Tech Support Showdown 2012
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Tech Support Showdown 2012

September 17, 2012 5:51 PM

Specs matter. Design matters. And the comfort of that keyboard matters. But all too often notebook shoppers overlook a very important aspect of picking the right laptop: the support you receive after you’ve handed over your cash.

Our Tech Support Showdown is designed to separate the companies that provide the best help from the ones that will make you wish you went with another brand. And this year’s results were a bit of a surprise.

For instance, during our evaluation of these nine brands, one company’s phone support proved to be little more than an engine for the representatives to try and sell warranties. Another brand changed its warranty policy to be less than a previously standard one.

To evaluate each company we went undercover on the phone and online to see which notebook-makers shined. We were particularly impressed with how some vendors are now being more proactive about researching user issues and especially how they’re leveraging Facebook and Twitter for customer support.

Read on to find out which brands stand above the rest.

How We Tested

Our goal was not to stump tech support, but to simply gauge the experience an average user might have during a routine tech support call. To test the knowledge, responsiveness and approachability of these nine companies’ tech support phone service, we asked three questions at three separate times.

We asked for tips on how to extend our laptop’s battery life and how to enable three-finger swiping on the touchpad. For Acer, whose test machine didn’t feature three-finger swipe (as all other brands did), we asked about four-finger swiping.

Our third question was tailored to each brand and the services or software that company offers. For instance, for the HP system we asked about optimizing sound for watching a movie by using Beats Audio. The speed, accuracy and friendliness of the representatives play into this half of a company’s tech support grade.

Because these days most people prefer to avoid the phone, we also explored each company’s website. Was it easy to navigate and well designed? Could we find answers to our questions? Did the company offer live chat and/or email assistance? And if so, could those services get us to answers? All these factors came into play when assigning a company’s Web grade.

As part of the online assessment, we also examined each notebook-maker’s social presence and responsiveness. While neither Facebook nor Twitter are part of a company’s warranty coverage, the average consumer is starting to expect some level of attention through these channels.

Acer

Acer Tech Support Results
Average Call Length 14 minutes and 41 second
Phone Grade 2012 C
Web Grade 2012 B
Overall Grade 2012 B-
Overall Grade 2011 C+
Overall Grade 2010 D+

support.acer.com
@AcerAmerica
866-695-2237 

Last year, Acer finished sixth out of eight, due in large part to inaccurate answers and a propensity to push the company’s paid support service, Answers by Acer. This year, Acer rolled out new teams. The Customer Insights Group actively monitors the retailer site’s comments sections to answer user questions directly. The higher-level Customer Experience Team uses analytics tools to scour users’ emails and chats to solve the most common customer complaints.

For our testing we asked how to set up AcerCloud software on an Aspire S5 Ultrabook, in addition to our standard battery life and multi-touch gesture questions. Unlike the rest of our test systems, the S5 doesn’t support three-finger scrolling, so we asked how to enable four-finger swiping. Note: We’ve rolled Gateway — owned by Acer — into this section.

Web & Social Networking

Acer’s support Web page lets you search for your specific system, ask a question via email, chat online or contact Acer’s free phone support. You also can access Answers by Acer, a fee-based support service. Customers can access how-to’s on software programs this way, but a single 15- to 20-minute session will cost you $19.99.

The Top Answers section of the S5 support page offered 14 pages of easy-to-understand answers, including help on improving our system’s battery life. But we couldn’t find anything about enabling four-finger swiping. Acer’s site also features a dedicated section on AcerCloud with straightforward directions. Finding that information, however, took us nine clicks.

We received an email response from Acer in about 4 hours. Unfortunately, Sathish couldn’t answer our AcerCloud question, because our warranty precluded such assistance. Instead she told us self-help articles could be found online, and she suggested we sign up for Answers by Acer. Our Web chat experience didn’t go much better. We were incorrectly told our S5 didn’t support four-finger swiping.

Acer’s Facebook page offers a host of frequently asked questions and answers. Clicking one took us to an appropriate Facebook post explaining how to fix our problems. After we tweeted our battery life question to @AcerAmerica, we received a helpful reply within an hour.

Phone

We called Acer’s tech support at 4 p.m. EST and spoke to Philip after a 2-minute wait. He asked us for our full name, phone number and email address, which he needed to create a case file before we could ask about setting up AcerCloud. During subsequent calls, each support technician continued to ask for our information, but did not reference this case file.

At first, Philip, who was slightly hard to understand due to his thick Indian accent, told us that Acer doesn’t provide how-to’s for users. However, after a 4-minute wait while he looked up information, he told us how to set up the software anyway. Our call lasted 11 minutes and 14 seconds.

