PC Reliability, Service: Things Fall Apart

SAN FRANCISCO (05/26/2000) - Imagine a world where your refrigerator was as reliable as your PC. It doesn't sound too appetizing, does it? You'd probably end up eating out a lot, and your kitchen would soon smell like a landfill.

But fear not. The average refrigerator is (fortunately for your stomach) a great deal more dependable than the average computer. Of course, compared to a PC, your good old fridge is a much simpler appliance: It has fewer functions, its only peripherals are kitchen magnets, and it doesn't outdate itself or need to interact with software--not yet, anyway. And if you accidentally put a load of fresh vegetables in the drawer marked fruits, your fridge will not crash.

With your computer, though, simple acts like installing a scanner can lead to deadly freeze-ups.

Alas, while we long for the day when PCs are as unfailing as fridges or other trusty household appliances, we know we're dreaming. In fact, the responses from almost 16,000 PC World subscribers in our PC Reliability and Service survey just reaffirmed what we've been saying for years: PCs still have a long way to go. Compared to the findings in our last report in January (www.pcworld.com/jan99_rs_update), our most recent data shows that computer owners are experiencing more problems, the quality of service has dropped in many instances, and fewer people are truly happy with their PCs and the companies that make them.

Take Gateway 2000 Inc. customer Monte Lawson, for instance. This Selah, Washington, resident is one unhappy camper. He ran into problems shortly after he purchased his Gateway home system. Now, two years down the road, he's still having trouble. The machine refuses to boot from a power-off state until he hits the reset button. "You can hear the hard disk for a few seconds, and then the system just stops," recounts Lawson. "You don't see BIOS messages, [you don't see] anything." Lawson is disgruntled because Gateway has not been able to resolve the problem, even after some 25 calls to the company. "They replaced the power supply, the motherboard, and all the memory, to no avail," he recalls. To make matters worse, it often takes Lawson 30 minutes or so to get through to a live support technician.

Lawson is not alone in his grumblings. Owners of Micron and Quantex home PCs also had some negative things to say about their PC makers' product reliability and support. At the other end of the spectrum, Dell stays at the top of the class in work and home PCs, despite a drop from five stars to four in its overall service rating for home machines.

Battle Of The Appliances

Industry luminaries have long told us that PCs should be as easy to use and reliable as any household appliance. So how do they stack up in reliability against appliances and other consumer electronics? We studied product repair histories for 13 types of products--including desktop PCs--published by Consumer Union's Consumer Reports. The comparison wasn't exactly apples to apples--age and usage varied--but it provided a general means of comparison. We averaged the percentage of problems per company for different kinds of appliances.

According to those numbers, roughly 22 percent of computers break down each year. That makes them significantly worse on average than VCRs (9 percent), big-screen TVs (7 percent), clothes dryers (7 percent), and refrigerators (8 percent), but about as problematic as vacuum cleaners (22 percent). The only product we found with a problem rate higher than a computer's is the riding lawn mower and lawn tractor, which showed an average problem rate of about 25 percent.

Ray Kent, president of The Service Center, an independent appliance repair shop based in Portland, Oregon, says that from his perspective, PCs are generally more problematic than other appliances. Kent reports that refrigerators, washers, and ranges often last seven years before needing service; microwaves, five years; and dryers, four to five years.

Contrast that with the results of our survey of PC users: On average, our subscribers report close to two problems each year with their home computers.

Problems At Home

Gordon Jenkins has had his fair share of hassles with his two-year-old Micron home PC. First of all, some of the keyboard keys stopped working, and then the cooling fan went out. The company sent him new components. "When I called Micron, it took anywhere from 15 to 45 minutes to get through," says Jenkins.

"But once [the company] got on it, they took care of everything pretty quickly."

Jenkins also reported that he called Micron about software-related problems, too. Predictably, the techies responded by saying that the problems lay with the programs--not the hardware--and urged him to call the software vendors.

"But the problem is, when you don't know what exactly is causing the problem, you don't know who to call." His latest gripe? To date, he has not been able to get his new RCA digital camera to work with his PC.

Jenkins has had some problems with his home appliances, but only after years of faithful service. His refrigerator's ice maker has begun sticking, after four years of use. His three-year-old VCR (built into his TV) now refuses to eject tapes. And he recently had to replace his washer-dryer after six years because it gobbled up the belt during the spin cycle.

