Reliability and service report card

SAN FRANCISCO (11/20/2003) - Fred Zagurski never worries about running into hardware glitches with his Olympus Optical Co. Ltd. C-700 Ultra Zoom digital camera. "It has performed flawlessly," says Zagurski, who runs his own company out of Edmonds, Washington, planning and designing physical security systems for large businesses. He has owned his C-700 for almost two years and uses it for both work and play. "The reliability of my camera is much better than that of my home PCs," he says, noting that he owns a Dell Inc. Dimension and a custom-built PC from a local company.

Zagurski says that he has also had problems with one of his printers, an Hewlett-Packard Co. LaserJet III. But with the digital camera, "I've had no problem. On a scale of 1 to 10 for reliability, I'd give (my Olympus camera) a 10."

The Survey Results Are In

Zagurski is one of the lucky ones. We surveyed more than 32,000 PC World subscribers about the computer products they use at work and at home--from trouble-free products to complete lemons. For the tenth straight year, we asked subscribers about their desktop and notebook PCs. But for the first time, we also polled a separate group of our readers about other popular devices: printers, digital cameras, wireless gateways, and PDAs. We collected both sets of respondents' surveys from April 1 through June 30, 2003.

Zagurski's tale highlights several important findings from our survey. Participants in our survey on peripherals typically gave them higher marks for reliability than did participants in our survey on desktop and notebook PCs. Because users tend to have fewer hardware problems with peripherals, they're less likely to contact tech support for assistance. When subscribers did call for help, they had a more-positive support experience with the peripherals companies than with PC manufacturers.

Even though PC vendors fell behind peripherals makers overall, some good news did emerge from the PC camp. This time around, many desktop and notebook reliability and service scores headed north instead of south, reversing the trend we've seen over the past few years. And some manufacturers, most notably EMachines Inc., have made great strides in our survey measures.

One happy EMachines customer is Andrea Jaffrey, an office manager and graphics designer based in the suburbs of Washington, D.C. Before Jaffrey bought her home PC, she wondered whether an EMachines system would cost her more in long-term grief than she'd save in greenbacks. Some salespeople were equally skeptical. "When we went to (purchase) the PC, the salesman was really down on EMachines," Jaffrey recalls. "But we went ahead and bought an EMachines T2200+, and it worked out." Jaffrey reports that she's had zero reliability issues. "Looking back over the nine months we've owned the EMachines Inc. PC, it has exceeded my expectations," she concludes.

PCs vs. Peripherals

Of the six product categories covered in this year's survey report, PCs still cause the most headaches. Among desktop users who participated, 46 percent reported at least one significant problem within the previous three years; notebook users followed closely behind, at 41 percent. Digital cameras have the best record: A mere 15 percent of camera owners reported hardware hassles. Meanwhile, 27 percent of printer owners, 28 percent of PDA owners, and 36 percent of wireless gateway owners reported that they had experienced product reliability snafus.

As for setting up a new product, camera owners had the best out-of-the-box experience. Only 2 percent of respondents said that their digital cameras didn't work properly from the get-go. Similarly, only 3 percent of printer and PDA users encountered initial problems. In contrast, 4 percent of notebook owners, 5 percent of desktop PC owners, and a whopping 9 percent of gateway owners said they ran into problems early on.

We also asked subscribers how easy their peripherals are to use--a question that's unique to those categories in our survey. How easy a PC is to use probably has more to do with Microsoft Corp. than with the hardware maker. But things are different with most peripherals: Customers expect the products to be intuitive, and the onus is on the manufacturer to make devices uncomplicated to use. Of the peripherals, gateways rely the most heavily on getting the settings right within Windows.

Praise for Printers and PDAs

Survey respondents say that printers are the easiest to use, followed by PDAs, digital cameras, and gateways. In fact, three-quarters of printer respondents gave their unit high marks for ease of use. PDA users followed at 64 percent and digital cameras at 59 percent. Readers identified gateways as the hardest to deal with; only 53 percent of users rated their routers as easy to use.

Our survey respondents with peripherals were more satisfied with product reliability than PC owners were. For example, 79 percent of printer owners expressed high satisfaction with reliability, and PDA owners came in at 72 percent on this measure. But just 67 percent of desktop PC owners and 72 percent of notebook users said they were similarly satisfied.

