Reliability and Service: Readers Rate the Manufacturers

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Audio Players: Some High Notes

Don't you wish that you could move like the dancers in Apple's IPod commercials? Apple won the dance contest, by far, among the music player companies in this year's survey--the first in which we asked readers about their digital music players. Owners singled out Apple for its easy-to-use IPod and the product's overall reliability.

Apple's secret to success isn't that hard to figure out, according to IDC analyst Roger Kay. Apple spends more time and money on design than do other companies, he says, and it "has a higher [production] cost in order to deliver greater reliability."

However, Creative and Sony received slightly better results than Apple in a couple of measures. Owners of Creative and Sony music players reported fewer problems that would affect their ability to use the device: 8 percent of Sony owners and 12 percent of Creative owners--versus 16 percent of Apple owners--indicated such a problem. (The overall mean on this measure was 14 percent.) Still, Apple kept its customers happier about overall reliability.

Need Better Features and Design

Archos, Panasonic, RCA, and Rio got worse-than-average grades for ease of use and satisfaction with reliability. Archos received the only worse-than-average mark on the any-problems measure: 29 percent of Archos users reported a problem that affected the usefulness of the product. Archos's score was more than double the overall mean of 13 percent on this measure.

Based on the anecdotal comments from our survey respondents, the majority of gripes for all vendors don't involve bread-and-butter reliability issues such as flimsy cases or substandard parts. Instead, complaints center on design choices and software hassles. For instance, many less-than-satisfied music player owners in our survey wished for more memory and battery life, a better backlight on the display, smaller or differently arranged control buttons, simpler software, or easier ways to deal with files.

Ease of use is a major concern today industrywide, according to Rio. The company says that although each player has similar features, it has different controls. The second issue involves the PC user's operating system and the OS that the MP3 player supports.

According to Rio, some problems occur when a user doesn't have the latest version of an OS and associated drivers, and a new player requires them for a feature to work. Many survey respondents reported issues of this type, but said that they believe vendors should support more than just the newest OS.

Dan Torres, Rio's vice president of product marketing, says that "one of the biggest customer issues that we have seen over time is the ability for consumers to get music into their players easily. Our goal is to continue to make that process more transparent and integrated with the environments that our customers are using." Citing an example of this effort, he says that "the new Rio Carbon and the new Rio Forge can connect with a [Windows] XP-based computer out of the box without additional software."

Audio players are still evolving, so there's hope that design flaws will be addressed as vendors upgrade products. For now, don't buy any player without trying it out first, considering button placement and the like.

The bottom line for tech products of all kinds: There are no guarantees of trouble-free service. But the more you know before you plunk down your money, the better your chances of finding a product that will do the job for you--and will keep on doing it.

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