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18th Annual Reader Satisfaction Survey

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18th Annual Reader Satisfaction Survey Part 2
ARTICLE DATE: 10.12.05
By Sean Carroll and Bill Howard

Our Readers weighed in on nearly 49,000 of their most important products and services, with sometimes surprising results.

Every few weeks, millions of people worldwide pick up our magazine or visit us online to read what we have to say about the products and services they're considering buying. It seems only fair, then, that we give our readers a chance to tell us what they think about their purchases and subscriptions, whether or not they followed our recommendations.

So every year we survey our readers. In September we reported the results of our survey on printers and desktop and notebook PCs. In this issue we've quizzed them about their digital cameras, broadband ISPs, cell phones and cell-phone service providers, PDAs, and home-networking routers. This year, for the first time, we've also asked about readers' Voice over Internet Protocol (VoIP) providers, which bring phone service to our homes across our broadband connections, and MP3 players—products and services that didn't even exist when we first began surveying our readers.

A total of 11,052 readers answered questions about more than 48,000 products and services, rating each on a 1- to 10-point scale that corresponds to a range of poor through excellent. The results in some cases may surprise you: Kodak, for example, which ships more digital cameras than any maker in the world, bumps along at the bottom of the list among our readers, who like Canons, Nikons, and Panasonics. In other cases the results are a foregone conclusion: Apple's iPods crush the competition.

In general, our readers are at least reasonably happy with their purchases and subscriptions (after all, we humbly submit that they're the best-informed shoppers around). None of the categories on which we report average anything less than a 7, and the 7's for cell-phone service providers, which subscribers famously love to hate.

As potential consumers of these products and services, you'll probably find the drilldowns by brand, by type (budget cameras versus, say, superzooms), and by age to be quite helpful. These breakdowns represent the experience of legions of our readers; combined with reviews based on our lab testing, they give you the fullest possible picture of the products and services competing for your hard-earned cash.

Our survey was in the field from August 11 to August 24; only those products and services that were rated by at least 50 respondents are scored, because fewer responses wouldn't let us make statistically valid comparisons.

We use a t-test to calculate how significant the difference is between individual scores and average scores. Scores are determined to be average, better or worse than average, and significantly better or worse than average. T-tests point out that similar scores may have different meanings. In digital cameras, for example, both Sony and Pentax receive an overall score of 8.0. Based on the number and variability of the responses, the t-test lets us say that Sony's score is significantly better than average at a 95 percent confidence level, but we can't say the same about Pentax's results.
Readers' Choice
ARTICLE DATE: 10.12.05
# ISPs Broadband: Cox, EarthLink, Optimum Online, Road Runner
# Dial-up: EarthLink

# Optimum Voice

Digital Cameras
# Overall: Canon, Nikon, Panasonic
# Compact: Canon
# Ultracompact: Canon
# Enthusiast: Canon
# Superzoom: Panasonic
# D-SLR: Canon and Nikon

Cell-Phone Service Providers
# Verizon Wireless

Cell-Phone Handset Makers
# Alltel: Motorola
# Cellular One: Motorola
# Cingular Wireless: Motorola
# Nextel: Motorola
# Sprint PCS: Sanyo
# T-Mobile: Motorola
# Tracfone: Motorola
# Verizon Wireless: LG PDAs
# Overall: Dell
# PDA phones: Palm

MP3 Players
# All categories: Apple

Home Networking Routers
# Overall: Apple, Cisco, Linksys

# Linksys

# Apple, Linksys

ARTICLE DATE: 10.12.05

See the survey results.

We've reached saturation, if not quite infatuation. Nearly nine out of ten PC Magazine readers use broadband; most of the rest live in areas where it's unavailable. But even with speeds going up and broadband prices going down to less than $20 a month for some DSL services, the overall rating for broadband ISPs remains essentially unchanged.

Four providers stand out enough this year to merit Readers' Choice awards: Cox, Cablevision's Optimum Online, and Time Warner Cable's Road Runner—all repeat winners from 2004—and new addition EarthLink. EarthLink provides both DSL and cable service; this is the first time we've awarded a Readers' Choice to a DSL provider. Because most users have a limited range of choices (one cable provider, one or two DSL providers, and multiple dial-up providers), one way to use the survey results is to compare your single cable provider with competing DSL services in your area. On the average, your best bet is still cable, but chances are your local monopoly's facing a much stronger challenge from DSL than it ever has before. And it's worth noting, too, that not all cable providers are created equal.

