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Sony and yet so far

Not so long ago, anyone who suggested you buy a new PC from Sony would have got a very curious look from most people. Over the last couple of years, however, the people who gave the world the Walkman have moved increasingly into the mainstream of digital and communications technology.

They have recently added some very stylish desktop PCs to the existing range of Vaio notebooks. This is in addition to mobile phones, digital cameras and the Clie handheld PC.

I am a big fan of Sony&#39s products and am now on my third laptop in 18 months. I have a Sony mobile and my office has just acquired a Sony digital camera which enables us to insert photographs and brief video clips easily into electronic documents.

This can be achieved either by a direct cable connection between the camera and a laptop or simply by taking out the memory stick on which the camera saves the pictures and inserting it into a dedicated slot in my Sony Vaio laptop.

The memory stick can be used with an increasing range of Sony&#39s digital equipment, including MP3 players and even its latest mobile phones. The sticks are basically tiny hard drives which measure only a few centimetres and range in storage capacity from 8Mb to 128Mb. If anything, I feel they are almost too small. With the biggest capacity stick costing £164 but weighing only 4g, I have a certain fear of losing such a tiny device.

For those who have not bought a Sony PC, the company has created a memory stick holder in the shape of a standard 3.5in floppy disk or a PCMCIA card into which you can slip your memory stick to communicate with other computers. The former does have some limitation as to which computers it can work with but the latter has the necessary drivers installed.

In many ways, used in this format, the memory stick becomes similar to the Iomega pocket Zip drive I reviewed a couple of months ago. On the positive side, it does appear less delicate than the Iomega drive.

Generally, Sony products look beautiful, frequently attracting admiring glances and compliments. More important, they tend to be well built with a range of innovative features. My Vaio PCG-Z600HEK laptop is without doubt the best I have used in terms of its practicality. It is very lightweight, small – but not so small that the keyboard size becomes restrictive – with an extended-life battery which works for more than five hours without mains power.

So far, I have had no serious problems with it. This is just as well for, while Sony may design and manufacture magnificent equipment, in my experience its technical support leaves a great deal to be desired. Poor technical support is endemic within the computer hardware industry. Some of my experiences with Gateway have been unbelievable and my experiences with Dell over the last year or so have led me to believe its interest in providing any kind of service ends the minute it gets your credit card details.

The full extent of Sony&#39s failings when it comes to customer support came home to me when I was contacted by Mike Cahill of IFA Warren Financial Management. He had a broken hinge on his Vaio laptop but, while his local technical support had offered to obtain and fit the part – a job that would have taken a matter of minutes – Sony would not agree to this and insisted the machine be returned via its own courier at a cost of £92 including the repair.

I am told it took Sony 19 days to send the courier. The laptop was finally collected on July 9 and delivered and signed for at the Sony repair facility in France less than 24 hours later.

Originally, Cahill says he was told the repair should take five or six working days. Sony&#39s system allows users to track the repair over the web. When Cahill contacted me on July 31, he told me his laptop was in diagnostics. Apparently, after 16 days, Sony was still trying to work out what was wrong with a computer with a broken hinge.

Cahill told me he had sent 19 emails and received seven responses, all saying Sony would look into the problem and get back to him. This was in addition to many phone calls and faxes to customer services.

I contacted Sony&#39s PR department on August 1 saying a Money Marketing reader had contacted me. Suddenly, things started to happen. By August 8, Sony had left a message saying it had dispatched the repaired machine. Unfortunately, when Cahill returned from holiday on August 14, the machine had not in fact arrived. Cahill had to track it down himself to the courier&#39s location at Heathrow airport. It had not apparently been able to deliver it previously due to Sony having given an inadequate address.

Finally, after nearly two months, Cahill has his equipment back. Sony is apologetic and is not charging for the repair, which I feel is the least it can do. Cahill is particularly annoyed at Sony&#39s failure to deal with the matter in the time specified. Normally, his PC operates as part of a local area network. Given to believe he would be without a PC for just a few days, he was working on a stand-alone PC.

He says: “This has been a major inconvenience. I have had to back up all my data separately on a day-to-day basis and it has taken half a day to restore this. If Sony had told me it was going to take this long,I would have had the stand-alone PC added to my network.”

While I continue to be a great fan of the quality and design of Sony equipment, anyone considering buying one of its products should be aware of what they might have to put up with if things go wrong.

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