Technology's most and least reliable brands in '09

We asked 45,000 readers and found out which electronics companies you can really trust

At a Standstill?

When we last polled users, 10.2 percent of HDTV owners reported significant problems with their sets (see "Sony HDTVs Rated Most Reliable by PC World Readers"). This year, only 8.8 percent reported trouble. Surprisingly, that small shift is one of the biggest year-to-year changes in any category we investigated.What's going on here? Is the industry simply doing the best it can do?

Rob Enderle, principal analyst with the Enderle Group and a longtime follower of computer reliability trends, sees a standoff between two contradictory trends: The economic recession forced companies to cut corners--at the same time, however, increased efficiency in manufacturing and tech support offset the effects of those cutbacks.

Not only have electronics producers severely reduced their manufacturing staff this year, Enderle says, but they have also continued to move toward cheaper and presumably less durable high-tech products such as netbooks.

"I'm kind of surprised the [reliability] numbers didn't degrade," says Enderle. "With the industry's major staffing changes and the huge push downmarket, you would expect to see higher breakage rates. I thought the industry would cut more corners, and I'm surprised that didn't happen."

One explanation is that the industry is getting better at dealing with problems that cheaper parts have created--or at least at catching the problems before the products go out the door.

Enderle suggests that the widespread introduction of solid-state parts may be helping the industry hold the line on reliability: "Part of what's going on is that we've moved to more solid-state products in the market. In laptops there are more flash drives and fewer optical drives out there now. With fewer moving parts, this might have offset the additional breakage issues."

Call centers may be improving, too, despite layoffs and what Enderle sees as continuing trends for call centers to migrate offshore and for support reps to receive less training. Upgraded software for managing relations with customers and better tracking of customer issues may mitigate problems that lower staffing levels tend to cause. And even though many consumers profess to hate them, automated service processes may be more helpful than critics think, enabling users to avoid long hold times in order to talk to a support rep. Re­­mote diagnostic capabilities probably have had a positive impact as well.

Nevertheless, the consumers we polled don't seem any happier with this year's support landscape than they were with last year's. Readers continue to complain about communication difficulties with overseas support reps and about the poor training that some tech staffers, whether foreign or domestic, seem to have received.

Mark Mahnkey, an equipment calibration specialist in Everett, Washington, says that he ran into countless headaches when he tried to obtain a Vista installation disc for a Toshiba laptop he had purchased earlier in 2009.

"Their stock response is, ‘Go pound sand,'" says Mahnkey of the support reps who gave him the runaround, even after he offered to pay for the disc. When a rep told him that a Vista disc would cost $US250, Mahnkey balked and asked to speak to a supervisor. "Toshiba actually told me to write a letter--a real postal letter--and mail it to them," he says. "Weeks later, they replied not in writing but by leaving me a voicemail-with exactly the same response as before. It's just not how a company should treat its customers."

Mahnkey never got a disc from Toshiba, but he says that he did learn something. "I'm never going to buy another Toshiba."

Fortunately for the company, few other Toshiba customers who participated in our survey shared that view: Toshiba re­­ceived the second-highest overall rating among laptop makers.

Laurel Tryforos, a Des Plains, Illinois, college administrator, had an even more bizarre experience when her HP laptop (still under warranty) stopped booting up. After a few attempts to turn the machine off and on, Tryforos says, the rep suggested to her that she might have to reseat the hard drive. "He then said to ‘get a screwdriver and open it up.'"

Tryforos tried to follow the rep's instructions, but even the smallest screwdriver she had was too big to fit into the slots on the machine's screws. The tech support operator then abandoned that avenue and said he would mail her some software to fix the problem (software to fix a disconnected hard drive?), and a week later Tryforos received a disc. Naturally, that strategy didn't work, so HP finally agreed to take the machine back for repairs. Only after a couple of weeks of downtime and countless hours of troubleshooting did Tryforos get her laptop back in good operating condition.

"At least they didn't charge me," she says cheerfully.

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