/ Technology

Spending more on a computer doesn’t make it more reliable

In a time of spiralling costs it’s good to know that, on average, people are paying less for laptops and desktops. And according to our latest survey, you needn’t pay through the roof to get reliable computing products.

Compared to our survey in 2009, you’re now paying an average of £79 less for a laptop. Our 2011 survey of 10,600 Which? members found that people are spending on average £590 for a new laptop, £680 for a desktop PC and £270 for a netbook.

It’s great to see that prices are falling, but they still vary wildly by brand. People are spending £1,013 on Apple laptops, and £1,062 for an Apple desktop – both considerably more than their respective product averages.

Apple sits atop the reliability tree

However, our survey found that spending more doesn’t mean you’re necessarily getting a more reliable product.

Sure, Apple does sit at the top of the laptop reliability table, but it’s joint first with four other brands. And these four brands’ laptops are priced significantly lower – the average spend on a Compaq laptop is £377, for an Acer laptop its £450, £456 for Packard Bell and £503 for Samsung.

It’s a similar story for desktops. Apple tops the table for reliability, with HP in a close second. But again, there’s almost a £500 price gap between those two brands’ computers.

Only last week, Patrick Steen wrote a Conversation about how Apple is the tech brand closest to people’s hearts, and it wins our survey’s popularity contest too – its customer satisfaction score is way ahead for both desktops and laptops. And its reliability performance shows that Apple fans are making a good choice, even if they’re paying more for it.

How long should a computer last?

We found that just one in five surveyed members have needed to have either their desktop or laptop repaired, so manufacturers seem to be doing a good job at making them last. And they better keep it up, as most of our members expect their computing products to last around five years.

Often we’re told that ‘you get what you pay for’, but in the case of computing products, falling prices hasn’t meant that reliability has suffered. At least, according to our survey.

Apple products continue to come at a premium but – as our survey shows – many are happy to pay the higher price. For everyone else, it’s worth shopping around for a cheaper buy, as reliability seems to be on a par. Have your computers lasted as long as you expected them to, even if they weren’t terribly expensive?

Bill C says:
1 September 2011

Apple’s reputation seems to be suffering from the latest OS update “Lion”. I use an old ’08 Mac laptop and it is struggling. I wish I could easily switch back to 10.6. See “Does anyone recommend OS X Lion” at discussions.apple.com/message/15664933#15664933.

I personally would never recommend buying a pre built pc. Most suppliers will at some point in the build use a cheap component which will effect either speed ( performance ) or reliability or both.

Source the bits myself and put it together myself, you do pay a bit more for top quality components but I’ve never been disappointed with what I get. Only once have I needed to upgrade due to some bit failing. More often than not you need to upgrade to give enough power to run the latest software.

I have been used Apple computers at home since 1992 and work since 1993. In that time I have been sole user of nine desktop and six laptops, and been responsible for other Apple computers used by others at work. Some off these computers have been used more than others but collectively they have had a great deal of use.

Discounting battery replacement, the only failure I have had is one hard disk in an iMac. All these computers are either still working or were when I disposed of them.

I have been lucky because I know others who have had problems with Macs.

Anne McGregor says:
2 September 2011

I bought a Sony Vaio NR series about 5 years ago and it now is completely unusable. The battery has deteriorated so much that it retains no power without being plugged in, whilst the original charger quite literally exploded after 3 years. My replacement charger is very poor but the price of replacing both battery and charger with Sony official stuff is extortionate. It’s annoying because the laptop was expensive when new and appears to function perfectly now, only to be let down by these two parts.

Batteries are consumables with a limited life and replacements are expensive. It is often recommended not to leave laptops plugged in for long periods when not in use, and to periodically use the battery even if the computer is normally used on mains power.

My MacBook Pro has by far the best battery I have ever encountered. It has done 728 full charge cycles and has 92% of the original capacity after about 3 years’ use. A replacement battery will cost £100 but since I use the laptop on battery power every day I don’t mind paying this amount.

silverthread says:
2 September 2011

I have a Mac Book Pro and compared to my friends’ laptops, it is definitely a step up. All the family have now changed to Macs. I do agree that they are expensive and wonder if Apple could reduce the price somewhat. However, Amazon has sometimes very good offers and I bought mine for £100 below the standard price. I will never go back to Windows laptops.