During our second call, at 11:30 a.m., with Janet, who was significantly easier to understand, we asked how to improve our S5’s battery life. Janet put us on hold for 3 minutes to gather information. She said a few hours of life would be considered good endurance for our three-cell battery. During our review, however, we got 5 hours and 26 minutes of battery life. Janet then offered a few tips, including not multitasking while running on the laptop’s battery and completely discharging the battery before recharging it. It would have been better if she told us to adjust our display brightness and turn off the Wi-Fi radio when not using it. Our call lasted 5 minutes.

We made our final call to Acer at 2 p.m. After 2 minutes on hold, we asked Farajeed how to enable four-finger swiping. Following about 12 more minutes on hold, Farajeed escalated our call. Shane, who had a slight Southern accent, put us on hold for another 3 minutes before walking us through the process for switching on multi-gesture swiping on a Synaptics touchpad. When we informed Shane that our system came with an Elan touchpad, she told us to check Elan’s website for driver updates for the touchpad. She then incorrectly told us that the touchpad probably didn’t support four-finger swiping. In the end, our call lasted 27 minutes.

Verdict

On the whole, Acer’s technical support was helpful, but not without its flaws. The company has made huge strides in improving its social media responsiveness on Facebook and Twitter.

Both email and Web chat support personnel were quick and accurate as well. Phone support specialists were also generally responsive, but couldn’t answer our touchpad queries and offered little advice on improving the laptop’s battery performance. If Acer can improve its representatives’ knowledge base, the company will find itself closer to the top of our tech support rankings.

Apple

Apple Tech Support Results
Average Call Length 13 minutes
Phone Grade 2012 A
Web Grade 2012 B+
Overall Grade 2012 A-
Overall Grade 2011 A
Overall Grade 2010 A

apple.com/support
expresslane.apple.com
800-275-2273 

Each year that we conduct our tech support showdown, Apple bests the competition. This year it’s getting a run for its money from the likes of Samsung and Sony. The company’s secret weapon, Genius Bars, remain strong, offering reservations for face-to-face tech support. Plus, Express Lane remains one of the speediest and most effective methods for getting timely answers.

Unfortunately, another carry-over from previous years is the limited 90 days of phone support, unless you’re willing to pony up for AppleCare, Apple’s three-year computer protection program. AppleCare is $249 for the 11-inch MacBook Air and the 13-inch MacBook Air and MacBook Pro, and $349 for the 15-inch MacBook Pro. You can also pay a per-incident fee of $49.

For our testing, we asked Apple about three-finger swiping on the trackpad and extending battery life as well as “How can I share a file through AirDrop?”

Web & Social Networking

On Apple’s support site (www.apple.com/support), simple menus lead you to select increasingly specific parameters until you land at the correct support article. It took us about three minutes of trial-and-error clicking before we arrived at the appropriate articles for two questions. For our third query, we had to type AirDrop into the search bar before finding the correct result within the first three links.

Apple’s Express Lane service (expresslane.apple.com) lets you enter your machine’s serial number, and then helps pinpoint answers by exploring various menus. As customers progress through the options, Express Lane either proposes a help article as a solution or recommends that the user speak directly to one of its specialists. When confronted with this suggestion, users have the option to call Apple or have Apple call them.

Unfortunately, Apple doesn’t have an official Facebook or Twitter feed to answer user questions or complaints. Apple also doesn’t offer email or live online chat.

Phone

For our first phone call, we filled out a Web form asking Apple to call us at 5:31 p.m. EST on a Wednesday. When the call came we were greeted with a recorded message: “To speak with an adviser, press 1. To reschedule this call, press 2.” We pressed 1 and the voice informed us of a 5-minute estimated wait time.

In less time than that Michelle from Oregon cheerily introduced herself (she already knew our name). For the AirDrop question, she genially offered expert advice. At the end, Michelle offered to email us a step-by-step help article before reminding us we had 57 days left on our phone support. She also mentioned that we had 330 days left on our limited warranty, suggesting we buy an AppleCare Protection Plan. The entire call lasted 17 minutes and 29 seconds, and we spent less than 4 minutes on hold.

During our second call, with John in Phoenix, at 12:10 p.m. on a Thursday, we asked about three-finger swiping. He correctly directed us to the Trackpad options under System Preferences and had us make sure the gestures we wanted to activate were checked off. The call took a speedy 5 minutes and 4 seconds total.

For our third question — how to make our machine’s battery life longer — we were connected to an amiable-sounding Chris from Salt Lake City at 4:21 p.m. on Thursday. At the beginning of the call, Chris wrongly told us our phone support had run out. Apple’s voice-to-text translation of the serial number had gone awry. But before we gave him the correct serial number, Chris had already offered to point us toward the correct answer.

He suggested we use the F1 and F2 keys to adjust our screen brightness, go into System Preferences to tweak settings within our Mac’s Energy Saver function, turn off Wi-Fi and Bluetooth, disconnect peripheral devices and close apps and watch the battery status in the upper right corner of our display to make sure we had enough juice for our pending activities.

At the end of the call, which took 19 minutes and 24 seconds, Chris gave us a link to more in-depth information about Apple batteries from Apple’s support site.

