Users sound off on companies' tech support

Surveys: Magazines ask their readers for feedback

March 20, 2000|By Doug Bedell | Doug Bedell,Knight Ridder/Tribune

When all else fails, support technicians sometimes suggest a humorous way to end the frustrating problems reported by new computer owners. It's called using the floor tool, meaning you lift your confused box overhead and smash it on the ground.

To prevent such extreme measures, experts at numerous computer specialty magazines and Web sites offer wide-ranging, detailed evaluations of major computer manufacturers' fix-it abilities.

Three of the most established are the annual surveys by PC World, PC Magazine and Each is available in detailed form on the Internet and can prove a valuable resource for anyone considering a new home computer purchase.

Other free consumer feedback can be gleaned from individuals posting problems at newsgroups. Users can also search ( with the brand name and the word "service" to tap others' experiences. And, if the manufacturer winds up failing, a growing number of for-fee support services stand ready to offer their advice.

But the data collected by the three magazines are a good place to start.

It is probably no fluke, for example, that Dell scored in the highest category of all three consumer surveys. Others getting top marks include Apple, IBM, Gateway, Micron and Sony. At the bottom of these customer satisfaction rankings, Packard Bell shows up twice.

Here's a brief look at each magazine's methodology and findings. A list of some of the free and for-fee tech support services is included below.

PC Magazine

Letter grades from A to E were assigned by respondents who answered one of 17,000 questionnaires sent to randomly selected PC Magazine subscribers. More than half returned the surveys. Users rated up to three desktop PCs, three notebook PCs and three printers used in the past two years.

Subscribers were asked to rate their satisfaction, using a scale from 1 to 10, for overall reliability, repair experience and technical support. They also indicated the number of times their PCs needed to be repaired in the past 12 months. Also ranked were overall satisfaction, satisfaction with technical support and satisfaction with specific types of technical support.

Reader's Choice awards were given to those vendors that ranked better than average in satisfaction with reliability, repair experience, technical support and the number of machines that had to be repaired in the past 12 months. In that overall ranking last year, IBM received an A for the seventh straight survey and Dell took its fourth consecutive A; Quantex received a top mark for the first time in the survey's history.

In the category of home desktop tech support, Apple, Dell and IBM scored best.

The online publication -- formerly known as Windows magazine when published in printed form -- is in its third year of tallying results from its PC Reliability and Support survey. The 1999 version received responses from 16,538 people who were asked about PCs they had purchased in the past three years.

Manufacturers were ranked on 10 key factors, including whether the system started up right out of the box, how many problems required repair, how satisfied users were with tech support and whether they'd buy the same brand again. Based on their cumulative score, the magazine's editors grouped vendors into four classes: excellent, good, fair and poor.

For the third year in a row, Dell scored in the top echelon with responding users. Gateway moved up a notch from 1998.

Quantex ranked excellent after an insufficient sample kept it out of consideration last year.

IBM and Micron earned a ranking of good -- the same that they received last year, while Hewlett-Packard moved down a notch from excellent to good.

Acer rated fair, the same as in 1998. NEC moved up a step from poor. And Compaq, which had been in the good class last year, dropped to fair.

Packard Bell and TigerDirect were at the bottom of customer satisfaction.

PC World

The PC World Reliability and Service survey received 15,416 reports from verified PC World subscribers describing their PCs' reliability and their experiences, if any, in getting service.

Using this data, a team of PC World editors and research experts analyzed the reliability and service performance of each manufacturer's home, work and notebook PCs based on 12 measures, then ranked each company from best to worst.

In the category for home PC service and reliability, Dell was the only computer maker to garner the top rating. CyberMax, Gateway, IBM, Micron, Quantex and Sony were just below.

Online help from the major manufacturers is spotty at best, according to PC World's findings. Survey respondents reported that they used online help less than 20 percent of the time when they had problems with their computers.

And the results were not heartening. Ten percent said they never received any answers from messages left at company Web sites, 34 percent got a response that didn't help, and 31 percent got a response that helped but didn't solve the problem.

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