PCs Lagging Behind

So why are computers so much less reliable than other appliances? Basically, computers just do a lot more, says Gartner Group senior research analyst Mark Margevicius. "It's not a fixed function appliance. It's a great, great Swiss Army knife. You can use it many different ways." And that means it can break down in many different ways.

But what about the individual components--the CD-ROM drive, the modem, the hard drives? Each of these does only one job, yet almost a third of our home PC owners told us they'd had to replace at least one such faulty component.

Margevicius blames the PC industry's breakneck pace of change. Companies like Intel, for instance, are racing to produce faster processors and new chip technologies. PC makers must change their systems to accommodate these improvements--even if they'd rather focus on upgrading the stability of their existing products. "Market conditions and...Intel won't allow them to do that," said Margevicius. "The rate of change just adds to the uncertainty and unreliability [of computers]."

Gary Cotshott, vice president of services for Dell, agrees that making the ever-changing pieces of a PC work together is a constant challenge. "You have levels of hardware and software integration that frankly you couldn't even contemplate in, say, a refrigerator," he says. Cotshott also cites the continuing explosion in new software and new operating systems as a source of difficulties. "You can't test every possible combination of every [single] thing that may be in a machine," says Cotshott, adding that Dell does take great pains to test its products thoroughly. And buyers often load their own collection of hardware onto systems. This too can cause all kinds of compatibility problems.

Our survey results show worsening PC reliability and service. In the months since we last presented our ratings, several companies have dropped in rank from Good to Fair overall, and many fewer earn a Good rating. Overall, the Home PCs group did a little bit worse than Work PCs and Notebooks groups: Home computer owners had to deal with a slightly larger number of PC problems overall and poorer service.

Home PCs

Few home pc makers received high report card grades: Only Dell earned the top rating of Outstanding, and only IBM got a Good. The other companies--Acer, Compaq, Gateway, HP, Micron, and Quantex--ranked Fair. For Gateway, Micron, and Quantex, that's a step backward.

In our six reliability measures, the average result for four measures showed no change from last time, while two of them got worse: Readers report 50 percent more problems per year among the rated companies than they did in our last survey. And users aren't happy. The percentage of people who say they're very satisfied with their home PC's reliability slid almost 10 points, from 73 percent in January to 64 percent this time.

In our six service measures, ratings in the three subjective ones (where we ask for an opinion instead of a hard number) got worse. The technicians seem to be less attentive and less knowledgeable--the percentage of readers who rated the sincere effort and knowledge of the person who helped them as Excellent or Good dropped from 84 to 77 and from 78 to 72, respectively. Most significantly, the percentage of respondents who were very satisfied with the service they received from their PC maker sank 12 points, from 59 to 47, among rated companies. But at least you don't have to wait longer to talk to the support technicians. The percentage of people who got help within 5 minutes remains about where it was last time--55 percent. Fewer users say their problems were resolved quickly, and more say their problems were never resolved.

Why should home computers be more troublesome? Part of the problem lies with the home computer itself, and the other part can be traced to the limited expertise of the people who buy them, says Randy Giusto, vice president of the desktop and mobile division at International Data Corporation. "Think about it:

[Home PC owners] have less experience using PCs and no IS department," explains Giusto. "Troubleshooting a problem is always a nuisance because they have to do it at odd hours." And since most home machines cost less than corporate systems, he says, PC manufacturers have cut back on component quality, service plans, and warranty offerings, in order to achieve an attractive price.

Work PCs

In this group, Dell is again the only vendor our respondents rated Outstanding.

Gateway, IBM, and Micron earned Good ratings, and Compaq and HP received a Fair grade. Among these vendors, only HP dropped a tier since January.

The good news is that most measures of reliability--the number of problems per year, the number of machines that were dead on arrival from the manufacturer, and other figures--reveal little change since last January. But customers are becoming harder to please. The percentage of PC World subscribers who say they're very satisfied with their work computer's reliability slid from 72 percent to 67 percent.