Cable is ever so slightly ahead of DSL on the overall ratings: 7.7 as an average of all cable respondents' ratings (down 0.1 point from 2004 on our 10-point scale) to 7.6 (up 0.1 point). Note that the average of all broadband ISPs is lower than either, but that's because satellite service provider DirecWay's depressingly bad 5.6 overall score drags down the average.

But how cable and DSL measure up is substantially different. In this category, half the drilldown scores are vitally important. Cable is the way to go for speed, while DSL is ahead on fees, reliability, and repair frequency. Call it a dead heat for initial setup, ISP e-mail, customer service, tech support, and repair service: Cable and DSL are within 0.1 point.

One clear and growing disadvantage for cable is dissatisfaction with fees. Cable as a whole scores a miserable 4.9 for satisfaction with fees—even worse than last year's already awful 5.3—versus DSL's markedly better but still not impressive 6.1. Even Readers' Choice– winning cable providers Optimum Online and Road Runner score significantly worse than average when it comes to fees. Cox has an edge, with a better-than-average rating for fees.

DSL's clearest advantage lies in the percentage of its users who need repairs: 12 percent versus 24 percent for cable users. In other words, one in eight DSL customers needed repair service in the previous year, while one in four cable subscribers needed repair service.

With cable, connection speed trumps everything else. Respondents rate cable speed at 8.1 versus 7.4 for DSL speeds. But you can't simply assume that your local cable service lives up to those scores or that speed alone is everything. Comcast, the largest cable provider, serving 25 percent of our cable-connected readers, falls from average overall in 2004 to significantly worse than average, despite its significantly better-than-average throughput. Adelphia, another cable provider, is also significantly worse than average overall, down from worse than average last year.

Satellite isn't much of an alternative unless it's your only choice—for example, if wired or cellular broadband hasn't yet reached your area. Respondents rate DirecWay, the best-known satellite-based ISP, significantly worse than average overall as well as on fees and reliability. Still, if you absolutely need the speed and that's all that's available, it's better than nothing.

What if you need dial-up access because you can't get broadband or need occasional dial-up when traveling or just in case service goes out? EarthLink is the way to go for dial-up: The ISP is rated significantly better than average, and it's our Readers' Choice. AOL is rated the lowest—again. Dial-up details are online at go.pcmag.com/sr/dialup.
ARTICLE DATE: 10.12.05

See the survey results.

In the years before a fledgling technology market achieves commodity status, there are often marked differences in the performance of early competitors. Not so with Internet telephony's Voice over Internet Protocol, or VoIP. In our first survey of VoIP providers, our Readers' Choice, Optimum Voice, holds the top spot by the narrowest of margins.

The VoIP market is dominated by Vonage, the service of choice for more than 40 percent of respondents. PC-to-PC VoIP provider Skype accounted for 13 percent. No other provider had more than a 10 percent share.

Five companies received enough responses to be included in our analysis. Two, Cablevision's Optimum Voice and Time Warner Cable Digital Phone, are premium services for their respective company's cable broadband services. The others are independent services usable with any broadband connection. Optimum Voice leads on the basis of its better-than-average ratings for sound quality and connection reliability. Time Warner Cable's Digital Phone VoIP service matches Optimum Voice in the overall score but not in breakout scores. In general, VoIP service provided by broadband providers scores better than the independents' offerings.

Four of the qualifiers are traditional VoIP providers: Your traditional telephone handset connects to a black box that connects to your broadband connection, and you dial as if using a traditional phone. Skype is primarily a PC-to-PC service (using a PC-connected headset). Skype was rated the easiest VoIP service to set up, which didn't surprise us. If you can install an IM client and a headset, you can set up Skype.

Overall rating scores range from 7.9 for Optimum Voice and Time Warner Cable Digital Phone to 7.6 for AT&T CallVantage. Vonage is the dominant player, but its worse-than-average rating for voice quality is disappointing. We can't compare Vonage's support to that of its competitors (no one else had enough responses), but its 6.0 rating fails to impress.

Optimum has fewer users among PC Magazine readers than the other rated services, but its sound quality and connection quality rate better than average, no doubt contributing to its numerically high (but still statistically average) overall score.

For VoIP, the biggest differentiators may be not among vendors on this survey but between VoIP providers and traditional landline telephony services. VoIP is cheaper, and the sound quality is good, but it still faces such issues as access during power failures (traditional phone lines are powered and often work during blackouts) and providing caller ID on 911 calls.
Digital Cameras
ARTICLE DATE: 10.12.05

View the survey results: part one, part two.