Verdict

Apple’s technical support is still excellent. Online, Apple has amassed an almost dizzying amount of support articles, yet these are neatly filed away into clear and well-organized topics. While Apple’s phone reps didn’t always have the immediate answer on hand, they were always patient, cordial and determined to completely resolve our issues before we hung up the phone. And while Apple totally neglects social networking as a means to communicate with its customers, it uniquely offers in-store tech support from Apple Genius Bars across the country.

ASUS

ASUS Tech Support Results
Average Call Length 9 minutes and 33 seconds
Phone Grade 2012 C+
Web Grade 2012 B
Overall Grade 2012 B-
Overall Grade 2011 B-
Overall Grade 2010 B-

service.asus.com
@ASUSUSA
888-678-3688 

Since our last Tech Support Showdown, ASUS says it has made a number of improvements to its customer support. The company created a new Customer Loyalty Group, which works to provide users with technical support on such major forums as Android Central, AnandTech and XDA Developers.

ASUS’ new BrandAnswers program works with Best Buy and Walmart to offer site visitors easy access to questions and answers about individual ASUS products that have been provided by other users and, in some cases, ASUS itself.

Technical marketing personnel also have been hired to provide direct assistance to customers online. Other improvements include the addition of personnel to ASUS’ call centers, improved speech analytics, social media improvements and updated chat support software.

On top of asking how to enable three-finger flicks on our touchpad and if we could improve our system’s battery life, we asked ASUS how to set up Smart Logon on our Zenbook Prime UX31A.

Web & Social Networking

ASUS’ new technical support site offers a clean, easy-to-use design. The specific support page for the Zenbook Prime UX31A featured a series of options, including Knowledge where users will find a large database of frequently asked questions, technical documents and troubleshooting tips. While searching the site, we found information on all of our questions.

ASUS’ Web chat system proved hit or miss for us. We tried to initiate chats at least once on three separate days, and each time were met with a message telling us that all engineers were busy. On our fourth try, we waited for roughly an hour before we were connected with Kurtis. After asking how to improve our battery life, Kurtis told us to open the UX31A’s power management window. When we asked for specific suggestions for changes, he told us it depended on what we wanted to do. Kurtis didn’t offer us any further assistance without prompting. Throughout the conversation he repeatedly disappeared, at one point leaving us waiting inexplicably for 11 minutes.

ASUS promises to respond to email questions within 24 hours, and the company proved true to its word. In less than 12 hours, a support specialist provided accurate answers to our questions. But most impressive of all was the specialist’s decision to provide a complete user guide for setting up and using SmartLogon as an email attachment.

ASUS’ Facebook page features a Support section that leads users to a list of links for potential issues they may have, including Download, FAQ, Service Policy and Warranty Inquiry, Service Center, Technical Inquiry Form, ASUS On Line Service (aka Web chat), Hotlines and Escalation Mail Box. Clicking each link brings you to a corresponding page on ASUS’ website, making finding information on general topics a breeze.

When we posted our battery life question on ASUS’ Facebook Timeline, we received a helpful reply within 30 minutes. About 2 hours later, we received a second reply with more tips.

Conversely, tweeting at ASUS’ Twitter account proved to be a dead end. That’s the second year in a row ASUS didn’t reply to a question we sent via Twitter. Still, ASUS appears to be very active on Twitter.

Phone

On our first call to ASUS’ customer support at 5:30 p.m. EST we asked DeShane in the Caribbean how to set up SmartLogon. After asking for our Zenbook’s model number, DeShane explained that ASUS doesn’t usually provide users with how-to’s, but helped us anyway. In total, it took the ASUS rep about 15 minutes to help us.

For our second phone test, we called ASUS’ customer support at 3 p.m. and asked how to configure our UX31A’s clickpad’s multi-touch gestures. After asking for our model number, it took Laura, who had a Caribbean accent, just 3 minutes to tell us how to find our touchpad’s settings and enable three-finger swipe.

On our third call to ASUS at 5:30 p.m., we asked Roman how we could improve our laptop’s battery life. After putting us on hold for about 2 minutes, he told us to open our Zenbook’s Power4Gear power management feature and set it to battery saver mode. However, we were surprised he didn’t offer any additional tips, such as reducing the display brightness or turning off the wireless radio when not in use. Our call lasted about 10 minutes.

Verdict

ASUS has certainly made improvements to its customer support services over the past year, with updates to its phone and email support. Support via Facebook was also good, though Twitter was disappointing. Our biggest frustration was how difficult it was to reach someone through live chat. Overall, ASUS earns a solid B for 2012.

Dell

Dell Tech Support Results
Average Call Length 17 minutes
Phone Grade 2012 F
Web Grade 2012 B
Overall Grade 2012 C-
Overall Grade 2011 A-
Overall Grade 2010 B-

support.dell.com
@DellCares, @DellCaresPro, #DellSolves
facebook.com/Dell
866-930-3355
877-293-1197

Last year, Dell earned a very good second-place finish. Since then, among other features, the company has added a “highly skilled” team for people who have to call more than twice to get customer support, called S3R3. Customers can now request a factory-imaged key that automatically tries to repair OS problems when plugged into a laptop.