My old PC is about 15 years old (AMD Sempron 2.1ghz). It still works really well. Admittedly the graphics card is a bit out of date, but I don’t play games on it anymore so there’s no point. I also admit to administering the thing myself so if it does go wrong it’s my fault.

I have upgraded memory and harddrives and it still runs all the music production software really well without slowdown. I can run drumkit from hell and still not experience slowdown.

To ensure that this stays working, I ensure that I stick with the software that I have. As soon as you start pushing a PC beyond it’s capability, you will have issues. So I still stick with Cubase SX 3 as it does everything that I need to do. All the software and hardware is compatible with it so why change if it ain’t broke?

One day I will change and invest in all the software too, however, this will likely be a MAC as I am sick of windows bloomin updates!!!

You might get sick of Mac updates too, but since broadband has arrived I don’t see the problem with updating computers.

@wavechange, The speed of downloading updates isn’t a problem. The problem with updates is the fact that they force changes on the end user that quite frequently said user doesn’t need or want. Recent point being, I let my windows OS update itself and ended up with ie 9 and hardly anything out there at the other end of my broadband connection supports it. Another classic example of why updates are annoying will be all the changes facebook force on people without warning and more often than not without any thought going into them. The last change assumed everyone didnt want to use facebok through a secured connection.

Sorry. I know little about Windows updates because my employer determines what gets updated and when.

At one time I used to check online forums to check for problems before allowing Mac updates. Now I just update one computer and if I don’t see a problem within a week I update the others.

The only problem I had was when I installed a beta version of Safari, the Apple browser. It was unstable and installation had deleted the previous version, which was stable. Fortunately, this problem was fixed soon after.

I’ve built PCs, and also trouble shot some and invariably any problems have been caused by either overheating, dirty contacts, or user installs. My last PC I bought as a ready made as I couldn’t match the price from separate components. What people seem to forget that they do need some maintenance. A careful clean out from time to time with either an air duster or a small vacuum cleaner (but watch out for the static gernerated by the air stream though plastic nozzles) is beneficial. My rarely used old machine is now 9 years old but still works OK, slow maybe, but OK. Modern software is hopeless (it appears to me) on an old machine. As Dean observed, stick with the software (except anti-virus) that it originally had.
What you have to remember is that all hard disks fail, the only question your need to ask yourself is – when?

kenm is right about overheating. Cooling fans help pull in dust. Dust accumulation will be more of a problem if they are kept on the floor.

True indeed. I recently serviced my borther’s old XP desktop – including a “decoke” to remove all the accumulated dust and dirt from its cpu heatsink.

Several years ago, I had to perform similar activities on his 550MHz daughter-board Pentium II Win98 PC.

Laptops can accumulate dust too, particularly when teenagers use them on the carpet. It does not do electronics any good if cooling is inadequate. If the cooling fans have to run hard this will significantly decrease the length of time the machine will run on battery power. I’m surprised that laptops are not fitted with aluminium bases as standard to help conduct heat away and reduce the need for fan cooling.

“Laptops can accumulate dust too…”

They certainly do. I find that occasional CPU upgrades, using more powerful but 2nd-hand CPUs sourced from eBay, provide a good opportunity to clean out the cooling system too.

This is where nice simple designs like the Acer 5315 and Medion E5211 score over more sophisticated designs like typical Toshiba Satellites. On those Acer & Medion designs, a single cover in the base allows easy access to memory, CPU, fan etc. This is achieved at the “cost” of an “upside-down” motherboard, where the cpu is on the lower surface of the motherboard.

The Toshibas have the cpu on the upper surface of the motherboard. This should be a superior layout for favouring cooling by natural convection, but significantly complicates the process of dismantling for cooling system maintenance.

I had hoped that fan cooling would become a thing of the past, thanks to conduction cooling and heat pipes, but still hear computer fans working hard even if the owner is oblivious to this. Apple got rid of the fan in the first iMacs, which use the chimney effect for cooling, but reintroduced fans in later models.