In the service area, peripherals companies do some jobs well. On the perennial gripe of tech-support hold times, digital camera owners were the least frustrated--again. A solid 65 percent of camera owners reported hold times of 5 minutes or less. Notebook owners fared worst, with just 55 percent getting through to a support rep quickly. Nevertheless, desktop, notebook, and printer owners expressed slightly more satisfaction with the service they received: 54 percent said they were very satisfied, compared with 46 to 52 percent of the other peripherals owners.

In general, fewer people contacted tech support for help with peripherals--and this affected our survey: We received too few reports about users' service experiences to tabulate a combined reliability and service rating for many peripherals makers.

Survey Methodology: A Word About Our Scores

Our survey was conducted in conjunction with Research Results of Fitchburg, Massachusetts. We invited subscribers to take the Web-based survey from April 1 through June 30, 2003. We received 32,051 responses. We asked subscribers about six different categories of products: desktop PCs, notebook PCs, printers, digital cameras, PDAs, and wireless gateways. Survey respondents told us about the reliability of their hardware and their experiences (if any) in getting service. We limited reports to products that were three years old or younger.

PC World editors and research experts analyzed the reliability and service performance of each company in the six different categories. In the case of desktop and notebook PCs, we rated each company's performance on 12 weighted measures, and then used those results to determine the company's overall ranking. In the case of the other four product categories, we rated each company's performance on 8 weighted measures, 5 relating to reliability and 3 to service.

Ratings Guide: What's Behind the Ratings and the Survey Methodology

Word scores awarded correspond to the companies' relative rankings. Each measure relates to a particular question (or set of questions) we asked PC World subscribers in our survey. We tabulated averages for four product types in the peripherals category: printers, digital cameras, wireless gateways, and PDAs. These averages are based on the manufacturers ranked in our charts. Each measure may have anywhere from one to five different word scores (Outstanding, Good, Fair, Poor, and Unacceptable). In some measures, based on our analysis, no manufacturer scored high enough to earn an Outstanding rating or low enough to receive an Unacceptable rating.

Desktops

There's nothing quite like a pleasant surprise. And this year, we're happy to report that things are looking up for desktop owners: According to our survey, PC reliability has improved and manufacturers are delivering better support than they did last year. For example, on average, participants in our survey reported fewer instances of component failure and of problems when they first switched on their machines. On the service front, the improvements in the desktop PCs category are not as pronounced. But even there, hold times have gotten slightly better, and fewer survey respondents said that their PC troubles remained unresolved.

Of course, some PC makers fared better than others. Dell Inc., EMachines, and IBM stand out on most reliability measures, while HP and Compaq often lag their peers. We're treating HP and Compaq as separate brands despite HP's purchase of Compaq in May 2002: Since we received reports about PCs that are three years old or newer, more respondents' experiences were associated with the separate companies than with the merged one. (Today, though, HP is aiming to make the HP and Compaq support experiences indistinguishable.) Big Blue, EMachines, and independent retailers (also known as mom-and-pop shops or white-box makers) received impressive service marks, while Compaq, HP, Dell, and Sony trailed in a few support measures.

One of the most notable improvements relates to the percentage of PCs with problems: 46 percent of respondents reported at least one major problem, down from 53 percent last December (Click here for the full story of last year's results). Every company listed in our chart showed progress here--but none more dramatically than EMachines, which captured top marks on this measure.

EMachines Steals the Show

Talk about a turnaround: In previous surveys, asking EMachines owners about their PCs' reliability usually elicited tales of woe from respondents. In our latest report, its overall rating is Good. In fact, the company grabs the number one spot on several reliability and service measures. For instance, EMachines respondents experienced the lowest percentage of problems when they first turned on their PCs--just over 2 percent (our survey average was almost 5 percent). On the service side, 77 percent of EMachines customers reported their service issues being resolved within five days--a sharp uptick from its score of 58 percent the last time around. (Note: In this story, all results for EMachines relate to its desktop PCs. The company began selling notebooks again at around the time our survey was fielded.)

