The Smartphones You Can Rely On

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We Americans pay a hefty slice of our monthly budget--$80, on average--for the convenience (and fun) of owning a smartphone. In total, U.S. consumers will spend $4.8 billion on smartphones and wireless services (voice and data messaging) in 2010, according to market research firm In-Stat.

Illustrations by Peter Arkle

With all that money being spent on mobile technology, you'd expect an abundance of critical research and analysis indicating which products and services work well for the money, and which don't. But little information exists. That's why PCWorld initiated this survey, asking owners of all kinds of smartphones to relate for their real-world experiences with buying, using, and troubleshooting the devices.

Perhaps the central finding of our survey is that smartphone owners have plenty of complaints, yet seem to willing to tolerate many of the shortcomings of their wireless service providers as well as the manufacturers of the phones. The survey asked the opinions of some 3500 smartphone owners during the month of October2009, and the results revealed mediocre or poor reliablity and ease of use in a number of major smartphone brands, and poor problem resolution and network service from some major wireless service providers. Surprisingly, however, smartphone owners registered noticably low levels of dissatisfaction about these deficiencies.

Note: The percentage numbers contained in our survey results carry a margin of error of 3.3 percent unless otherwise indicated.

Who's Hot, and Who's Not

The Apple iPhone, at least for now, is still the hottest and best-loved smartphone in use out. The carrier that sells and connects the device, AT&T, is, well, not so beloved. Verizon and Sprint are the best-liked wireless carriers in the eyes of the smartphone users we surveyed. (Note: Click on the thumbnail graphic to see the full-size image.)

The idea of pairing the best device with the best (compatible) network--Verizon--has been the subject of much speculation and debate over the past year, but Verizon's recent anti-iPhone advertising and the release of its "iPhone killer" Droid make that union less likely.

The good news is that both networks and devices are changing so fast that Apple's lockup with AT&T may not seem so important a year from now. Better devices running on faster networks are likely to enter the market in the coming months and years, especially if new competitors like the cable companies, WiMax providers, and dark horses like Google begin selling smartphones and wireless service.

Tech Support: Many Problems Go Unresolved

Our survey results show the level of smartphone users' satisfaction with service providers' technical support.
Smartphones are complex devices, and becoming more so. This increases users' reliance on service providers (and in some cases, handset manufacturers) to help keep the gadgets--little PCs, really--running and working properly. (Note: Click on the chart image to see our survey results on user satisfaction with technical support. And see "What Technical Support Means" below this section for more information on our measures of satisfaction in this area.)

Service providers are usually the first lines of support, shifting support issues over to the manufacturer of the phone only in severe cases. Service providers end up handling users' problems about 66 percent of the time, while smartphone manufacturers handle the problem only about 21 percent of the time, and electronics retailers do so only 1 percent of the time (the remaining 12 percent said "other" or "don't know").

Technical support must be judged on how well, and how fast, it helps users troubleshoot problems as they arise. The combined support systems (Web, phone, and in-store) of service providers and manufacturers fail to fully resolve smartphone technical breakdowns in a surprisingly high percentage of cases. Of the smartphone owners who reported having had to call tech support, 17 percent say their problem was never resolved, while another 21 percent say their problem was only "somewhat" (partly) resolved.

One carrier performed even worse than that: 19 percent of the Sprint customers who answered our survey said their problem was never resolved, while another 28 percent said their problem was only partly resolved.

Nevertheless, smartphone users report moderate satisfaction with the technical support they've received. On a 7-point scale (with 1 being "extremely dissatisfied" and 7 being "extremely satisfied"), readers ranked the four major service providers--AT&T, Sprint, T-Mobile, and Verizon--in the low 5 region, meaning they were "somewhat satisfied" with service provider tech support services. Specifically, Verizon and T-Mobile each scored 5.4 out of 7; Sprint and AT&T each scored 5.2.

What the Measurements Mean

The following describes the criteria we used in our survey to measure service providers' technical support.

Average phone hold time: Based on the average time smartphone owners waited on hold to speak to a phone support representative.

Phone service rating: Based on a cumulative score derived from smartphone owners' ratings of several aspects of their experience in phoning the company's technical support service. Among the factors considered were whether the information was easy to understand, and whether the support representative spoke clearly and knowledgeably.

Problem was never resolved: Based on the percentage of survey respondents who said the problem remained after they contacted technical support.

In-person service rating: Based on a cumulative score derived from phone owners' ratings of several aspects of technical support received at a service provider's retail location. Among the factors considered were the ease of getting a representative's attention in the store, and the knowledge, fairness, and attitude of the rep.

Overall service rating: Based on a cumulative score derived from smartphone owners' responses to a series of questions that focused on 11 specific aspects of their experience with the company's service department.

Next: Phone and In-Store Support

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