How the tablet is saving the PC

October 22, 2012: 6:41 AM ET

Higher consumer satisfaction with PCs is largely being driven by tablets.

By Peter Suciu, contributor

FORTUNE -- Consumer satisfaction with PCs reached an all-time high last month. The American Customer Satisfaction Index reported that customer satisfaction with computers reached a score of 80, breaking the former high of 78.

Not bad, considering traditional PCs are being supplemented by tablets, super-light laptops, and other emerging gadgets. Thing is, the improvement is driven in part by tablets, which consumers seem to enjoy using. A lot. As that segment of the computing market has grown overall customer satisfaction with the PC industry as a whole has picked up.

This shift has been particularly notable for Apple (AAPL). The company's market share has grown since the introduction of iPad tablets. Apple remained on the top of the satisfaction list in 2012, ranking 86 out of 100. This is actually down from the previous year, possibly the result of a rise in satisfaction for Windows-based PCs and rival tablets. "Apple has had a higher satisfaction level with its products," says Stephen Baker, vice president of industry analysis at NPD Group.

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Apple isn't alone in getting a boost in the ACSI ratings. Hewlett-Packard (HPQ) and Acer both made small gains and each attained scores of 79. These increases come even as those companies have seen shipments of computers fall in Q2 of 2012, with HP shipments down 13% and Acer down 14%. Dell (DELL) came in with a score of 79, up 5 points from last year. These numbers come as Dell's total PC shipments dropped 10% in the second quarter compared with a year prior. Toshiba made its debut on the list with a score of 77, while its saw a 20% fall in its U.S. PC shipments.

Even the aggregate of smaller manufacturers, in which ACSI includes Samsung and Amazon (AMZN), has increased the overall customer satisfaction ratings. This group of smaller players saw a 4% increase in 2011 to 80, while its shipments increased by 12%.

Much of the satisfaction continues to be driven by the fact that computers have just gotten easier to use and more reliable. "The ratings and the quality of the machines very much goes hand in hand," says David VanAmburg, managing director of the American Customer Satisfaction Index. "We've measured how customer complaints and customer care calls have really been on the decline. Fewer people noted that they had a recent interaction with customer care and that suggests those kinds of issues are less prevalent."

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The size of the devices on the laptop side has also been seen as a factor in increased satisfaction. Today's laptops are not only thinner and lighter but more powerful. "Laptops are going through a revolution of their own," VanAmburg told Fortune. "This has made the laptops far more attractive than they were 10 years ago."

Of course, this computing power and smaller form factor are also driving sales of tablets, which consumers are finding easy to use right out of the box. "The device delivered to the consumer is the ultimate in plug and play," said Rhoda Alexander, senior manager for monitors and tablets at IHS iSuppli. "It is easy to pick up and start using immediately. It is a device that is user-friendly, and it is geared toward pulling the user into the experience and that's very different from what we've seen historically."

Tablets are not entirely replacing PCs. They are being used as ancillary devices to the traditional desktops and laptops to watch videos, check email and play games. They remain consumption rather than creation devices. Productivity tasks, in contrast, are still the domain of traditional PCs. "There aren't a lot of people who are just using tablets," Baker emphasizes.

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