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, Virginia, favors Hewlett-Packard 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 Hewlett-Packard 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 Hewlett-Packard'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. (Hewlett-Packard 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." (See "HP Tumbles" for additional details.)
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 percent 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.
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's bad report card surprised us, particularly since readers seemed reasonably upbeat about the vendor two years ago. Though pinpointing the exact cause of HP's downfall is difficult, some analysts suspect that the vendor may be a victim of its own success. In the past two years, HP has leapfrogged Dell to become the world's most prolific PC maker, with much of its growth due to rapid expansion into consumer markets, where novice users typically need a lot of assistance. "It may be that HP is now exposed to a larger range of consumers, rather than just corporate accounts, as was the case a few years ago," says Gartner's Silliman.
"That's part of the story, but that's not an excuse," responds HP's Kahler. "If you can build enough products to grow, you should be prepared to support that many products." HP has made a large investment over the past year to improve its support operations, Kahler says, taking steps to add support staff, reduce hold times for phone help, improve the English-language skills of its overseas tech reps (and of its third-party support providers), and find better component suppliers. Kahler wouldn't say how much HP is spending on the efforts, nor how many support staffers the company is adding. The improvements are ongoing, he says, and the first set of changes were launched in September 2007.
Better support will certainly come as good news to HP customer Glen Ulrici of Richmond, Virginia. Ulrici reports that he's generally pleased with his Compaq laptop, which he has owned for two and a half years. But though he's contacted HP regarding only a few minor tech issues during that time, Ulrici feels that the vendor's support has declined. "It's the language barrier, the voice inflection and words--it's a struggle to get through," says Ulrici, who would rather chat online via keyboard with a tech rep to remove accents from the equation. "Chat works really well with HP."
Meanwhile, IDC analyst Matt Healey, who covers software and hardware support services, is surprised by HP's poor showing in customer support. "They have a very good track record on the enterprise side across multiple products," Healey says.
Laptops and Gadgets
William Hanson of Winston-Salem, North Carolina, says that he chose a SanDisk MP3 player in part because of the sturdy flash drive it has inside.Photograph: Will McIntyreNotebooks are more delicate than desktops--a fact that is painfully obvious to anyone who has ever dropped one. Fortunately, laptop design continues to improve, says analyst Kay of Endpoint Technologies. In the two years since our previous Reliability and Service survey, more vendors have added features to boost durability, such as accelerometers that detect when the laptop is falling and park the hard drive's head.
Screen breakage used to be the number one vulnerability of portables, but it's less of a concern now that vendors have strengthened laptops with magnesium alloy frames that reduce torque, resulting in less panel damage. "There's an added cost involved, but it's a trade-off that companies are willing to make," says Kay. "It works in the vendor's favor because it reduces warranty costs, and that's a pretty important thing."
In the future, the expected switch to solid-state hard drives will make laptops even more durable. "Once you have those, you've eliminated a huge source of failure, and that's the spinning media," Kay says. "Coming up, that's going to be one of the most important changes in reliability for notebooks." Solid-state drives haven't made a big impact yet because they're too expensive for mainstream use. Putting a solid-state hard drive into a Dell Precision M4300 notebook, for instance, cost an extra $554 at press time. And that solid-state drive was only 32GB, less than half the capacity of the 80GB traditional hard drive that comes standard. That gap will shrink, however, as solid-state manufacturing improves.
Brooks, the longtime IBM/Lenovo user we spoke with, agrees that today's laptops offer better durability, computing power, and connectivity: "Overall, I believe they're better. Especially the hard drives--they live a lot longer than they used to, and the displays are better."
Survey respondents were happier about the reliability and service for their MP3 players, routers, and digital cameras, on the whole, than they were about desktop PCs, laptops, and printers. Among MP3 vendors, for instance, Panasonic, Samsung, and Sony were the only vendors to receive even two subpar scores apiece. Why? Because MP3 players, cameras, and routers have very few moving parts to break.
William Hanson of Winston-Salem, North Carolina, says that he bought a SanDisk MP3 player because he didn't want to be locked into Apple's iTunes format, but also because he prefers flash drives over hard drives. "I did not want to deal with anything mechanical because they're not as durable," he says.
