Although so many modern conveniences are eminently disposable--think ball-point pens, cheap umbrellas and any article of clothing purchased at a drugstore--this reality has failed to resonate with discerning technology enthusiasts. Computer and gadget buyers still want their gear to work well, to look good, and to last for the long haul. To find out how consumer technology products have been faring, PCWorld launched in August its annual survey of satisfaction, reliability, and service, polling more than 45,000 PCWorld readers (we tabulated the results in mid-November).
You can jump straight to the results by hitting the next "Next Article" link at the bottom of this story, but first we encourage you to learn a bit about how we conducted our study.
A new approach
This year's approach represents a simplification of prior years' methodology, in which we reported the results as below average, average, or above average. Now we provide actual satisfaction scores, usually on a scale of 1 to 10, which should make the results clearer and easier to compare.
We investigated five categories, asking readers about their laptops, desktops, and printers, as well as about their smartphones and tablets (you can see the results for the latter two categories on our sister site TechHive). And for the most part, users seem to be fairly happy with all of them. Overall, the numbers are positive and seem to be improving from year to year. Measures of device reliability, for example, have improved considerably since 2011.
For starters, last year an aggregate of about 28 percent of users reported a significant problem with their smartphone. In 2012, only 16 percent reported a problem. The picture is similar for laptops: In 2011, about 23 percent of users cited issues with a device. In 2012, just 15 percent did.
Winners and losers
Of course, not everything is rosy across the board in the world of tech. Although satisfaction and reliability numbers are seemingly on the rise, we still found clear winners and losers in the survey.
The biggest winner in 2012: Apple. In overall satisfaction, the company took top honors in laptops, desktops, and smartphones, and sat near the top in tablets. Both Samsung and Asus did well in multiple categories; Asus snuck past the competition to grab the lead in tablets, while Samsung topped printers. Lenovo also showed well in several categories, hindered only by a relatively poor showing in the tablet arena.
In keeping with history, market-share leaders Dell and HP did poorly on most categories, with both their home and business products. Both companies trailed in laptops, and had a fairly weak showing in tablets. HP's printers landed squarely in the middle of the pack, while satisfaction with Dell-branded printers wound up at the bottom of the list. On a more positive front, both companies did a bit better in desktops, with their home PCs scoring respectably. In addition, they made significant gains in reliability: For desktops and laptops, reports of problems fell this year, sometimes by 10 percent. HP's business laptops ranked as the second-most reliable.
Slicing the data a different way, we also discovered distinctions in surveyed consumers' satisfaction with different categories of devices. The desktops and printers categories had the highest overall satisfaction numbers. Smartphones and tablets, less-mature products that companies are still refining, got the lowest scores.
You might think that device reliability would be closely tied to satisfaction levels, but that turned out not to be the case. As a category, tablets received relatively low product-satisfaction scores, but tablet "satisfaction with reliability" scores were high (8.5 out of 10, on average), and only 12 percent of surveyed tablet users reported significant problems. With 18 percent of users reporting trouble, and with a 7.7 rating, smartphones ranked as the least-reliable category. And 58 percent of those reporting a phone problem said it was bad enough to seriously impair their operation of the device.
Survey methodology, and what the measures mean
We surveyed more than 45,000 PCWorld readers who responded to email messages about our survey. We analyzed their responses to understand their satisfaction levels with the tech brands they own, as well as the reliability of the products and the effectiveness with which the companies supported them when problems arose.
It's important to note that our survey results don't necessarily represent the opinions of a given company's customers as a whole. And because our data comes only from PCWorld readers who chose to take the survey, our results don't necessarily reflect the opinions of PCWorld readers in general.
Surveyed PCWorld readers rated hardware vendors in five product categories: laptops, desktops, printers, smartphones, and tablets.
Each category contains satisfaction measurements of various features and characteristics of the products, such as "design," "video quality," and "touchscreen responsiveness." We also asked several questions to evaluate users' satisfaction with the value of the product, as well as their likelihood to recommend the product to others--perhaps the greatest indicator of overall satisfaction with a brand's products.
The reliability measurements express how many brand owners have experienced a serious problem with their device within a reasonable product life span, as well as a measurement of the user's overall satisfaction with the reliability of the product.
Customer service measurements reveal the companies' success at solving problems through online, phone, and in-person support methods, as well as users' overall satisfaction with customer support.
Usually we measured satisfaction levels on a 1-to-10 scale where 1 means "extremely dissatisfied" and 10 means "extremely satisfied. If a vendor received fewer than 30 responses in a subsection, we discarded the results as statistically insignificant. This threshold prevented us from rating some smaller companies.
In the smartphones and tablets categories, we measured several aspects of the ease of use of the products. In the smartphone category, we also measured users' satisfaction with the wireless Internet service quality and voice call quality that their wireless carrier provided.
Any significant problem (all devices): Based on the percentage of survey respondents who reported any problem at all during the product's lifetime.
Overall satisfaction with reliability (all devices): Based on the owner's overall satisfaction with the reliability of the device.
Service measures (laptops, desktops, and printers)
Unresolved problem: Based on the percentage of survey respondents who said their problem was never fixed despite their contact with the company's support service.
Service experience: Based on readers' responses to a series of questions focusing on 11 specific aspects of their experience with the company's service department.
And now, without further ado, click "Next Article" below for the results of our laptop owners' survey.