The company has also significantly beefed up its social efforts. For instance, the Dell social team started working with YouTube to create how-to videos for common technical issues. And the company started its @DellCares Twitter account.

To test these improvements, we asked how to use three-finger swiping, how to lengthen our notebook’s battery life and how to use Dell DataSafe.

Web & Social Networking

According to Dell, 80 percent of all technical support questions can be answered on support.dell.com, and we mostly believe it. We found pertinent information about Dell DataSafe using the search bar. And on battery life, we found tips in three clicks of drop-down menus. But on the third question — how to use three-finger swiping on our touchpad — we were unsuccessful in our search.

Using Dell’s Interactive Support Agent — a natural language wizard that processes questions — we asked “How do I enable three-finger swiping on my touchpad?” and had to clarify a few more details before the wizard suggested, “You are having trouble with multitouch gestures.”

We asked the same question using Dell’s live-chat feature. Paul slowly verified our system, service tag and other info. Then he advised us to install the touchpad driver, before pointing us to our manual. Our chat took 23 minutes. After disconnecting, we received a follow-up message with the transcript.

We posted our question about Dell DataSafe on the brand’s official Facebook page, and in 14 minutes, a representative responded, asking us to send a private message with the computer’s service tag and some more details about the issue.

After tweeting to @DellCares, we got a response 8 hours later with some basic information about Dell DataSafe and a link to a help article. We were asked to send a DM detailing the problem, which led to a helpful exchange.

Phone

Dell’s telephone support specialists require a lot of details before you can get help, including our system’s service tag number, our name, phone number, address and the date and place where our notebook was purchased. Then we ran into much bigger problems.

On our first call at 3 p.m. EST, Sakhi from India (where all of Dell’s representatives were based) answered our call with a curt tone. We asked about three-finger swiping, but he needed our details first. After 3 minutes on hold, Sakhi said our problem was a software issue, which requires a paid warranty before he could assist us. A one-time fee would run us $129, or a value-bundled plan would cover four major incidents for one year. Sakhi said we shouldn’t even take the time to think about accepting the offer. He offered us a manager-approved discount that would expire if we hung up. He then asked to arrange a callback. We weren’t sure whether Sakhi meant to sound abrasive or whether it was his accent. The call took 15 minutes and 20 seconds with no answers.

We asked about DataSafe on our second call, to Denzil, at 11:19 a.m. He also told us that software questions — even those about Dell-specific software — required a $239 software warranty. We demurred, and he asked us to speak to his manager, Raj. He explained the costs and features of DataSafe, but suggested we buy an external hard drive from Dell instead. He said this would ultimately cost us less. The call lasted 17 minutes and 48 seconds.

[MOREDell Responds to Support Sweepstakes Uproar: We Need to Get Better]

On our third call at 2 p.m., we asked Sherma about improving battery life. He only recommended we never let the battery’s charge drop below 40 or 50 percent and then announced we were one of three to win the chance to purchase a four-year extended hardware warranty. If we didn’t want the offer, he would give it to his next caller. When we declined, he became agitated and tried to sell us a software warranty, before suggesting we go online to resolve technical issues on our own. Our call lasted 5 minutes.

Verdict

Dell has retained its stellar response in terms of helpful online support on most channels, including live chat and social media. Too bad Dell’s phone service dropped off a cliff since last year. A new policy — excluding simple how-to questions from the standard hardware warranty — barred us from getting satisfactory service from the computer manufacturer’s phone support reps, who also tried to sell us new (and often pricey) services. The reps were downright pushy.

HP

HP Tech Support Results
Average Call Length 26 minutes
Phone Grade 2012 B+
Web Grade 2012 B-
Overall Grade 2012 B
Overall Grade 2011 B
Overall Grade 2010 B+

hp.com/us/en/support-drivers.html
@HPSupport
800-474-6836 (consumer);
800-334-5144 (business)

HP has worked to improve the company’s support since last year, adding a mobile version of its support website, ramping up phone and social support and building a YouTube presence, with more than 1,725 videos in 19 languages.

Our HP-specific question was about optimizing the Envy 6’s Beats Audio for movie playback, in addition to our questions about improving battery life and enabling three-finger swipes on the touchpad.

Web & Social Networking

There are three main categories for online support: Drives and Software; Product Support and Troubleshooting; and Support Communities. When we entered Envy 6 into the Product Support and Troubleshooting section, 10 Envy Sleekbook 6 models appeared as possible options.

When we found the model-specific page, it displayed a plethora of information, including links to manuals, how-to guides, software and driver downloads and getting started guides. We easily found information related to the trackpad and battery in the Solve A Problem section, but we never found any information about the best audio settings for movies.

