The PC Pro Excellence Awards 2014
The PC Pro Excellence Awards are our honours for the best tech prodects and services of the year, from consumer goods such as laptops and tablets, all the way through to busines equipment like servers. These awards go to the most outstanding examples of design, reliability and value for money, nominated by you and chosen by us.
How the awards are decided
We couldn’t do the awards without our readers, with 8,337 of them rating products and services they’d bought for everything from reliability to value. We used the results to generate percentage scores for each category: if everyone was very satisfied, a company would score 100%; if all were dissatisfied, 0%. The Products of the Year were nominated by readers and voted on by the PC Pro editorial team.
- Best Broadband ISP 2014
- Best Mobile Data Provider 2014
- Best Laptop 2014
- Best Desktop PC 2014
- Best Printer 2014
- Best Tablet 2014
- Best NAS Device 2014
- Best Wireless Router 2014
- Best Smartphone 2014
- Best Monitor 2014
- Best Camera 2014
- Best Online Retailer 2014
- Best Web Host 2014
- Best Cloud Storage 2014
- Products of the Year 2014
Best Broadband ISP 2014
Winner: Zen Internet
Zen Internet, pat yourself on the back and have a biscuit: you’ve picked up your 11th consecutive Excellence Award for the best broadband provider in the UK. The Rochdale-based ISP, which has batted aside big players such as BT and Virgin Media for more than a decade, even managed to improve on last year’s stellar scores. This year, it topped rivals by a solid 10% overall, and by even more of a spread in key categories such as customer support and reliability.
Those two areas are Zen’s strongest: it picked up an almost-perfect score of 97% for customer support, more than double the worst-rated in the category, Orange, and well above the rest of its competitors. Only BT-owned Plusnet comes close. “I couldn’t rate the support and service from Zen highly enough,” notes one Birmingham-based user. “They’re the only ISP I would recommend now.” Zen was just as strong for reliability, with its 97% score also well above rivals. Can you imagine your children coming home with such glowing grades? It would be milkshakes all around.
Zen also wins on value for money – more on that below – and takes home the top score for speed. The company’s customers clearly love it: no wonder then that the vast majority would buy from Zen again, with Jonathan Duggan-Keen describing the ISP as “faultless”. Jules Williamson-Cotton has used Zen for nine years and “cannot recommend them enough,” saying she wishes “all companies were like Zen… the world’s best ISP for sure!” Now that’s how to build a broadband business.
Highly Commended: Plusnet
As ever, Plusnet is the bridesmaid rather than the bride, again coming in second to Zen. It remains an achievement: nine out of ten customers would buy from Plusnet again, with customers praising its customer service. Mike Stayman’s comment sums up the sentiment nicely: “Plusnet never treats customers like idiots.”
Plusnet came close to beating Zen on value for money, an area in which it won praise from customers. “Great value. I constantly check other ISPs and none can yet compete with the packages from Plusnet,” says Scott Kelly from East Kilbride.
Others warned that prices have recently increased, so Plusnet will need to be careful to keep costs down. “I’ve just dropped Plusnet after being with them for more than 15 years, because they became too expensive for what I was getting,” says Mark Wallis. “I was sad to leave Plusnet, but I don’t like being ripped off.”
Those looking for budget broadband may also want to consider TalkTalk. Its budget focus continues to win a solid Value for Money score of 74%, despite posting less rosy results in the other categories.
The Big Players: BT and Virgin
Who else could challenge Zen for the top spot? Virgin’s speed ranking continues to improve; no surprise given its recent speed boosts, which bumped its lowest-tier 30Mbits/sec lines to 50Mbits/sec for no added cost. It has also improved its customer support and reliability – if that trend continues, Zen could have another challenger to its crown. “I would factor in the availability of Virgin Media cable broadband into any house-purchasing decisions I made,” says Colin Ashdown, currently based in Peterborough. “I’d be highly unlikely to move into an area where it wasn’t available.”
BT has had a disappointing year in our Excellence Awards. Its Value for Money ranking slipped despite the arrival of BT Sport, which offers subscribers free football matches on television, and its Speed score also fell despite constant investment -although to be fair, BT’s coverage was frequently praised.
The major complaint was service: BT is below the curve on customer support, barely managing a passing grade – “appalling” and “terrible” were words that frequently came up in the comments. “BT customer service is shocking,” said Chris Dimond. “Shame as
their hardware and service is good.”
The complaints weren’t only from BT customers: those with other ISPs are often angry they have to deal with BT’s Openreach infrastructure arm. However, that could well be set to change: Openreach is in new hands, with CEO Joe Garner promising a renewed focus on customer service, plus Ofcom is forcing it to speed up how quickly engineers address faults. We look forward to seeing the results of those efforts in next year’s survey.
Best Mobile Data Provider 2014
Winner: Tesco Mobile
Highly Commended: GiffGaff
Virtual networks again rule the roost when it comes to mobile operators – but this time, the little guy has been pipped by the massive retailer from whom you buy bananas and milk, with giffgaff losing last year’s first-place ranking to Tesco Mobile by a tiny margin.
Three of the top four providers in our survey were mobile virtual network operators (MVNOs) – companies that sell services using the infrastructure of the big four operators – suggesting the likes of EE, Vodafone and O2 are well aware of how to run a network, but not so clued up on how to please their customers.
Tesco Mobile leapt five points overall from last year, while giffgaff gained a point. Both were neck and neck in terms of reliability and speed – which makes sense, since both use O2’s network, although O2 was a full ten points behind for each category.