When it comes to servicing work systems, customers are at least getting their questions answered more quickly. A higher percentage of respondents said the company's support technicians were answering in 5 minutes or less. Whether the service people know what they're talking about is another matter. Only 76 percent of users rated the techies' knowledge as Excellent or Good, down from 82 percent in January. And again, readers' satisfaction with service is way down. Only 45 percent say they're very satisfied, compared to 55 percent in our previous survey.

Notebook PCs

Despite some real improvements in reliability, no notebook maker could muster an Outstanding rating in our latest poll. Dell and IBM achieved rankings of Good; and Compaq, Gateway, and Toshiba came in at Fair--our readers had ranked Gateway as Good back in January.

But notebooks are less prone to breakdowns than they used to be, readers tell us. The percentage of notebooks that have had any problems and the percentage with problems out of the box are down.

Readers' ratings in most service measures stay the same, though more problems were never resolved. Overall, readers' satisfaction with service holds steady.

Service Counts

As the reliability of many systems--especially Home PCs--slides, the role of service becomes even more important. Many customers will tolerate a misbehaving machine if the company that built it can get it running again quickly.

Ask James Baker. Baker, who lives in Sutter Creek, California, has had several problems with his Dell system over the past three years, including the quick failure of his first monitor. He's also replaced an internal Iomega Zip Drive and a CD-ROM drive. Yet Baker considers himself a happy customer and says his next system will also be a Dell. His reason? "Dell has been very good about responding and sending replacements."

Our survey results suggest Baker's satisfaction with Dell's service is typical for Dell customers. An impressive 75 percent of Dell home PC owners said they were very satisfied with the company's service.

Micron suffered a substantial skid in our Home PCs service area, dropping at least one notch in all six service measures. The company intends to reverse the trend by improving communication between its front-line support for its consumer PCs (usually provided by a third party) and its internal staff, says Gary Welling, Micron's vice president of service and support. Another disappointment: Gateway sank in five out of the six service measures for home PCs and notebooks, resulting in a slide from Good to Fair in overall service in both charts. Interestingly, unlike Dell and other companies, Gateway funnels calls for its notebooks and consumer PCs to the same support staff. In contrast to our results, Gateway's vice president of client care Jim Hobby claims that the company's own studies showed that its service has been steadily improving.

Look To The Future

Our latest survey seems to point out a depressing trend. Reliability and service of many PC products are declining just as our expectations in those areas are rising.

In service, as IDC's Giusto noted, part of the trouble is that as PC prices drop, vendors try to cut support costs. Companies like Compaq, Dell, Gateway, and Micron are beefing up their online technical support, hoping to ease pressures on phone support. Dell is leading the way with its new E-Support solution: Resolution Assistant. This feature provides live chat online with a real technician. At the time of this writing, Dell was offering Resolution Assistant only to its server and WebPC customers, but Dell's Cotshott said the service would be available for all product lines within a few months.

Micron's Connectedsupport.com tech support portal takes a different approach.

The portal includes hardware diagnostics along with software and driver updates, but the real advantage lies in the company's implementation of "self-healing" software. In theory, self-healing software allows users who mistakenly delete or mangle an application's essential files to get the program back up and running.

Gartner Group's Margevicius expects self-healing to gain in popularity, thanks in part to the self-healing framework built into Windows 2000. "The technology is still new, so it's going to take some time, but the concept is a good one," he says.

Companies like Dell and Gateway are discussing the idea of self-diagnosing hardware. It would warn the user that a certain part was likely to fail soon.

For the time being, any comprehensive approach to self-diagnostics is at least a few years away, because some underlying industry standard would need to be established.

Of course, Web-based support and other new technologies could wind up saving PC makers money and providing customers a better computer experience. But no one is suggesting that manufacturers disconnect their phone support lines just yet.

The most likely scenario for the next few years is that new approaches to Web-based support will gain acceptance gradually while companies continue to serve the bulk of their customers through old-fashioned telephone support.

As for the day when PCs will be as reliable as refrigerators, we're not holding our breath. The scary prospect is that the current may turn in the opposite direction. Appliance makers are talking about smart refrigerators that can e-mail you when the milk has spoiled. If manufacturers start selling those, we may see refrigerators that are only as reliable as PCs. So get ready to eat out.

Mitt Jones is a contributing editor and Aoife McEvoy is a senior associate editor for PC World. Senior technical editor Shane Rau contributed to this article.