We asked HP’s live chat support about optimizing audio playback for movies. In less than a minute, Aditya confirmed our device information and put us on hold for 6 minutes. When he returned, he asked us to open the Beats Audio software and sent us a link to Beats Audio Control Panel information. The images in the manual were different than our control panel, but Aditya correctly recommended we use either the voice- or music-optimized preset settings to adjust as needed for each movie. We chatted for a whopping 45 minutes.

We submitted our three-finger touchpad question to HP via email and received a helpful response a few hours later with a link to a document explaining three-finger swiping.

HP has many Twitter accounts. You want @HPSupport, which is run by a team of four “social media experts” instead of the single “social media ambassador” from last year. We received a response 4.5 hours later that linked us to the relevant page number in the manual.

There is a single Facebook page for HP, a big improvement over the pages of last year. Users can submit questions to the Support Forum directly through the Facebook page. We asked about enabling three-finger swiping, and received a helpful response — 33 hours later.

Phone

HP has two Tech Support numbers, one for Home & Home Office and one for Business use. Our late-night phone call was answered by Sherif after a 2 minute and 30 second wait. We gave our serial number and asked about enabling three-finger swiping. After a few minutes on hold, Desmond from the HP Concierge Support answered our call. He explained how to open the Synaptics Clickpad app, where there was a full explanation of all the multifinger gestures. In total, the call took 14 minutes.

Tom answered our 11 a.m. EST call from somewhere in the central United States after 5.5 minutes on hold. He collected our product and serial numbers before asking us about our issue. We asked for advice on extending our battery’s endurance, and were given a thorough explanation of battery-life killers, reviewing screen brightness, keyboard backlighting, Wi-Fi and USB peripherals. Tom then walked us through the HP Support Assistant application, where we were encouraged to perform a BIOS update.

Tom then explained extended warranty options and pricing, but didn’t pressure us when we said we weren’t interested at the moment. The phone call lasted a lengthy 40 minutes. We subsequently received two follow-up emails. The second email arrived 3 hours later, which included clarification about the Envy’s battery warranty coverage.

Our last call to HP support was at 2 p.m., and Robert answered our call within 4 minutes. We asked about optimizing audio for movie playback. After taking our product and serial number, we were placed on a 5-minute hold. When he returned, Robert delivered detailed instructions, allowing us to select preset settings for audio playback, including music, voice and 3D movies. The call lasted 25 minutes.

Verdict

HP has definitely expanded its customer service, boosting the company’s presence on channels such as Facebook, Twitter and YouTube.

The education surrounding the customer experience shows HP’s dedication not just to helping customers solve problems, but preventing them from occurring in the first place. Many customers, however, rely on the call centers for issue resolution, and we always got our questions answered.

Lenovo

Lenovo Tech Support Results
Average Call Length 12 minutes
Phone Grade 2012 A
Web Grade 2012 C
Overall Grade 2012 B
Overall Grade 2011 B+
Overall Grade 2010 B+

support.lenovo.com
@lenovoforums
 800-426-7378 (Thinkpad);
877-453-6686 (IdeaPad)

 Lenovo has averaged a B+ over the past three years and introduced big updates to its online support site last year. Since then, the company has made minor adjustments and tweaks only. For instance, Lenovo Virtual Assistant, a tool for filtering users’ questions into prepackaged answers, has been rebranded as Lenovo Assisted Search.

In addition to our questions on how to enable multitouch gestures and improve battery life, we asked Lenovo how to add a second user’s fingerprints to our ThinkPad X230.

Web & Social Networking

When first browsing support.lenovo.com, users must choose to identify their device by product number, auto-detect or search. The auto-detect feature only works with Internet Explorer, but was fast and easily recognized our notebook with the quick install of a Lenovo-supplied application. Search was also straight-forward, and we found the landing page for ThinkPad X230 support with ease.

We tried Lenovo Assisted Search, but found the answers either confusing or unrelated. First, we asked about adding a new user’s fingerprints to our machine and couldn’t find an answer. Asking about three-finger swiping was equally fruitless. We asked Assisted Search about lengthening our notebook’s battery life and were immediately asked if we wanted to enable “battery stretch.” Selecting “yes” brought us to helpful information, but we were a bit thrown off by the “battery stretch” terminology.

Lenovo has a presence on both Facebook and Twitter. We asked @lenovo about adding a new user’s fingerprints to our ThinkPad X230 and received a response less than 4 hours later telling us to direct our question to @lenovoforums. We sent the tweet to this forum Twitter account, and received a response three days later with a link to a video slideshow about the fingerprint scanner. After watching for 10 minutes, we got to the section on fingerprint enrollment.

We asked about enabling three-finger swiping using the support section of Lenovo’s Facebook page and received a response the next day by a support specialist named Hiro. Unfortunately, he confused three-finger swiping with the fingerprint reader. Luckily, another forum user going by the name of steady_yeti jumped in and helped.

