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RETURN ON TECHNOLOGY: Laptop deal-breaker depends on reliability

September 4, 2006

I've been scanning laptop buyer's guides lately, and I have to say that many magazine test labs seem utterly out of touch with business users. They extol the big screens, fast multimedia and other capabilities business users just don't care about. They act as if weight is a big factor for those of us who have to cart our hightech symbiotes around with us, but laptops long ago dropped below that critical barrier. Hewlett-Packard had a little notebook unit in 1994 that weighed barely a pound, called the HP-200LX. Most laptops today are only a few pounds at worst.

No, weight is not a deal-breaker for me. My criterion is a simple one: When I open the case and push the button,

the thing had better work. I'll give up almost anything else to get reliability.

Not that I ignore other things. A new laptop today must have a built-in wireless modem, a mighty big hard drive, and a CD/DVD burner so I can easily back up files to media that have become as cheap as driveway gravel.

And as much as I hate to admit it, I even admire certain case styles more than IBM (now Lenovo) black others. The case looks dreary to me, as if IBM designers were channeling the spirit of Henry Ford who was said to offer any color the buyer wanted, as long as it was black. Dell and Apple, among others, have much sleeker cases in modernistic colors.

But while I'm affected by the industrial design of the case, I'm not seduced by it. It could look like a nightclub bathroom floor on Sunday morning for all I care, as long as it worked every single time I opened it.

That's a tall order for any laptop. They're failure-prone by their very nature. They pack a lot into a small space, and as the power of the electronics inside rises, so does the heat, a computer's most formidable foe. And break down they do, with depressing regularity. Techworld.com, citing Gartner Group findings, says that laptops fail a lot more often than desktop units.

It used to be that screens and hinges were the most breakable parts, but now it seems to be the motherboards and hard drives, which is no surprise (see heating problem, above). But it's hard to get figures on reliability, because manufacturers don't like to talk about it. Consequently, we have to rely on anecdotes and surveys, although those are often of questionable worth.

The reliability of the Apple Macintosh laptop has been the subject of several surveys. Anecdotal discussions about Mac reliability are polarized into opinions of "wonderful" and "lousy," at least partly because successive models are often extensively redesigned and therefore prone to new-model shakeout.

The recent survey by MacInTouch (www.macintouch.com), for example, found that the average first-year failure rate of a Macintosh notebook was about 20 percent, but that included teethingpain repairs for new designs. Notebooks are big for Apple, accounting for roughly half its total computer sales.

PC World magazine (www.pcworld.com) polled 35,000 readers about their satisfaction with their laptops and, except for Lenovo and Apple, readers gave every other manufacturer on the list, all 11 of them, ratings that put them all in a formless, undistinguished, morass of unrelieved "average" evaluations. That is, except for Compaq, which suffered from a reliability that was "worse than average."

Dell, whose famously detonating batteries make it seem like the high-tech version of the Ford Pinto, nonetheless fell squarely into this churning crowd of mediocrity. My own experience must be atypical: I've had a Dell that worked perfectly, and a Lenovo whose keyboard went on permanent vacation.

In a sense, it's actually encouraging that most brands generate an overall rating of "average." It means the whole industry is applying what it's learned about making laptops last. It means that, on the whole, no one brand has a monopoly on quality. Even Dell's infamous burning batteries appear to be extremely rare, and got media attention only because the pictures of fried laptops were so compelling. The fact is, a great many laptops have fricasseed their innards, but the damage wasn't visible to the naked eye.

So which brand is most reliable? Overall, Lenovo and Apple seem to have the most owner loyalty, so that must count for something. But the difference between them and the next layer down appears to be small and getting smaller all the time. Apparently, the case emblem is no longer a good indicator of reliability, so buy what you like and keep a small fund handy for the cost of shipping back to the factory.



Altom is a senior business consultant for Perficient Consulting. His column appears every other week. He can be reached at timaltom@sbcglobal.net.
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