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Qualcomm Halo: Inside the tech of the world’s largest wireless car charging trial

Qualcomm’s trial scheme – in association with Renault and others – kicks off a two year project in London, UK, to see the feasibility and issues around wireless rather than traditional conductive charging. It’s based on Qualcomm’s Halo technology, which puts special inductive coils in both the road and the chassis underneath your car and, when the two line up, can fire across power with much the same efficiency as a regular cable might deliver.

Inductive systems of this sort aren’t new – in fact, industrial facilities have been using similar technology, running automated machinery around factory floors fueled by powerline tracks embedded in the concrete, for more than two decades now – but they’re yet to spread in any effective way from relatively closed systems.

London’s busy and convoluted streets are anything but a closed, controlled system, but that’s exactly why the city was selected by the Qualcomm-led project. It offers a mixture of road conditions, weather types, and usage scenarios, and a combination of sedans, taxis, vans, and other vehicles are expected to take part over the two year period.

Halo is a big step away from plugging in your EV (electric vehicle) to a mains electric point. Instead, you simply drive up to a power-embedded parking space and – being guided in, either by a dialog on the dashboard display or on your smartphone – roughly line up the coils in order for the electricity to start flowing. Early iterations only supported the sort of power you’d get from a slow, overnight charger – around the 3 KWh point, good for a full charge in around seven hours – but the technology now offers a 3hr charge with 7 KWh versions, and even a 1hr charge with the fastest 20 KWh standard.

Qualcomm Halo and Renault Fluence demo:

Unfortunately, the general public won’t be able to snap up a Halo-enabled car during the trial. Instead, they’ll be limited to select fleet users, including cab company Addison Lee, with a further cab deployment planned for sometime in 2014. In fact, the team behind the trial see cabs as being ideal customers for wireless charging, with each waiting period in a taxi rank the ideal opportunity to top up a battery. Initially, though, partner Chargemaster will be adding Halo to six of its London based privately-run “POLAR” EV charging locations, though the goal is to upgrade all 4,000+ points across the UK.

Nor will those with existing EVs be likely to see an upgrade. Qualcomm tells us that the cost of retrofitting Halo – as well as the regulatory and safety hurdles – means the relatively small userbase of current drivers isn’t really a target. Instead, the company is aiming for more widespread adoption with OEMs and upcoming models. It’ll also need to convince buyers to tick the EV box at the point of ordering; Renault says it is attempting to price its models at roughly the point of the diesel-powered equivalent, but there’s infrastructure required for the wireless charging pad if you want one for your garage at home, and you can’t simply plug Halo into a regular power socket. That’s currently along the line of roughly £2,500-3,000 ($4,000-4,800), not including the background infrastructure, though to be fair that’s roughly akin to a wired setup.

In the future, though, your Halo-equipped car may not even need to stand still in order to be recharged. Right now, fixed charging points make sense, from a cost-of-infrastructure standpoint as well as given that most cars sit unused overnight and for several hours during the day. However, Qualcomm also envisages a time when dynamic charging is used: Halo embedded in continuous strings along the roadway, with EVs constantly being powered as they drive over them.

Qualcomm Halo official video:

The first evidence of that is likely to be in FIA Formula E, the freshly-announced EV racing cousin to F1. Set to begin in May 2014, it will see new EV racetracks in ten cities across the world, with ten teams pitting their all-electric cars against each other. Right now, the plan is for a relay race setup of sorts – each team would have two cars, driving one for roughly 20 minutes, before leaving it in a pit-stop to recharge while a second car was driven for a further 20 minutes, and then finally returning to the first, “refueled” car for the final 20 minute dash – but the closed environment of a racetrack makes it ideal for dynamic installation.

And don’t doubt that EVs can deliver when it comes to high-speed performance. Drayson Racing Technologies showed us its B12/69 EV, a 200mph+ Le Mans style race car equipped with Halo charging and good for a 3.0 second 0-62mph sprint. The racing team used the B12/69 EV as a Halo testbed during the last Goodwood Festival of Speed, setting a new hill climb record back in July and relying solely on the Qualcomm system for recharging during the entire weekend. In fact, the EV version of the car out-performs its predecessor, which hid a 5.5-litre biofuel engine at the rear instead.

In the end, Halo is a play for a growing market: one where EVs are looked upon more favorably by governments and regulators than traditional gas-guzzlers; where the infrastructure and driver-awareness exists to support them; and where consideration for the environment matches enthusiasm for the independence of having a car. Qualcomm and its partners make a pretty convincing argument for the Halo system specifically, however.

Rather than rely on the sluggish improvement in battery efficiency, or trying to squeeze more batteries into a vehicle to increase range, Halo targets ease of use and ubiquity. By topping up your EV multiple times during the day – without having to fiddle with a power cable or in fact do anything more than park on a certain spot – you can extend your range while also trimming the number of heavy batteries you’re carrying. We’ll have to wait to see how the data crunches at the end of the trial to know if the reality matches the Halo hyperbole, but just as smartphone users are being told they should simply drop down their handsets to recharge, so one day might we just park-up to top-up our zero emissions car.