Phone

Lenovo’s call center is located in Atlanta. We spoke to Hakeem around 3 p.m. EST. We asked him about enabling three-finger swiping, and he asked us for the four-digit machine type, which is located under the battery on the X230. With this information, we were put on hold for 2 minutes. When Hakeem returned, he guided us to the mouse settings and explained the multitouch gestures. The call lasted a total of 11 minutes.

On our next phone call to Serena at 10 p.m., we asked how to extend our ThinkPad’s battery life. She collected more information than our previous rep, including our phone number, address and whether the computer is company- or personally-owned. Then she put us on hold for 3 minutes. Upon Serena’s return, she helpfully took us step-by-step through changing a few power settings. The total call time was 12 minutes.

Tammy answered our last call (7 a.m.) within a minute. We asked her about adding a second user’s fingerprints to our ThinkPad X230. After collecting our machine type and serial number, she put us on a 2-minute hold while she investigated our question. When she returned to the call, she asked if she could remote into our computer, and we obliged. We entered a simple URL, submitted a six-digit code provided by our representative and installed the software.

Tammy had access to our computer in a little more than a minute, and immediately opened the ThinkVantage Fingerprint Software and explained that we could delete one of the 10 fingers we’d already scanned and enter the new user’s finger in its place. We mentioned that this option wasn’t ideal because we used our fingerprints to enter computer passwords as well, and asked about setting up a new user account. Tammy said that this was another option, but that the second user’s fingerprints would be invalid under the first account, and vice versa. We left the phone call understanding the steps needed to add an additional user’s fingerprints to our machine. The call lasted a little more than 13 minutes.

Verdict

Lenovo continues to offer efficient and helpful phone support and features a robust online support presence. However, the site can be difficult to navigate; we were unable to find answers to two of our questions. Lenovo’s social media channels provided mixed results. We wish Lenovo would add live chat support, but the phone support reps offered fast and accurate help.

Samsung

Samsung Tech Support Results
Average Call Length 6 minutes and 40 seconds
Phone Grade 2012 A-
Web Grade 2011 A-
Overall Grade 2011 A-
Overall Grade 2011 A-
Overall Grade 2010 C

samsung.com/us/support
@SamsungSupport
 800-726-7864

 Since we last tested Samsung’s tech support, the company has rolled out a number of improvements, including a new website design focused on usability, a new community section and improved monitoring of its social media channels. Samsung also claims that it has increased the knowledge base for its call center agents, as well as the size of its video help library. For our testing, we used a Series 7 Chronos and asked a Samsung-specific question about its Kies media library, as well as more general questions about the notebook’s touchpad and battery life.

Web & Social Networking

On the homepage, Samsung lists a number of ways to contact its support staff, including email and social networking addresses. Live Chat is clearly the preferred method of support, with separate links to start a Live Chat session for televisions, mobile phones, computers, washers and dryers, printers and general chat.

The homepage prompts visitors to enter the name or model number of their notebook in a search box displayed prominently in the center of the screen. Typing in part of the name or model number launches a handy drop-down menu that lists possible matches. The product pages to which you’re directed are robust and well-designed, featuring user manuals, a list of downloads (such as a Battery Life Extender application) and links for various support options (such as email, Live Chat and Twitter).

Below that are product support videos, a Community Q&A section and a list of frequently asked questions and how-to guides. Samsung even provides a dedicated search bar for its FAQs and How-Tos, a feature we found incredibly helpful. Using the search bar, we found how to enable three-finger swiping on the touchpad and how to use the Battery Extender and Battery Manager applications (although the tool didn’t provide any specific tips for how to extend our battery life). Unfortunately, we couldn’t find any explanation in the FAQ or user manual on how to import our music into Samsung’s Kies media library.

A Live Chat session with Shawn resulted in an incorrect answer. When asked how we could import music into Kies from a Sony VAIO, he informed us that Kies could only transfer content from one Samsung device to another.

We received a correct answer about Kies within hours of posting the question on the Samsung Facebook timeline. When we tweeted @SamsungSupport about our battery life question, a representative responded to our queries within 30 minutes, and Samsung pointed us to useful troubleshooting articles such as “How to Calibrate Your Battery” and “Multi-Finger Functionality.”

Phone

We had a much better experience with Samsung’s phone support than last year. When we called at 10:30 a.m. EST, we asked Sarah in South Carolina how to import music from an old computer into the Samsung Kies media player. Sarah correctly walked us through the process of putting our music on a flash drive, moving it onto our computer and then using Kies to automatically import the files. The call lasted less than 5 minutes.

We called again at 1 p.m. and connected with Adam in the Philippines. When we asked him how to enable three-finger swiping on our notebook’s touchpad, he first asked us to search for the touchpad using the search bar in the Start Menu. When that failed to produce any results, Adam told us to open up the touchpad properties in the Control Panel, without first explaining how to do that. It took significant prodding on our part to get him to explain, step-by-step, exactly which icons to select in the Control Panel to find the touchpad properties. Once there, however, the Samsung rep quickly pointed out how to enable the gesture, and we successfully concluded the call in less than 10 minutes.

