PC satisfaction scores dip as customers drift to tablets

'Misalignment of expectations' caused by Windows 8 disconnect with traditional computing devices, says pollster

The jarring combination of Microsoft's radical reinvention of Windows with old-style hardware caused the average satisfaction score of PC makers to slip in the last year, a pollster said today.

Meanwhile, Apple again took top honors by tying its own 2011 record in computing device customer satisfaction as measured by the American Customer Satisfaction Index (ACSI), a consumer survey that's tracked opinions on technology for 18 years.

Apple's score of 87 -- out of a possible 100 -- was up one point from 2012 and seven points higher than its closest competitor.

The ACSI survey polled more than 2,700 Americans in April and May, asking them to rate their experiences with recently purchased devices -- desktop and notebook personal computers, as well as tablets -- sold by Apple, Acer, Dell, Hewlett-Packard and Toshiba. The rest of the OEMs (original equipment manufacturers) were lumped into a secondary "All Others" category in ACSI's results.

With a score of 80, HP was Apple's nearest rival; other OEMs collected scores between 76 and 79.

Although both HP and Toshiba increased their ACSI ratings by a point compared to 2012's poll, Dell and Acer dropped two points and All Others fell four points. The average of all those, other than Apple, fell by a point, a decline of 1.3% over the prior year.

David VanAmburg, the managing director of ACSI, did not point a finger at Microsoft's Windows 8 for the slip in PC satisfaction -- as have some industry analysts -- but acknowledged it was a contributor.

"It's not so much Windows 8 itself as the incongruity between the operating system and most of the devices it's sold with," said VanAmburg. "There's a disconnect between what Windows 8 is touting and the desktop and laptop environment. I'd call it a misalignment of expectations."

VanAmburg was referring to Microsoft's pitch that Windows 8 is a "touch-first" OS that works best on touch- and gesture-enabled hardware, like tablets, and the inability of hardware makers to capitalize on that either on tablets or touch-ready notebooks.

Choices in the latter have been relatively skimpy, and prices have been considerably higher than for laptops that rely on a mouse -- or a touchpad -- and a keyboard. "If [OEMs] could get to lower prices on touch, it could be a whole different ball game," said VanAmburg, echoing Microsoft's own belief.

The lower scores overall for traditional PC makers, and the slip in ratings for the likes of Dell and Acer, neither of which has scored in tablets, are expressions of consumers' search for something more than PCs can provide, said VanAmburg.

"What we're seeing in our data is the same as what we're seeing in PC sales, that the trend toward greater mobility continues to gather steam," VanAmburg said. "Mobility is so attractive [it's] driving people away from PCs."

To tablets, specifically. On average, tablets recorded a satisfaction score of 81, two points higher than traditional PC form factors. "Tablets are just a more satisfying computing device," said VanAmburg, citing the data. Smartphones, too, have scored higher than PCs in ACSI's recent surveys.

PC shipments have contracted for five consecutive quarters, research firm IDC has said, and the slump shows no sign of ending before 2015. The decline in traditional PC sales -- from which Microsoft has always generated the bulk of its Windows revenue -- has put the Redmond, Wash., developer in a tough spot, and spurred it to aim for a "devices-and-services" strategy, revamp its corporate structure and look for a new CEO.

That the cause of those seismic shifts -- consumers' preference for more smartphones and tablets over PCs -- caused desktop and notebook makers' scores to drop didn't surprise VanAmburg.

"We would have been surprised if Apple had dropped, or PC makers suddenly surged to the top," said VanAmburg. "But this is a revolution like what happens to the industry every few years. A while ago, it was laptops. 'You mean I can pick up my computer and take it somewhere?' This is the next generation of that. People are increasingly adopting tablets and smartphones and buying fewer desktops and laptops."

The ACSI survey scores can be found on the organization's website.

This article, PC satisfaction scores dip as customers drift to tablets, was originally published at Computerworld.com.

Gregg Keizer covers Microsoft, security issues, Apple, Web browsers and general technology breaking news for Computerworld. Follow Gregg on Twitter at @gkeizer, on Google+ or subscribe to Gregg's RSS feed . His email address is gkeizer@computerworld.com.

See more by Gregg Keizer on Computerworld.com.

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