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Rating Computers And ISPs

There's nothing worse than a malfunctioning computer - except perhaps a bad machine coupled with lousy technical support.

Measured by such criteria, this year's least-frustrated consumer owned a laptop made by Apple, Hewlett-Packard, Toshiba or IBM; a Sony or Handspring handheld computer; or a desktop made by Austin, Texas-based Dell or a local "white box" assembler, according to a reliability survey released Thursday by PC Magazine.

Despite the technology sector's troubles, dependability continued to rise, as it has in most of the 15 years since PC Magazine began the survey.

"In general, people tend to be pretty happy," said Michael Miller, the magazine's editor-in-chief. "About a quarter of all users had an issue with a desktop, which is still pretty high. In general, satisfaction with tech support is lower than satisfaction with reliability."

The poll queried 15,000 readers on questions of dependability, the quality and frequency of repairs and technical support, along with willingness to buy again from the same company.

Among Internet service providers, folks preferred high-speed connections over cheaper dial-up service.

As was the case in other surveys, the world's largest Internet service provider, America Online, fared worst, with customers frustrated by its high price and unreliable connections. Microsoft's MSN dial-up service was next worst.

Small local dial-up providers won the highest marks, followed by AT&T WorldNet and Earthlink.

"AOL did really bad. MSN did just barely better. You wouldn't be pleased if you were MSN," Miller said.

CBS Radio News tech analyst Larry Magid points out that the bad grades for AOL and MSN came despite the fact that the two companies spent the most touting their services and telling companies they were reliable.

"A big target is easy to shoot down," observes Magid, "and people are more likely to feel alienated from a big national company that a local one. A lot of the local companies do try very hard to provide good service, and that's harder to do when you're a big national corporation."

Cable Internet provider Optimum Online received the best rating among high-speed ISPs, followed by Road Runner Broadband.

Dell led desktop computer makers, followed closely by no-name local vendors and Gateway. Dell users reported the fewest repair requests as well as the largest percentage - 31 percent - to be solved over the telephone.

"Dell won because the company has concentrated on its support services," says Magid. "Part of it may have to do with dissatisfaction with Compaq and Hewlett-Packard concerning their merger, but part of it has to do with Dell - which is a strong player on the Internet, is beefing up its support and doing better in that regard."

Desktop brands that fared worst were Compaq, eMachines, Hewlett-Packard and IBM.

The survey looked at digital cameras and handheld computers for the first time. Generally, few cameras needed any repair, with Polaroid faring the worst at 9 percent. Cameras are better off being rated by ease of use and battery life, the survey found.

Among handhelds, users liked those running the Palm operating system better than machines loaded with Microsoft's more complex Pocket PC software, including the popular Compaq iPAQ.

Interestingly, Palm clones Handspring and Sony were more appreciated than Palm's own handhelds. Users were most vexed with the Linux-fueled Sharp Zaurus and organizers made by Psion and Casio.

There were some anomalies in the survey. For instance, IBM and HP both scored well on laptops and dismally on desktops. In addition, HP's printers received the top marks for the 11th straight year.

"IBM, frankly, has not been paying as much attention to desktops as to notebooks," Miller said.

Compaq, which merged with Hewlett-Packard this year, received low marks on desktops, laptops and its handheld. Ironically, HP is phasing out its higher-rated laptop in favor of Compaq's more-recognized brand. Consumers had little good to say about Acer's laptops and desktops.

Laptop owners phoning technical support stewed longest on hold when phoning Sony and Compaq - more than 15 minutes, on average. Once reached, Sony tech support gave an astonishing 34 percent of its customers the "run around," often making them call more than once, the survey found.

Consumers that followed companies' advice to seek tech support through a company Web site or by sending e-mail waited an average of more than 20 hours for a reply.

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