During our call at 4 p.m. with Karen in South Carolina, we asked how to extend our notebook’s battery life. She suggested calibrating our battery in the notebook’s BIOS (the same solution offered by the Samsung representatives on Twitter). She also suggested turning down the brightness of the screen and running fewer programs simultaneously. The call lasted 7 minutes.

Verdict

While it’s hard to improve upon last year’s A-, Samsung certainly maintained excellent customer service this year. The support site is still as easy to navigate as before, and compared with other companies, Samsung makes excellent use of social media to solve customers’ problems. While our experiences with Live Chat proved less helpful than in 2011, the company’s phone support improved markedly, and Samsung’s representatives were as friendly as ever. Plus, we like that Samsung’s phone support is always free, even if your device is out of warranty. Add it all together and it’s easy to see why Samsung earns another impressive A- grade for 2012. 

Sony

Acer Tech Support Results
Average Call Length 16 minutes
Phone Grade 2012 A-
Web Grade 2012 A
Overall Grade 2012 A
Overall Grade 2011 B+
Overall Grade 2010 B

esupport.sony.com
@SonySupportUSA
888-476-6972
239-768-7669

Last year, Sony’s friendly phone representatives, excellent support site and quick turnaround times netted the company pretty high marks. It was only Sony’s near-complete lack of social media presence, however, that held it back, earning the company a solid B+. This year, the company aimed for, and achieved, gold.

Sony made a number of customer service improvements, including the creation of a dedicated social media team, an updated site design and an improved VAIO user forum.

For our testing, we used a Sony VAIO S Series 13-inch and asked about enabling webcam gesture controls, as well as more generic questions about our notebook’s touchpad and battery life.

Web & Social Networking

Sony’s support homepage is fairly well-designed. It contains info on everything from computers to car tech. In the middle of the page on the left side is a box where you can input your model number. At the bottom right of the page is a tiny box labeled Get Help, which features links for Support Forum, Chat Now, E-mail Us and Contact Us.

To get to the right product page for your specific system, you need to know your full product name and model; in our case, Sony VAIO S Series 13 (SVS13112FXW). Simply typing Sony VAIO S Series 13 doesn’t bring anything up except an error message.

Product pages are excellently designed, with a neat row of category tabs with lists of frequently asked questions and top solutions, as well as a search box that asks, “What are you looking for?” While we couldn’t immediately find a more comprehensive FAQ, the search box proved very helpful; it took us one or two tries to find solutions to all of our questions.

Clicking on the link labeled Contact Support takes you to a page listing the various methods of contacting Sony Technical Support, including online chats, email, phone and a support forum.

When we started a live chat session, Courtney came online within seconds. She proved immensely helpful in our attempts to get VAIO Gesture Control working, giving us step-by-step instructions on how to enable the feature as well as links to the necessary drivers.

Sony’s Twitter support proved equally helpful — unlike last year. When we tweeted @SonySupportUSA this year, we received a helpful and quick response within 15 minutes that included links to detailed solutions, such as a guide on how to enable three-finger swiping on the touchpad.

Sony finally added Facebook support this year. When we wrote on Sony’s wall asking how to extend our VAIO’s battery life, we received a friendly answer within 50 minutes that pointed us to a how-to guide on Sony’s support website.

Phone

Thankfully, Sony’s phone support is just as good this year. You can either call the toll-free number or the Priority Access number, which was faster for us. After navigating a short welcome menu, we were connected with a real person within 2 minutes. We found Sony’s staff uniformly friendly and helpful; they only asked for our VAIO’s model number, name and phone number.

When we made our first call at 10:30 a.m. EST, we asked Dexter in the Philippines how to enable the webcam gesture control on our VAIO. Dexter was very knowledgeable and patient, walking us through the process step by step. He successfully solved our problem in less than 10 minutes.

On our next call with Luis in the Philippines at 2 p.m., we asked about three-finger swiping. He first had us search for the touchpad using the Start menu. When that failed, he told us to open the Control Panel and click on the mouse icon. However, we weren’t seeing a Touchpad Settings tab as he suggested.

Although multitouch gestures can be enabled under the tab for Device Settings, Luis advised us to reinstall the touchpad driver. When we still weren’t able to find the tab for Touchpad Settings, Luis remotely accessed our system to turn it on himself. The call lasted 15 minutes.

We made our last call at 4:15 p.m. and spoke with Luis again. This time we asked him how to extend the life of our battery, and Luis offered a number of helpful suggestions such as charging the battery only to 80 percent, experimenting with the various power options and battery plans in Windows, lowering the brightness of the screen and using fewer programs simultaneously.

