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-- by David Gabel and Eileen McCooey
When you shell out big bucks for a new computer, you hope for nothing short of perfection. But if you've been around PCs for any time at all, you know the odds against it are pretty high, given the sophistication of today's hardware and the complex interaction with all types of software. Most of us can live with the occasional glitch, as long as the vendor provides a quick fix. And that's where technical support comes in.
How good a job are PC companies doing at building reliable systems and keeping them up and running? We asked readers who'd bought a PC during the past two years, using online and fax-back surveys, to gauge their satisfaction with PC reliability, service and tech support. Of the 7,524 readers who responded, about half said their PCs experienced some sort of failure during that two-year period. While the odds that you'll encounter a problem over that period of time are about 50-50 overall, you can improve them by sticking with tried-and-true brands. Some vendors do much better than others at delivering reliable systems, as our survey results indicate.
Our study also showed a disparity in the quality of service and tech support provided by different vendors. Service may not be the kind of thing you can measure in bits, bytes or baud, but the peace of mind you get knowing help is there if you need it is hard to beat, and it figures heavily in user satisfaction. Roger Bowen, a systems analyst at a Midwestern engineering company, told us, "I would rather have more breakdowns and excellent service than few breakdowns and no service."
While some products, and some vendors, do a better job than others, PC companies overall must be doing something right: Almost three out of four respondents said they'd buy the same make of PC again.
Here are the results of our reader survey, including a report card on 14 leading PC vendors. We've also gathered information on what's new-and upcoming-in tech support and how you can make the most of the services vendors offer. Finally, we've included troubleshooting tips and preventive maintenance pointers to help you keep your system in the pink.
Sizing Up the Vendors
First, a few quick words on the survey (see section on Survey Methodology for complete details). Of the 7,524 valid returns we received, 6,760 reported on desktop systems. We rated vendors with at least 50 respondents for a given brand. The notebook sample size was much smaller-764 surveys-so we decided to report general findings rather than details on specific companies. The results in this article refer to desktop systems and vendors.
The survey asked PC users to report on their experiences over the past two years, covering various aspects of reliability, service and support:
We combined the ratings in all of the above areas to determine each vendor's cumulative score, and then ranked them as excellent, good, fair or poor.
Four desktop vendors emerged with scores of "excellent": Dell, Hewlett-Packard, IBM and Quantex. (The number of respondents for each company was 544, 220, 339 and 229, respectively.) In the next tier, we classified four companies as "good": Compaq, Gateway 2000, Micron and NEC (with 453, 915, 358 and 131 respondents, respectively)
Three vendors fell into the "fair" category: Acer America, AST and Toshiba (with 277, 190 and 55 respondents, respectively). Three vendors ranked as "poor": AT&T, Digital Equipment Corp. and Packard Bell (with 50, 66 and 762 respondents, respectively)
As you might expect, each company had its stronger and weaker points, and the rankings in specific categories reflected that.
Wanted: Reliable Workhorses
If you could ask just one question before buying a PC, it would probably be: Which vendors deliver workhorse systems that are least likely to be sidelined for repairs? That's a good question to ask, because we found a considerable range in reliability among the different brands of PCs-at best, 66 percent of users reported that their system required no repairs in the past two years; at worst, 42 percent of users had two trouble-free years. (See Table.)
Hewlett-Packard lived up to its reputation for solid engineering, garnering the top spot with the overall lowest rate of repairs, at 34 percent. Dell ran a close second, followed by Micron and Toshiba in a close battle for the third spot. Packard Bell registered the worst repair rate performance. Of the 762 Packard Bell users surveyed, 58 percent said their systems needed repair during the past two years.
Averaged across all product lines, 58 percent of those that needed repairs said their systems had one component that needed repair or replacement. About 18 percent of the users said two components were faulty, 10 percent cited three, and the rest had more than three components repaired.