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How Smartphones Conquered The Tech World

The Mobile World Congress in Barcelona has become the most important technology trade show. And the reason is that smartphones have become the most important technology product.

While attending the show this week, it became obvious to me that even products that are not smartphones must become like smartphones — or must connect to smartphones — in order to stay relevant and survive.

I noticed that here at the show, a huge number of iPhone users were using and talking about Mailbox, a new email client currently available only for iPhones. And I’ve been using it myself.

What’s interesting about Mailbox is that it doesn’t add any capabilities to email. There’s nothing you can do with Mailbox that you can’t do with any desktop, tablet or other smartphone client.

What Mailbox represents is the first-ever purely multi-touch interface email client. Rather than being about folders and menus, Mailbox lets you do what would otherwise be multi-step processes with a single swipe in one direction or another.

Many users, including myself, are now choosing to process our email on our iPhones even when we’re sitting in front of a full PC.

One by one, applications on touch devices, especially smartphones, are becoming superior in usability to desktop alternatives.

It used to be that smartphones were an important category of technology because everyone has one and because they go with us everywhere.

But now, they’re also becoming superior because software designers are figuring out how to really use the multi-touch user interface, which is and should be superior in usability to the old-school PC user interfaces involving mice, keyboards, menus, folders and all the rest.

An early example of this is Apple’s own iPhoto for iOS. It’s theoretically the iOS version of Apple’s iPhoto for OS X. In reality, it works nothing like the desktop version at all. It’s better, at least for average users, and that superiority is the result of the multi-touch user interface.

Yesterday, Adobe demonstrated that it, too, understands the power of multi-touch by launching Photoshop Touch for iPhone and Android smartphones. For editing smartphone photos, some photographers will actually prefer this app to the full-sized and over-priced desktop version, which nowadays makes sense only for professionals.

How Smartphones Became the Computer for the Rest of Us

Just as Apple changed its named years ago from Apple Computer, Inc., to Apple, Inc. and changed its business from a mostly PC company to a mostly mobile company, so will the whole PC industry if they want to survive.

The leader in this trend beyond Apple is China’s Lenovo. The company says that it’s one of the few smartphone makers that’s profitable, and analysts expect the company to grow its market share in China this year to surpass Samsung and become the number-one smartphone vendor in China.

You’ll recall that Lenovo was a PC nobody until it bought IBM’s PC business in 2005. Lenovo was smart enough to get into PCs then and smart enough to focus on smartphones now.

I think this is the route to survival for every company that makes most of its money from PCs — become a smartphone company or die.

Nowadays, ordinary users don’t care that much about high-performance PCs. They’re looking for other factors, such as big screens for desktops or ultra-mobility for laptops.

Sure, PC gaming is on the rise again, and gamers care. A lot. Supergeeks and power users will always care. But ordinary users don’t care about PC performance as much as they used to.

Here at Mobile World Congress, the ultra-fast smartphones dominate the conversations. The smartphone is the new PC.

The fast-growing Chinese company Huawei (pronounced wah-way) blew away its Mobile World Congress audience by introducing the Huawei Ascend P2, which it claims is the fastest smartphone ever created.

Another darling of the show is the new HTC One, which that company rolled out with dozens of tethered units for attendees to fondle. Powered by a quad-core, 1.7GHz Qualcomm Snapdragon 600, the HTC One is another blistering-fast phone, which is one of its best selling points.

Inside The Shadowy Underground Of Korean Monitor Sales

If you’re in the market for a new high-definition desktop monitor, take note: You may be able to pick up a very good Korean-made display for far less money than what you’d spend on, say, an Asus, Dell, HP, or Samsung model. Sure, you’ll have to cope with odd product branding, limited functionality, and less-than-inspired product design; but if your primary concern is image quality, a Korean display purchased on eBay could be just the ticket.

On eBay I found numerous small Korean resellers offering 27-inch, 2560-by-1440-pixel monitors at fantastic, sub-$400 prices. And many of them listed high buyer satisfaction rates, which eBay buyers generate themselves.

You can find hoards of monitors with IPS 2560-by-1440 panels on eBay.

I was still skittish about buying a monitor from an overseas source: Even if a reseller’s customer support is excellent, shipping a defective monitor back to Korea isn’t a low-cost endeavor. Then I noticed that some of the resellers were offering “perfect pixel” guarantees. Those weren’t enhanced warranty exchange programs, however. Instead, “perfect pixel” meant that the reseller opened the box, connected the display, and visually inspected it; the reseller would ship only those monitors without hot or missing pixels.

So I decided to take the plunge. But whom to buy from? And which specific display should I choose?

