The 10 most annoying tactics of technology companies

The everyday practices of hardware, software, and Web firms can drive their customers bonkers. Here's how to fight back.

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Preferential support for business customers

Major offender: Dell

The problem: You buy a PC from a vendor's home-user division, only to discover that the support reps barely speak English, know less about the product than you do, and fail to help you solve your problem. That's what happened to PC World contributor Dave Johnson, who has been living in tech-support hell since he purchased a high-end Dell XPS 720 desktop last fall.

The system blue-screens "at least once per day," Johnson says. Although Dell has replaced the system twice, each new machine behaves the same, and help seems nowhere to be found: "Every time I call tech support, a level-one rep walks me through the same basic troubleshooting steps, even if they've been tried a dozen times before." Promises to escalate the problem to a higher level never pan out.

Too bad Johnson didn't buy from Dell's business division. Ben Popken of consumer-advocacy site The Consumerist says there's "a world of difference" in the level of support that Dell's business customers receive. "Dell's small-business department is still in the U.S., and the techs are friendly, fast, and knowledgeable. They've even called me days after the tech call was over to check in and make sure everything is okay." But on the occasions when Popken inadvertently dialed the "home" support line, "the reps read off scripts, didn't listen, and didn't solve problems," he says.

The company refuses to acknowledge any disparity in support for its home and business lines. "Dell provides quality support for all our customers all over the world," says rep Tara Giovinco, adding that Dell has United States-based support centers for consumers as well as business customers. We don't think that's going to make Johnson feel any better.

The fix: Don't buy PCs from companies that have poor support ratings (see the results of our latest Reliability & Service survey). And don't automatically head to an e-tailer's home/home-office pages; you may find identical (or nearly identical) products in the small-business section of the site at comparable prices.

Small product, big box

Major offenders: Amazon, Dell, NewEgg, Wal-Mart

The problem: You buy a flash drive, a memory card, a Bluetooth headset, or some other small item from a mail-order company, and the box that arrives on your doorstep looks large enough to accommodate a laser printer. But it's no mistake: You find your item inside--amidst a boxful of packing material.

Talk about wasteful! Not only are the oversize boxes excessive, they also consume an inordinate amount of space on the planes and trucks that are used to deliver them. That leaves less space for other packages, meaning fewer packages per delivery vehicle, more overall trips, more wasted fuel, and, consequently, higher shipping prices for you.

What's up with the big boxes? NewEgg didn't respond to our inquiries, but Amazon rep Patty Smith admits that it's a problem that needs fixing. "We know consumers are frustrated by [oversize] boxes, and we're working on it," she says.

To that end, Amazon recently developed software designed to determine which box size is appropriate for any given item, and claims a "significant decrease" in the number of purchases shipped in "wrong-size" boxes. Let's hope other sellers follow suit, because using man-size boxes for mouse-size items is just plain wrong.

The fix: Let your voice be heard! E-mail the offending companies and tell them you're done shopping there until they mend their environmentally unfriendly ways. Of course, you could always buy from a local retailer and avoid shipping boxes altogether. (While you're at it, skip the bag, too.)

Five company habits we love

Not all tech companies and practices annoy us. In fact, we found five examples of downright exemplary behavior, the kind we wish other businesses would emulate.

1. Credit is due: In February, movie-rental pioneer Netflix suffered a one-day service outage that delayed its DVD shipments. Although probably few customers were even aware of the problem, the company issued all its customers a 5 percent credit on their monthly bill. That kind of proactive service is rare indeed.

2. Feeling Blu: Earlier this year, when Blu-ray Disc emerged as the victorious high-def media platform, owners of HD DVD players were left holding the pricey, soon-to-be-useless bag. Oh, well, that's the risk of being an early adopter, right? Not necessarily. After Circuit City offered to let customers return (for store credit) HD DVD players purchased up to 90 days earlier, Amazon and Best Buy stepped up with $50 store credits, and Wal-Mart issued a full refund to recent purchasers. We're pleased--if puzzled--by the generosity of these stores; after all, they had absolutely no obligation to bail out customers who could simply have waited for a high-def victor.

3. Fab freebies: We continue to tip our hats to software developers that offer fully loaded versions of their programs free for home users, including Avast Antivirus Home Edition, the cross-platform instant messaging program Trillian, and, of course, Google's Google Earth and Picasa. You'd expect an ad-supported company to pack the latter two freebies with, well, ads, but neither program has so much as a banner.

4. Hot for teachers: Much as we love free stuff, we also love companies that help educate consumers without making a sales pitch every step of the way. A fine example is Samsung's HDTV Guide.

5. Download and go: Those of us who buy most of our software online appreciate the ability to download programs again--for example, when we migrate to a new PC. Adobe, for instance, lets you access your online purchases simply by logging in to your account. The same goes for games bought on Valve's Steam site: "Your games are associated with your account, not your computer." That's how it should be for all software ordered and delivered online.

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