What has changed at EMachines? Greg Memo, the company's executive vice president, reports that in the past year it introduced a new chassis design that enables users to replace parts themselves more easily. EMachines also beefed up its Web-based support, by adding new content to answer customers' questions. The company has introduced interactive chat capabilities with technical support reps, too.

Like Andrea Jaffrey, Glen Ashman has had a generally positive experience with his EMachines computer. Ashman, an attorney based in Atlanta, owns PCs from several different companies, including ones from Compaq and HP. "This is probably the most trouble-free PC I've owned," says Ashman of his EMachines Etower 500is. The downside to his story? He can't say similarly complimentary things about his non-EMachines computers.

HP and Compaq Woes

Ashman's HP Pavilion 512c has suffered from an ongoing graphics problem for more than six months. The display locks up, Ashman has to reboot his PC, and then he encounters XP "fatal error" messages after he reboots. The problem is sporadic; it goes away for a few days but then shows up twice in one day. "I think everyone (in tech support) knows that there's a driver problem, but no one knows what it is," says Ashman. For now, he's living with the problem. His family's Compaq Presario 5000 US required a motherboard replacement under warranty within the last year, and the machine ended up in a local CompUSA, where it sat for more than a week before finally getting fixed.

Like Ashman, other HP and Compaq owners have had their share of problems. The HP and Compaq brands rank in the cellar for users' overall satisfaction with product reliability. Some HP and Compaq customers also reported being disappointed at shortcomings in the knowledge and sincere effort of technicians.

HP acknowledges a difficult transition period following the HP-Compaq merger, but customers will soon see changes, it says. "During the first 12 months (after the merger), we were trying to consolidate and eliminate redundancies," says Chris Shea, HP's vice president of consumer services and support. "Now we're putting probably 80 percent of the effort into improving the customer experience and 20 percent of the effort into efficiency." Previously, the reverse was true, Shea says.

The company recently combined the internal systems it uses when HP Pavilion and Compaq Presario customers call, but it will keep product specialists on staff. Soon, more Pavilion users will be able to request parts they can replace themselves instead of having to ship their PCs to HP or visit an authorized repair center. The company also introduced a pilot program to solve Internet connection problems faster, using three-way phone calls between HP, customers, and several large ISPs.

Given the age of the systems included in our survey, we wanted to find out whether the scores from HP's newer machines were better. So we isolated our data relating to PCs that were one year old or younger. In general, HP's and Compaq's numbers did improve for one-year-old PCs, but so did most of the scores for the other manufacturers with PCs of this age, both for desktops and notebook PCs. (A few measures for a handful of manufacturers were actually lower.) Why? By their nature, younger PCs should be more reliable anyway--and Windows XP machines are easier to service than Windows Me systems.

Despite HP's new initiatives, the company faces a huge service task, analysts believe. Even before the merger, HP and Compaq offered a wider range of different models across their product lines than competing brands did. "I think it would be helpful for the company to focus more energy on fewer products," says Roger Kay, vice president of client computing at market research firm IDC. He advises culling more models from HP's product lines.

More Service Snags

HP and Compaq aren't the only companies with iffy service scores. Dell, Gateway, and Sony received ratings of Fair for service. Dell and Sony (and Compaq) markedly trail their competitors on hold times. Just 45 percent of Sony customers and 48 percent of Dell customers reported waiting on hold for 5 minutes or less. Independent retailers easily top the class on this measure: Over 86 percent of their customers said they waited on hold for 5 minutes or less.

The Dell phone experience leaves some longtime fans steaming. "It's ridiculous," says Steve Heck, a technology manager for an industrial firm in Blairsville, Pennsylvania. Heck owns a Dell desktop and two Dell laptop PCs. "I try to avoid calling (Dell) at all, because the automated telephone system is so bad," he says. Heck reports that a customer can spend hours trying to get to the right person.

Todd Penner, Dell's director of technical support for U.S. consumer business, says that the company's own data indicates that hold times have improved this year. But he pointed to general trends that have affected hold times. Widespread viruses bring a deluge of calls at one time. Plus, people hold onto their PCs longer and buy new peripherals, prompting more calls. Dell continues to add call center reps and to refine training. Penner declines to specify how many reps it has added, however, or how many of them work offshore in locales like India. Though offshore techs got their share of complaints in our survey, Dell plans to keep using them. In particular, some respondents said that they had a hard time understanding techs with heavy accents.