Putting my money where my mouth is

When you search eBay for one of these Korean IPS displays, you won’t find familiar brands such as LG or Samsung. Instead you’ll be looking at something from Imon, Shimian, or Yamakasi. Yes, these are not household names.

Clearly, most of these items are actually private labels, because they’re all quite similar. I found some monitors that cost less than $300, but typically they were untested displays with a single DVI dual-link connector. Most of the least-expensive displays don’t support HDCP content protection, so if you should want to play Blu-ray movies or other protected content from set-top boxes, you may be out of luck.

You can find units with additional features, such as HDMI and DisplayPort support, but the costs then rise to a little over $400. Even then, you’ll encounter limitations. HDMI inputs, for example, may not support the higher-bandwidth HDMI 1.4a standard, so output resolution will be limited to 1920 by 1080 pixels when you connect the monitor via HDMI. Units with HDMI 1.4a support rise to almost $500.

All I wanted was another LCD monitor for a gaming system I have in my basement lab, so I didn’t really need bells and whistles such as HDMI connectors and built-in speakers. Eventually I settled on a Shimian QH270-Lite from a vendor called “ta_planet”. The net cost was $363.95, which included an extra $10 for the “perfect pixel” guarantee. That cost also included FedEx shipping from Korea. So all in all, I considered it a good deal. This is the 27-inch Shimian monitor I bought on eBay.

About an hour after placing the order, I received an eBay message from ta_planet telling me that the monitor was out of stock. But the message also said that ta_planet would be happy to ship an alternate display with built-in speakers at no extra charge, and with the “perfect pixel” guarantee intact.

I immediately filed this in my “too good to be true” mental folder. “Uh-oh,” I thought to myself. “Here it starts. I’m going to get a piece of junk.”

I thought about the problem for a few hours, and then responded to ta_planet via eBay messaging, accepting the offer. Within 10 minutes I received a response declaring, in effect, that ta_planet had received a new shipment of the QH270-Lites, and would be shipping one of those out to me per the original order.

My new monitor, in pictures (or, the $364 question)

A few days late, a fairly slim box arrived via FedEx. It came complete with weird stickers and customs documents. The Shimian QH270-Lite display seems fairly stock in other ways. The glossy surface is a little annoying, but, hey: $364! The controls are small buttons built into the right rear surface of the chassis. You can see the icon for the brightness (backlight) control. The two buttons adjacent to the sun icon dim or brighten the display. Out of the box, the screen is way too bright. Those other buttons? They do nothing. They’re probably there for higher-end versions of the display that have built-in hardware scaling. The back of the unit also has speaker grilles, even though this display has no speakers.

As expected, the display is DVI dual-link only. You must use dual-link to hit the bandwidth necessary for 2560 by 1440 resolution, anyway. A dual-link DVI cable was included in the package.

One key limitation of this $364 display is its stand—one of the worst I’ve seen on an LCD panel. It sits very low to the desk, and offers zero adjustments. Fortunately this stand—salvaged from an old, nonfunctional Gateway display—connected via a plate that attaches to the VESA mount. If I didn’t have this stand, I’d have to live with the crummy included stand, or spend $30 to $100 or so for a more ergonomic stand. Be sure to factor that into your cost estimate if you’re pricing one of these monitors. Some of the more expensive displays I saw on eBay seemed to come with better stands.

I made some interesting discoveries when I unboxed the monitor. It uses an external, switching power brick that can run in either 220-240V or 110-120V mode. As with most of these bricks, one end is a standard three-pin, capable of accepting most power cords. However, only a Korean power cord came in the box, so I had to dig up a standard cord with U.S. plugs.

No documentation or CD accompanied the monitor, but that didn’t surprise me much.

Bottom line: Fire it up!

Finally, it was time to stop scrutinizing the aesthetics of the display and actually use it. I connected the DL-DVI cable to a system running a Sandy Bridge Core i7 CPU and an Nvidia GTX 580 graphics card. I checked out all-white images and all-black images to see if the display had issues with individual pixels. Careful examination revealed no hot or missing pixels. The black image exhibited a small uniformity problem, though: In full black mode, the backlight in the lower right of the display was a touch brighter than the rest of the display. But it was hard to spot unless I was looking for it.

It lives!

I wouldn’t recommend this kind of monitor for intensive photography work or video editing. Although you can, in theory, calibrate the display, the backlight hotspot is probably a negative for any serious task. Also, since the display has no built-in hardware for scaling the video, you’re at the mercy of the graphics card and driver when it comes to video rendering quality. For instance, on my screen, HD video from Netflix streaming looked very soft, whether at 2560 by 1440 or 1920 by 1080.

You can spend up to $150 for additional features, such as video scaling and high-bandwidth HDMI. But my QH270-Lite has acquitted itself well as a standard desktop monitor, and it certainly handles games with aplomb. Maybe I was just lucky. Quite a few users have bought such displays from a variety of Korean resellers on eBay with good results. But others have received very poor displays, with plenty of dead pixels. It pays to research the vendors, and it’s worthwhile to hand over a few extra dollars for a perfect pixel guarantee.

