Apple today again captured top honors in Consumer Reports' tech support ratings survey, besting other computer makers by a wide margin.

According to the consumer advocacy magazine, Apple turned in a score of 86 - out of a possible 100 - based on ratings provided by over 6,313 owners of some 7,571 desktop and notebook personal computers who contacted technical support in the 12 months following January 2012.

The nearest OEM (original equipment manufacturer) rival was Chinese PC maker Lenovo, which scored 63, or 23 points lower than Apple. Other prominent OEMs that showed in the survey included Asus (which scored 62), Dell (60), Toshiba (59), Hewlett-Packard (58) and Acer (51).

Local computer shops which assemble build-to-order PCs for customers - so-called "white box" shops - took second place overall in technical support with an aggregate score of 78.

Apple also dominated the ratings for the percentage of problems solved by calls to telephone support or interactions with the OEMs' online support offerings, said Consumer Reports.

Of those who turned to Apple for help, 82% said that their problem had been solved to their satisfaction, significantly higher than the white box shops, with a 71% solution rate, and dramatically higher than rivals who sell and support Windows-powered PCs.

Just over half -- 54% -- of the Lenovo PC owners said that their issue had been resolved by the company's phone or online technical support, while Acer customers were even more unhappy: Only 37% of them reported a solution.

Dell, while placing behind Lenovo and Asus on the overall ratings, did the best job of any Windows PC OEM in revolving technical problems; 61% of the Dell owners who reached out for assistance said the firm's support had solved whatever glitch they reported. Even Dell, however, was no match for Apple. The latter solved 34% more of its technical questions than did the Round Rock, Texas PC maker that's trying to go private.

Apple also aced the in-store technical support ratings battle, scoring another 86 out of a possible 100 for its free "Genius Bar" tech help. Of the Apple customers who posed a problem to a Genius, 88% said their problem had been solved.

But the Cupertino, Calif. company's victory there was narrower than in the phone-online support survey: Independent computer retailers scored 81, and resolved 87% of their customers' problems, according to the magazine.

Staple's EasyTech and Best Buy's Geek Squad, the only other in-store technical support outlets in the results, came in third and fourth, respectively, with total scores of 71 and 69, and problem-resolution rates of 73% and 71%.

The in-store ratings were obtained from approximately 3,500 U.S. computer owners who had taken their machines, or at least their questions, to a retail store.

Consumer Reports took the bulk of PC industry -- the OEMs that focus on selling Windows-based machines -- to task. "Clearly, there's room for improvement in tech support: 24% to 40% of respondents who sought phone or online help from makers of Windows-based computers said the staff's patience, knowledge, or clarity was fair at best," the magazine said on its website.

That's not good news for companies struggling under a landslide of negative indicators and bad news, ranging from decreasing profit margins and lack of interest in Microsoft's newest, Windows 8, to slumping sales, which in the first three months of 2013, were down between 11% and 14% by estimates of analysts at Gartner and IDC.

Apple has not been immune to many of the same problems. Last week it reported Mac sales were down 2% in the first quarter compared to the same period a year earlier.

Gregg Keizer covers Microsoft, security issues, Apple, Web browsers and general technology breaking news for Computerworld. Follow Gregg on Twitter at @gkeizer, or subscribe to Gregg's RSS feed . His e-mail address is gkeizer@ix.netcom.com.

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