Readers gave camera vendors--in particular, Canon and Sony--high marks for both the reliability and the ease of use of their products. "Product failures are few and far between in digital cameras, and unless it's a specialized camera with a unique feature, most of the problems are user error," says IDC digital camera analyst Chris Chute.
And what sorts of things qualify as "user error"? First and foremost, Chute says, digital cameras are often dropped or set down in places where they can come to harm, Chute says.
Similarly, our readers reported few major reliability problems with routers. Jeff Babcock of Kaukauna, Wisconsin, says his Linksys router works fine, though he wishes it had a stronger wireless signal: "I live in a small one-bedroom apartment, and when I take my laptop into the bedroom, which is probably 60 feet from the router, [the signal] is flaky."
Problems With Printers
Of all the product categories we asked readers to talk about, printers received the harshest treatment. Five companies garnered three or more worse-than-average grades, and Lexmark placed dead last with six subpar scores in various reliability, phone service, and ease-of-use sections.
This was Lexmark's second consecutive appearance at the bottom of the printer pack. When asked to comment on its low scores, Lexmark spokesperson Tim Fitzpatrick said that the company is working continuously to improve its reliability and service, and that its in-house surveys of customer satisfaction ratings "have improved significantly year over year." Survey comments from Lexmark users focused mostly on usability issues such as "Make the paper feed more reliable," "The paper loader for faxing needs to be fixed," and "Lexmark announces the ink is low, when it's not." Lexmark wasn't the only printer vendor to get slammed; Dell and Epson customers also had an unusually high rate of complaints regarding the general reliability of their printers. Why are readers so dissatisfied with printers? Ironically, one reason might be their low cost. Prices for these peripherals have dropped so dramatically in recent years that retailers commonly toss in a free inkjet printer with a computer purchase. To keep costs down, Fiering suspects, manufacturers may be using cheaper and less reliable parts, and skimping on testing.
In addition, printers have a lot of mechanical parts that can break down--and software drivers that are notoriously flaky.
Outsourcing: Everybody Does It
When you buy a computer, MP3 player, or other consumer electronics gadget, the company whose brand appears on the shell probably isn't the product's actual manufacturer. Many vendors outsource the work to a third-party manufacturer somewhere in Asia. Taiwan-based Quanta, for instance, is the world's largest manufacturer of notebooks; its customers include a who's who of computer vendors: Apple, Dell, HP, Sony, and Toshiba, among others.
Outsourcing is a way of life. "They all do it," says Gartner's Fiering, who adds that reliability is determined mostly by the vendor's commitment to quality assurance. If a vendor uses a reliable third-party manufacturer, the results are positive and predictable. "You get what you pay for," Fiering says.
In intensely competitive markets, the challenge for vendors is to create reliable products, support them well, and still turn a profit. "The industry knows how to build quality, but the problem is pressure on price," Fiering says. "Given that, everybody's always looking for ways to cut corners."
Winners and Losers
Apple, Canon, and Lenovo did best overall in our study. Apple earned 14 better-than-average scores across four product categories. Canon took 16 high marks in just two categories, while Lenovo took 5 in laptops. In the losers' bracket, HP received 15 worse-than-average scores over four device categories, while Lexmark managed 6 subpar grades in just the printer category.
Laptops: Apple and Lenovo Top the Field
Apple and Lenovo (formerly IBM) customers are happier than most with the service and support their laptops received after the sale; Lenovo in particular got high marks for not leaving customers hanging on hold when they need to talk to a support rep. Overall, both vendors' customers had fewer complaints, on average, than owners of other brands about their notebooks' reliability. Readers who owned Compaq or Averatec portables were less happy. A disproportionate number of Compaq customers said that their laptops were less reliable in general, while Averatec owners reported more component failures.
Desktop PCs: HP Gets Lousy Grades; Apple Heads the Class
HP owners reportED significantly fewer failures of the component parts inside their desktop PCs, but they also had a higher-than-average number of complaints about HP's service and its phone support. These are marked changes from HP's middling performance in these categories on our 2005 survey. Meanwhile, for its part, gaming PC maker CyberPower received low marks two years ago, and did not improve: Customers reported a higher-than-normal number of problems out of the box and throughout the life span of their PCs. At the high end of the scale, Apple customers reported relatively few problems with the innards of their machines and had fewer complaints about the way Apple services its products after the sale.
