication barriers out of the loop," says Kahler. "The agent can go in and do troubleshooting steps directly on the user's PC."

Other vendors are implementing their own automated features. For example, for the past year Dell systems have come with a support icon included on the desktop. When users click the icon, a dialog box opens, asking whether they want system information and software updates to be sent automatically to their computer. So far, "30 million people have clicked 'yes'," says Dell's Hunter. "They want that."

HP tumbles

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