Certain components were far more troublesome than others. Most of the repairs reported on desktop systems were required for mechanical devices. The devices that failed most often-no surprise-were hard disks, with a failure rate of 12 percent over our entire sample. (See Table)
Most electronic components fared better, with one glaring exception: Modems trailed hard drives only fractionally, with a repair rate of close to 12 percent. Despite their low cost and ease of use, modems are fairly complex all-electronic components. As such, their failure can't be blamed on a moving part that simply wears out and stops functioning properly. Our best guess is that improperly conditioned phone lines cause many modem malfunctions. CD-ROM drives came in with the third-highest failure rate-10 percent.
The cost of repairs varied widely from brand to brand. (See table above.) Many repairs were covered by the warranty at no cost to the user, but other repairs took place after the warranty expired or were not covered by the warranty at all. (See sidebar "Warranties Shorter, More Selective.") We determined the average cost of repairs for each company by dividing the total costs reported for a vendor by the number of respondents reporting on that brand. Toshiba and Quantex came in with the lowest average cost of repairs, at $10 and $11, respectively, while Acer was by far the highest, with an average repair cost of $165.
Reliability findings for notebook systems differed somewhat. About 58 percent of users reporting on notebooks said their units needed repair, slightly more than on the desktop side. That's no surprise. Notebook PCs have a desktop's worth of components packed tightly into small cases, so heat dissipation is often a problem and frequently the cause of component failure. Some vendors have slipped a fan into the case, but even a small ventilating device reduces battery life. And because they are portable, notebooks tend to take a lot of abuse.
The component failures for notebooks were more evenly spread between mechanical and electronic components. Displays, with a 16 percent rate, were the components most likely to require repair. Pointing devices and modems tied for second as the most frequently repaired parts, mentioned by 12 percent of the notebook users requiring repairs. Memory, with an 11 percent failure rate, is likely related to heat more than to any other factor.
Batteries and hard drives caused problems for 10 percent of respondents.
The Clock Is Ticking
How much it costs to solve a problem isn't the only consideration. How long it takes is often just as important. Having your PC on the disabled list for any length of time can be a hardship, especially if you rely on your system for your business. So when your system is down and out-or just not up to snuff-you want the problem resolved quickly.
On average, vendors took about 19 days to get to the bottom of things. Quantex and IBM had the best track records in this area, wrapping things up in 11 and 12 days, respectively. At the other end of the spectrum, Digital and Packard Bell took 27 days, while Toshiba took longest-more than 37 days. (see Table.)
Sometimes such long waits are an unpleasant surprise. Bowen, the IS manager quoted earlier, expected replacements for defective parts to be shipped overnight. "It took the company over four weeks to get the parts to me with no notification to me or anyone in my company," he commented.
Users had to invest a fair amount of their own time to diagnose problems, deal with vendor support and pack up systems for ship-back. It averaged 15 hours per user. Dell, Gateway and Quantex users had to invest the least time, at about 8 to 9 hours. At the high end, Hewlett-Packard and Digital users spent about 22 hours to resolve problems. Toshiba users invested the most, almost 35 hours.
Sizing Up Support
Our survey also asked respondents to rate support by telephone, online forums, the World Wide Web and e-mail; on-site and ship-back repair service; and the competence of the support staff.
Users rated all these means of support in a fairly narrow range, generally fair to middling. Averaged across all brands, ship-back service, with a score of 3.7 out of 5, was highest-rated, and online service was lowest, with 3.2.
Telephone support was used by more respondents than any other form of service, with roughly three out of four users saying they'd gotten tech support by phone. Just under half used the Web, one in three used e-mail or online services, and one in four used on-site or ship-back service. Vendors are emphasizing the Web as the most effective way to deliver support economically and efficiently (see sidebar "Cyber Sites Offer Solutions")
Interestingly, while phone support received a decent overall rating (3.5 out of 5), it was still the number-one reason for not buying the same brand of computer again. Of the 1,759 respondents who would switch to another make, 489-almost 30 percent-said poor phone service was the key reason.
