Reliability and Service: Readers Rate the Manufacturers

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Desktops: Service Disappointments

Dell desktop PC owners like George Stowell expressed a sentiment that echoed frequently in this year's survey. Many PC users said that they like their computer's quality (in fact, Stowell has bought two Dell laptops since his desktop trouble), but that they deserve better service. Only 12 percent of Dell desktop owners reported having a system with a failed core component (CPU, graphics board, hard drive, motherboard, power supply, or RAM), compared with a mean of 15 percent in this product category.

However, the outsourcing of tech support to foreign countries by companies such as CyberPower, Dell, and HP/Compaq continues to be a hot-button issue for PC owners. Compaq, Dell, and HP desktop owners gave these companies below-average marks for phone support, with many respondents saying that the techs were difficult to understand and that it was hard to reach someone helpful. (In our chart, we rank HP and Compaq separately because the merged company says it is maintaining two distinct brands with different characteristics and hardware.)

Owners of PCs from locally owned stores said the service they received couldn't be beat. Customers gave mom-and-pop tech support high marks for professionalism, knowledge, and ability to resolve the problem. But remember: There's no guarantee that all independent stores provide excellent service.

Mom-and-pop customers said that they were slightly less pleased with reliability than with service. This probably happened because some local stores use more no-name parts than major-brand PC makers do, says Roger Kay, vice president of client computing at market research firm IDC. For example, 38 percent of participants in our survey who owned independent-store PCs reported experiencing a hardware or software problem with a system they bought. (We asked readers to report only issues that significantly affected the operation of the device.) The mean for this category overall was 29 percent.

Some PC makers, including EMachines and Gateway--now one company since their March 2004 merger--have stopped using India-based call centers. Today, when customers call regarding either brand, they're guaranteed to get a rep in the United States or Canada, says Mike Zimmerman, Gateway's senior vice president of customer care services and quality assurance.

Thirty-four percent of Gateway desktop owners reported some sort of hardware or software problem with the PC, compared with a mean of 29 percent in this category for desktop vendors overall. (Keep in mind that survey results reflect user experiences with Gateway both pre- and post-merger.)

But Zimmerman says that customers can expect improvement on that front. "Today if we launch a new Gateway desktop, notebook, or monitor, all the components will go through a certification process for approval," he says.

MPC says that some problematic dual hard drives, power supplies, and fans had to be recalled this year, a likely factor contributing to the 28 percent of MPC desktop owners reporting a failed component. The company has proactively contacted affected customers, and no widespread component problems have popped up in the past five months, says Jeff Filmore, MPC's vice president of services and supply operations.

Fourteen percent of CyberPower's customers reported receiving systems that had problems on arrival, compared with a mean of 5 percent for this category overall. The company says that fans have fallen off during shipping of certain AMD-based systems. CyberPower's newer AMD Athlon 64-based systems use a different chip socket and fan and don't have the same trouble, says Eddie Vong, CyberPower's manager of customer service.

Problems for HP and Compaq

Since HP purchased Compaq in May 2002, the company has merged its service for the two sets of desktop customers, but both brands earned low marks in the survey. Overall, Compaq and HP users were less satisfied with the reliability of their desktops than were users of most other brands.

On the service side, 17 percent of HP desktop customers complained about unresolved problems, compared with a mean of 12 percent in this category.

Internal surveys at HP indicate that reliability and service are improving for both brands. HP's Deb Nelson, vice president of marketing for the systems group, says that call volume is rising, as customers connect more devices to home PCs. HP focuses on fixing problems in the first call, she says. Unlike Gateway, Nelson says, HP has no plans to bring all support centers back to North America.

Where is HP falling short? The company's size leaves customers vulnerable to snafus, according to IDC analyst Roger Kay. "This situation leaves open the possibility of some combination of components failing more often than average. But it is in the handling of the fix that HP loses its buyers loyalty," Kay says.

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