No surprises in the PC Magazine reliability/service survey

It’s that time of year again. Time for PC Magazine’s annual reliability and service survey. I’ve been reading it for almost half my life, and half a lifetime ago, it really meant something.

Today, the subtitle ought to be “What happens when you outsource.”So what does happen when you outsource? All the PCs are basically the same these days. It makes sense. We’re down to three or four suppliers for almost all of the chips on the motherboard, and everyone, including the big vendors, buy their motherboards from one of a half dozen or so companies now. Some contract manufacturer in the Far East puts them all together and puts some other company’s name on it.

The good news is that if there’s a secret to building good, reliable PCs, it’s really poorly kept. The basic hardware is much more reliable today than a decade ago. Back when I sold computers at retail, I remember a Compaq sales rep complaining bitterly that Intel’s “Intel Inside” campaign was hurting them by making everyone think all computers were the same inside. At the time they weren’t. Compaq’s engineering and rigorous testing didn’t always produce the fastest PCs, but they were always near the top, and it did produce some really reliable stuff.

Would that same philosophy applied to today’s technology yield something better? It’s impossible to know. Compaq PCs are exactly the same as everyone else’s these days. The good news is the hardware is about as problem-free as it was back then. And so is everyone else’s. The only difference is the software the manufacturer loads on them.

You may be surprised, but even the bargain-basement eMachines scored high on reliability ratings. It turns out it’s cheaper to get things right the first time than it is to cut corners on quality and have to accept lots of returns. Their machines were dirt cheap, the company was profitable, and the reliability was good. That’s why Gateway bought them and then turned management of the combined company over to the eMachines management.

Speaking of Gateway, support is almost uniformly lousy across the board. People have always complained to me that the support people don’t know what they’re doing. Now it’s hard to know how much the phone techs know because you can’t understand them.

Someone has got to realize this makes poor business sense and make a change. IBM knows, but IBM doesn’t sell PCs at retail anymore. In the early ’90s, Gateway had tremendous brand loyalty. Their PCs were terrible, but the tech support was friendly and determined. When Dell and others started undercutting Gateway’s prices, they cut costs by decimating their tech support. The result was lousy computers and no help getting the problem fixed. The only thing left to do was to buy eMachines, whose management had walked into a similarly bad situation in 2001 and righted it.

It’s pretty obvious to me that the way to break this logjam of sameness is to offer first-rate technical support. I want to believe that the first company that moves its technical support back to the United States and advertises the fact would even be able to get by with charging a premium price.

In the meantime, you stand to get slightly better support by buying from a retail store rather than over the phone or web, if only because the store will be able to help you with basic questions. The quality of in-store help varies widely, but if you find good help in the store, find out that person’s name and ask for that person if you have to call again. Most people who are really good don’t stay in retail for long–at least one company here in St. Louis scouts the retail stores’ computer help and tries to hire away anyone over the age of 21 or 22 who seems to be any good–but you may get some good help in the meantime. Use the manufacturer’s support as a backup, if the store will let you.

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