The reliability test: How to know what PC products to buy

Issue November 2004 By Reid Goldsborough

Your computer is working now. Will it work tomorrow? What about the next PC you buy? Will it be a reliable workhorse, or a lemon?

One of the most pressing issues regarding computers is reliability. Nearly a quarter century after the introduction of the first IBM PC and the outset of the personal computer revolution, PCs have largely become commodities, with little differentiating one brand from another in terms of capability and performance. Most of today's software is similarly mature, having gone through many upgrades, with less opportunity for the introduction of groundbreaking capabilities.

These days, what most differentiates one computer product from another is reliability - the hassle factor. The PC industry may be maturing, but computer products still very much prone to glitches, bugs, security vulnerabilities, incompatibilities, premature failure and other problems.

The reliability question - What are the chances that any given product will be a major headache? - becomes paramount.

Computer and consumer magazines regularly survey computer users to determine the most reliable PC manufacturers. Along with recommendations from trusted colleagues, friends and family members, using the results of these surveys is an excellent way to increase the chances of your having a low-hassle computing experience (with computers, there's no such thing as hassle free).

According to its latest survey of subscribers about who makes the most reliable personal computers and backs them the best, PC World magazine gave Dell, eMachines, Gateway, IBM and Sony its top score, along with the generic "white boxes" made by local independent computer stores. (It didn't receive enough responses about Apple computers to include them in its ratings.)

Companies making the most reliable notebook computers and supporting them the best, according to PC World readers, were Dell, Gateway, IBM and Toshiba.

The most reliable printers were from Samsung (followed by Brother, Canon, Epson and Hewlett Packard), digital cameras from Sony (followed by Canon, Fujifilm, Hewlett Packard, Kodak, Minolta, Nikon and Olympus), and personal digital assistants from Handspring, Palm and Sony, according to the PC World survey.

Interestingly, PC World's survey also showed that, of the devices measured, digital cameras in general were most reliable, followed in order by printers, personal digital assistants, notebook PCs and desktop PCs.

Apple received the best overall scores for reliability and service in the desktop category in another computer magazine survey, from PC Magazine, followed by self-built machines, Dell, ABS, and machines from local computer stores.

With notebook PCs, companies earning the best reliability ratings from PC Magazine subscribers were Apple and IBM, followed by Dell, Fujitsu and Toshiba.

Self-built machines received the highest rating in the server category from PC Magazine, with Dell and clones following suit.

According to the most recent survey of Consumer Reports magazine readers, Apple ranked best for reliability for desktop computers, followed in order by Dell, IBM and Hewlett Packard. Apple also received the highest rating for laptop reliability, with Toshiba, Sony and IBM following suit.

Apple also ranked at the top for technical support, with both desktop and laptop users, according to Consumer Reports readers. Following, in order, were Gateway and Dell with desktops units and IBM and Gateway for laptop users.

Yet another recent survey, this one sponsored by the University of Michigan and part of the quarterly American Customer Satisfaction Index (ACSI), also indicated that Apple computer users were more satisfied than those using other computer brands, with Dell a close second.

According to the latest ACSI, both Apple and Gateway have improved significantly in customer satisfaction from the previous year.

"Apple has had a history of very poor scores in the index, but has been steadily improving," said Sarah Allen, a spokesperson for the ACSI.

She attributes Apple's improvement to service and product innovation in its PC line.

Interestingly, the overall satisfaction level among all computer consumers is at a four-year high, according to the index, which can be attributed to lower prices, upgrades in power and capabilities and a more experienced and savvier base of computer users.

Another trend that's clear is that despite its tiny market share compared with Windows PCs, the Apple Macintosh warrants consideration if you value reliability. As always, however, the Mac comes with tradeoffs.

Though it's easier than ever for Mac users to share files with Windows users, it's not always smooth sailing. Mac users have always had fewer choices in software, though the Mac covers all the major bases.

Finally, the Mac comes with a price premium. On the other hand, as with many things, you get what you pay for.


Reid Goldsborough is a syndicated columnist and author of the book Straight Talk About the Information Superhighway.