One tip for frustrated Dell devotees: Dell recently standardized the process for routing callers to upper-level technicians. If you're getting nowhere with your first tech rep, ask immediately to speak with an "escalation expert," who will schedule a time for a follow-up call with a higher-level rep.

Despite the changes that companies like Dell are making, users shouldn't expect to see a turnaround in hold times anytime soon, says IDC's Kay. PC makers don't want to relinquish any more of their slim profit margin to pay for support costs.

Notebooks

Every notebook owner wishes for the kind of experience Vic Heltzer has enjoyed with his two IBM ThinkPads. Heltzer, who runs his own consulting firm in Old Bridge, New Jersey, calls IBM's hardware quality and service record for his one- and two-year-old notebooks "outstanding." Even after the warranty expired on one model, the ThinkPad T21, IBM helped him solve a disappearing files problem in one phone call. And IBM handled another glitch with his T23--the only hiccup he's seen--in three days. "The wireless network adapter died," says Heltzer. "A technician came the next day, stayed for 2 hours, then came back in two days and fixed (the T23)."

Overall this year, notebook users tended to have more positive experiences than in previous years. Following the trends in desktops, most notebook makers showed some improvement--albeit small steps in some instances. Most notably, Gateway and Toshiba improved their reliability scores.

One plausible reason for the positive side of our reliability results: Notebook vendors continue to demand more from the companies that specialize in notebook design, as well as from the companies that supply parts, says Randy Giusto, vice president of personal technology and services at IDC. (Note: Most companies do not actually make their own notebooks from scratch; other companies overseas handle a lot of the manufacturing.) In IBM's case, refinement of its once-massive line of ThinkPads also helped improve quality. "IBM used to have a tremendous amount of models," Giusto says, and like other vendors, it would buy parts from many different component suppliers. But now, he says, "IBM has taken a lot of the variables out of the equation."

Service with a Smile

Some notebook owners saw dramatic improvements in support. IBM and Gateway made huge strides on several survey measures. For starters, 69 percent of Gateway notebook customers said that the company solved their problems in five days or less, compared with 57 percent on our most recent previous survey. IBM ties at 69 percent, and Dell finishes right behind at 67 percent, bettering their scores from last time.

Among IBM notebook owners, 66 percent reported hold times of 5 minutes or less, up from 57 percent last year, making Big Blue the survey leader on this measure. IBM desktop customers reported great hold time results, too. It's no accident, IBM says.

IBM used to maintain multiple call center locations; but earlier this year, it consolidated notebook and desktop reps in one center in Atlanta to handle support for all of its U.S. products. According to Bill Owens, IBM's vice president of service and support, having one call center handle all inquiries trims hold times and improves training. It also enables IBM to keep closer tabs on its reps--something that would be a lot more difficult to manage if the company depended on offshore call centers to field tech support questions from customers with uncooperative notebooks.

Some Unhappy Campers

IBM and Gateway owners may have reasons to smile, but not all notebook owners do. In particular, Sony and HP continue to struggle. HP customers experienced the highest number of unresolved problems (12 percent), while Gateway had only 5 percent--the best in this measure.

Allen Dietz of Bellingham, Washington, is one HP customer who feels he's been left in limbo. His two-year-old HP Pavilion N5430 notebook has a recurring hardware problem. "Within the first year it would overheat," says Dietz, a consultant to nonprofit agencies. "Sometimes it would run for 45 minutes; then it would shut off." In addition, some keys stopped working. When Dietz called HP about the situation, he reached helpful and polite service reps. But the outcome disappointed him. "I sent my notebook in for repair, and it stayed fixed for six months." Then the problem resurfaced, and it continues to this day. Dietz's HP warranty has run out. He says that he won't be going back to HP for his next notebook. "When you fix it, it should last," Dietz says.

HP says that it has made some changes to prevent problems like Dietz's--and to enhance users' service experience. For example, it has tried to work more closely with its notebooks suppliers, says HP's Chris Shea. And this summer, the company standardized its diagnostic tools for notebooks and for desktops: Now workers on the HP manufacturing line, retail repair centers, and customers can use the same diagnostic tools, which are installed on each PC. The idea is that you'll get to the root of the problems faster, says Shea. We'll have to wait to see whether these moves pay off for HP desktop and notebook owners.