A Word About the Star Scores

Stars awarded correspond to the companies' relative rankings, which are based on the raw scores in each of the following 12 measures. For specific details on stars and their corresponding scores, see www.pcworld.com /jul00/reliability.

Legend Survey average1

Legend Survey average1

Reliability

Service

Percent of PCs with problems Percentage of PCs that have had at least one problem needing repair.

Problems per year Average number of problems per PC per year of age, for the brand's systems.

Problems on arrival Percentage of PCs that did not work properly when they were first turned on.

Dead on arrival Percentage of PCs that were nonfunctional when they were first turned on.

Component failure Percentage of PCs with at least one failed component whose failure was attributable to the system's manufacturer.

High satisfaction with reliability Percentage of respondents who indicated that they were very satisfied with their PC's reliability.

Work PCs: 43 percent Home PCs: 57 percentNotebook PCs: 47 percentWork PCs: 1.2Home PCs: 1.8Notebook PCs: 1.0Work PCs: 6 percent Home PCs: 7 percentNotebook PCs: 5 percentWork PCs: 1 percent Home PCs: 2 percentNotebook PCs: 0.9 percentWork PCs: 21 percent Home PCs: 31 percentNotebook PCs: 27 percentWork PCs: 67 percent Home PCs: 64 percentNotebook PCs: 67 percentShort hold time Percentage of phone service recipients who waited on hold for 5 minutes or less.

Quick resolution Percentage of service recipients whose most recent problem was resolved in five days or less.

No resolution Percentage of service recipients whose most recent problem was never resolved.

Knowledgeable tech support Percentage of service recipients rating the knowledge of the technician who helped them as "excellent" or "good."

Sincere effort by tech support Percentage of service recipients rating the sincere effort of the technician who helped them as excellent or good.

High satisfaction with service Percentage of service recipients who indicated that they were very satisfied with the service they received.

Work PCs: 68 percent Home PCs: 55 percentNotebook PCs: 70 percentWork PCs: 78 percent Home PCs: 65 percentNotebook PCs: 65 percentWork PCs: 6 percent Home PCs: 8 percentNotebook PCs: 7 percentWork PCs: 76 percent Home PCs: 72 percentNotebook PCs: 80 percentWork PCs: 82 percent Home PCs: 77 percentNotebook PCs: 85 percentWork PCs: 45 percent Home PCs: 47 percentNotebook PCs: 54 percentMethodology PC World's Reliability and Service survey was conducted in conjunction with Survey.com (formerly World Research) of Campbell, California, and IDC Consulting, PC World's sister company in Framingham, Massachusetts. The survey was fielded in December 1999 and January 2000. Over the course of the survey, we received 15,895 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. In each of 6 reliability and 6 service measures, we ranked each company from best to worst. We determined a company's overall rating based on the sum of its weighted reliability and service scores, as well as on the number of stars it earned in the individual measures.

1 Figure refers to the average score among all companies rated in the respective measure in PC World's PC Reliability and Service report.

Readers Rate Home PCs

Slip-slidin' away: The current state of home machines is worse than that of work PCs, according to our readers. Gateway, Micron, and Quantex all plunged from Good to Fair overall, due to substantial drops in their service scores (see "Overall Winners and Losers," page 116).

Within the individual measures, reliability scores dipped also--but not as much as service. Acer, Compaq, and Quantex dropped in overall reliability ratings:

Quantex fell from Good to Fair because of the increase in its percentage of PCs with any problems, problems per year, and problems on arrival. Acer and Compaq both went from Fair to Poor--Acer's percentage of problems on arrival is rated as Unacceptable (just one star). Micron took a knock in five out of six reliability measures, but it still managed to cling to its overall reliability score of Good. Dell reigns as reliability king, scoring Outstanding or Good across all measures.

Meanwhile, service suffers. Half the companies saw their overall service score sink: Gateway, Micron, Quantex, and Dell (yes, even Dell) all dropped a notch.

Gateway has troubling scores for "Short hold time" and "No resolution"--it loses two stars in each of these measures. Fewer Gateway customers say that their calls were picked up in 5 minutes or less, and a sizable percentage of people reported that their problems were never resolved. Micron takes a hit in all six service measures, and Quantex fares only a little better, taking a hit in three areas.