Don’t want to take a chance on eBay and on Korean shipping? Some of these monitors are starting to show up at resellers in the United States. For example, Microcenter is offering a display labeled the Auria EQ276W for $399, and it seems quite similar to these Korean displays. You can also buy from Amazon resellers, though they tend to ship directly from Korea.

What this experience really illustrates is how international tech buying has become. In one sense, purchasing a Korean monitor is like buying a gray-market product. However, gray-market products are typically brand-name gear intended for overseas customers but sold into the United States instead, whereas these monitors are purely local Korean brands. If you do find one at a nearby source, you may get better support. Wherever you shop, be aware of the risks. If you can’t afford to lose $300 to $400, you might not want to take a chance.

Why Whatsapp Went Down In Most Parts Of The World

Due to this, sending messages, receiving messages as well as making voice and video calls were all not working. At the time of writing this, some parts of the world already had their problems fixed.

Even though they haven’t come out to address the public on this, WhatsApp engineers seems to be working urgently on this issue. At the time of writing this, messages were working just fine. But still not very stable as we are all used to. Some messages do go through, others delay a bit more than usual before you see the tick.

Why WhatsApp Went Down

Officially WhatsApp has not discussed the reason for the downtime. They are busily trying to get things working again as early as possible. Of course, they may address the issue, but they will not tell you the exact cause. So, we will discuss three possible reasons why WhatsApp went down.

1.Network Outages: The whole WhatsApp platform, our personal data such as messages, WhatsApp photos and videos as well as your contacts are all stored on servers. WhatsApp is an enormous platform, so you may have your contacts on one server and other data like pictures on another server.

But in the end, they look as if they are all in one place on your app. This is the power of networking. All the servers are connected through a network. So, they may work like one big computer but there are different computers working together.

Human Errors Could Also Be The Reason Why WhatsApp Went Down

2. Human Mistakes: In as much as servers are ran by software, they are entirely managed by humans. There are IT experts who make sure that everything running well at all times. In the tech world, they call them server managers.

In certain cases, a server manager may be running an upgrade, installing a new software or trying to fix a minor issue. All these could lead to downtime in servers.

There are other instances where the server managers are much aware that the server will go down during the software installation process too.

3. Hardware Failure: Servers are usually large and powerful computers that are meant to work 24 hours a day, 7 days a week and 365 days in a year. Simply put, a server must always run at all times.

The reason is that every server contains data that users can access remotely. So, a server is never turned off unless there is a very important reason to do so.

The question is, for how long a computer can keep running without developing one or two issue? There will definitely be a wear or tear somewhere along the line. When this happens, it will only mean one thing. The server goes down instantly.

The Hard drives that run in these servers can also crash along the line. This is why every server has backups. So that in case the drive crashes, they can easily recover all the data.

These Could Be Why WhatsApp Went Down

We don’t expect WhatsApp team to come out and tell the public that they had a network issue, or it was as a result of human error. But the next time any of your services or apps go down. It may probably may not be on intension from the side of the company. Neither is it a problem with your phone. Just know that one or two of the lists above could cause the downtime.

The Tech Brands You Can Trust

But how many of them are willing to spend the money it takes to ensure that their products hold up after the sale has been made, and to service the product if it breaks?

Those are important questions for customers to ask before they buy–and the key questions of our annual Reliability and Service Survey. Each year we survey thousands of our readers to find out which hardware manufacturers have the best–and worst–product reliability and customer service and support.

This year’s response was unprecedented: 79,000 of you rated the tech products you use. With such a large pool of survey data, we learned a great deal about the companies that make laptops, desktops, smartphones, HDTVs, cameras, and printers. Here’s the mile-high view of what we found.

–Put simply, products made by Apple, Asus, Brother, and Canon are typically reliable and well supported.

–Products made by Dell and Hewlett-Packard often aren’t, especially if you’re a home user.

–Laptops are slightly more reliable than before, and have fewer serious problems than desktops.

–Business PC customers are generally more satisfied than their consumer counterparts.

And there’s much, much more.

After you read this article, you may want to jump to PCWorld’s Facebook page, where readers can add their own stories of product reliability and vendor service.

Winners and Losers

Apple once again smoked the competition in the desktop, notebook, and smartphone categories, winning high praise from customers in all reliability and service categories. The Macintosh and iPhone maker did so well that virtually all its scores were above average. Apple’s only average scores were related to the company’s deftness at replacing failed notebook components, and in two areas pertaining to serious problems with the iPhone, the latter perhaps stemming from the iPhone 4’s well-publicized antenna issue that resulted in dropped calls for some users.

Asus did well in ratings among both desktop and laptop owners, though it is best known in North America for its low-cost netbooks. These mini-notebooks have often been the target of derision over the past two years, with critics calling them cheaply made and hard to use. While some netbooks may fit that description, our readers say that Asus portables are, in general, highly reliable.

