Device manufacturers spend billions each year on designing, marketing, and advertising their products. That's what they need to do to get you to the counter to buy.
But how many of them are willing to spend the money it takes to ensure that their products hold up after the sale has been made, and to service the product if it breaks?
Those are important questions for customers to ask before they buy--and the key questions of our annual Reliability and Service Survey. Each year we survey thousands of our readers to find out which hardware manufacturers have the best--and worst--product reliability and customer service and support.
This year's response was unprecedented: 79,000 of you rated the tech products you use. With such a large pool of survey data, we learned a great deal about the companies that make laptops, desktops, smartphones, HDTVs, cameras, and printers. Here's the mile-high view of what we found.
--Put simply, products made by Apple, Asus, Brother, and Canon are typically reliable and well supported.
--Products made by Dell and Hewlett-Packard often aren't, especially if you're a home user.
--Laptops are slightly more reliable than before, and have fewer serious problems than desktops.
--Business PC customers are generally more satisfied than their consumer counterparts.
And there's much, much more.
After you read this article, you may want to jump to PCWorld's Facebook page, where readers can add their own stories of product reliability and vendor service.
Winners and Losers
Apple once again smoked the competition in the desktop, notebook, and smartphone categories, winning high praise from customers in all reliability and service categories. The Macintosh and iPhone maker did so well that virtually all its scores were above average. Apple's only average scores were related to the company's deftness at replacing failed notebook components, and in two areas pertaining to serious problems with the iPhone, the latter perhaps stemming from the iPhone 4's well-publicized antenna issue that resulted in dropped calls for some users.
Asus did well in ratings among both desktop and laptop owners, though it is best known in North America for its low-cost netbooks. These mini-notebooks have often been the target of derision over the past two years, with critics calling them cheaply made and hard to use. While some netbooks may fit that description, our readers say that Asus portables are, in general, highly reliable.
Canon, which like Apple, is a perennial favorite of PCWorld readers, again rocked the printer and camera categories. It's not alone at the top, however. In our survey, Panasonic has surpassed Canon in camera reliability, and Brother is gaining popularity among printer users.
Panasonic, the biggest proponent of plasma HDTVs in a market increasingly dominated by LCD models, has a slight edge over LG and Sony. And smartphone users, in addition to praising the iPhone, are particularly happy with Verizon Wireless cell service and with handsets built by HTC. Research In Motion's BlackBerry phones, however, get low marks for ease of use.
Dell and HP, two of the tech industry's largest hardware manufacturers, disappointed us this year, particularly in desktops and laptops for home use and (in HP's case) printers. (We address these two companies' dismal showings below.)
Overall, it's clear that many reliability and service problems persist, including defective components that fail out of the box, as well as poorly trained customer service representatives who are incapable of departing from a script.
Can Apple do no wrong? Indeed, 2010 was a remarkable year for the world's highest-valued tech company. In addition to unveiling the iPad, a touchscreen tablet that launched a new genre of mobile computing devices, Apple enjoyed record sales and profits. And now it's won the trifecta by smoking the competition in our reader poll.
IDC computer analyst Bob O'Donnell attributes Apple's popularity to the company's stylish, well-made computers and its easy-to-use operating system. "It's a combination of having high-quality hardware--you pay a premium for it--and a software experience that's more straightforward," he says. "And if you have fewer questions, you typically have fewer problems."
Apple is very good at offering extras too. "You have things like the Genius Bar at all the Apple stores. People literally walk in with their systems, and the [support] guy sits there and says, ‘Oh, yeah, you've got to do this, this, and this,'" O'Donnell adds. "It gives you a warm, fuzzy feeling: ‘They're taking care of me.' Nobody has anything close to that on the PC side."
The impressive showing by Asus caught our attention as well. This Taiwan-based manufacturer sells an assortment of desktops, such as its all-in-one EeeTop models, and full-size notebooks. But its Eee PC family of mini-notebooks "pioneered the whole netbook concept," according to ABI Research, and remains the company's claim to fame, at least in North America.
Our survey doesn't distinguish between netbooks and laptops, but industry analysts say that any distinction between those categories is irrelevant where reliability is concerned. According to ABI Research analyst Jeff Orr, "Netbooks are made by the same vendors on the same assembly lines as laptop computers. I am not seeing any significant quality differences between netbooks and laptops that use comparable materials. One could argue that lower-cost materials are being substituted, but again this is not being seen."
Asus shipped 396,000 portable PCs in the United States in the third quarter of 2010, and 201,000 of those were netbooks, according to technology industry research firm IDC. Netbooks may get a bad rap as shoddily built machines, but our survey results suggest this isn't the case--at least not with Asus gear.