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    Desktop computers still more reliable than laptops

    by  Alan Zisman (c) 2006 First published in Business in Vancouver August 1-7, 2006; issue 875

    High Tech Office column

    Whether laptops are getting cheaper to purchase because they’ve become more popular or they’ve become more popular because they’ve gotten cheaper, there’s no doubting that portable computers have become increasingly popular- they now account for over 50% of personal computer sales. And they’ve certainly become more affordable. I recently replaced a three-year-old notebook with another from the same manufacturer. The cost: just over 50% of what I paid previously.

    But according to technology consultants Gartner, users looking for reliability rather than portability may want to stick with more traditional desktop models. Their recent study suggested that one out of five laptops purchased in 2003 or 2004 required replacement of a part within a year of purchase. Within three years, that rate had risen to one in four, and to 28% by year four.  By comparison, only seven percent of class of ‘03/’04 desktop computers suffered the same degree of hardware failure in the first year of use.

    A few years ago, laptop displays were most often replaced; Gartner reports that now motherboards and hard drives are the most likely to fail.

    That matches my experience; I purchased both a Mac laptop and a Windows laptop in 2003; one required a motherboard replacement, the other required a hard drive replacement. I always recommend that notebook computer buyers invest in an extended warranty.

    Both notebooks and desktop systems appear to be getting more reliable; Gartner’s study reports that only one in seven laptops purchased in 2005 required a part to be replaced in that year. (That’s still a failure rate triple that of desktops). Gartner predicts the four-year failure rate for notebooks will drop to 22%. The failure rate for recently-purchase desktops dropped to 5%.

    The higher failure rate of laptops is not surprising; even if treated with care, carrying laptops around places parts under more strain than a computer anchored to a desk. And the tight fit of components into laptop cases makes it difficult to adequately cool components; overheating is a major cause of computer failure. (And many modern notebook computers get too hot to sit comfortable on users’ laps).

    Gartner noted that notebook computer manufacturers have started paying more attention to design details that can increase reliability; a number of models now include features to detect movement and automatically park hard drives when the system is dropped, for instance. Suspension mounts also help protect hard drives (and your data). Even seemingly minor details like small rubber bumpers on notebook lids can help reduce damage to screens, according to Gartner analyst Leslie Fiering.

    Fiering points out that while manufacturers have to remain competitive on price, it is also in their long-term interest to increase reliability; saving money by scrimping on quality increases costs due to warranty returns, as well as annoying consumers.

    The higher failure rate of notebooks puts more onus on notebook users to backup their data regularly; getting a crashed hard drive replaced without charge by an extended warranty is small consolation for the loss of data that hasn’t been backed up. (Here, too, desktop computer users have it easy; many of them are automatically backed up by their organization’s IT department, or access user data stored on a network server).

    And then there’s the ongoing high rate of theft of notebook computers. If you use a notebook computer, a recent backup is your best friend.

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Alan Zisman is a Vancouver educator, writer, and computer specialist. He can be reached at E-mail Alan