Lengthy waits no doubt factored in. On average, users said they spent 14 minutes on hold before reaching someone who could help. The shortest hold time-11 minutes-was reported by Quantex and IBM users, the longest-about 19 minutes-by Packard Bell and Toshiba users.
Telephone response time is one point on which the user survey differed from our informal spot check of manufacturers. A number of vendors told us they're fielding calls much more quickly than the survey indicated, often in 2 minutes or less (see sidebar "Dial 'S' for Support"). However, they acknowledge that time on hold rises during peak buying periods and after major product releases, including that of Windows 95, which occurred during the time period covered by the survey.
When users did connect, they seemed reasonably satisfied with the knowledge and competence of the technical personnel, giving them a rating of 3.6, on average across all brands. What makes a good support rep? Rich Rinaldi, vice president of service and support for Dell, said technical knowledge is important, "but what really differentiates a good technician is people skills." He added, "It's great to find someone empathetic, energetic and eager to solve your problem who won't make you feel like an idiot."
Still, frustration with phone support was widespread. "I myself work at an Internet help desk," said Jacob Walcik, whose Austin, Texas-based company provides technical support for several independent software vendors. "If we treated our customers the way [this PC company] treated us, we probably wouldn't have many left. We spent many an hour on the phone with very uninformed support reps."
Other respondents had far more pleasant experiences. "I had less than a 5-minute wait on hold," related Richard Thompson of Mosinee, Wisc. "The technician said he'd order new parts for me, and they arrived in two days. I repacked the old parts in the containers the new ones came in and used the labels they supplied to return them by UPS."
As with any satisfaction survey, respondents airing gripes tend to outnumber those extolling the virtues of the product or the supplier. What's the bottom line? Given their experiences with reliability, service and support, would the users in our survey buy a PC from the same vendor again? In three out of four cases-5,788 out of 7,524 responses-yes. To many vendors, that's the acid test.
Users of the top four brands showed strong brand loyalty: Roughly nine out of 10 current users would buy another PC from Dell, Quantex, Hewlett-Packard or IBM. At the low end, half of Packard Bell users said they would not. (See Table.)
Those who would not buy the same make of PC again cited several reasons. Poor phone support was listed most often, by 28 percent of discontented users. Almost 22 percent blamed poor system reliability, and about 9 percent each singled out high price, poor repair service and poor performance. Six percent cited poor online support.
Clearly, PCs have a way to go to achieve trouble-free operations, but most vendors are supporting their products with service that is generally timely, inexpensive and effective. Good service helps build customer loyalty, enabling a vendor to earn a high buy-again rating even if its frequency-of-repair rating is on the high side. Said Dell's Rinaldi: "Customers are more likely to repurchase a unit if they have a positive experience with tech support rather than no experience."
We began gathering responses for vendor service and reliability in our February issue, when we published our survey fax-back form; the form also appeared in the March issue. In February, we posted an online version of the survey on our Web site.
We removed duplicate responses and ended up with 3,408 responses to our Web survey and 4,372 fax-back forms. From that total (7,780) we eliminated forms that did not specify a system vendor or specified more than one vendor. Of the remaining 7,524 forms, 6,760 reported on desktop systems, while 764 addressed notebook systems.
To ensure an adequate sample, we reported on desktop makers cited by at least 50 respondents. This left 14 desktop vendors. Given the small number of notebook responses, we decided to report general information rather than identify vendors.
To calculate percentage scores for components that required repair or replacement, we divided the number cited as needing replacement by the total number of systems from a given vendor. We used the same method to determine the percentage of systems that needed any repair.
We asked readers to rate various types of support on a scale of 1 (worst) to 5 (best). We averaged scores for respondents reporting they had used a form of support. We asked how long it took to get systems repaired, how much of the users' time this required, and how long they stayed on hold when contacting the company. We averaged these figures for those responding to the individual questions.
Finally, we asked how much repairs cost (parts and labor), and averaged this figure over the total number of systems reported from a vendor. If a given vendor had 500 systems, and 250 surveys indicated a cost for repair, we summed the costs and divided by 500 to get average repair costs.