Canon, which like Apple, is a perennial favorite of PCWorld readers, again rocked the printer and camera categories. It’s not alone at the top, however. In our survey, Panasonic has surpassed Canon in camera reliability, and Brother is gaining popularity among printer users.

Panasonic, the biggest proponent of plasma HDTVs in a market increasingly dominated by LCD models, has a slight edge over LG and Sony. And smartphone users, in addition to praising the iPhone, are particularly happy with Verizon Wireless cell service and with handsets built by HTC. Research In Motion’s BlackBerry phones, however, get low marks for ease of use.

Dell and HP, two of the tech industry’s largest hardware manufacturers, disappointed us this year, particularly in desktops and laptops for home use and (in HP’s case) printers. (We address these two companies’ dismal showings below.)

Overall, it’s clear that many reliability and service problems persist, including defective components that fail out of the box, as well as poorly trained customer service representatives who are incapable of departing from a script.

Golden Apple

Can Apple do no wrong? Indeed, 2010 was a remarkable year for the world’s highest-valued tech company. In addition to unveiling the iPad, a touchscreen tablet that launched a new genre of mobile computing devices, Apple enjoyed record sales and profits. And now it’s won the trifecta by smoking the competition in our reader poll.

IDC computer analyst Bob O’Donnell attributes Apple’s popularity to the company’s stylish, well-made computers and its easy-to-use operating system. “It’s a combination of having high-quality hardware–you pay a premium for it–and a software experience that’s more straightforward,” he says. “And if you have fewer questions, you typically have fewer problems.”

Apple is very good at offering extras too. “You have things like the Genius Bar at all the Apple stores. People literally walk in with their systems, and the [support] guy sits there and says, ‘Oh, yeah, you’ve got to do this, this, and this,’” O’Donnell adds. “It gives you a warm, fuzzy feeling: ‘They’re taking care of me.’ Nobody has anything close to that on the PC side.”

Asus Ascends

The impressive showing by Asus caught our attention as well. This Taiwan-based manufacturer sells an assortment of desktops, such as its all-in-one EeeTop models, and full-size notebooks. But its Eee PC family of mini-notebooks “pioneered the whole netbook concept,” according to ABI Research, and remains the company’s claim to fame, at least in North America.

Our survey doesn’t distinguish between netbooks and laptops, but industry analysts say that any distinction between those categories is irrelevant where reliability is concerned. According to ABI Research analyst Jeff Orr, “Netbooks are made by the same vendors on the same assembly lines as laptop computers. I am not seeing any significant quality differences between netbooks and laptops that use comparable materials. One could argue that lower-cost materials are being substituted, but again this is not being seen.”

Asus shipped 396,000 portable PCs in the United States in the third quarter of 2010, and 201,000 of those were netbooks, according to technology industry research firm IDC. Netbooks may get a bad rap as shoddily built machines, but our survey results suggest this isn’t the case–at least not with Asus gear.

Dell and HP: No More Excuses

Combined, Dell and HP ship nearly half of all PCs sold in the U.S. According to tech industry research firm IDC, HP had just over 24 percent of the American PC market and Dell owned 23 percent in the third quarter of 2010. (Apple and Acer placed a distant third and fourth, each holding 10-plus percent.)

Year after year, readers proclaim HP one of the biggest losers in our Reliability and Service Survey. In 2004, for instance, HP and its Compaq brand were rated last in desktops, and next to last in notebooks and digital cameras. (HP did well that year in printers, however.) The company improved in 2005, earning average grades overall, but then fizzled again in 2007, 2008, and 2009.

Dell’s scorecard has varied over the years, but recent trends are troubling. Its second-to-last laptop ranking in 2009 (only HP did worse) shows a marked decline from 2004 and 2005.

Making Bank on Mediocre?

Although Dell lost $4 million on its consumer business in the first half of 2010, the company made a total profit of $886 million during that time (that’s 16 percent more than it made in the same period last year). Dell’s lines for small and medium-size businesses accounted for much of its total profits: $636 million, a 34 percent increase from the first half of 2009.

Over at HP, the company’s Personal Systems Group–which includes desktop and notebook PCs, workstations, and handheld devices–saw a year-over-year earnings increase of 18 percent to $1.46 billion for the nine-month period ending July 31, 2010, according to an HP filing with the Securities and Exchange Commission. The company’s Imaging and Printing Group, which sells HP’s home printers, had a 1.66 percent earnings boost to $3.19 billion in the same period.

Meanwhile, several of Dell and HP’s smaller competitors have maintained high survey scores year after year, despite competing in the same cutthroat markets as the Big Two. Asus and Toshiba, which duke it out with Dell and HP in the ultracompetitive Windows laptop market, earned high marks from our readers this year.

That raises the question: If Dell and HP have a profitable business model–one that has enabled them to control half of the U.S. PC market–are they sufficiently motivated to improve their support operations?

