Apple Is Tops in Customer Satisfaction: Survey

NEW YORK ( TheStreet) -- Consumers aren't so thrilled with their computer purchases lately, according to a new report by the American Consumer Satisfaction Index.

Overall, PC makers dropped 1.3% from last year, coming in with a consumer satisfaction score of 79 -- a C-plus in some grading systems.

But Apple ( AAPL) came out at the top of the group and managed a one-point increase from last year. Toshiba and Hewlett Packard ( HPQ) also improved by one point.

Dell ( DELL) and Acer got dinged in their annual scores, however.

The 79 rating for the group isn't so bad, said David VanAmburg, ACSI's managing director. ACSI, which offers a ratings benchmark for various consumer products, grades on a curve.

"It doesn't mean manufacturers are making shoddy products," VanAmburg said. "Not at all. It means that when you've created something pretty neat, the next time around, (consumers) are going to expect something better. It's a trend in all high-tech industries, like TVs, smartphones, you name it. There are constantly rising expectations."

Top-satisfying brands in some industries tend to score in the mid 80s, as PepsiCo ( PEP) does. Very few reach the 90s. Heinz received a 91 in 2005, and Ford's ( F) Lincoln brand hit 90 last year. The lowest, the cable industry, hovers in the 60s.

Around 2,700 consumers were surveyed by the ACSI this spring about recent computer purchases and asked to rate a variety of factors on a scale of 1 to 100. Visual appeal scored the highest, at 86. Call center satisfaction was the lowest, at 70.

Apple, which consumers ranked as the most satisfying computer company, managed an 87. Second-place HP came in at 80. Dell dropped 2 points to 79, Toshiba increased a point to 78 and Acer, which owns brands like Gateway, fell 2 points to 77. Other computer and device brands, including Lenovo, Amazon's ( AMZN) Kindle, Samsung and ASUS, were lumped into the "All Others" group, which fell 4 points from last year to 76.

The falling numbers likely reflect a mediocre welcome to the past year's big computing events. Consumers gave a lackluster reception to Microsoft's ( MSFT) new Windows 8 operating system.

And although many reviewers loved the high-resolution screen on the iPad 3 released last fall, they recommended that consumers skip an upgrade if they already owned an iPad 2.

Intel ( INTC) introduced its faster fourth-generation chip, but that didn't start showing up in PCs until June, a few months after consumers were surveyed by ACSI.

"Generally, the lesson for manufacturers is to understand what consumers want and be aware that consumers have extremely high expectations of their products," VanAmburg said. "The bar is set high. It's more like they are victims to their own success and have to continuously innovate to be out in front of what consumers want next."

Apple has scored relatively well in the annual ACSI survey over the past decade, saying mostly in the 80s, although it did dip below 80 in 2007, the year Apple launched the first iPhone. In 2010, the year Apple released the first iPad, the company scored an 86. (Product introductions were likely revealed after consumers were surveyed each year.)

The company's high score speaks to its continued rise in computing. Apple used to have a tiny PC market share, but in the U.S. it now has an 11.5% market share, ranking third behind HP and Dell, according to market research firm IDC.

ACSI also included tablets in the survey, which likely helped Apple score high and help the overall PC device category to remain in the high 70s.

Tablets are expected to surpass the sales of PCs by the end of 2015, according to IDC. The four-year growth rate of tablet sales is forecast to hit 71% growth by 2017, compared to 8.7% for laptops and a decline of 8.4% for desktops, says IDC.

Another consumer-ratings company, J.D. Power and Associates, surveyed consumers for satisfaction on tablets earlier this year. It too put Apple at the top, with 824 points out of 1,000. Amazon Kindle came in second, at 829.

Interestingly, the J.D. Power study discovered that satisfaction rates increased if the consumer shared the tablet.

"When a tablet is only used by one person, overall satisfaction is 824 (on a 1,000-point scale), 28 points lower than when a tablet is shared by four or more persons (852)," J.D. Power said.

The ACSI says that higher satisfaction rates with a brand should help a shopper's buying decision. But the statistics aren't so straightforward in helping make a computer-buying decision. Although Apple ranks the highest, consumers who have been using Windows PCs still must decide whether it's worth switching to a completely new operating system, VanAmburg said.

But when it comes to comparing Windows PC makers, he added, "Certainly when comparing Dell to an Acer, those are the kinds of comparisons consumers can make (based on the ACSI report)."

Email Tamara Chuang at news@tamara.net

This article is commentary by an independent contributor, separate from TheStreet's regular news coverage.

Tamara Chuang is an outside contributor to TheStreet. Her opinions are her own.

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