Three-year warranties were once the norm for PCs, but don't assume that's the case nowadays. More vendors are shortening coverage to one year, especially on products geared to the home market.
Packard Bell, which caters largely to the consumer market, offers a one-year warranty on all its systems. Compaq, Hewlett-Packard, IBM and NEC have one-year coverage on PCs for home use, but three-year warranties on business products. Other vendors-including Gateway, Micron and Quantex-offer three-year warranties on all their PCs.
Cost is the biggest reason for the move to shorter warranty periods. The average annual cost of a warranty to a vendor is 3.5 percent of product revenue, according to Dataquest-and ongoing tech support adds another point or two.
Most vendors offer extended warranties with various service options. Compaq, for instance, offers several options for Presario PCs, including a $69 upgrade to cover parts and labor for two years, or $139 for three years.
Warranty terms differ greatly, so get specifics on what hardware and software are covered, along with details on parts, labor, on-site service and hours of service. For example, Packard-Bell's one-year warranty applies to "hardware defect support," while "bundled software defect support" lasts 90 days. Micron warranties the processor and main memory for five years, and other components for three years. Quantex covers parts for three years and labor for one. NEC offers warranty service at no cost from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m., but charges at other times.
Also, don't assume everything that comes with your system is covered. Increasingly, system vendors do not routinely support software applications or even operating systems. Some will assist with software installation, setup and configuration-often for a limited time-but not applications.
Vendors are offering more fee-based support options than ever. You can pay by the minute-typically $2 to $3 per minute using a 900 number or credit card-or by the incident. Per-incident calls average $30 to $35. Some ven-dors offer bundles covering several incidents.
Most warranties include on-site service for the first year, but some have a shorter duration. Packard Bell PCs come with 90 days of on-site service, as do Compaq Presarios. And on-site service may not be as up-close-and-personal as you'd like. It's generally available only within a specified radius of a metropolitan area-often 50 to 100 miles. Vendors usually consider a house call a last resort and will often ship parts or even entire systems rather than come on-site. Most on-site visits occur only during business hours; some vendors offer evening or weekend calls, usually at extra cost.
Support plans vary widely, so let the buyer beware.-Eileen McCooey
We love you-but please don't call.
That's a bit of an exaggeration, but it sums up the prevailing attitude among PC companies. With competition at a new high and prices at an all-time low, vendors must somehow provide first-rate service and support without breaking the bank. Most hope to achieve that through a strategy they term "call avoidance." In plain English, they're trying to keep customers from burning up the phone lines seeking costly one-on-one support for every problem that arises.
To pull off what may seem like a mission impossible-servicing customers without direct personal contact-PC vendors are transforming support from a largely phone-based system to one that integrates a broad range of electronic options. The Web plays the lead role, ably bolstered by fax-back service, bulletin board systems and e-mail.
Virtually every major vendor's Web site offers a wealth of technical support, including FAQ files; troubleshooting procedures; tips and tutorials; reference material; driver updates and other software; and product specs. (Click here for links to vendor tech support Web sites)
These sites are using increasingly sophisticated techniques to improve support service. Dell, for instance, has the AutoTech online diagnostic system, which steps you through a series of questions to resolve common problems. Compaq expects to have a similar tool, Virtual Technician, online by this summer. Micron and Quantex are adding photos and schematics to their Web sites so you can better identify components.
IBM is implementing an expert system using case-based reasoning that will let you enter a question and find a solution from the same database its personnel use. Big Blue is also personalizing Web support. Register on its Web site, and you'll see information relevant to your system, including changes since your last visit. The company will also e-mail you news of enhancements or upgrades. Another new tool, Update Connector, allows Aptiva and ThinkPad users to dial in to an IBM server to download the latest BIOS and operating system changes. "That saved us from getting a lot of phone calls when we updated the Aptiva's modem speed to 33.6," pointed out David Williams, IBM's vice president of marketing and support.
