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Ronald Pippin had problems communicating with Belkin's and Dell's reps
Photograph: Andy Goodwin
When your PC breaks, you shouldn't need a U.N. interpreter to communicate with tech support. Just ask Ronald Pippin, a CPA from Wheaton, Illinois, who twice encountered communication problems with technical support: once when he called Belkin about a defective wireless router, and again when he phoned Dell about a bad CD-ROM drive in his Dimension 8400 desktop system.

The thick-accented Belkin rep "kept asking, 'What? What?'" Pippin says. "I even hung up once. I figured I'd call back and talk with someone who could speak better English." He did call again and eventually resolved the problem. His experience with Dell was just as frustrating. "It's not that they're dumb people," he acknowledges. But accents can pose a barrier "when you're talking about something technical."

Ongoing problems with overseas tech support are among several key trends in the latest edition of our annual Reliability and Service survey. We asked readers to rate vendors across the spectrum of computer hardware, including the makers of desktop and notebook PCs, printers, digital cameras, wireless routers, and audio players. We asked in-depth questions about readers' satisfaction with the reliability of their products, as well as their experiences with tech support both on the phone and via the Internet. Overall, readers reported that all products were slightly more reliable this year. In general, service performance showed no significant change in overall effectiveness.

Responses from the nearly 35,000 readers who participated in our survey indicated a trend away from the use of phone support and slow movement toward company Web sites as vendors do a better job of supplying relevant answers there. However, a majority of respondents were down on tech support via e-mail, stating that companies failed to resolve technical problems that way: Many readers reported having to wait a day or longer to get a response, if one came at all. And when vendors did write back, the information was often less relevant, less coherent, and less likely to resolve the problem than phone-based tech support.

Indeed, fewer people this year said their problem was resolved the first time they contacted the company, despite the fact that vendors in recent years have made first-time resolution a top service goal. And when it's unclear whether the problem is hardware or software related, some readers got the runaround, with hardware vendors passing the buck to software makers, while others received help if the software came with the system.

Our survey also confirmed the growing perception that Dell's halo is fading. Once known for its excellent reliability and service, Dell received scores for desktops and notebooks that were average overall and below average in some areas, including phone support hold time. Dell's overseas reps with thick accents also featured in many reader complaints. Recent changes by the company to shorten some warranties and alter delivery policies may tarnish its image as well.

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