Making sense of our reliability survey

Back when I worked for our sister publication, PC World, we used to run an annual survey of our readers, in which we asked them to rate their PCs for reliability and their PC vendors for service.

That survey made sense in the PC world: There were multiple, competing vendors, and it was good for readers to know which ones delivered the most reliable machines and the best service. But in the Mac world, there’s just one hardware vendor. There are no competitors to compare. So why did we do a reliability and satisfaction survey for our June 2007 issue ?

For one thing, Mac users do have several alternatives when it comes to getting their Macs serviced: Apple stores, authorized service providers, the smart guy down the hall. It’d be good to know which one is best.

For another, we see a lot of anecdotal reports about Mac problems—from yellowing wrist-rests to exploding batteries—and wanted to find out just how prevalent those problems really are.

But, to be honest, I had another, private reason for wanting to do this story: To attack the stereotype of the “Mac fan.”

I hear that phrase a lot from my brethren on the Windows side of the world, and it grates on my nerves. To me, it implies mindless loyalty and irrational exuberance. No, I argue to anyone who dares use the phrase, Mac buyers aren’t “fans.” They’re rational users who’ve made rational decisions about the kind of computer and operating system they want to use, and they’ve chosen the Mac. But to be honest, I didn’t have any proof of that argument beyond the anecdotal. I wanted to see some numbers that’d support (or undercut) my argument.

For those and several other reasons, we commissioned pollster Neil Karlin to ask Macworld readers about the computers they use primarily at home and at work. How satisfied are they with those machines? How many problems have they had with them? How bad were those problems? How did they get them fixed? How pleased were they with the results?

When we first got the results of our service-and-reliability survey of Macworld readers, two numbers jumped out at me immediately—and, frankly, made me a little nervous about my Mac-users-are-rational argument.

First number: When we asked those readers to rate their satisfaction with their primary computers (mostly, but not all, Macs), 85 percent of Macs were rated a 9 or 10 out of 10. (By comparison, among those readers whose primary computer is a Windows PC (mostly used at work), only 15 percent of those PCs merited a 9 or 10.)

Second number: About a quarter of the Macs in use by survey respondents had a problem at some point—not a passing glitch, but something serious enough to put those machines out of commission for at least a day.

So, roughly 25 percent of those machines had a problem, yet 85 percent of them rate a 9 or 10 for satisfaction. Does that make sense? After looking at the numbers more closely, I think it does.

For one thing, many of the Macs that had problems were bought four, five, even six years ago. I don’t think it’s surprising that computer components that old occasionally go south.

More importantly, when those problems did arise, they were fixed quickly and well. Whether they took their ailing Macs to local Apple Stores or another local Apple service provider (or shipped them to Apple) for service, survey respondents whose Macs had problems said they were extremely satisfied with the promptness and thoroughness of the service they received.

Those numbers make sense to me. What about you? Give our survey a read—or look at the PDF containing the highlights —and let me know what you think in our comments thread below.

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