Verdict

One of our chief complaints last year was Sony’s failure to leverage social media to address customer issues, and the company has certainly improved both its Facebook and Twitter presences in 2012 — we were impressed with the speed and quality of the answers we received. Thanks to these improvements, and because Sony’s phone and chat representatives proved consistently friendly and helpful, we’re happy to increase the company’s grade to a solid A.

Toshiba

Toshiba Tech Support Results
Average Call Length 12 minutes
Phone Grade 2012 B-
Web Grade 2012 C-
Overall Grade 2012 C+
Overall Grade 2011 C+
Overall Grade 2010 B-

csd.toshiba.com
@ToshibaUS_Help
800-457-7777

Last year, Toshiba came in third-to-last with a C+. Although its online resources were extensive, we had to work to find answers. Plus, phone support reps answered one of our three questions incorrectly.

Aside from adding a new Twitter account, @ToshibaUS_Help, the company hasn’t done much to improve things. Borrowing an unfortunate page out of Apple’s book, Toshiba now offers 90 days of support, instead of one year. After that, help will cost you.

For this year’s test, we asked how to enable three-finger swiping on the touchpad, how to extend battery life and how to use Toshiba’s preloaded Face Recognition utility on the Portégé R835 notebook.

Web & Social Networking

Toshiba’s Product Support page is very well-organized. We found our specific model in three clicks. We were offered driver downloads, support bulletins, detailed specs, user’s guides, product tours and resource guides. We found helpful answers to our face recognition question, which referred us to the help file on our notebook.

We found no help in Forums, which was overwhelmingly filled with posts. Upon searching Extend under the generic Toshiba Batteries And Power section, we found several results.

When we used the Virtual Help Desk to ask “How do I extend my laptop’s battery life?,” we were given a list of eight options, but none of them told us how to extend our battery life. Toshiba doesn’t offer live chat support or email assistance.

We tweeted our three-finger swipe question to Toshiba and received a response within the hour asking us for more details. We went back and forth, but didn’t end up with a complete answer. After taking us to the Settings page that would allow us to enable three-finger flick if our notebook model had the capability, the customer service reps said that our model’s users’ guide “shows multitouch pinch to zoom but no reference to swiping.” Toshiba took us half of the way to our answer, but didn’t completely follow through.

We posted our face recognition question on Toshiba USA’s Facebook Timeline, but never received a response. The fact that the company’s Facebook page was littered with users’ unanswered questions and complaints about the company’s poor customer service didn’t inspire confidence.

Phone

On our first Toshiba support call a little before 11 a.m. EST, we navigated a robot phone tree, which asked for our serial number. The automated machine alerted us that because our notebook was purchased more than 90 days ago, we may be charged for customer service. Then John from the Philippines (where all Toshiba’s representatives we spoke to were located) answered. After asking him how to use Face Recognition, he briefly (but correctly) explained the utility’s purpose. When we asked him to walk us through the setup process, John said representatives don’t typically do that, but was happy to direct me to the online user’s manual. Our entire call lasted 13 minutes.

On a different day, we asked Electro how to extend our Portégé’s battery life. While he was very nice, he wasn’t helpful. During our 9-minute call, he explained that our notebook had a 300-cycle, which meant that for the first 300 charges it would charge to 100 percent. After that, it would only charge to 80 percent. However, he didn’t have any suggestions regarding steps to take to prolong endurance, even when we pressed him. He simply said there would soon be a software update that would help battery life.

On our last call in the early evening, we asked James how to enable three-finger swipe. After briefly putting us on hold, he guided us through the process correctly. We were up and running by the end of our 14-minute call.

Verdict

All in all, although our customer service reps were all friendly and delivered quick results, they didn’t always provide the depth of service we hoped for. For example, we wish John had guided us through the Face Recognition setup process. But talking to a representative was a bit better than attempting to fish for answers ourselves on Toshiba’s website.

After our experience with Toshiba’s Web and phone support, we came to the conclusion that the company hasn’t done much of anything to improve its grade from last year. Although the support site is very neatly organized, it only has the answers to basic user questions, such as how to use a common feature. Harder-to-define questions were unavailable and too hard to search for on Toshiba’s forums. The company’s Facebook presence is pretty much a joke. If Toshiba wants to improve its tech support, it has a lot to work on.

Overall Report Card

1st Place: Sony

In an upset, Sony tops this year’s Tech Support Showdown, unseating historic champion Apple. As the only company here with a solid A, Sony proves it cares about customer service. Putting Sony over the top this year were speedy and accurate answers via Facebook and Twitter, in addition to a helpful live chat feature. Add in friendly phone support and you have the best tech support available from a laptop-maker.

2nd Place: Apple & Samsung

Samsung held steady this year at A-, continuing to offer excellent assistance via Web, social media and phone. Apple dropped down a partial grade to an A-. Don’t get us wrong, Apple still offers helpful and polite tech support, but is lacking some features that other brands offer, including live chat support and help via Facebook or Twitter.