Reliability and Service Report Card

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Fred Zagurski never worries about running into hardware glitches with his Olympus C-700 Ultra Zoom digital camera. "It has performed flawlessly," says Zagurski, who runs his own company out of Edmonds, Washington, planning and designing physical security systems for large businesses. He has owned his C-700 for almost two years and uses it for both work and play. "The reliability of my camera is much better than that of my home PCs," he says, noting that he owns a Dell Dimension and a custom-built PC from a local company.

Zagurski says that he has also had problems with one of his printers, an HP LaserJet III. But with the digital camera, "I've had no problem. On a scale of 1 to 10 for reliability, I'd give [my Olympus camera] a 10."

The Survey Results Are In

Zagurski is one of the lucky ones. We surveyed more than 32,000 PC World subscribers about the computer products they use at work and at home--from trouble-free products to complete lemons. For the tenth straight year, we asked subscribers about their desktop and notebook PCs. But for the first time, we also polled a separate group of our readers about other popular devices: printers, digital cameras, wireless gateways, and PDAs. We collected both sets of respondents' surveys from April 1 through June 30, 2003 (for more details about our numbers, see "Survey Methodology").

Zagurski's tale highlights several important findings from our survey. Participants in our survey on peripherals typically gave them higher marks for reliability than did participants in our survey on desktop and notebook PCs. Because users tend to have fewer hardware problems with peripherals, they're less likely to contact tech support for assistance. When subscribers did call for help, they had a more-positive support experience with the peripherals companies than with PC manufacturers.

Even though PC vendors fell behind peripherals makers overall, some good news did emerge from the PC camp. This time around, many desktop and notebook reliability and service scores headed north instead of south, reversing the trend we've seen over the past few years. And some manufacturers, most notably EMachines, have made great strides in our survey measures.

Photograph: Catherine Lambert
One happy EMachines customer is Andrea Jaffrey, an office manager and graphics designer based in the suburbs of Washington, D.C. Before Jaffrey bought her home PC, she wondered whether an EMachines system would cost her more in long-term grief than she'd save in greenbacks. Some salespeople were equally skeptical. "When we went to [purchase] the PC, the salesman was really down on EMachines," Jaffrey recalls. "But we went ahead and bought an EMachines T2200+, and it worked out." Jaffrey reports that she's had zero reliability issues. "Looking back over the nine months we've owned the EMachines PC, it has exceeded my expectations," she concludes.

PCs vs. Peripherals

Of the six product categories covered in this year's survey report, PCs still cause the most headaches. Among desktop users who participated, 46 percent reported at least one significant problem within the previous three years; notebook users followed closely behind, at 41 percent. Digital cameras have the best record: A mere 15 percent of camera owners reported hardware hassles. Meanwhile, 27 percent of printer owners, 28 percent of PDA owners, and 36 percent of wireless gateway owners reported that they had experienced product reliability snafus.

As for setting up a new product, camera owners had the best out-of-the-box experience. Only 2 percent of respondents said that their digital cameras didn't work properly from the get-go. Similarly, only 3 percent of printer and PDA users encountered initial problems. In contrast, 4 percent of notebook owners, 5 percent of desktop PC owners, and a whopping 9 percent of gateway owners said they ran into problems early on.

We also asked subscribers how easy their peripherals are to use--a question that's unique to those categories in our survey. How easy a PC is to use probably has more to do with Microsoft than with the hardware maker. But things are different with most peripherals: Customers expect the products to be intuitive, and the onus is on the manufacturer to make devices uncomplicated to use. Of the peripherals, gateways rely the most heavily on getting the settings right within Windows.

Praise for Printers and PDAs

Survey respondents say that printers are the easiest to use, followed by PDAs, digital cameras, and gateways. In fact, three-quarters of printer respondents gave their unit high marks for ease of use. PDA users followed at 64 percent and digital cameras at 59 percent. Readers identified gateways as the hardest to deal with; only 53 percent of users rated their routers as easy to use.

Our survey respondents with peripherals were more satisfied with product reliability than PC owners were. For example, 79 percent of printer owners expressed high satisfaction with reliability, and PDA owners came in at 72 percent on this measure. But just 67 percent of desktop PC owners and 72 percent of notebook users said they were similarly satisfied.

In the service area, peripherals companies do some jobs well. On the perennial gripe of tech-support hold times, digital camera owners were the least frustrated--again. A solid 65 percent of camera owners reported hold times of 5 minutes or less. Notebook owners fared worst, with just 55 percent getting through to a support rep quickly. Nevertheless, desktop, notebook, and printer owners expressed slightly more satisfaction with the service they received: 54 percent said they were very satisfied, compared with 46 to 52 percent of the other peripherals owners.

In general, fewer people contacted tech support for help with peripherals--and this affected our survey: We received too few reports about users' service experiences to tabulate a combined reliability and service rating for many peripherals makers.

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