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Annual survey rates tech's best and worst

There's nothing worse than a malfunctioning computer, except perhaps a bad machine coupled with lousy technical support.

Measured by such criteria, this year's least-frustrated consumer owned a laptop made by Apple, Hewlett-Packard, Toshiba or IBM; a Sony or Handspring handheld computer; or a desktop made by Dell or a local "white box" assembler, according to a new reliability survey by PC Magazine.

Despite the technology sector's troubles, dependability continued to increase, as it has in most of the 15 years since PC Magazine began the survey.

"In general, people tend to be pretty happy," said Michael Miller, the magazine's editor in chief. "About a quarter of all users had an issue with a desktop, which is still pretty high. In general, satisfaction with tech support is lower than satisfaction with reliability."

The poll queried 15,000 readers on questions of dependability, the quality and frequency of repairs and technical support, along with willingness to buy again from the same company.

Among Internet service providers, folks preferred high-speed connections over cheaper dialup service.

As was the case in other surveys, the world's largest Internet service provider, America Online, fared worst, with customers frustrated by its high price and unreliable connections. Microsoft's MSN dialup service was next worst.

Small local dialup providers won the highest marks, followed by AT&T WorldNet and Earthlink.

"AOL did really bad. MSN did just barely better. You wouldn't be pleased if you were MSN," Miller said.

Cable Internet provider Optimum Online received the best rating among high-speed ISPs, followed by Road Runner Broadband.

Dell led desktop computer makers, followed closely by no-name local vendors and Gateway. Dell users reported the fewest repair requests as well as the largest percentage _ 31 percent _ to be solved over the telephone.

Desktop brands that fared worst were Compaq, eMachines, Hewlett-Packard and IBM.

The survey looked at digital cameras and handheld computers for the first time. Generally, few cameras needed any repair, with Polaroid faring the worst at 9 percent. Cameras are more usefully rated by ease of use and battery life, the survey found.

Among handhelds, users liked those running the Palm operating system better than machines loaded with Microsoft's more complex Pocket PC software, including the popular Compaq iPAQ.

Interestingly, Palm clones Handspring and Sony were more appreciated than Palm's handhelds. Users were most vexed with the Linux-fueled Sharp Zaurus and organizers made by Psion and Casio.

There were some anomalies in the survey. For instance, IBM and HP scored well on laptops and dismally on desktops. In addition, HP's printers received the top marks for the 11th straight year.

"IBM, frankly, has not been paying as much attention to desktops as to notebooks," Miller said.

Compaq, which merged with Hewlett-Packard this year, received low marks on desktops, laptops and its handheld. Ironically, HP is phasing out its higher-rated laptop in favor of Compaq's more-recognized brand. Consumers had little good to say about Acer's laptops and desktops.

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