I wonder how many people think about the internal design of a computer when deciding which model to buy.

This comment was removed at the request of the user

Fan cooling is obviously important for high performance machines but could we not dispense with them on lower spec machines by making more use of conduction and heat pipes?


I think custom desktop PCs can be built using “fanless” coolers.

Also there are tablets and tablet PCs – all fanless as far as I know.

By default, small IOT PCs like my Roku box are also fanless. So too are Raspberry Pi’s – though fan upgrades are no doubt possible.

Tablets are the obvious example of fanless computers. There simply is not room.

Looking at what is available in fanless laptops, I see that silence is a major selling point. I would have thought that extended battery life was rather more important.

It would be interesting to know how fanless designs affect price and reliability – the subject of this Conversation.

This comment was removed at the request of the user

This comment was removed at the request of the user

Many years ago, I remember reading in New Scientist about how heat pipes could be used to dissipate heat from electronic components. It seems that water is indeed the most common working fluid: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Heat_pipe

Discussions on Which? Convo provide plenty of prompts to keep aware of technical developments. 🙂

Mikhail says:
7 September 2011

I hate Windows, it is like a loo without a toilet paper you always need an extra ie firewalls, anti viruses, drivers I was helping my friend to reinstall a windows laptop and it took 8 bloody hours! The first hour the OS, second drivers, and 6 hours on updates because Microsoft is sooooo stupid it can’t even design a system that can download all updates at once, so after around 20 reboots laptop was ready for the other installations.

I think this report does not take into account the backing you get from the companies, my 20 years with Mac’s has seen one failure and that was a case cracking. Apple replaced it within a week with a new machine of a higher spec. From the time I rang and reported to the time I got a phone call asking if everything was alright was so professional and how all companies should treat their customers!

‘Which’ have fallen for the trap of not doing like for like, you buy a Mac you get more than just a culmination of parts sourced from everywhere. You get a computer designed with a set of particular parts that are designed to work together and as such they do just work without any changes for years, my family still use my old cast offs long time after their PC’s have died. There are numerous articles on people trying to make a Mac cheaper, but on buying the parts separately the cost has seen the price of Apple computers a good deal. Don’t forget a lot of the parts are custom made as well so they can keep control of the design.

The biggest comment I get is how quiet my computers run, even to the point that you don’t even know they’re on!

It’s no coincidence that they are now the one of the richest companies in the world along with gaining market share rapidly in the hardware field, and if they top the ‘Which’ charts as well, they must be doing something right.

I am typing on an Acer aspire 5332, which is my backup computer, and is now 10+ years old. I bought it overseas as a low end, cheap model when my primary laptop , a Sony, failed. I have replaced the keyboard, screen, battery and power supply. I managed to do it all myself. Parts are available and cheap. The screen was stepped on and a key fell off. The thing is that nothing internal has failed. I also have a Lenovo Z710 (the one I use every day). I have never been able to buy, from Lenovo a replacement power supply, one of the internal chips failed and the needed to be replaced. It is currently shutting down unexpectedly (it may be the fan) and I have replaced the DVD drive. Paul, who services computers says in his view Acer and Asus are the two most reliable brands (he does not work on Apples). The thing is the Acer is still perfectly usable and not at all frustrating once turned on and all updates installed. It runs graphics, just about OK, has a clear, if not stunning screen, for typing and can play a DVD. Who else has long survived computers.

I still regularly use my Vista-era Dell Q6600 desktop, alongside a couple of (recently acquired) first generation i5 laptops, one of which was one of those “new-fangled W7” PCs, but the other one was originally supplied with Vista.

All of the above now run various flavour of Ubuntu as their primary OSes, but can also run XP and Vista for legacy support duties.

Other family members are also using a selection of Vista and XP era laptops (mostly now running either LXLE or Mint).

One of my brothers still uses his XP-powered Evesham Micros Pentium Dual Core desktop as (almost) his only personally owned PC – but he is beginning to ponder the acquisition of a brand new Windows PC.

I often wonder if the Which? technophiles team needlessly promote consumption (“consumerism?”) by means of enouraging superfluous new PC purchases, as opposed to supporting sustainability by hand out hints and tips for keeping old PCs running.