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Problems With Printers

Of all the product categories we asked readers to talk about, printers received the harshest treatment. Five companies garnered three or more worse-than-average grades, and Lexmark placed dead last with six subpar scores in various reliability, phone service, and ease-of-use sections.

This was Lexmark's second consecutive appearance at the bottom of the printer pack. When asked to comment on its low scores, Lexmark spokesperson Tim Fitzpatrick said that the company is working continuously to improve its reliability and service, and that its in-house surveys of customer satisfaction ratings "have improved significantly year over year." Survey comments from Lexmark users focused mostly on usability issues such as "Make the paper feed more reliable," "The paper loader for faxing needs to be fixed," and "Lexmark announces the ink is low, when it's not." Lexmark wasn't the only printer vendor to get slammed; Dell and Epson customers also had an unusually high rate of complaints regarding the general reliability of their printers. Why are readers so dissatisfied with printers? Ironically, one reason might be their low cost. Prices for these peripherals have dropped so dramatically in recent years that retailers commonly toss in a free inkjet printer with a computer purchase. To keep costs down, Fiering suspects, manufacturers may be using cheaper and less reliable parts, and skimping on testing.

In addition, printers have a lot of mechanical parts that can break down--and software drivers that are notoriously flaky.

Outsourcing: Everybody Does It

When you buy a computer, MP3 player, or other consumer electronics gadget, the company whose brand appears on the shell probably isn't the product's actual manufacturer. Many vendors outsource the work to a third-party manufacturer somewhere in Asia. Taiwan-based Quanta, for instance, is the world's largest manufacturer of notebooks; its customers include a who's who of computer vendors: Apple, Dell, HP, Sony, and Toshiba, among others.

Outsourcing is a way of life. "They all do it," says Gartner's Fiering, who adds that reliability is determined mostly by the vendor's commitment to quality assurance. If a vendor uses a reliable third-party manufacturer, the results are positive and predictable. "You get what you pay for," Fiering says.

In intensely competitive markets, the challenge for vendors is to create reliable products, support them well, and still turn a profit. "The industry knows how to build quality, but the problem is pressure on price," Fiering says. "Given that, everybody's always looking for ways to cut corners."

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