They should be. PC and peripheral manufacturers sell in a crowded market, and a customer with an unpleasant support experience is soon a former customer.

HP officials we spoke with expressed surprise at its poor showing in PCWorld’s Reliability and Service Survey. The company has shown improvement recently in similar surveys, they say, including one from the American Customer Satisfaction Index, a University of Michigan business school study based on customer evaluations of the quality of goods and services bought in the United States.

“We’re not happy until all of our customers are happy,” says HP customer service executive Cliff Wagner. “There’s clearly a lot of work that we’re continuing to do, and a lot of investments that we’re doing.”

Those investments include two new customer service and technical support centers in Conway, Arkansas, and Rio Rancho, New Mexico, Wagner says, although both facilities won’t be fully staffed for at least two more years.

“We have not lost our focus on making sure that we’re building customers for life,” adds Jodi Schilling, vice president of HP customer support in North America. “We’re continuing to make investments, not only in the support experience but also in product development.”

If there’s a glimmer of hope for HP, it’s that users who bought machines within the last 12 months were much happier with the company’s support of home desktops and notebooks. (Our one-year chart includes only survey respondents who have bought a PC or printer in the last 12 months.)

It’s possible that HP’s service and support operation devotes more resources to newer customers, resulting in higher satisfaction levels for this group.

Dell’s 12-month results show little change, with home desktops and laptops that aren’t particularly reliable, but with printers that are. Dell business laptops did get higher reliability grades on the one-year chart, but not enough to boost Dell’s standing vis-à-vis the competition.

This year we separated Dell and HP business and home users in the laptop, desktop, and printer categories, in order to compare the satisfaction levels of the vendors’ corporate and consumer customers. For a discussion of the results, see “2010 Reliability and Service: Laptops and Desktops.”

It Takes Only One Frustrating Incident

IDC’s O’Donnell points out that the home market is a challenge to support. But home users aren’t simpletons either, and their frustrations are often born from bad support experiences rather than from self-inflicted slip-ups.

Dan Keller, a medical journalist in Glenside, Pennsylvania, bought an HP Pavilion desktop about three years ago. The CD drive faceplate arrived broken, and HP has yet to replace it, despite his many go-rounds with customer support, he says.

“It wasn’t a run-of-the-mill problem, and they said, ‘That part doesn’t exist,’” Keller says with a laugh. “I said, ‘Well, you’re putting them on computers, they have to exist.’”

Despite the unresolved faceplate issue, Keller’s desktop runs fine. But the frustrating support incident, combined with the poor keyboard layout and other design quirks of an HP laptop he bought recently from Costco (he has since returned it), has soured him on the vendor. “At this point, with two goofy machines, I think I would shy away from HP again,” he says.

Survey Methodology

It’s important to note that our survey results don’t necessarily represent the opinions of a given company’s customers as a whole. And because our data comes only from PCWorld readers who chose to take the survey, our results don’t necessarily reflect the opinions of PCWorld readers in general.

What the Measures Mean

PCWorld readers rated hardware vendors in six product categories: desktops; notebooks; cameras; HDTVs; printers; and smartphones. Each category (excluding smartphones) had 5 to 9 measurements, each ranking a vendor relative to its competitors. In each measure, we determined whether the vendor’s score was significantly better (s), not significantly different (u), or significantly worse (t) than the average of its peers.

The five reliability measures spotlighted problems with such things as failed components (e.g., a notebook hard drive) or problems that occurred right away or “out of the box.” Among those measurements are two that score our respondents’ overall satisfaction with their vendors’ hardware reliability and customer support.

If a vendor received fewer than 50 responses in a subsection, we discarded the results as statistically insignificant. This threshold prevented us from rating some smaller companies. The measurements in our smartphones category were a bit more comprehensive. We rated smartphone makers using on four reliability measurements and five ease-of-use measurements. For the wireless carriers that sell the smartphones, we measured five different aspects of their customer support, as well as two aspects of their network performance – wireless internet service quality and voice call quality.

Reliability Measures

Problems on arrival (all devices): Based on the percentage of survey respondents who reported any problem with the device out of the box.

Any significant problem (all devices): Based on the percentage of survey respondents who reported any problem at all during the product’s lifetime.

Any failed component replaced (laptop and desktop PCs): Based on the percentage of survey respondents who reported replacing one or more original components because the components had failed.

Core component problem (laptop and desktop PCs): Based on the percentage of survey respondents who reported problems with the processor, motherboard, power supply, hard drive, system memory, or graphics board/chip at any time during the life of their laptop or desktop PC.

Severe problem (HDTVs, phones, cameras, and printers): Based on the percentage of survey respondents who reported a problem that rendered their device impossible to use.

Ease of use (HDTVs, phones, cameras, and printers): Based on the percentage of survey respondents who rated their device as extremely or very easy to use.

Overall satisfaction with reliability (all devices): Based on the owner’s overall satisfaction with the reliability of the device.