Big Blue improves a little in service--readers are happier with the time the company took to sort out snafus, and they say fewer of their problems were never resolved. Despite a decline in Acer's reliability, this PC maker rates higher on every single service measure (by a star) this time around, enabling it to move up a spot from Poor to Fair for overall service. --Aoife McEvoyOther Companies to WatchReaders Rate ReliabilityYou may have noticed that some familiar PC company names are missing from our Home PC and Notebook PC groups--like Sony and CyberMax, in the case of home PCs, for instance. The reason? We received too few responses from readers whose computers needed service to produce an accurate ranking. Below a minimum number of responses, a few bitter--or ecstatic--computer owners can throw off the tally. A number of vendors missed this threshold for the service measures, although we were able to assign them a reliability rating (see the chart).

Debut Of EMachines

For the first time, we gathered enough responses from EMachines customers to rank the company's reliability--and it earned a rather pedestrian rating of Fair overall. The company ranked Good in four of the six measures--customers didn't have too many component failures to complain about, for instance. But Emachines didn't fare so well in two measures: Owners reported on average a whopping four problems per year--the worst on our list--resulting in a rating of Unacceptable (one star) in this measure. Despite the other, more impressive scores, only a small percentage of owners said they were very satisfied with their PC's reliability--the company rated Poor in this measure.

As far as EMachines' service is concerned, early indications are not very positive, but again those numbers could have been skewed by a few disgruntled customers. When we contacted EMachines for its response, the company declined to comment. --Aoife McEvoyFor more details on the reliability scores of EMachines and other manufacturers, check out www.pcworld.com/jul00/reliability.

Home PCs 1

*** FAIR

CyberMax

Sony

EMachines

NEC

Notebook PCs 1

**** GOOD

Fujitsu

Hewlett-Packard

Micron

*** FAIR

Acer

NEC

WinBook

1 Only reliability ratings are presented here for these companies because we did not receive enough responses about service experiences to generate an overall score. For a detailed breakdown of these PC makers' reliability scores, visit our Web site at www.pcworld.com/jul00/reliability.

Readers Rate Work PCs

It's sad but true. Our current study shows that service and support for work machines have declined slightly in quality since we published our last report in January. According to our readers, some PC makers are making it harder for customers to resolve their problems--if they can resolve them at all. More people are reporting that some breakdowns never get fixed. And the quality of technical support has deteriorated in spots.

Dell's PC reliability score emerges unblemished: Once again, it earns five stars in all six reliability measures--you can't get better than that. Compaq and Hewlett-Packard made some headway on component failure--both PC makers' scores rose a notch. On the downside, Big Blue customers report more problems per year, a bigger percentage of problems on arrival, and a bigger percentage of DOA machines.

When it comes to service, both Micron's and HP's overall ratings slid from Good to Fair. Micron's service took a hit in four out of the six measures; HP slipped in five. A greater percentage of Dell and IBM users told us their problems were never resolved. The positive news? More customers' calls are getting picked up in less than 5 minutes--Big Blue is still quickest to pick up the phone. Customer satisfaction with Gateway, IBM, and Micron is middle-of-the-pack; worse, Compaq and HP earn a Poor rating (two stars) for customer satisfaction.

--Aoife McEvoy

Readers Rate Notebook PCs

There isn't a whole lot of shaking goin' on with our Notebooks chart, especially when you compare it to the Work and Home PCs charts. Only Gateway's rating changed, sliding from Good to Fair overall.

Compaq users report having a greater number of problems per year. Overall satisfaction with reliability sank for Dell and Compaq, but the two companies cling to their reliability scores of Good and Fair, respectively.

Gateway, IBM, and Toshiba show some improvement in two reliability measures apiece--but IBM and Toshiba's service scores haven't gone up and Gateway took a noticeable hit. A greater percentage of people report that Toshiba never resolved their problems, and a smaller percentage of customers rate the knowledge of the vendor's techies as either Excellent or Good.

Gateway's scores are more worrisome. Its score for short hold time fell to Fair (from Outstanding in January); quick turnaround time is now rated Poor (versus Good last time); and more users say their PC problems were never resolved.

Speaking of unresolved problems, top dog Dell rates only Fair in that measure; in our last survey it earned five stars. --Aoife McEvoy

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