Printers

Most printers today are fairly reliable. Among the three types of printers--ink jets, color lasers, and monochrome lasers--our survey respondents say that ink jets are the least troublesome. Just 19 percent of ink jet owners reported that they encountered at least one significant problem with their printer, compared with 25 percent of monochrome laser owners and a whopping 40 percent of color laser users.

But if you run into trouble with an inexpensive ink jet printer, watch out. Survey respondents say that service can be spotty, and 28 percent of ink jet users were left with unresolved printer problems, compared to 22 percent of color laser owners.

Howard Grisso, a recently retired meteorologist in Medford, Oregon, is a member of the unlucky ink jet club. Grisso, who liked his previous Lexmark ink jet, again chose Lexmark last February, buying a Z65p Photo Jet printer. But shortly after his 30-day, money-back period expired, the printer began to smear ink. He called Lexmark's 800-number for support, only to find that the Z65p model requires a toll call. He placed one call, during which he said he had trouble understanding the representatives (because of their thick accents) and did not make much progress. So Grisso decided to try a different approach: He started e-mailing Lexmark technical support.

"I ran through a series of tests and even went out and bought new paper," Grisso says, but nothing changed. Lexmark sent him a replacement printer to try with his existing cartridges and cables. The second unit also smeared text. Grisso, tired of the hassle, asked Lexmark for a refund for the $100 printer--without success.

Finally, in May, the company sent Grisso a third printer. "I hooked it all up," he says, "and the same thing happened." He again asked for a refund via e-mail but heard no more from Lexmark. At that point, Lexmark didn't even send him the promised prepaid mailing labels to return the defective units. "I've given up on Lexmark at this point," he says. "I tried, and they tried, so many options. I just wanted my money back after all the fiddling around." He subsequently purchased a new printer from HP that has been trouble-free. (After we contacted Lexmark, the company promised to send Grisso a full refund, along with labels for returning the defective printers.)

While not every ink jet owner will have an experience quite this frustrating, our survey results show some differences among major printer vendors. Among Lexmark's ink jet printer lines, it struggled slightly compared with its peers, earning a Fair mark on reliability and service. Likely fueling this trend: Lexmark has a higher percentage of sub-$100 models than other vendors, says Robert Palmer, a printer industry analyst with Lyra Research. A dirt-cheap printer doesn't bring a company much profit, so the vendor must try hard to control its support and parts costs.

Sub-$100 ink jets are "typically less reliable," Palmer says, "compared to pricier ink jets." Some Lexmark ink cartridge shortages in retail stores last year also may have left customers with residual gripes, though Lexmark corrected that situation by year's end, says Palmer.

Lexmark has also implemented tools to help users. The company's vice president of total quality and customer satisfaction, Kent Jackson, says Lexmark has expanded its call centers and added software to improve the accuracy of its recommendations.

Top Dogs

Samsung, known for personal laser printers, received the category's only Outstanding mark for reliability. (Unfortunately, we didn't receive enough responses from survey participants to rate Samsung's service.) Reliability scores for other key players--including Canon, Epson, and HP--were good across the board. But HP's service rating slid to Fair, primarily due to long hold times: 41 percent of HP printer owners reported hold times of longer than 5 minutes. The company says that it is expanding customer service across all product lines and strengthening call-center procedures. Meanwhile, only 31 percent of Canon owners waited on hold for 5 minutes or longer. Readers gave Canon top-of-the-class marks for overall satisfaction with service, too. Six out of ten Canon respondents rated their satisfaction with the company's service as high. Xerox/Tektronix's and Epson's scores are about the same. Lexmark customers are somewhat less happy with their service experiences: Roughly 45 percent of respondents gave the company a high rating.

Dennis Wright of Columbus, Ohio, echoes the consensus assessment of Canon. When his one-year-old Canon S750 Color Bubble Jet wouldn't print, he telephoned Canon's technical support line and got through to a staffer right away. The helpful representative recommended that he take the printer to a local Canon dealer. "The shop replaced the printer within a week," says Wright, a case manager in the Mid-Ohio Regional Planning Commission's Energy Conservation Department. "Canon took care of me. I can't think of anything it could improve--except to drop the price of ink in half."