Make a top-notch camera and your users become your evangelists. Users of cameras from Readers' Choice companies Canon, Nikon, and Panasonic rate their likelihood to recommend the company's products even higher than they rate their cameras. In Canon's case, the gap is quite large: an 8.4 overall score and a 9.0 on likelihood to recommend. Some of the highest scores in this survey for likelihood to recommend belong to users of the highest-end cameras, digital SLRs (D-SLRs). Here Canon receives a 9.5 and Nikon a 9.3.

Canon wins hands down or ties for first place in virtually every breakout category except budget cameras (with no clear standout there, we awarded no winner) and superzooms, the turf of Panasonic's exceptional 10X and 12X optical zoom cameras. On D-SLRs, Nikon shares the Readers' Choice with Canon. The two manufacturers run neck and neck on just about every measure.

Sony merits an honorable mention overall but with an asterisk: Although most of Sony's breakout scores are good, including significantly better-than-average scores for overall, repair frequency, and likelihood to recommend, its score for technical support, 6.7, while statistically still average, ties numerically with Kodak's for the worst. This problem isn't limited to Sony's cameras: The company's support for desktop and notebook computers was rated 6.1 and 5.5, respectively, in our PC survey earlier this year. Last year the numerical score for Sony cameras was 0.1 below the average; this year it's 0.5 below.

In addition to the overall rating, we've broken out cameras based on how they're positioned according to the respondents: budget (sold for less than $200 when new), compact (fits in a pants pocket), ultracompact (fits in a shirt pocket), enthusiast (lots of features), superzoom (at least a 10X optical zoom; digital zoom doesn't count), and digital SLRs (through-the-lens viewing and interchangeable lenses). The breakout mostly gives Canon a chance to load its shelves with trophies—deservedly so—although this year it has to share with Nikon and Panasonic.

Since technology changes so quickly—and avid users like to upgrade to a new camera every year or so or add D-SLRs to their collection—we asked about the features they'd most like in their next camera. Not surprisingly, they wanted to improve their photos: 70 percent cited higher resolution, followed by faster operation (51 percent), plus more features and the ability to take better pictures (both 38 percent). Only 8 percent wanted a camera that's easier to use. Most numbers are little changed from 2004.

Except for Kodak, the brands most widely bought by PC Magazine readers fare well in this year's survey: Canon and Nikon score significantly better than average. Olympus's scores are a mixed bag: Our readers rate its cameras better than average overall and significantly better than average on likelihood to recommend but last on ease of use overall. Olympus's enthusiast cameras fare well but still score last on ease of use, tied with Nikon in this segment of the market.

Several makers sell superzooms. These cameras let you nearly fill the frame with your kid playing halfway across the lacrosse field. That's roughly equal to a 350-mm lens on a 35-mm film camera. Panasonic's combination of Leica lenses and image stabilization left the other superzooms in the dust. The camera crushed all other makers on overall satisfaction and, interestingly, reliability. Only Canon could tie its impressive and significantly better-than-average score of 9 for likelihood to recommend.

Three camera makers fare especially poorly. Toshiba has been out of the business for a while, so its poor showing is understandable; it represents only older models. HP, which sees cameras as a key part of its digital-imaging strategy, scores significantly worse than average overall and on likelihood to recommend and below average on reliability. The numbers for the company's cameras less than a year old are depressingly similar, and the news isn't much better among compact cameras, where the maker did manage to pull up its overall rating score to merely worse than average. Even among the relatively undemanding budget users, HP receives the lowest likelihood to recommend score.

Imaging giant Kodak is second only to Canon in the number of survey responses, but its overall rating is significantly worse than average, reliability is worse than average, tech support is significantly worse than average (the same score as Sony's), and likelihood to recommend is average. But Kodak pegs its reputation in no small part on ease of use: It was one of the first to embrace docking stations for easy recharging and picture uploading, for example. (This also forces users to leave the camera in the same place every time, so it isn't misplaced.) On this measure, Kodak rates significantly above average.
ARTICLE DATE: 10.12.05

See the survey results for cell-phone service providers and cell-phone handset makers.

You get what you pay for with cell phones, though you might not be happy with the amount you have to pay. Industry leader Verizon again trumps the field with its high overall rating and significantly better-than-average breakout scores on most every category except satisfaction with fees, where it's near the bottom. Verizon is our Readers' Choice, and pay-as-you-go provider Virgin Mobile, a Readers' Choice last year, receives an honorable mention, having slipped in customer service and coverage within the home calling area.