Printers: Lexmark Receives Low Grades All Around
Printer prices have been falling for the past two years, so vendors depend on ink cartridge sales to make up the difference. Our survey suggests that this isn't helping the overall reliability of these products. Lexmark, Epson, and Dell customers had unusually high complaint rates regarding the general reliability of their printers. Dell, Epson, and HP owners had problems getting service and support for broken printers. Readers were most irked by Lexmark and its printers, much as in our 2005 survey. Lexmark could take a lesson from Canon, which nearly ran the table with better-than-average scores on all but one measure.
Cameras: Canon Zooms; Kodak and HP Lose Focus
Readers like the ruggedness of Canon cameras--and the way Canon services them when something breaks. But only a couple of camera brands--Kodak and HP--earned noticeably low marks in these areas. Owners of those cameras reported a higher-than-normal number of technical problems, including those discovered immediately after opening the box for the first time. Those issues probably helped form users' negative opinions of the overall reliability of Kodak and HP cameras.
Routers: Only D-Link Garners Reliability Complaints
Though some readers complained about the usable range of their routers, most seemed fairly content with the products' durability and with the manufacturer's service. On the positive side, Cisco and Linksys received higher-than-average marks for the reliability of their routers; and a high proportion of Apple, 2Wire, and Belkin owners talked up their products' ease of use. Only D-Link customers expressed dissatisfaction with their routers' reliability in higher-than-usual numbers.
MP3 Players: The iPod Remains the Player to Beat
Not surprisingly, iPod users gave Apple high marks for making the product easy to use. The iPod's simple, elegant, and intuitive design may color the overall good feeling users have about the reliability of the devices. That may also cast a bad light on competing players: Users of almost all non-iPod players had complaints about the ease of use of their devices. But readers had some nice things to say about iPod competitors, too. For example, relatively few users of Toshiba and Sony MP3 players reported having technical problems over the lifetime of their products.
What the Measures Mean
We asked PC World readers to rate vendors in six product categories: laptops, desktops, printers, digital cameras, routers, and MP3 players. Each category contained nine subsections for rating a vendor in specific areas of customer service or product reliability. Each company was judged relative to its competitors.
In each subsection, we distributed every vendor's score into one of three rating categories: significantly better than average, not significantly different from average, or significantly worse than average. If a vendor drew fewer than 50 responses in a subsection, we discarded the results as statistically unstable. Some smaller vendors received too few votes for us to accurately rate their reliability and service.
Problems on arrival (all devices): Based on the percentage of survey respondents who reported one or more problems with the device right out of the box.
Any hardware or software problem (all devices): Based on the percentage of survey respondents who reported any problem at all during the product's lifetime.
Satisfaction with reliability (all devices): Based on the owner's overall satisfaction with the reliablity of the device.
Failed component (laptops and desktop PCs): Based on the percentage of survey respondents who reported replacing one or more original components because they failed.
Core component problem (laptops and desktop PCs): Based on the percentage of survey respondents who reported problems with the CPU, motherboard, power supply, hard drive, system memory, or graphics board/chip at any time during the life of their laptop or desktop PC.
Severe problems (printers, cameras, routers, and MP3 players): Based on the percentage of survey respondents who reported a problem that rendered their device impossible to use.
Ease of use (printers, cameras, routers, and MP3 players): Based on the percentage of survey respondents who rated their device as extremely or very easy to use.
Phone hold time: Based on the average time a product's owners waited on hold to speak to a phone support rep.
Phone rating: Based on a cumulative score derived from product owners' ratings of several aspects of their experience in phoning the company's technical support service. Among the factors considered were whether the information was easy to understand, and whether the support rep spoke clearly and knowledgeably.
Failure to resolve problem: Based on the percentage of survey respondents who said the problem was never resolved after contacting the company's support service.
Service experience: Based on a cumulative score derived from product owners' responses to a series of questions focusing on 11 particular aspects of their experience with the company's service department.
We polled more than 60,000 PC World and PCWorld.com readers who responded to print advertisements and e-mail messages. We used methods of statistical analysis to determine which companies were significantly better or worse than the average, based on all responses about a certain product type.
Because our survey sample consists entirely of PC World's generally tech-savvy readers, it may not be representative of the general population, which may have different expectations and experiences with technology products.