Product Reliability and After-Sale Service, 2008

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Reliability Is Improving

Industry-wide, hardware continues to become more reliable, though plenty of room remains for further improvement. "I'm seeing reliability going up quite a bit across the board," says Gartner analyst Leslie Fiering, who has covered PC quality-assurance issues for more than 20 years. Among the factors that have contributed to this trend, she says, are manufacturers' growing recognition that dollars spent up front to make products more reliable will yield back-end savings, thanks to fewer support calls and warranty repairs. Fiering also cites higher-quality motherboards from suppliers and more consolidation of system components.

Laptop PCs--especially corporate models--have become significantly more durable in recent years. In 2004, for instance, the first-year failure rate of business-class notebooks was 20 percent, meaning that 1 in 5 portables had a component that needed to be replaced in its first year. That percentage has since fallen to 12 percent, according to Fiering.

The situation is less rosy on the consumer laptop side, where the failure rate within the first year of ownership runs as high as 50 percent among some makers, according to Fiering. But notebooks that stay plugged in at home or at the office may have a lower failure rate than ones that are carried around in a high-school kid's book bag, for example. Consumer desktop computers, meanwhile, are far more reliable, Fiering says, with failure rates that have remained in the "mid-single digits" for several years.

Motherboards and hard drives still account for the majority of notebook failures; LCD screens and batteries, despite a few isolated incidents, are less likely to cause trouble these days. Anecdotally, few participants in our survey griped about the screens or the batteries on their laptops, but many grumbled about slow system speeds, operating system glitches (particularly in connection with Windows Vista), skimpy amounts of RAM, and diminutive hard drives.

Will falling laptop prices hurt reliability? We're already seeing well-equipped laptops priced at under $500, and some mini-notebooks (or "netbooks") sell for even less. "We could see a situation where there is higher failure at the very low end," says Fiering. She thinks that the bargain laptops of the future may have more external problems than internal ones--that is, problems such as cases breaking or keys falling off.

Acer senior product manager Ray Sawall disagrees. "Sub-$500 netbooks and notebooks have not been achieved through cutting corners on reliability and quality," he says. "These price points have been realized through price reductions in key commodities such as displays, memory, and hard drives." Sawall points to portable DVD players, many of them equipped with 8.9-inch LCD screens, to illustrate his point. As sales of these players increased, the manufacturing costs of smaller LCD panels fell. "As a result, the sub-$400 netbook became a reality, where it was not possible for most of 2007," he adds.

Though PC reliability is improving, the personal computer is still the worst troublemaker in consumer electronics. With its multiple hardware components and software applications, its fragile moving parts, and its jack-of-all-trades complexity, the PC is a support nightmare waiting to happen. In our survey, roughly a third of desktop and notebook PC users who participated reported one or more significant problems with their PC's hardware or software. Next most vexatious is the printer: Less than 30 percent of printer owners had one or more problems, followed by about a quarter of router users, a sixth of MP3 player owners, and an eighth of digital camera users. The technology research firm IDC recently completed a large study whose results tally with ours. The study looked at support issues for 14 consumer electronics devices, including the 6 included in our survey. "Of those 14 devices, desktops and laptops clearly had the most support issues," says IDC research manager Matt Healey, who coauthored the report.

Printers can be a problem too. "There are some unique situations with printers," says Jodi Schilling, HP's vice president of customer support operations for North America. New and updated operating systems are notorious for garbling software drivers and making printers inoperable; and the sheet-feeding design of some models can be a nuisance.

Jim Lee of Naperville, Illinois, owns a Lexmark inkjet printer, but he says that he has never cared much for the printer's design. "It's really an awkward machine to use," he explains. "Occasionally it'll feed two sheets instead of one, so you'll get a blank one stuck on the back of yours. That seems to be a quirk of the machine that we just had to learn to live with." Lee recently bought a newer HP Officejet printer, which he says handles paper much better than the Lexmark does.

Check the Charts

For charts detailing the results in each of the six product categories covered in our 2008 reliability and service survey (laptop PCs, desktop PCs, printers, digital cameras, routers, and MP3 players), follow the links below to the appropriate pages.

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