Most Web sites enable you to e-mail technical questions, and vendors promise speedy responses. NEC says it answers online inquiries in less than 24 hours, Compaq in less than 48 hours. Quantex has taken Net communications a step further with an uncensored chat area where you can interact freely with other users to discuss problems or check out a system before you make a purchase.-Eileen McCooey
"Let me put you on hold" may be the most chilling words you hear when calling tech support. Fortunately, long waits are becoming the exception, rather than the rule, as phone support grows faster and more efficient.
If you're calling a major vendor, odds are you'll be connected to a real, live human within a few minutes-at least most of the time. Compaq says its average time to answer is just over 1 minute. NEC says its wait times dropped from an average of 10 to 12 minutes a few months ago to less than 1 minute on desktop systems. These figures are averages; wait times rise during peak usage periods.
You can chalk up some of that improvement to a drop in call volume. More users are flocking to the Web and using other tools to solve problems. Both IBM and NEC report that tech support phone calls have decreased about 20 percent, while usage of automated tools has risen by a similar amount. Hewlett-Packard estimates that fully 40 to 50 percent of the hits to its Web site are related to tech support, including downloads of drivers and documentation.
While vendors see a continuing shift to other mechanisms, they don't expect to eliminate phone support. It still remains the primary support mechanism-it's the type of support used most often, according to our survey-for good reason. For one thing, if your system is down, the Web is likely out of reach. And some problems can get pretty thorny, requiring detailed personal consultations with a technical expert. There's also a psychological factor-some users prefer the human touch.
Handling high call volumes-as many as 18,000 or so calls a day, in IBM's case-is a challenge. To do so effectively, vendors such as Gateway are analyzing queues and monitoring metrics such as average speed to answer, length of talk time and amount of time to resolution. This enables them to forecast busy times and adjust staffing appropriately.
PC companies are also taking steps to address the most common problems and questions without involving a live technician. "Automated attendants" on the front end of the phone system can often troubleshoot typical problems. Dell reports that its automated system is resolving about 15 to 20 percent of problems right off the bat, eliminating the need to speak to a technician. Quantex is working on a system that would let callers access an automated troubleshooter while on hold, without losing their place in the queue.
Many vendors are focusing on giving customer support technicians better training, tools and motivation. NEC, for instance, is bringing all its help desk operations in-house and putting techs through rigorous training. These technicians have areas of specialization-hardware or software, usage and setup of equipment, and enterprise-level issues. Calls are routed to the appropriate specialists.
Micron recently installed high-speed phone lines and implemented a new knowledge base called Clarify to give its tech support reps faster access to better information. The company has also added salary incentives that reward technicians for solving problems on the first call. That enhances customer satisfaction and reduces repeat calls.
The most knowledgeable PC users may also be able to bypass basic service to save time solving complex problems. Dell's Premier Access program gives IS professionals fast access to parts or service dispatches and higher-level support.
While all this benefits the customer, vendors also have a vested interest in maintaining good phone relations. Speaking directly to customers gives companies an opportunity to develop an ongoing relationship and to get feedback that can guide product development.-Eileen McCooey
Don't automatically dial 911 when you run into trouble. A little basic troubleshooting and a bit of common sense may help you avoid a call to tech support.
1. Check the documentation. Okay, find the documentation first. Most manuals won't win any Pulitzer Prizes, but vendors insist their documentation has come a long way in terms of content and usability. What do you have to lose?
2. Reboot. If you suspect a hardware problem, shut your system off for 30 minutes, and then reboot. If it works fine for a while, then the problem recurs, chances are it's over-heating. Report that to tech support.
3. Unplug and reinsert all cards and all cables. These can come loose over time, so make sure they're firmly in place. Remove and replug to wipe off corrosion on the contacts.
4. Try Safe Mode if your system crashes during boot-up. This provides a minimal operating system environment that eliminates most drivers. At the least, you should be able to run Setup or Control Panel to remove and add drivers and adjust configuration settings.