Our Highly Commended award went to Giffgaff after they claimed top spot for the Value for Money category and for the high number of customers who would buy again from the MVNO. “I absolutely love giffgaff. I wouldn’t use another provider again,” says Kate Brown. Virgin Media, which uses T-Mobile’s network, was tripped up by its customer service, as was the only mobile operator to score higher than a virtual network, Three.
With solid scores in all the other categories, Three needs only to improve its customer service to have a shot at the top spot. Voters were especially enamoured with the “Feel At Home” service, which means you don’t pay roaming charges in a wide selection of countries. “Three’s Feel At Home has saved me a fortune, and really allowed me to use my mobile anywhere,” says Lee Clarke.
EE, the joint venture between Orange and T-Mobile, held the middle of the chart, with solid scores for reliability and speed – as one would expect from a 4G network. It fell down on customer service and value for money. The latter should come as no surprise given the premium EE was originally charging for 4G, but prices have come down as rivals have entered the market.
Some users weren’t convinced that the shift from T-Mobile and Orange to EE has been of benefit. “T-Mobile was excellent at customer service and support,” says
Peter Reynolds. “EE just wants to sell data. They’re not particularly informed about the phones they sell.”
Of the big providers, O2 had the best-ranked customer service with a 70% score, but tripped up on speeds and prices. Dan Archard sums it up nicely: “Never had a problem with O2: coverage is good and speed is acceptable. Has a bit of a price to it.”
Some customers are still using an Orange-badged service, but the bad news for them is that the company slid four points to the bottom of the rankings, with the worst rating for customer service. Indeed, aside from O2, the rest of the big mobile operators need to invest in their support staff and systems; it’s a major weak spot that’s letting virtual networks woo away their customers.
Best Laptop 2014
Highly Commended: Samsung
It’s clear from reader comments why Apple is again the winner of our Laptops award: top-notch customer service, great build quality and good-looking products. “This was my first Apple product,” said Dr Fiona Wright. “Now I’m hooked for life.” Many comments reiterated that although the products were expensive, the quality was reflected in the end result: “Apple equals quality,” writes Phil Keeling. “You pay for it certainly, but you get what you expect.”
Samsung’s star continues to rise, with the company’s laptops earning a Highly Commended for the first time in our Excellence Awards. Such a shame, then, that it has announced it will withdraw from the European laptop market (including Chromebooks).
This leaves the way open for newcomers, and we’d highlight two Taiwanese companies in particular: Asus and MSI. Both have broken away from their motherboard roots to create compelling laptop brands. “Asus has always been reliable when it comes to good build quality and the right mix of features for a reasonable cost,” says Rick Lewis, while Ganesa Murthi Jothimayam praises his MSI machine: “A well-designed laptop, which is also future-proof. A total package.”
Best Desktop PC 2014
Highly Commended: PC Specialist
We’re always pleased to see British companies perform well for customer service, and the desktop PC sector can be very proud: the only international brand to make our top six is Apple.
Tanya Taylor’s experience seems typical of Chillblast’s approach. “I had trouble with the graphics card when [my PC] arrived. Chillblast took my word and promptly replaced it… very helpful.”
And PC Specialist should award customer of the year to David Beal. “I have bought four PCs from PC Specialist, plus five for family presents. I haven’t been let down yet.”
If you’re looking for a big name, Lenovo wins out over HP, Dell and Acer in our readers’ experience. Lenovo gained an 83% Overall score, with 90.5% of its customers happy to buy from the company again.
Best Printer 2014
Highly Commended: Samsung
When it comes to printers, what people care about – in the home and office – are speed, quality, reliability and running costs. Many manufacturers opt for the razor cost model (loss-making razor, money-making blades) when selling inkjets, which definitely affects people’s perception for running costs. This is why laser specialists tend to do best in this category. But it isn’t the only reason.
“It’s the best printer I’ve owned – I’ve previously had Epson, HP and Lexmark printers and had problems with the network reliability,” says Alex Thornicroft of his Brother. Rowan Ramsey is similarly impressed: “An excellent-value budget laser printer that came without the usual package of bloatware.”
Samsung takes its familiar place near the top of the satisfaction charts, with Darren Smith saying: “I’m a big fan of Samsung laser printers.”
Best Tablet 2014
Highly Commended: Sony
Over the past year, the “tablets will take over the world!” hysteria has died down, but Apple continues to rule the roost in this market. Since the tablet category was introduced three years ago, Apple has won the award every year.
Jon Souter’s take is, we suspect, typical of many PC Pro readers: “Seen by many as a toy, I have found that my iPad has become one of my most important work tools, especially for planning and research, leaving my main PC screen free for productive work.”
Perhaps the iPad’s continued success is no surprise, but it should look over its shoulder, because Sony’s Xperia range is gathering momentum. Last year, we didn’t even get enough votes for the company’s tablets for it to be rated (we require feedback from at least 50 buyers for a brand to qualify in a category). This year, however, it grabs second place.
“The Sony Xperia Z2 Tablet oozes quality,” purrs one owner, who preferred to remain anonymous. “I can’t fault it.” Samuel Claxton summarises his Xperia joy in word: “Waterproof!”
Microsoft is another new name to the tablet category, with solid all-round scores. “Very pleased with my Surface 2,” says Nat Harper. “Excellent build quality and a great partner to Windows 8.1/8.”