Xerox/Tektronix's Mixed Results

Many of our survey respondents raved about Xerox/Tektronix's good service. The company topped the charts for short hold time: 77 percent of Xerox/Tektronix customers who participated in our survey said that they waited on hold for 5 minutes or less (our survey average was just over 66 percent), and 83 percent said their hardware problems were fixed to their satisfaction. However, its printers can be prone to problems. Fully 62 percent of Xerox/Tektronix owners said they had run into at least one significant printer malfunction that either required a call to tech support or limited their printer's usefulness--the worst score of the bunch. By comparison, only 10 percent of Samsung owners, 16 percent of Canon owners, and 17 percent of Epson owners reported that they had encountered printer problems. As a result of its poor showing, Xerox/Tektronix is rated Unacceptable on this measure. So it's no surprise to find that respondents did not give the company a high rating for satisfaction with reliability: It finishes next to last on this measure, with a Poor rating.

Xerox/Tektronix, along with Brother and Samsung, checked in with the highest percentage of laser owners among the printer brands in our survey. The distribution between owners of Xerox/Tektronix ink jets and Xerox/Tektronix lasers was nearly equal: 41 percent of the company's customers reported about ink jets and 48 percent responded about lasers. Bear in mind, however, that Xerox/Tektronix stopped producing ink jet printers more than two years ago, so the products mentioned by survey respondents are at least that old. The company does provide supplies and full tech support for its older printers, says Rob Stewart, vice president of marketing for Xerox Channels Group.

Digital Cameras

Although ratings in this category are all over the map, users were generally happy with their digital cameras. Overall, these devices had the lowest percentage of units with problems of any product category in our survey. But service for cameras is considerably less positive across the board: Sony and Fujifilm users have complaints.

In reliability, Sony outdid the competition and posted the only top-tier score. It fared well on such measures of reliability as number of cameras with problems on arrival and number of problems per year. Most of the big players, including Nikon Corp., Canon Inc., and Fujifilm AG, earned strong marks in reliability as well.

Steve Zaleski is one happy Fujifilm camera customer. He has owned a Fujifilm FinePix 3800 for almost a year and uses it for personal projects. "I've had no problems with the camera--or the software that came with it," says Zaleski, a construction review supervisor with a civil engineering firm based in Waukesha, Wisconsin. "I have never needed to contact Fujifilm technical support for any help with my FinePix," continues Zaleski. "The camera has been bulletproof."

So-So Service

While Sony's and Fujifilm's reliability ratings are high, their service scores are disappointing. About 35 percent of Sony camera owners reported that the company did not resolve problems satisfactorily. Respondents also griped about Sony's hold times: 44 percent of Sony customers waited on hold for more than 5 minutes to reach a tech support rep. (The average number of excessive holds for camera vendors was 35 percent.)

"Our customers did complain about the cumbersome tech-support phone tree we used to have," says Maureen Read, vice president of Sony Electronics' customer information services center. "But over the past year, we've installed an automated voice-recognition system to quickly route calls to technicians." According to Read, Sony has also expanded the tutorials and knowledgebase on its Web site.

Phone support wasn't the only thing that Sony users complained about. Jerome Gaeta of Kew Gardens in Queens, New York, says that his Sony Cyber-shot DSC-S85 was past its 90-day labor warranty period when the flash stopped working. He had owned the camera for less than 6 months--still well within the 12-month parts warranty period. So he wasn't thrilled when a Sony service rep told him that he would have to send in and insure the Cyber-shot for repairs at his own expense and pay a repair fee of at least $200. He was warned that he'd have to wait several weeks for the repaired camera's return. "I was very disappointed," says Gaeta, a contractor and property manager for AC Renovation.

Most camera makers--including Canon, Fujifilm, Nikon, and Olympus--cover labor costs for one year, versus Sony's scant 90 days. Still, Sony redeemed itself somewhat by suggesting an alternative to Gaeta: taking the camera to a local shop, which in this instance did the job for $135.

