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TECHNOLOGY

Not Hard to Find a Reliable Computer

Survey: Desktops by Dell and laptops from Apple, HP, Toshiba and IBM receive good comments in a PC Magazine poll. Among ISPs, America Online fares worst.

July 15, 2002|JIM KRANE | ASSOCIATED PRESS

There's nothing worse than a malfunctioning computer--except a bad machine coupled with lousy technical support.

According to a reliability survey released Thursday by PC Magazine, this year's least-frustrated consumer owned a laptop made by Apple Computer Inc., Hewlett-Packard Co., Toshiba Corp. or IBM Corp.; a Sony Corp. or Handspring Inc. hand-held computer; or a desktop made by Dell Computer Corp. or a local "white box" assembler.

Despite the technology sector's troubles, dependability continued to rise, as it has in most of the 15 years since PC Magazine began the survey.

"In general, people tend to be pretty happy," said Michael Miller, the magazine's editor in chief. "About a quarter of all users had an issue with a desktop, which is still pretty high. In general, satisfaction with tech support is lower than satisfaction with reliability."

The poll queried 15,000 readers on questions of dependability, the quality and frequency of repairs and technical support and their willingness to buy again from the same company.

Among Internet service providers, folks preferred high-speed connections over less expensive dial-up service.

As was the case in other surveys, the world's largest Internet service provider, AOL Time Warner Inc.'s America Online, fared worst, with customers frustrated by its high price and unreliable connections. Microsoft Corp.'s MSN dial-up service was next worst. "AOL did really bad. MSN did just barely better. You wouldn't be pleased if you were MSN," Miller said.

Small local dial-up providers won the highest marks, followed by AT&T Corp.'s WorldNet and EarthLink.

Cable Internet service provider Optimum Online received the best rating among high-speed ISPs, followed by Road Runner Broadband.

Dell led desktop computer makers, followed closely by no-name local vendors and Gateway Inc. Dell users reported the fewest repair requests as well as the largest percentage--31%--of problems to be solved over the telephone.

Desktop brands that fared worst were Compaq, EMachines Inc., Hewlett-Packard and IBM.

The survey looked at digital cameras and hand-held computers for the first time. Generally, few cameras needed any repair, with Polaroid Corp. faring the worst. Cameras are better off being rated by ease of use and battery life, the survey found.

Among hand-helds, users liked those running Palm Inc.'s operating system better than machines loaded with Microsoft's more complex Pocket PC software, including the popular Compaq iPaq.

Interestingly, Palm clones by Handspring and Sony were more appreciated than Palm's own hand-helds. Users were most vexed with the Linux-fueled Zaurus by Sharp Corp. and organizers made by Psion and Casio Inc.

There were some anomalies in the survey. For instance, IBM and HP both scored well on laptops and dismally on desktops. In addition, HP's printers received the top marks for the 11th straight year.

"IBM, frankly, has not been paying as much attention to desktops as to notebooks," Miller said.

Compaq, which merged with Hewlett-Packard this year, received low marks on desktops, laptops and its hand-held. HP, however, is phasing out its higher-rated laptop in favor of Compaq's more-recognized brand. Consumers had little good to say about Acer Inc.'s laptops and desktops.

Laptop owners phoning technical support stewed longest on hold when phoning Sony and Compaq--more than 15 minutes, on average. Once reached, Sony tech support gave an astonishing 34% of its customers the "runaround," often making them call more than once, the survey found.

Consumers that followed companies' advice to seek tech support through a company Web site or by sending e-mail waited an average of more than 20 hours for a reply.

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