Reliability and Service: Readers Rate the Manufacturers

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When you have a problem, you need a really good listener. And when you have a misbehaving PC and you call tech support, a listener is the least you deserve, says George Stowell, a residential real estate appraiser in Thetford, Vermont. When he called Dell because his Dimension 8250 desktop's CD-RW drive began working only sporadically, the first few representatives that he reached seemed to be offshore--they were courteous but had heavy accents and were difficult to understand. What was worse, they seemed to stick rigidly to diagnostic scripts, instead of listening to him explain the fixes he'd tried.

"Everyone seemed to have a different idea of what to do," including fiddling with cables, settings, and diagnostics, Stowell says. Meanwhile, the problem kept recurring. "I was very disappointed," he says. "[Dell] needs to make sure its tech support people can be understood by the average person. They need to be better trained so they can think on their own instead of flying through scripted diagnostics." After making about six calls to Dell, Stowell finally reached a representative who sent him a new drive, which worked fine.

Too many tech reps simply don't get the job done well--that message came through loud and clear from the participants in our Reliability and Service survey. Over 42,000 subscribers reported on the computer products they use at work and at home. We asked them about their desktop and notebook PCs, printers, digital cameras, wireless gateways, and audio players. This year, we revamped our survey and used statistical analysis to calculate our results.

"[Dell] needs to make sure its support people can be understood." --George Stowell, real estate appraiser,Thetford, Vermont
Photograph: Alden Pellett

Overall, regardless of the product category, we found that as the PC industry continues to mature and as many products become more reliable, phone service continues to frustrate users--with a few exceptions. IBM's notebook PC group focuses on service, and that showed in the high grades from satisfied owners. Independent, locally owned mom-and-pop stores also deliver great service, our readers said.

But no other big-name PC maker earned consistent better-than-average marks for service. Offshore support reps, who don't speak colloquial American English well, frustrated many PC owners. As for Compaq and HP, a few years after the companies' merger, many users continued to report disappointment with both brands.

With peripherals, the story is mixed. Owners of wireless gateways reported fewer setup headaches and gripes overall. Many printer owners, except for Lexmark customers, reported generally good experiences. Digital cameras and MP3 players--the latter category a first-timer in this year's survey--garnered some software, ease-of-use, and design complaints but created fewer service headaches for our readers than did PCs. Overall, fewer people had to contact tech support for help with peripherals than did for help with PCs. As a result, we did not have enough responses to formulate service grades for many peripherals makers.

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