Which laptops will last, which will break? Online ratings anywhere?
March 14, 2008 8:47 AM   Subscribe

Where can I find online laptop ratings about durability, repairs, or typical problems, the way Consumer Reports does for cars?

I'm not interested in the reviews about the latest, greatest, and fastest. I want to know what laptop will let me do word processing, surf the web, and listen to music for the longest period of time without breaking.

Right now, I have a Dell Inspiron. The speakers stopped working. The earplug jack stopped working. The CD player stopped working. Then I hear another friend with a Dell Inspiron had their speakers stop working, and I started to wonder whether there were patterns in how, and how quickly, particular computers break.

What I want is a laptop version of Consumer Reports' Car Reliability Histories: "How well do cars hold up? Our reliability history charts give you the most comprehensive reliability information available to consumers, based on detailed ratings from 1998-2007" and lets you "find out which cars owners would definitely buy again." It has information like "jettas tend to have transmission problems" (I made that up).

Has this been compiled anywhere? Thank you.
posted by salvia to Computers & Internet (17 answers total) 3 users marked this as a favorite
I'm pretty sure Consumer Reports rates laptops/computers annually too. I don't know if they'll tell you anything about durability, but it might be a good thing to check out.
posted by dinty_moore at 8:50 AM on March 14, 2008

I know this isn't what you're asking, but the standard laptop-durability answers are: Macbook if you like Macs, Panasonic Toughbook or IBM Thinkpad if you like PCs.
posted by box at 8:51 AM on March 14, 2008

I second the above answer. Ironically, at work, I've actually found the Thinkpad to be tougher than the Toughbook! In order of durability: Thinkpad, Toughbook, Macbook.

The Thinkpad R-series and T-series are built like a semi-truck, but aren't that portable. The X-series are built like a pickup-truck and are very portable. Check www.thinkwiki.org for more information than you'll probably need.
posted by xenyz at 9:20 AM on March 14, 2008

I'll third what box said. Notebookreview.com is the largest laptop review site. I have a look there to see whether there are any common problems with a certain laptop, before buying.
posted by Ctrl_Alt_ep at 9:26 AM on March 14, 2008 [1 favorite]

Consumer Reports on laptops. Note that you'll have to buy the report to get the ratings.

However, I echo the comments above. Several generations of IBM and Lenovos (T-, R- and X-series) have been used by our organization for years for travel and fairly demanding fieldwork (on an active beach below freezing, for example). There seems to be no difference in uptime compared with the toughbooks (which some people also use), except that they cost half as much. Numerous Dells, Toshibas and other brands have failed in this use. I have no experience with Apple products.
posted by bonehead at 9:30 AM on March 14, 2008

Response by poster: Thanks -- the answers about "what are the toughest?" are helpful (my budget tops out at $1500). Answers about buying strategies would also help ("look, don't buy something long-lasting -- buy something cheap every year and sell your old one"). Both those have been discussed before on AskMe, but additional opinions are helpful. I basically live on Word and Excel, with some GIS thrown in. I'm agnostic on the Mac/PC thing -- I need to keep running some Windows-specific software, but I would happily do that on a Mac if I was convinced that it manufactured the most durable system.
posted by salvia at 9:43 AM on March 14, 2008

A ThinkPad is the only laptop I can honestly recommend.
posted by qvtqht at 10:21 AM on March 14, 2008

Back when I was a member of Consumer Reports I looked at their laptop reliability ratings. IBM's and Apple's were head-to-head in the first place, far ahead of every other manufacturer. The graph of mean-time-to-repair showed IBM in first, then Apple a hair behind, then a big drop, then everyone else in order of worsening reliability.

IBM and Apple's also tied in the first place for the quality of their warranty repair service. When the screen of my ThinkPad needed to be replaced, IBM FedEx-ed a FedEx box to ship my laptop to them. They executed the repair then FedEx my laptop back to me. The whole process took less than a week, and I wasn't charged a cent.

IBM and Apple might look expensive, but once you look at the Consumer Reports statistics you realize it's not for the brand premium. The quality workmanship upholding the brand is worth the price.
posted by gmarceau at 10:50 AM on March 14, 2008

In your position, I would look at purchasing a refurbished T-40 series book (going on ebay for <$400) and upgrading the ram to 2gb. Ram is an easy upgrade on a thinkpad: open a small panel with one screw on the back and pop the new module in. I'd expect it to last at least three years, and will probably be fine even after you're tired with it. I doubt you would be as happy changing books every year.
posted by bonehead at 10:53 AM on March 14, 2008

It's not an easy question to answer. It'll take time to know if something is durable. By the time you know, that laptop will be long out of production. Depending on things like brand or even model is pretty loose. Both Apple and IBM have made some serious stinkers. I would be more focused on the long term willingness of the company to stand behind it even if that means an extended warranty. By that token most any big name will do.