When it comes to cell-phone handsets, we award Readers' Choice designations on a by-carrier basis, since handset vendor offerings often vary significantly from one carrier to the next. Motorola receives the best ratings and a Readers' Choice standing for most carriers (Alltel, Cellular One, and T-Mobile). On Verizon, LG phones prevail, and Sanyo is tops with Nextel subscribers.

Market share doesn't guarantee satisfaction among our readers. The four biggest carriers are all over the ratings map in this year's survey. Verizon, which got 31 percent of all responses, is best in most categories. Cingular Wireless, with 25 percent of responses, is significantly worse than average overall and on fees, in-region call quality, and technical support; it is average on likelihood to recommend.

Sprint PCS, with 12 percent of the total responses, is average overall and worse than average on fees, technical support, roaming coverage, and likelihood to recommend. It's significantly better than average on voicemail and better than average on choice of handsets.

Perhaps not surprising, the four biggest carriers (and Virgin Mobile) are rated best for handset choice. Verizon isn't known for coming out with the latest and greatest handsets first, but our users don't seem to mind. T-Mobile, 9 percent of the total, is better than average overall and on likelihood to recommend; it's significantly better than average on fees, plan options, and customer service.

Readers don't think much of carriers' tech support, awarding a 6.0 overall average. That's the worst of the breakout scores for cell providers.

As a group, carriers using CDMA technology received higher overall scores than vendors using GSM technology, garnering 7.3 versus 6.8, respectively. Some gurus say that CDMA represents a superior technology, but we believe that CDMA's standing also represents the superior network Verizon built as much as it does the technology used by Alltel, Sprint PCS, and Virgin Mobile (which uses Sprint's CDMA network).

Nextel, noted for its walkie-talkie service, which uses a third technology known as iDEN, receives mostly worse-than-average and significantly worse-than-average scores. (Nextel recently merged with Sprint.) Of the two carriers providing pay-as-you-go service, Virgin Mobile outscores TracFone, most notably on overall satisfaction and satisfaction with fees. We were disappointed to see Virgin's rating for coverage in the home area slip from 7.4 in 2004 to 7.0.

With handsets, Motorola has the highest- rated phones with Alltel, Cellular One, Cingular Wireless, T-Mobile, and TracFone services. But Motorola phones have worse or significantly worse-than-average scores for repair frequency with some vendors: Some 17 percent of the Motorola/Alltel and Motorola/Cingular phones, and 16 percent of the Motorola/Verizon phones, had problems in the 12 months leading up to our survey. (The average for repairs for all phones, all vendors, was 13 percent.)

We also sought ratings of smartphones or PDAs used as phones. The most satisfied readers use Palm Treos on Sprint, followed closely by Palms on Verizon.
ARTICLE DATE: 10.12.05

See the survey results.

It's been three years since we last surveyed our readers about satisfaction with their PDAs, and it's interesting to see what has changed since then. In that time, Palm tried a new company name (palmOne) and acquired the 2002 Readers' Choice winner Handspring. Sony, another Readers' Choice award winner in 2002, left the U.S. market, and devices based on Microsoft's mobile operating systems gained significant market share.

This year, Dell PDAs, which are based on Microsoft's Pocket PC and Windows Mobile, join the company's desktops (an annual front-runner) in earning a Readers' Choice designation, with Research in Motion close behind. Palm receives a Readers' Choice for its PDA phones.

We measure PDAs three ways: all PDAs no matter what their purpose, all PDAs less than a year old, and PDA phones (this data appears in the cell-phone service provider and handset sections). Dell receives better-than-average or significantly better-than-average scores on every measure except technical support, including significantly better than average on overall rating and likelihood to recommend, two of the most important criteria.

Of interest is how the two major PDA-phone vendors play out against each other. Palm is significantly better than average on overall rating among PDA phones, while Research in Motion (RIM) is only average on overall rating and below average on likelihood to recommend. But in the "All PDAs" category, where respondents could also weigh their impressions of the devices as phones, RIM is near the top (but not close enough to qualify as a Readers' Choice) with better-than-average scores on overall rating and technical support and a significantly better-than-average score on likelihood to recommend. Palm is average overall but significantly better than average in terms of ease of use, reliability, percent needing repair (8 percent versus an average of 13 percent of PDAs needing repair over one year), and likelihood to recommend.