Service Measures

Phone hold time: Based on the average time a product’s owners waited on hold to speak to a phone support representative.

Average phone service rating: Based on a cumulative score derived from product owners’ ratings of several aspects of their experience in phoning the company’s technical support service. Among the factors considered were whether the information was easy to understand, and whether the support rep spoke clearly and knowledgeably.

In-person service rating (phones only): Based on a cumulative score derived from phone owners’ ratings of several aspects of technical support received at a service provider’s retail location. Among the factors considered were the ease of getting a representative’s attention in the store, and the knowledge, fairness, and attitude of the rep..

Problem was never resolved: Based on the percentage of survey respondents who said the problem remained after they contacted the company’s support service.

Service experience: Based on a cumulative score derived from product owners’ responses to a series of questions focusing on 11 specific aspects of their experience with the company’s service department.

Archive Gallery: The World Wars’ Most Formidable Warships

By 1933, World War II was well underway so naval experts busied themselves by coming up with better combat technology. Engineers planned that the H.M.S. Gotland, a Swedish cruiser, would come equipped with a canvas landing strip for seaplanes. While kept afloat by pontoons the landing field would pick up seaplanes while the cruiser was moving at full speed. A rotating catapult on the deck would be capable of launching planes in any direction. Alas, the canvas landing field never caught on, and seaplanes aboard the Gotland suffered damage caused by wave turbulence. In 1944, the cruiser was converted into an anti-aircraft cruisers. After the war, the Swedish military used her as a training center. Read the full story in “Canvas Landing Field for Seaplanes”.

For as long as ships have been around, naval powers have competed for supremacy on the seas. After the steam engine’s invention in the 19th century, warship design underwent a major upheaval, culminating in an arms race for the best battleships and cruisers. Some of these ships went on to become famed World War I and II icons. Others never made it past the blueprint stage. You’ll find that when it comes to naval warfare, the Popular Science archives favor both the formidable and the funny speculations, as long as they contribute to a bright (Allied) future.

World War I was the era of Dreadnoughts, or big-gun battle ships powered by steam turbines. During the interwar period, Great Britain and Germany emerged as the two leading contenders for naval supremacy. Even though the Treaty of Versailles limited Germany’s navy to a series of minor, weight-controlled ships, German engineers still managed to release a few deceptively lightweight vessels into Allied waters. Their heavily-armed pocket battleships changed history while serving during the Second World War, but for other projects, like Germany’s proposed submarine cruiser, the time simply wasn’t right.

Just because a ship didn’t make headlines doesn’t mean it couldn’t capture our imaginations. The interwar and postwar periods led us to wonder what the next great conflict would look like. Could we merge battleships and submarines? Could we design supercarriers capable of holding jet bombers? Two decades before the Navy promoted aircraft carriers to capital ship of the fleet, engineers experimented with a converted tanker that could dock airships in mid-flight. Italy, still years away from becoming a major Axis power, released plans for a semi-submersible equipped with 18-inch guns and a superstructure coated in cork.

Union Square’s U.S.S. Recruit: August 1917

During World War I, the US Navy commissioned a land-based dreadnought battleship as a recruiting and training center for the New York city district. Located in Manhattan’s Union Square and christened the U.S.S. Recruit, or the Landship Recruit, this fully rigged battleship accommodated 39 bluejacket guards from the Newport Training Station under the command of Acting Captain C.F. Pierce. Every day, crew members would live as though they were at sea: the would do laundry, clean the deck, attend classes, and stand guard. Meanwhile, regular citizens would tour the ship to improve their understanding of life aboard a warship. As you can see from the left, the U.S.S. recruit contained waiting rooms, doctor’s offices, shower rooms, and even a ventilating device to regulate temperature. As far as weaponry goes, the ship used several wooden models of guns to represent rifles and naval guns. The New York Times reported that the Navy recruited 25,000 men through the ship. After the War, the Recruit was decommissioned and dismantled for a planned relocation to Coney Island, but to this day, no one knows what fate befell it. Read the full story in “The ‘Recruit’ — Our Only Land Battleship”

From Gunboat to Cargo Boat: November 1920

Gunboats are a warship used for carrying guns to assist in coastal combat. During the first World War, the Kilmore served as a gunboat for the Royal Navy, and afterward, she was converted into a cargo ship capable of holding 570 tons of cargo at a speed of ten knots. The image at the top left shows the Kilmore in her original form while the image below shows the modifications. During wartime, the Kilmore’s stern-shaped bow made it difficult for enemy fleets to tell whether she was coming or going. As a cargo ship, she had a reduced deck with a mast where the false stern use to be. The project was such a hit that a similar conversion was planned for seven other ships in her class. Read the full story in “A Gunboat in War–A Merchantman in Peace”

