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Showdown: PC makers' tech support gets rated

We went in search of helpful, fast and friendly tech support from 12 of the big-name notebook vendors. In the midst of a lot of rudeness and up-selling, several brands managed to earn excellent ratings.
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Laptop Magazine
/ Source: Laptop

It comes standard with most notebook purchases: a one-year warranty on parts and labor with 24/7 toll-free phone support. So why do people loathe having to contact their system's manufacturer for help? Maybe it's the annoyingly long hold times. Perhaps it's the hassle of getting passed from one department to another. Or maybe nobody likes having to provide the same information to reps over and over again just to ask a question.

When it's bad there are plenty of reasons to avoid using tech support. But who actually does a good job of solving issues and answering your questions, whether it's over the phone or online? Since it's inevitable that something will go wrong with your next notebook, you need to consider the quality of support a given manufacturer offers before making your next purchase.

Along those lines, we went in search of helpful, fast and friendly tech support from 12 of the big-name notebook vendors. During our tests we encountered, on average, 13-minute call times with less than 4 minutes of time spent on hold.

However, a few of the big brands refused to answer our questions unless they were strictly in reference to broken hardware, pitching some fairly pricey support packages instead. A rude Lenovo rep even told us to "go take a computer class" for the answer when we asked about how to speed up our ThinkPad's boot time. Still, several brands offer excellent service for free and one vendor in particular continues to dominate our ratings.

How we tested
From the East Coast, we called each notebook manufacturer's technical support line on three occasions, each during a different time of day (between noon and 3 p.m.; 3 and 6 p.m.; and 8 p.m. and midnight). Hold time calculations — rounded to the nearest minute — started when the call was answered, and include introductory voicemail menus and announcements.

Our relatively simple questions were not intended to stump the phone representatives, but to assess their knowledge base, and thus level of training. We also based grades upon friendliness, efficiency and speed. The first question was, "How can I make my notebook boot faster?" Most notebooks take about a minute to boot into Windows, and there are a few ways to improve that. Because Apple already leads the pack in boot time, for its first question we asked the Mac support rep why we would use Spaces, and for help in returning to the main desktop screen from Space 2.

For the second question we told the reps, "I want to share files with another laptop in my house, and I understand Windows 7 can do that. How do I set that up?" Here we were hoping to elicit directions for setting up HomeGroup using Windows 7. For Apple, we asked how to share files on our MacBook Pro with a Windows 7 notebook.

The third call was a control to test reps with one of the questions we asked last year. Namely, "How can I make changes to my notebook's power settings?" There are several ways to do this in Windows 7, but the quickest is to right-click on the battery icon in the System Tray, which brings up Power Options in a pop-up menu.

We also scoured each vendor's website for answers to our three questions. We dug through FAQs, manuals and forums, and performed live chats or e-mail exchanges with service reps if such options were available. The web grade is based on the accessibility of information and how fast and easy it is to locate that data.

Out of the 12 vendors whose support we tested, only three got higher grades than they did in 2009, three got the same grade, and six — 50 percent — got lower grades than in our last roundup. The worst offenders were Acer and Gateway (which is owned by Acer), both of which received D grades, because they refused to answer the majority of our questions unless we paid a high premium, ranging from $59 to $129.

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Fortunately, this year’s showdown was not without its bright spots. HP dramatically improved its tech support in the past year, adding better Web resources, helpful online support techs, and a streamlined phone tree. When we complained about slow boot ups, a very helpful rep spent 40 minutes remotely improving our computer’s boot time.

Apple, however, remains the king of support, receiving an A grade for the fifth year in a row. Even though the company offers only 90 days of free support, its techs were friendly, helpful, and prompt. Its Web resources were unparalleled and the company did not demand extra money to answer any of our questions.

For detailed accounts of how each vendor fared, check out the full version of Laptop Magazine’s Tech Support Showdown.