More so now than ever, personal computers are commodities, with little differentiating offerings from one vendor to the next. Sure, you can choose a PC with a faster or slower processor, more or less memory or a larger or smaller hard disk. However, a high-end machine from one vendor is much like that from another, as is a budget offering.
On the other hand, despite nearly 20 years of mass production, PCs continue to be fickle beasts. Too often, after you unpack your spanking new PC and try booting it up, nothing happens. And even if it's not completely unusable, one or more components conflicts with another component or otherwise doesn't work as it should. And even for one that runs fine initially, too often, the computer needs repairs within the first year.
The single most important factor in buying a PC, therefore, becomes reliability. To maximize the chances of buying a reliable PC, you can use your past experiences and those of colleagues or friends. But you'll get a clearer picture of a system's likely reliability from surveys that tally the experiences of thousands of people.
Among the most thorough surveys of PC reliability are those by computer publications. In recent issues, PC World and PC magazines, the two most widely read national computer publications, reported their latest findings in surveying computer users. Consumer Reports periodically surveys computer users as well.
As it has in the recent past, the vendor that surpassed all others in reported reliability was Dell. PC World readers deemed Dell "Outstanding" for both work and home use, the only vendor of the eight ranked to receive this designation. PC magazine readers gave Dell the only "A" grade among the 16 desktop PC makers rated. Consumer Reports readers gave Dell the top reliability score of the nine PC makers ranked in its most recent published findings.
While Dell receives excellent marks, its PCs aren't for everyone, of course. Other vendors may offer a system more attractively priced or available through a more appropriate channel. IBM, which received the second best reliability rankings overall, has long been known for its attentive service through its worldwide system of dealers. But it has stumbled over the years in the PC market. After legitimizing the PC in the early 1980s, IBM (www.pc.ibm.com) nearly knocked itself out of the market, a victim of proprietary designs and bureaucratic inefficiencies. Lately, it has made a comeback, and today, it's a leader in many areas, including notebook PCs, hard disks and e-business.
Hewlett-Packard (www.hp.com) is best known for its printers, but in recent years it has grown its PC business in both quantity and quality, and it now ranks third overall for PC reliability. HP is a major player in the retail market and is a good choice when shopping at a local computer, office supply or consumer electronics store.
While still a niche product, the Apple Macintosh (www.apple.com) has a legendarily loyal user base. Its reliability scores, though, are middle of the pack. Consumer Reports readers placed the Mac in fourth place out of nine vendors ranked, and PC magazine readers, not the most fervid of Mac fans, gave it only a "C" grade.
Locally built PCs, often called "white boxes," are a popular and frequently cost-effective choice when shopping in the flesh, rather than over the phone or Web. Reliability here depends on the individual store, particularly for smaller stores.
In general, though, PC magazine readers gave white boxes a respectable "B" grade. Among the national retail chains, PC World readers gave Circuit City and Office Depot better scores than Best Buy, CompUSA and Staples.
In buying a PC, after reliability comes support, since even the most reliable PCs can have problems. Dell also received the top support scores, followed by Gateway and Hewlett-Packard.
Even though playing the percentages doesn't guarantee you'll have a hassle-free experience, it can stack the odds in your favor. Buying from vendors that rank highly in reliability also sends a strong signal to the entire computer industry that it needs to pay more attention to quality control.
Reid Goldsborough is a syndicated columnist as well as author of the book Straight Talk About the Information Superhighway. He can be reached at email@example.com or members.home.net/reidgold.