Apple tops tech support survey, Consumer Reports says

Its techies solve problems 80% of the time; industry average is just 60%

Apple Inc.'s technical support is much more likely to solve users' problems than rival computer makers' help desks, a survey conducted by Consumer Reports magazine said today.

According to the publication's annual reliability survey, slated for the June issue, 80% of the users who relied on Apple's technical support said it had solved their computer problem. The industry average last year, said Consumer Reports, was 60%.

"Apple is again at the top of the heap with tech support," said Donna Tapellini, an associate editor at the magazine.

The Consumer Reports survey, which polled subscribers on their experiences with technical support from September 2006 to January 2008, represented more than 10,000 desktop and laptop machines.

The publication used the survey data to generate scores for Apple and several other brand-name computer manufacturers, including Dell, Hewlett-Packard, Gateway, Lenovo, Sony and Toshiba. Apple led its rivals in both the laptop and desktop categories with reader scores of 83 and 81, respectively. Lenovo took second in laptops with 66, while Dell's 56 was the second-best in desktops.

Apple's free walk-in support at its own retail stores was also a factor in how users rated the company's tech support, Tapellini said. In-store help, according to the survey, provided the best trouble-shooting by far, she said, solving problems 90% of the time.

Dubbed the Genius Bar by Apple, the in-store help desk is free to any Mac owner, and does not require that the computer be in warranty or under an extended warranty, which Apple calls AppleCare. Repair costs not covered by Apple, however, must be paid by the user.

Overall, the phone was the most widely used way to reach support, although the results were often mixed: nearly 60% of those polled said that they had one or more problems when contacting a help desk on the telephone.

As it has in past computer surveys, Consumer Reports again recommended that Mac owners pony up for AppleCare. The company's support track record and its short-by-industry-standards 90-day complimentary support combine to make the extra expense worthwhile, said the magazine. AppleCare extends telephone support and the warranty period to three years, and costs $169 for an iMac, $249 for a MacBook or MacBook Air, and $349 for a MacBook Pro.

That recommendation runs counter to the publication's usual advice, which notes that extended support and warranty plans are generally not good buys. Exceptions, other than Apple-made machines, are for laptops that frequently go on the road, and systems from Dell and Gateway, which according to the subscriber survey, provide "significantly better" support on the paid plans than on their free support programs.

"Tech support is certainly important in the purchase decision," said Tapellini. "For most people, a computer is a complicated product. It's not like a refrigerator."

But she cautioned against setting support expectations too high. "If you're going to buy [an extended support plan], get one for the better tech support as opposed to thinking you'll get a good deal on repairs," she said.

According to Consumer Reports, on average computer repairs cost about the same as the price of an extended support and warranty plan. "And if it's going to cost more than half of the replacement price to fix the old computer, then it's not worth it," Tapellini said.

Copyright © 2008 IDG Communications, Inc.

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