Apple again topped rival computer makers in an annual customer satisfaction survey, the 10th year in a row its Macs have whipped Windows PCs.
But smaller-volume Windows PC makers closed the gap in 2014 to its narrowest margin since 1998.
In results published today, the American Customer Satisfaction Index (ACSI), a consumer survey started by the University of Michigan nearly two decades ago, Apple scored 84 out of 100.
That was six points higher than its nearest named competitors -- Acer and Dell -- but three points lower than its score of 87 in 2013, a year-over-year decline of 3.4%. The last time Apple dipped that much was in 2007, when its ACSI score fell four points.
All named computer OEMs (original equipment manufacturers) dropped in this year's ACSI survey, with the industry average dipping one point, or 1.3%. Some name brands that primarily sell Windows PCs, however, saw an even steeper decline. Hewlett-Packard, for instance, fell six points, for a 7.5% drop, while Dell and Toshiba slid three points each (a 3.5% drop).
ACSI explained the almost universal deterioration in satisfaction scores by fingering tablets.
The poll's scores take into account not only traditional desktop and laptop PCs, but also tablets, which are in a satisfaction downturn. This year's tablet satisfaction score was 80, off a point, representing a 1.2% decline compared to 2013.
"Slower growth and declining satisfaction with tablets suggest that manufacturers have not kept up with consumer expectations regarding innovation and improvement," ACSI wrote in its annual commentary about the results.
Those results also included Apple. "Apple is still the leading tablet brand in the U.S., but according to ACSI customer data, the most recent generation of iPads has not improved all that much from earlier versions," ACSI said.
Except for the introduction of the iPad Mini, Apple's line has been static since the launch of the iPad with a higher-resolution Retina display more than two years ago. The iPad Air of last fall was lighter and thinner than its forerunners, but it boasted the same size screen and offered the same functionality.
The softening of tablet satisfaction has given desktops an opportunity, said David VanAmburg, ACSI's managing director. "People who haven't upgraded their desktops in three, four or five years have been pleasantly surprised," VanAmburg said in an interview of the new purchases.
Overall desktop satisfaction climbed by 3%, to 81 out of 100, a higher number than for tablets.
VanAmburg said ACSI's scores meshed well with the recent PC climate that research firms like IDC and Gartner have tracked. Although PC shipments remain down from 2013 -- which in turn was dramatically off from the year before -- the contraction has slowed. Analysts have forecast a sales rebound, especially among consumers who, distracted by tablets for several years, have now remembered the value of a personal computer and want to refresh what they own.
"Our data is trending well with the sales data," said VanAmburg. "The decline [in PC shipments] has seemed to level off and now it's flattened, and consumers are ready to invest some dollars [in new PCs]."
Consumers also seem to be happiest with desktops, not notebooks, whose scores slumped to 76, a 4% fall from 2013.
VanAmburg also credited tablets with the laptops' satisfaction decline. "Before tablets, laptops scores didn't lag behind desktops, because then the laptop was the tablet. People said, 'Now I have a mobile computer,' " said VanAmburg. "But now the laptop kind of falls in the middle between desktops and tablets. It's orphaned."
The only growth area was in ACSI's "All Others" category, a class that included OEMs that sell smaller numbers of systems in the U.S., like Asus, Lenovo and Samsung. Satisfaction in that group climbed six points, an increase of 7.9%, rivaling Apple's 2007-2008 record increase of six points.
"The smaller players seem to be more appealing now," said VanAmburg, citing their ability to produce more innovative designs that attract buyers. "There has been a nice upswing in satisfaction from those with smaller market shares."
This was the first time in ACSI's polling since 1997 that the All Others score was higher than the industry average.
Personal computers have historically scored lower in satisfaction than other durable goods that ACSI regularly measures, such as home appliances, televisions and automobiles, and that trend continued in 2014. "One of the reasons why the PC industry had always scored lower than other durable products is the complexity involved in the PC," said VanAmburg. "There's a certain simplicity to running a dishwasher versus the kinds of things that go wrong with a PC."