Apple tops annual customer satisfaction survey, but lead shrinks

Windows PC makers boost scores as Vista-less netbook sales soar

Apple again thrashed rival computer makers selling Windows PCs in an annual customer satisfaction survey, although by a smaller margin than last year, the poll's manager said today.

One reason, said David VanAmburg, managing director of the American Customer Satisfaction Index (ACSI), a survey conducted quarterly by the University of Michigan, is the rise of cheap netbooks that run Windows XP rather than Vista.

"Vista had a lot to do with Windows PCs' poor showing last year," said VanAmburg. "The fact that a lot of the popular computers this year didn't include Vista had an impact."

Apple's customer satisfaction score of 84, down from a record 85 in 2008, was nine points higher than its nearest competitor, Dell, and 10 points higher than Hewlett-Packard and Gateway, which was acquired by Acer in 2007. Last year, Apple led HP by 13 points and Gateway by 12 points.

Apple's 84-point score was the second-highest in the personal computer category since ACSI began polling in 1996.

"The standard margin of error for a poll like this is plus-or-minus three points," said VanAmburg, "so the one-point drop [for Apple] may just be a little 'noise' in the results."

The last time Apple was bested in the ACSI survey was 2003, when Dell edged the California computer maker by a point. The following year, the two swapped places as Apple led Dell by two points.

"The gap has closed a little bit [between Apple and Windows PC makers], but it's still much bigger than it was four years ago," VanAmburg said. "Apple's leadership over the last five years has been huge."

Virtually all of Apple's rivals improved their scores this year. HP's Compaq brand jumped four points, from 2008's 70 to 74 this year, while Gateway/Acer climbed two points, from 72 to 74. The "All Others" category -- which VanAmburg said lumped vendors like Toshiba and Lenovo into a single satisfaction score -- increased from 72 to 74 points. Only Dell remained static, at 75.

VanAmburg attributed the narrowing gap to the sales boom of lower-priced Windows notebooks, especially netbooks, which translated into increased satisfaction because consumers perceived they were getting more for their money.

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