If I had to buy an off-the-shelf PC, what would it be?

I got a question today. A someone who knows someone who knows someone kind of thing. Basically, wanting to know what to buy if, you know, they wanted to buy a computer rather than build something.

They’d had bad experience will Dell, so Dell wasn’t on their list. I did not argue.

Here’s an edited version of my response.
If it were me, I’d buy an HP/Compaq business-class PC, direct from HP’s web site or 800 number. They cost $100 or so more than a consumer PC of comparable specs, but are built better and don’t come loaded with a lot of useless software from the factory. PC makers get subsidies from the makers of this software and they pass the savings on to you, but you’ll pay for it in headaches and reduced performance. A $399 business PC will outperform a $399 consumer PC.

As for what I would want, I’d go with an AMD processor since they’re less expensive. I would make sure the computer could be expanded to at least 8 GB of RAM, though I’d buy it with either 2 or 4 GB. Probably 4. And if I were getting 4 GB of RAM or more up front, I would get 64-bit Windows installed. There’s not a ton of benefit to going 64-bit right now, but that’s the future.

So what else is out there?

Although there are still a lot of brands of PCs, we’re down to about six major companies that own all of those brands. (As for who actually does the assembly, there are even fewer companies in that business.) It’s kind of like cars, only more confusing.

Dell owns the Dell and Alienware brands.

HP owns the HP and Compaq brands.

Acer owns the Acer, Gateway, Emachines, and Packard Bell brands. Forget everything you ever knew about Gateway or Emachines prior to 2007; their computers are just rebadged Acers now. Acer doesn’t use the Packard Bell name in the United States. If you were into computers in the early 1990s, you know why.

Lenovo bought IBM’s PC business in 2005.

Toshiba is still Toshiba.

And Apple needs no introduction.

So what do I think of them?

Dell. I don’t like Dell. I won’t rehash everything I’ve said here about them, except to say in recent years they’ve been less forthcoming about problems than other manufacturers, and some simple tasks that take me seconds to accomplish on other makes are convoluted on Dells if you aren’t used to them.

HP. They load a lot of junk software on their consumer PCs, which is why I recommend buying a business PC from them instead. But I find they use quality parts, even on their budget machines. I have aged HP computers coming out my ears. The stuff’s old and obsolete, but still works. And that’s the goal–for the computer to still work when it comes time to get rid of it.

Acer. They’re more prone to use second-tier parts than HP. But for as long as I can remember, if you wanted an average-quality PC, that’s always been Acer. So at least they’re consistent. They’d be my second choice, mostly because, well, you’ll see.

Lenovo. I have minimal experience with Lenovo PCs. I thought the world of IBM’s Thinkpads, but six years is an eternity in this field. Since Lenovo is partly owned by the Chinese government, I have clients who won’t buy Lenovo PCs for political reasons, which is why I lack experience with them.

Toshiba. I worked on a Toshiba laptop back in December. Taking it apart in order to see what I needed to see required me to remove at least 22 screws of four different lengths and I don’t think I could take it apart and put it right back together in less than an hour. So I’m guessing if you ever need to have a Toshiba worked on out of warranty, you’re looking at a minimum $50-$100 charge just to have someone look at it. So I won’t buy one.

For what it’s worth, I took an HP laptop apart the week later. I removed 7 screws in the process, and they were all identical.

Apple. I don’t think I’ve worked on Apple hardware since sometime in 2003, and that might as well be two lifetimes ago. But since it runs on its own OS and its own software, you’re either buying an Apple or you aren’t. And if you are, there’s a pretty good chance you aren’t reading this. I think Apple is overrated, but it doesn’t take much to be the best or second-best of this list. Step 1 to getting there is to exist, and step 2 is to not cut corners. And Apple charges enough money for their stuff that they don’t have to cut corners, except for aesthetics.

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2 Comments

  1. Packard Bell’s computers have kept me from buying anything else sold under that brand name. It wasn’t just a bad taste in my mouth, it was a pervasive, permeating stench.

    I helped someone set up a new consumer HP recently, and I agree about the shovelware that gets loaded on. It was still better than the box it replaced, a small form-factor HP that couldn’t get rid of heat well enough and blew up two motherboards. And then went out of warranty.

  2. Dave Farquhar

     /  January 14, 2011

    During a tense moment a couple of years ago, I said I was headed to the Packard Bell Outlet, and I was going to dig around in the dumpster, grab the first computer I found, and it would be a better computer than a particular server that was giving us trouble. But you’re right. It’s extremely difficult to find someone who was into computers in the 1990s who didn’t have a bad experience with a Packard Bell.

    Heat seems to be the biggest problem with HP desktops of any type. Catch it on time, and it’s the easiest problem to correct, fortunately.