5. Undo any changes you made to your system. Use the Add/Remove applets in Control Panel to uninstall new drivers, applications and hardware. Start with the item installed most recently and work your way backwards. When the problem disappears, you've found your culprit; try reinstalling.
6. Use the ScanDisk utility. It checks your hard disk for bad sectors or corrupt files and can move data to another location.
7. Scan for viruses. If you find one, remove it immediately.
8. Run system diagnostics. If your PC comes with self-diagnostic utilities, give 'em a whirl. Note which tests you run and error messages that result.
9. Check the FAQs. Visit the Vendor's Web site to find a quick fix for your problem.
10. Pay close attention to details. Get all the details of persistent problems and document them. Be ready to answer these questions: What were you doing when you experienced the problem?
11. Have the following information on hand when you call tech support: the system's serial number, exact model or version numbers of hardware and software you've installed, and a detailed description of the problem.
12. Be honest. Don't be afraid to admit your system headed south after you installed a new peripheral or program. The technician needs that information to properly diagnose the problem.
13. Be patient. Given the complexity of computers and the interaction with software and sometimes networks, and the possibility of user error, it's not always easy to pinpoint the exact cause of a problem right away. "Even when it appears to be a hardware problem, at least 35 percent of the time, it's not related to the hardware at all," observed Ron Rando, vice president of customer service and support for NEC.-Eileen McCooey
A little planning can prevent problems, or at least minimize the pain and suffering when disaster does strike.
1. Keep the original installation disks and registration codes for your software. If it was loaded on the hard disk rather than CD-ROM or floppies, back up everything-including your operating system, apps and drivers-as soon as you power up for the first time. Some vendors provide a CD-image of the original configuration.
2. Maintain an up-to-date record of new hardware or software, along with changes to your configuration, drivers or other settings. Windows 95's Device Manager has tons of info on hard-ware and related drivers. Print out vital statistics so they're accessible even if your system is kaput. To be thorough, complete our configuration worksheet to record details on IRQ, DMA, jumper settings and more.
3. Be sure to have an emergency boot floppy disk with mission-critical files. It has to be self-contained, giving you access to all the hardware and software you'll need to restore Windows. You'll need CONFIG.SYS (with HIMEM.SYS and your CD-ROM system drivers) and AUTOEXEC.BAT (with MSCDEX.EXE). We'd also recommend FDISK, FORMAT and SYS.
4. Defrag your hard disk. Do it weekly-more often if you're a heavy user. Use System Agent from Microsoft Plus Pack to automate the process.
5. Back up your hard disk before-and after-making any major changes to your system. Even if you don't make any changes, it's a good idea to back up weekly, or at least monthly.
6. Run antivirus software. Update the virus sig-natures monthly. Check the vendor's Web site.
7. Get a UPS or surge protector for your PC, printer and modem's phone line.
8. Go easy on your hard drive. It can be damaged if you move your PC while it's operating.
9. See below for links to some related articles.-Eileen McCooey
Before your PC slips silently into a coma, it will likely exhibit some symptoms of the impending disaster.
Many PC companies now include diagnostic utilities with their systems. Micron ships some systems with System Wizard, which diagnoses and corrects problems. In case of disaster, Hewlett-Packard's CD Recovery and Compaq's Quick RestoreCD enable you to reinstall all software that came with your system. Some vendors can now examine your PC from afar. IBM's Online Housecall allows technicians to dial in to a user's ThinkPad or Aptiva to diagnose and correct problems.
Manufacturers are also trying to head off support calls by developing more reliable, easy-to-use products. Some are taking advice from users themselves. IBM analyzes questions that come in to tech support and uses the results in product deve-lopment. Based on feedback, the company has added icons for installing and uninstalling software, included a diagnostic sketch with systems and improved documentation. IBM says calls on new products are as much as 40 percent lower than before.
PC vendors say this ever-growing array of support options fills the bill for customers seeking round-the-clock, immediate resolution to problems. Look for more developments ahead.- Eileen McCooey