HP also fares well this year, though its showing wasn't quite strong enough to merit a Readers' Choice. Its score for overall satisfaction is just average for all PDAs and in the PDA phone segment, but in both sections it is significantly better than average on likelihood to recommend. At 8 percent, its score for percent needing repair is significantly better than average. Worth noting is that HP is the most significant Windows–based PDA phone in the survey (Audiovox is a smaller player) and that Microsoft's OS is soundly beaten by both PalmOS and RIM.

Like Sony, Toshiba left the U.S. PDA market. Both vendors garner significantly worse-than-average ratings for likelihood to recommend, possibly indicating that there's some awareness of the situation. More's the pity for Sony, because its score for percent needing repair remains a rock-solid 6 percent (even though its PDAs aren't as new) compared with the PDA average of 13 percent.
MP3 Players
ARTICLE DATE: 10.12.05

See the survey results.

It's no surprise that Apple scores first overall, first among MP3 players in the first year of ownership, first among flash players, first among mini hard-drive players, and first among big hard-drive players. The iPod's scores are among the highest in any category in the survey. The race for second place is more interesting: Creative, Dell, and iriver battle for that position, the latter nearly matching Apple on sound quality, with Dell coming closer on ease of use.

Interestingly, Apple earns slightly better sound quality scores for its hard drive players than for its iPod shuffle players; our testing found better sound quality with the shuffle. Readers may be responding to the the shuffle's lack of EQ features.

Only Apple and iriver score better than average among flash players, and only Apple scores better than average overall on mini hard drive and hard drive players.

Two vendors are significantly worse than average on likelihood of recommending: Rio, which is leaving the business, and RCA, despite its exceptionally good (1 percent) score for percent needing repair, shared only with Sony. Sony partisans cited good battery life but had little good to say about the proprietary ATRAC recording format that Sony is easing away from.

The iPod's Achilles' heel is reliability. Nine percent of iPod users report that their units have needed repair in the past 12 months. And it's not just because the early iPods are long in the tooth: Even among new players, a higher-than-average percentage of iPods needed to be fixed or replaced. Overall, only 3 percent of flash players needed repair service, compared with 7 percent of hard drive units. With the arrival of multimegabyte flash players (beginning with Apple's iPod nano), this may soon be a good argument for going with a hard drive player only for the largest music collections. Still, for the time being, readers are more satisfied with high-capacity hard drive iPods than with anything else, including the flash-based iPod shuffle.
Home Networking Routers
ARTICLE DATE: 10.12.05

See the survey results.

Although satisfaction with ISPs has slipped slightly, the hardware part of the equation has improved, as shown by this year's results for the Internet's conduit to your PC: home networking routers. Overall ratings are up for seven of the nine companies returning from last year's survey. Three vendors—Linksys (a repeat winner), Apple, and Cisco (Linksys's parent company)—receive Readers' Choice awards, and Netgear follows close behind.

Home networking routers connect to a broadband modem and provide a hardware firewall against outside hackers. They usually have a switch so that several PCs can be connected and, in the case of wireless routers, a wireless access point.

Apple wireless routers receive this year's highest overall rating score (8.9). This is especially noteworthy given that, in general, wired routers outscore wireless. Part of its high ratings may stem from ease of setup: Apple routers tend to be connected to simpler-to-do-everything Macintoshes. Apple and Linksys earn Readers' Choices for wireless routers; Linksys for wired routers. Cisco sells into the residential market through its Linksys brand, but some readers tell us they're using Cisco business routers at home and are very satisfied.

Wireless routers outnumber wired-only routers by about three to one in this survey, versus a two-to-one margin last year. Apple notwithstanding, wired routers receive higher ratings on both overall rating and reliability. The average overall rating for wired routers is 8.2, up 0.4; for wireless routers it's 7.8, up 0.2. On overall reliability, both wired and wireless routers increased by the same amount, 0.3, leaving wired ahead by 8.5 to 8.1. More mature wired products still have advantages, even as users turn to wireless.

Belkin, which scored below average last year, ups its game to an average overall rating score and does better than average on ease of setup and likelihood to recommend. Scores for new Belkin routers improved significantly this year compared with scores for Belkin's new routers in 2004: Readers rated them easiest to set up (data not presented). Of the three companies that score below average on overall rating, 3Com isn't a major player in home router/gateways, Dell isn't actively involved, and Westell routers often come as part of a DSL service-and-installation package.

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