As for Fujifilm, customers specifically complained about hold times: 44 percent of survey respondents had to wait on hold for more than 5 minutes before reaching a technical support rep--second from the bottom, and just a hair ahead of Sony. Though Fujifilm did not offer any encouragement on its tech-support hold times, it recently revamped the support pages on its digital camera Web site. Previously, customers seeking online help were encouraged to e-mail questions; now Fujifilm provides more information on issues such as drivers and camera features, and it displays the data in FAQ lists, says Marianne Salimbene, director of Fujifilm's consumer information center.

Unclear Picture

Sometimes even reliable cameras can be difficult to use. For example: while Nikon pleased its customers on service and reliability, it received a Poor score on ease of use. Even Nikon knows that some customers have usability problems. Most frequently, these relate to the complex menu structure of older cameras, including the Coolpix 880 and 990, according to Michael Rubin, a senior product manager for Nikon. Nikon listened to users' complaints and revamped the menu on newer models like the Coolpix 2100 and 3100, says Rubin. The company also provides a Get Started videotape to guide first-time users.

But Michelle Slaughter, director of digital photography trends at InfoTrends Research Group, says that digital cameras' ease of use should continue to improve for an entirely different reason, and one that camera makers' don't control: the growing use of Microsoft Windows XP.

"The newer OSs--Windows XP and Mac OS 10--definitely improved the experience for digital camera users," Slaughter says. "The OS recognizes the camera right away and helps the users through the process of transferring photos. The PC is still a big factor in the digital photography experience."

Get What You Pay For

More Kodak, Casio, Toshiba, and Polaroid users (19 percent, 21 percent, 21 percent, and 24 percent, respectively) than other brands' customers reported encountering at least one significant problem. Logitech also posted so-so marks: Respondents to our survey cited Logitech cameras as having the most problems per year--an average of 3.6 glitches. That's more than double the average of the other camera brands for which we had meaningful data.

Admittedly, some of these companies build inexpensive, bare-bones cameras not meant for serious photography. For instance, Logitech, a big name in Webcams, makes few digital still cameras, including a simple combination Webcam and digital still camera, and a basic credit-card-style digital camera with no LCD.

Polaroid doesn't make digital cameras anymore; it has licensed its brand to a Hong Kong manufacturer (World Wide Licenses, Ltd.) that works with a distributor (Spectra Merchandising International) in the United States to sell inexpensive, Polaroid-branded cameras in chains like RadioShack and Wal-Mart.

Overall, camera owners seemed to find that they got what they paid for: According to our survey results, satisfaction increased among owners of more-expensive, higher-megapixel cameras in comparison with owners of basic units.

Wireless Gateways

Go wireless, but go patiently. That's the advice we gleaned from readers who told us about their experiences with gateways for wireless home networking. Gateways can be persnickety devices, and they fail more often than any other peripheral. Complicated software and security issues sometimes foul up installations and make troubleshooting difficult. Moreover, vendors don't always give sparkling service.

The nature of wireless networking and the potential for unstable drivers ensure that everyone will have a unique experience. Your colleague's great results with a gateway from a particular company does not guarantee that you'll have a similar experience. Everything from your 2.4-GHz cordless phone to the layout of your home or office to the other wireless gateways in your neighborhood can cause trouble with connections and quality.

In our survey, Netgear topped the gateways chart, with users judging its overall reliability as Good. A fair number of readers struggled with home networking kits right out of the box and during setup. Among the six types of devices that we asked readers about, wireless gateways rated worst on this measure.

Finicky Device

Many wireless gateway owners who encountered an initial problem or one significant problem were able to enjoy the benefits of networking once they got beyond the original sticking point. This holds true for Stephen Swift of Alpharetta, Georgia, who had a tricky setup experience and a reliability problem with the Linksys Group Inc. BEFW11S4 wireless gateway that he purchased in the past year to connect several home PCs and a laptop.

Installation instructions were far from straightforward, says Swift, a director of sales for The Ramsey Company, a manufacturing firm. "Certain cues that were supposed to come up never did." He eventually managed to muddle through setup, but then he had to call for help when he couldn't get two PCs on the network to talk to each other. Linksys referred him to Microsoft, but instead he consulted a friend in the IT business, who helped him fix the problem. "It would have made my life easier if Linksys had shared some basic Windows networking information," Swift says.

