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Minimizing the Risks of PC Buying

Minimizing the Risks of PC Buying
By Reid Goldsborough

Any time you buy a personal computer, whether it’s your first or your fifth, whether for yourself, your children, or your company, you face uncertainty. Will the computer work, or will it be dead on arrival? Will it work initially but fail after a few weeks? Will it work for the most part but give you headaches along the way? Will you be able to get help quickly if you can’t fix the inevitable glitches yourself?

You can’t eliminate the uncertainties of buying, but you can minimize them by being an informed consumer. Three magazines recently have published the findings of their latest surveys.

According to the subscribers of PC World, the company that makes the most reliable personal computer today and backs them the best doesn’t even make PCs — it makes Macs. Apple received the highest overall marks in the desktop computer category for reliability and service.

Other desktop machines receiving “Good” marks for overall reliability and service are those of IBM, ABS and Dell, as well as the generic “white boxes” of local retailers.

Despite its good overall score, Dell received lower marks than it did last year, as did a number of other companies, including Gateway, Micron and the newly merged Hewlett Packard/Compaq. In a tough economy, PC reliability and service have slipped overall.

The only company to receive a “Poor” overall mark from PC World subscribers was Systemax, which supplies PCs to mail-order vendor Tiger Direct.

Companies making the most reliable notebook computers and supporting them the best are IBM and Toshiba. No notebook manufacturer received an overall “Poor” mark.

Dell received the best overall score for reliability and service in the desktop category in another recent survey, in PC Magazine. It received an A grade from PC Magazine readers, the only company so honored. Computers receiving a B+ were those from Gateway and generic white boxes of local retailers. The two companies that failed, getting an E, were Compaq and eMachines.

Apple wasn’t included in the PC Magazine survey results for desktop computers because not enough respondents rated it. But IBM, which received a “Good” score in the PC World magazine survey, received a dismal D in the PC Magazine survey, which probably indicates more than anything that despite their usefulness, surveys aren’t infallible.

The picture with notebook PCs is different. Companies earning an A grade from PC Magazine readers were Apple, Hewlett-Packard, IBM and Toshiba. Three companies received an E grade: Acer, Compaq and NEC.

Consumer Reports magazine also just published the findings of its latest computer reliability and support survey, though it didn’t break out its findings by desktop and notebook computers. For overall reliability, Consumer Reports readers ranked Apple as the best, followed in order by Dell, Hewlett Packard, IBM and Compaq. Gateway and Micron received the worst reliability scores.

Apple also ranked at the top for technical support, according to Consumer Reports readers. Following, in order, were Dell, Gateway, Micron, IBM, Compaq, and Hewlett Packard. Sony and eMachines were at the bottom.

What should you make of all this? A Mac can be a good choice. Windows PCs comprise about 95 percent of the market and, for better or worse, are a fait accompli in many organizations. But for home office users or others who have a choice, Apple is worth a look.

You’ll usually pay somewhat more for a Mac, but you’ll get a somewhat more reliable and better-supported machine. Windows machines continue to become more user friendly, but Macs are still easier to set up, learn and use. You have many more software and peripheral choices with Windows machines, but there are still thousands of Mac programs and peripherals to choose from. You’ll have a slightly easier time sharing documents with a Windows machine, but Macs have come a long way in bridging the compatibility gap.

If you opt for a Windows PC desktop machine, based on the above reliability and service findings and all other things being equal, it’s hard to beat Dell. For Windows PC notebooks, IBM and Toshiba are good choices.

Reliability and service aren’t the only important criteria in selecting a personal computer. But they can be the most important.

PC Magazine also rated peripherals. The reliability and service winners in their respective categories were Hewlett-Packard for printers; Sony, Canon, Fuji, Minolta, Nikon and Olympus for digital cameras; Handspring for personal digital assistants; and Linksys, Netgear and SMC for home networking.

Local Internet service providers received the highest grade for dial-up Internet access, Optimum Online for broadband access.

Reid Goldsborough is a syndicated columnist and author of the book Straight Talk About the Information Superhighway. He can be reached at [email protected] or

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