Product Reliability and After-Sale Service, 2008

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Make It Easy to Use--and Reliable

Not surprisingly, Apple iPod users in our survey say that they like the cool design of the leading MP3 player.

John Pyne of Colorado Springs, Colorado, is clearly an iPod devotee--in fact, his family owns four of them. He and his wife opted for the slimmer, lighter Nano, while his teenage son and daughter prefer the hard-drive-equipped Classic, with its greater storage capacity. Nevertheless, Pyne and other PCW readers aren't reluctant to describe problems they've encountered and to suggest ways to improve the iPod.

"My son's Classic just died one time, and then all of a sudden it came back to life," says Pyne, who runs a disaster recovery consulting firm. "We've never been able to figure out what happened. It's still playing a couple of months later now."

Pyne would also like to see Apple upgrade the way iPods sync with iTunes. His home network connects up to nine computers at any one time--a desktop and a laptop for each family member, plus an extra home-office PC. But each iPod is designed to sync with only one specific computer, which can be a hassle, particularly for his kids. "They'd like to be able to go between their laptop and desktop, but they have to pick one or the other" to sync their players, he says.

Computer consultant Seth Novogrodsky of Berkeley, California, likes the reliability of his 80GB iPod Classic, which he listens to on his walk to work, but he recognizes its faults. "Apple is known for its ease of use, but I think they could've done a better job," he says. He'd like to see such design enhancements as a dedicated volume control, more menu shortcuts, and a built-in (rather than optional) FM tuner.

For Matt Schaidle of Goodfield, Illinois, reliability trumps usability. He once owned an iPod, but when his second-
generation model with a 20GB hard drive stopped working about a month after the warranty expired, he switched to a Creative Zen Vision M instead. "I like the look of the iPod, but I wanted something [other than] an iPod after it died on me like that," he says. And though Schaidle doesn't care much for the Vision M's bundled software--he uses Windows Media Player to sync the device with his PC--he appreciates the Creative player's reliability during the two years he's had it.

Any Hope for Phone Support?

Year in and year out, most of our readers' support-related gripes center on poor phone support. The story's the same this time around, though customers do appear more tolerant of foreign accents as long as the tech reps know their stuff. All too often, however, that's not the case. "You can do good service via phone, but frankly it's just so horribly, horribly done," says James Governor, an industry analyst for Redmonk, a technology research firm. IDC's Healey agrees: "Device manufacturer support, because of all of the pressures they're under for [profit] margin, has traditionally not been exceptional."

Soon after Matthew Davis of Lincoln, Nebraska, bought his Acer laptop, the machine's power cord started to fall apart. The rubber split and the wires frayed. "You would have to hold the wires in a certain spot to get the computer to charge," he writes via e-mail. (His fiancée's Acer portable had a similar problem.) Davis, a tech support analyst, contacted Acer support, which told him that his one-year warranty didn't cover the power cord. As a result, he had to spend $99 for a new Targus adapter. His next laptop will be a Dell or Sony, he says.

"The bottom line is that customer service as it currently stands has failed," says Governor. Vendors cut costs by outsourcing support, but too often the result is disgruntled customers. "Low cost is not a benefit in customer service," he asserts. "You may think that way, but it is short-sighted, and it will come back to bite you. In my experience, outsourced customer service is just nowhere near as good."

Whether outsourced or not, good support can encourage strong customer loyalty. Susan Payton of Astoria, Illinois, phoned Dell when her LCD monitor stopped working. The vendor determined that the display's backlight was out, and it quickly shipped her a replacement monitor. A few months later, she bought the identical desktop model for her 30-year-old son John. When John, who is disabled, needed help setting up the computer, Dell was very helpful. "The gentleman who worked with [John] was wonderful," Susan Payton says. He gave John his private number. When John had a problem, he would call and ask to talk to that Dell support person.

"There's a high correlation between good tech support and repeat customers," confirms IDC's Healey.

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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