But the real trouble came just two weeks later, when the gateway died. "The replacement process could have been easier, too" Swift says. "Linksys acknowledged immediately that the product was defective, but it took them a couple of weeks to send the new one." That said, he is now more pleased than you might expect.

Linksys has made some changes. Over the past two years, the company expanded its call center facility and trained technicians to provide both basic and advanced levels of support.

Belkin received the worst reliability marks among gateway vendors in our survey, earning the only Poor overall reliability score. About 40 percent of respondents said they felt either neutral about or dissatisfied with the reliability of Belkin's gateways.

Dale Cabell of Irvine, California, a network designer for the county of Los Angeles, had bad luck with the Belkin F506130 Access Points he used at home. He noticed that the product case got very hot during operation, and the device gave out within the first month of use. Belkin replaced it under warranty without much fuss, says Cabell. But after three months the replacement unit failed. "So I quit using Belkin."

Belkin says that it has made a number of changes recently. Since 2003, the company has been more closely tracking the reasons for tech support calls and returns, says senior product manager Gary Hansen. In March 2003, the company began shipping an Easy Install application with gateways; this software analyzes the PC and Internet connection and fills in much of the ISP-related information for the user during installation.

Simple Fix?

On the service front, our readers gave just Fair ratings across the board for Netgear Inc., D-Link Systems Inc., and Linksys (the only vendors for which we had enough responses to calculate an overall service score). What can vendors do better? Make setting up wireless networks easier, thereby cutting the number of service complaints, says Kurt Scherf, vice president of research at market research firm Parks Associates.

One of the top issues: Most manufacturers have yet to create a truly easy-to-use wizard for configuring security settings on a wireless network. "That's been one of the biggest complaints about wireless networking products," Scherf says. The new WPA (Wi-Fi protected access) security protocol, available on some newer home networking products, may improve the situation. Meanwhile, people planning to install a wireless gateway must brace themselves for potential problems.

PDAs

There's a clear consensus in our survey of handheld owners: Respondents with PDAs that run the Palm operating system had a better time than those running PocketPC-based PDAs. The three companies at the top of the reliability class, Handspring, Palm, and Sony, all use the Palm OS. Meanwhile, companies including HP, Dell, and Toshiba--all of whose PDAs run the PocketPC operating system--lag behind this group. Like owners of other peripherals covered in this survey, handheld owners weren't rushing to their PDA's manufacturers for help. Indeed, they usually didn't need it, thanks to sturdy hardware.

Nevertheless, Dell customers reported a higher percentage of problems when they first started using their devices than owners of other PDAs, along with a higher number of problems per year. Dell's Axim product line is young, however--less than a year old at the time of our survey--and some users' initial problems were due to syncing-software snags.

"The majority of PDA problems out of the box are software-related," says IDC's Randy Giusto. "Synchronization is usually one of the top problems for users." The good news? Syncing software is not rocket science. "Syncing generally improves with every revision of the sync software," Giusto says.

Despite Dell's setbacks, a whopping 82 percent of respondents claimed high overall satisfaction with the reliability of the vendor's PDAs, putting Dell at the top in this category.

When troubles do arise, according to our survey results, Compaq, Handspring, and Palm (the only PDA manufacturers that drew enough responses to permit us to calculate a service score) leave customers satisfied with the resolution of their problems.

Kathleen Fuller, a human resources manager at an investment firm in Minneapolis, ran into a stubborn syncing problem with her Handspring Visor Edge handheld when it first arrived two years ago. After looking around the company's Web site for answers without success, she submitted a query to the site electronically. Within a day or two, "tech support e-mailed me some steps to take, and I had no trouble after that," she recalls. Since then, Fuller has submitted a handful of questions about her PDA's features electronically, and she has always received a quick response.

PDA users say that Handspring provides the fullest online support, but it's clear that all companies could do better. Palm is already looking at ways to improve its site. It recently analyzed users' search terms and rewrote the site's language to generate more-accurate search results more quickly, reports Dan Gilbert, Palm's senior director of global customer service and logistics. Of course, Palm and Handspring owners are watching to see how the upcoming merger of the two PDA giants affects service. Gilbert says that the combined company will employ separate sets of experts to support the different product lines.

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