Apple's computers are the most reliable and its support the most dependable of all computer makers selling in the US, a national chain of computer service shops said today. This is the second year running that the vendor has won the accolade.

Apple's Macs beat machines sold and supported by Panasonic, Lenovo, Toshiba and HP, according to Rescuecom.'s third annual reliability report. Apple, which took the top spot last year, more than doubled its score from 2007 and again trounced the competition, this year posting a score 43 percent higher than next-best Panasonic.

Rescuecom comes up with its scores by comparing the percentage of each vendor's support calls with its US market share, said Rescuecom CEO David Milman. The greater the difference between the two, the higher the score. Apple, for instance, received its record-setting score of 700 because Macs made up only 1.1 percent of all calls to Rescuecom, even though its estimated market share was 7.8 percent for the year.

Apple's 2008 score soared because as its market share increased - from 5 percent last year to the 7.8 percent in 2008 - the percentage of Mac-related calls to Rescuecom actually dropped, from 2007's 1.4 percent to this year's 1.1 percent.

"Apple has a very strong game in this market," said Milman. "This year it's like last year, but even more so. The combination of its online support, and the support at local stores, has been a big winner for Apple."

Key to Apple's success, he argued, is the support the company provides at its retail stores. "Apple is essentially giving away support," said Milman, referring to the free consultations any Mac owner can schedule with tech support personnel at Apple's brick-and-mortar stores. "That's a great way to neutralise Windows' [dominant] place in the market. Even though Apple claims Macs are easy to use, to a long-time Windows user, switching might be a daunting task."

Panasonic, which placed second on Rescuecom's list with a score of 489, and Toshiba, in fourth place with 299, are both new to the company's top five list. The pair surged past rivals by boosting their US market share while continuing to account for low percentages of support calls.

"Laptops are getting sturdier," Milman maintained, "and the move toward laptops and away from desktops has helped some laptop providers." Both Panasonic and Toshiba are best known in the US for their laptops.

Some laptop makers, however, fared poorly. Sony, for example, placed seventh on Rescuecom's list with a score of 114. "Its US share grew 31 percent last year, but its share of the repair calls grew at a similar pace," said Milman. "Sony's laptops are built more on elegance and aesthetics rather than reliability."

Dell fell off Rescuecom's list for the first time, even though it improved its score, from 2007's 94 to this year's 129. "It's not that Dell dropped, but that some very strong players, like Panasonic and Toshiba, came in," Milman said. "Dell's problem was that it didn't improve as much as [its] competitors." Two years ago, Dell was in fourth place, while last year it came in fifth.

Lenovo, which was second last year, slipped to third place in 2008. Like Dell, Lenovo's score improved, in large part because it lost 10 percent of its market share during the year. "It's no surprise, since the marketing engine for the company is no longer IBM," said Milman. "But they kept their reliability strong."

Milman also noted that Windows Vista -related calls have dropped off. "Vista has gotten a lot more reliable, with its patches and the service pack. [2008] didn't have the rush of calls we got when Vista first came out," he said.

"And I expect that the new release of Windows will embed all those improvements, so it should be reliable, too," Milman added, talking about Windows 7 , the in-development successor to Vista.

Netbooks, the small, low-priced laptops that are gaining share as consumers increasingly look for bargains, are also starting to show on Rescuecom's radar. "When people call up and find out that it will take between $88 and $100 to fix [a netbook], they'll say 'But I only paid $400 for it'," Milman said. "If you buy a cheap machine, expect it to perform as a cheap machine."

Some netbook sellers are at an additional disadvantage, in that they don't have a support infrastructure that can compete with the likes of Apple, HP or Dell, Milman added.