For example, my Powerbook G4 1.5G has been rock solid for years but you can't get a new one. You could get a used one, but then how do you know that wasn't dropped a dozen times?
posted by chairface at 11:02 AM on March 14, 2008

Lenovo, which now owns and makes the Thinkpad notebooks, is much more aggressive in their pricing than IBM was. The Lenovo Outlet sometimes has very good deals on Thinkpads. I bought a Z61t on closeout for $400.00. Even though the z61t isn't as well made as the T series it is fine for my needs and built better than anything else that I could find for that price. $1500.00 will buy a very nice IBM T60 or T61 notebook. Check the FatWallet or the SlickDeals sites for specials and discounts.
posted by calumet43 at 11:32 AM on March 14, 2008 [1 favorite]

(While this does not directly address your question, it supports later diverging comments.)

FWIW, I have nine (!) Thinkpads of various flavors for reasons that have to do with operating some legacy instrumentation.

I have done a fair amout of repairs on these types of machines, including removing and replacing USB and power connectors that required nearly 100% disassembly, although mostly on Thinkpads from the 390 forward. They are extremely well designed (IMO) mechanically, and are meant to be taken apart and reassembled.

I've been inside a number of other manufacturer's hardware and uniformly, they were most certainly NOT intended to be disassembled and reassembled easily. The difference in engineering quality between IBM hardware and all the others is night and day.

I am not as impressed by Apple in this area, and my gripes have to do with a lot of EMI tape, double sided tape, and ambitious volumetrics, and while I consistently recommend them to everyone I know, I always apply the caveat that they should buy the service plan. Apple laptops, for the most part, in my experience, aren't to be maintained by the average Joe. Also, use the factory for any repair... not a local shop. I echo the other comments on the service quality of Apple... they have been reliably perfect in my dozen dealings with them, and have gone way over the line to see me happy. Great outfit; great hardware; great software.
posted by FauxScot at 5:57 PM on March 14, 2008

Response by poster: These answers are all very helpful -- thank you all. bonehead (or anyone), do you equally recommend the lighter Thinkpads? If I was going to get a refurbished one, any older models you'd recommend from the X series?
posted by salvia at 6:28 PM on March 14, 2008

Consumer Reports sounds like what you need. But since there are a lot of Personal Anecdotal Reports being given to you, I'll give you mine:

I've had my Dell Inspiron for 4 years. Every day I use it for ~10 hours per day, on my lap, on a desk, in bed. I play games on it, spill food in it, cycle to and from work and other places with it, throw it (in its backpack) into car boots, run for the bus with it bouncing on my back, and sometimes use it outdoors. But it just won't break. My friend has the same problem with his slightly older Inspiron.
posted by hAndrew at 7:07 PM on March 14, 2008

According to the Consumer Reports right now Lenovo has the fewest repairs and problems, and Apple the most..

I was going to recommend a Lenovo/IBM anyway, because I currently have a used Thinkpad T23 that I've dropped multiple times.. (I have had a hard drive issue and some issues with power adapters, though.)
posted by majikstreet at 7:55 AM on March 15, 2008

As calumet43 points out, refurbed X60's are going for about half your budget price at the Lenovo outlet right now, with 2GB and a 1-year warantee. I think you'll have a hard time beating that anywhere. X- are the "light" series, T- are the durable/higher-end, R- are the mid-price "value" line.
posted by bonehead at 10:55 AM on March 15, 2008

Because a particular situation required absolutely minimal downtime, for that purchase, instead of a single ThinkPad, I bought two very cheap, functionally similar laptops (Averatec). Not great build quality, and a 3-week repair turnaround, but amazingly cheap (together they cost less than a single equivalent ThinkPad). With identical hardware, keeping one as a "lukewarm spare" is as simple as booting it up and loading the latest stored disk image onto it (takes around 90 minutes). The ther one gets sent off for repair and eventually returns. This has happened twice in three years. If I was really anal, I would initialise the spare as "hot" with a fresh image every week or so and then power it down.
posted by meehawl at 6:24 PM on April 26, 2008

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