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More than 44,000 visitors rated leading computer and peripheral vendors in our annual Reliability and Service Survey. Companies were graded head-to-head against their competitors in six product categories: desktops, notebooks, printers, digital cameras, MP3 players, and routers.

Links to full results (with charts) for each product category--laptop PCs, desktop PCs, printers, digital cameras, routers, and MP3 players--appear in the the navigation bar at right. (Last month we reported similar results on reliability and service for HDTV vendors.)

Please see "What the Different Measures Mean" for a guide to the results charts.

Who's Hot, Who's Not

Who's hot this year? Perennial top dogs Apple and Canon once again smoked the competition. Apple's desktop computers earned better-than-average marks in seven of nine categories. Participants in our online survey were very satisfied with the overall reliability of the Mac and gave Apple high marks on two measures involving customer service. MacBook notebooks scored very well too, with six above-average grades, though surveyed PCW visitors did gripe about failed components. Apple's routers were praised for their reliability and ease of use. Results were mixed for the iconic iPod player, however: Our readers generally found it very easy to use, but a higher-than-usual proportion noted problems that became apparent the first time they used the product.

Canon printers repeated last year's triumph with top scores in eight of nine grading categories--the best showing of any product in the survey. The only average grade Canon received involved customers who called Canon support but never had their problem resolved. Canon cameras, though, were less impressive in this year's survey, with just two above-average marks; last year, Canon cameras earned high marks in eight of nine categories. Still, this year's Canons did better than most in problems on first use, and in owner satisfaction overall.

Hewlett-Packard, the world's largest PC manufacturer, continues to pull disappointing ratings, with some subpar scores in each of its product categories, including desktops, laptops, printers, and cameras. HP's laptops fared the worst, as survey participants nailed them with six subpar scores, citing poor component reliability and lackluster support. HP printers performed marginally better, collecting five subpar marks. As for desktops, our readers slammed HP (and its Compaq brand) for poor support and so-so reliability. One bright spot: PCW readers think that HP does a better job than its peers of replacing failed desktop components.

Dell, meanwhile, improved its marks for desktop reliability this year. Survey participants rated Dell's phone support hold time as average, up from last year's worse-than-average score. The bad news for the company is that its printers earned below-average scores in ease of use and reliability. Speaking of printers, long-time cellar-dweller Lexmark improved somewhat, though its rankings remain very low. The company's customer service rating improved from below average to average, but our readers report that the reliability and usability of Lexmark printers are still subpar.

Phone Support Issues Persist

Maybe it's not the accent. Maybe, after all, it's poor training that makes phone support so bad. We're receiving fewer gripes about thick-accented customer service representatives with incongruously American names like "Jack" and "Susan," and more about robotic staffers who seem never to veer from their script, regardless of the problem at hand.

Mike Berich, a Hewlett-Packard customer in Waterford, Wisconsin, has experienced robo-reps first hand. Soon after he purchased his HP Media Center PC two years ago, the system began freezing up and wouldn't run backups. Berich telephoned HP support, which he describes as "very poor in knowledge."

"They would start reading, and you could sense they're reading because they don't even reply to you at times," says Berich, a retired Army colonel. "It's apparent that they're not very skilled."

HP sent Berich a CD to reinstall Windows, but that didn't fix the problem. Ultimately, he had to ship his PC back to the company to have it repaired.

Another HP customer, Mike Omelanuk, had a similar experience. When he contacted HP to replace a broken DVD drive on his notebook, he endured a Kafkaesque series of e-mail messages and phone calls. Numerous e-mail responses, for instance, included the same boilerplate text explaining HP's support policies and asking Omelanuk whether he understood them. No matter how many times he answered "yes," the same question would appear in the next e-mail message. It was hard to tell whether he was communicating with man or machine.

"Aside from difficulties with accents, which I think is improving at foreign support centers, I think the major problem is that companies don't give their [support representatives] the ability to do anything but follow the script," writes Omelanuk in an e-mail interview. "They hire some pretty bright folks, but essentially they rent their voice without the brain."

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