Catching Airships: November 1924

The interwar period is characterized by social turmoil and political unrest. To prepare for the Second World War, the Navy conducted maneuvers for testing the usefulness of airships in maritime combat. They fashioned ships such as the converted tanker Patoka, pictured left, with mooring masts capable of steering an airship to safety. After completing a successful maneuver with Patoka, the airship Shenandoah was assigned a place in the Pacific Fleet. Read the full story in “Airship Takes Its Place on Battle Lines at Sea”

Submarine Cruiser: September 1925

In 1925, experts claimed that warships were going out of style, but tension between Great Britain and Germany was still strong as ever. Although the Treaty of Versailles limited the latter’s navy to a small amount of surface ships, they exploited the treaty’s loopholes by building vessels that were deceivingly small. For instance, the Admiral Graf Spee got around the 10,000-ton, 11-inch gun limit by using weight-saving techniques like electric arc welding. Prior to the Admiral Graf Spee‘s completion, however, a German naval architect designed a giant submarine cruiser, which appears considerably smaller than the era’s conventional battleships. Sailing nearby is the H.M.S. Nelson, Great Britain’ 30,000 ton, 16-inch gun battleship. Read the full story in “Marvels of Marine Invention”

Giant Guns for the HMS Nelson: December 1925

Speaking of the H.M.S. Nelson, here’s a picture of her impressive weaponry. Nine 16-inch guns mounted on three turrets, in addition to a secondary section of 6-inch guns, gave the Nelson and her sister ship Rodney the world’s most powerful armament of any battleship. The guns’ location forward of the ship’s superstructure also made the Nelson class of ships distinctive in form. Rumor has it that shortly after the release of Disney’s Snow White, the guns were nicknamed after Mickey Mouse, Minnie Mouse and the seven dwarves. During World War II, Nelson served in the Mediterranean, Atlantic, and Indian Oceans before being decommissioned in 1949. Read the full story in “Huge Guns for England’s Newest Battleship”

Italy’s Indestructible Semisubmersible: August 1926

Fold-Out Landing Field: January 1933

By 1933, World War II was well underway so naval experts busied themselves by coming up with better combat technology. Engineers planned that the H.M.S. Gotland, a Swedish cruiser, would come equipped with a canvas landing strip for seaplanes. While kept afloat by pontoons the landing field would pick up seaplanes while the cruiser was moving at full speed. A rotating catapult on the deck would be capable of launching planes in any direction. Alas, the canvas landing field never caught on, and seaplanes aboard the Gotland suffered damage caused by wave turbulence. In 1944, the cruiser was converted into an anti-aircraft cruisers. After the war, the Swedish military used her as a training center. Read the full story in “Canvas Landing Field for Seaplanes”

The Future of Naval Warfare: July 1938

When it comes to combat, bigger isn’t always better. A year before World War II began, we predicted that future war machines would become smaller to allow for accurate control. For instance, electrically-powered one-man submarines lowered from battleships would let someone fire a deadly missile at close range. Also, forget aircraft carriers, the future would be all about torpedo warfare on the high seas. Guided by radio control and manned by built-in motors, the torpedoes would cause havoc by landing directly onto an enemy warship. Read the full story in “War Machines Go Midget”

The Uncertain Fate of Battleships: April 1943

By World War II, it was clear that battleships were in a period of decline. Despite their role in guarding important convoys and their big guns, battleships were vulnerable to smaller weapons, like mines. Moreoever, they could not operate within range of enemy airbases and coast-defense guns. The prominence of airplanes at sea had rendered battleships into slow, expensive torpedo targets. Just a year before the last battleship launched, however, we made a case for the powerful old vessels. Torpedoes causing problems? Battleships used the heaviest armor out of any class of warships. Battleship design had adapted to aerial warfare by increasing antiaircraft fire power, or sky guns capable of hitting dive bombers with 400 quarter-pound shells a minute. Finally, since a battleship never travels alone, it will unlikely be completely open to attack. Read the full story in “Why Do We Keep on Building Battleships?”

Inside a Battleship: October 1943

In the end, the aircraft carrier proved too powerful. Battleships went out of service and many were converted into museums. The last two were removed from the U.S. Naval Vessels Register in 2006. Although we’ll never see a battleship in service again, and many of us will never make it out to one of the preserved models, this meticulously illustrated diagram should gives you a fairly thorough understanding of battleship design. Read the full story in “How a Battleship Works”

Supercarriers of the Future: January 1949

No, aircraft carriers of the future won’t house suburban neighborhoods, but according to our post-war predictions, supercarriers would one day grow large enough to hold 21 seven-room houses, including backyards, on their hangar decks. Almost immediately after the war, the Navy contemplated redesigning aircraft carriers to accommodate jet planes, which they believed could only get bigger. Their dream supercarrier would have a flight deck more than 1000 feet long. In comparison, the Midway was only 932 feet long and had obstructions that would hinder the paths of jet planes. Supercarriers of the future would use huge stern elevators to lift planes for launching, while escalators would carry crewman to the runways. Read the full story in “Why the Navy Wants Supercarriers”

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