There are some questions you really don’t want to answer, because there’s no way you’re going to answer it without making enemies. I heard one of those questions the other day. Between a Dell or HP laptop: Which is better?
HP and Dell are two of the most popular computer brands, and both have endured. Both entered the business in the 1980s and survived the brutal 1990s, which was an achievement. There were several good companies that failed to survive the 90s or emerged from the 90s mortally wounded. Both companies did something right to make it this far.
Kind of like a pickup truck
I don’t own a pickup truck and I don’t like driving them, so I don’t have a dog in this fight, but I’ve certainly noticed how people argue about pickup trucks. To hear some people tell it, there are two things just as reliable as the sun coming up every morning, and that’s a Ford pickup starting and a Chevy pickup not starting. Or maybe it’s the Chevy pickup starting and the Ford not starting.
When you talk to a mechanic, who spends day in and day out fixing whatever vehicles come through the door, they’ll tell you that some years one is better than the other. But when push comes to shove, both Ford and General Motors know how to make a reliable pickup truck.
And there’s a third factor that comes into play. My fellow Mizzou alumnus Steve Lang, who studies the reliability of motor vehicles, notices a slight difference in reliability between used Chevy and GMC trucks. I asked my mechanic about that. He said he thinks people who buy GMC trucks tend to take better care of them.
So why do people get religious about pickup trucks when an honest mechanic will tell you that you won’t go far wrong with either brand? Marketing, for one. And if someone does have a bad experience with one brand, they tend to remember that forever.
Grade matters more than brand
Back in 2012, I’d just started a new job, and two managers were talking. One of the managers mentioned he was having computer trouble that day. Another manager said, “I can tell you the problem. Those letters ‘HP!'”
The funny thing is, in another job, I’d had the opposite problem. HP laptops worked just fine, but people kept buying these cheapo Dells and blaming me when the cheap Dells didn’t work as well as expensive HPs. Why did we have opposite brand experiences?
The manager who didn’t like HP laptops bought a cheapo HP and it soured him on the whole brand. I didn’t like Dells because I was sick of fixing cheapo Dells. My opinion on Dell changed when I got a more expensive Dell at a good price at an estate sale. I bought it somewhat reluctantly, but when you can get a five-year-old laptop for 35 dollars, it’s really hard to say no. It was old when I got it, but I used it another seven years or so.
Both Dell and HP laptops can be quirky to work on
Dell has always laid out their BIOS differently from everyone else whose computers I’ve worked on, and that always slows me down when I have to work on a Dell. The option I need might be buried in a menu I’m not used to looking in. The option might be called something completely different.
HP computers have their own quirks, but they’re much closer to the IBM computers I started my career working on. Many people have trouble figuring out how to boot them off USB, but HP tends to make everything else pretty straightforward.
The biggest difference I notice is when I add memory. When I add memory to an HP laptop and turn it on for the first time, it will usually tell me the amount of system memory has changed and make me press F1 to continue. That’s good, because if the amount of system memory changed and I didn’t add or remove memory, that means something’s wrong.
When the amount of memory in a Dell changes, the laptop freezes for about a minute and a half before it reboots. That means if I reboot the computer and go get coffee, I might miss the message. If I’m standing right there, it’s a needless 90-second delay. I can live with that, but it’s more annoying than HP’s approach.
Dell or HP laptop: Which is better?
In the end, which is better, a Dell or HP laptop, depends on three things. The brand isn’t one of them.
- Is it a business-grade laptop? If it’s business grade, it’s almost certainly going to be good. If it’s consumer grade, it might be good. It can just as easily be terrible.
- Do you like the screen? Glossy screens hurt my eyes, so I don’t care how good the laptop is if it hurts to look at it.
- Do you like the keyboard and the touchpad? Some laptops, even really expensive ones, have really uncomfortable keyboards or inaccurate touchpads. A good computer is worthless if you can’t type and mouse on it reliably.
It can be pretty hard to find a business-grade laptop with a screen, keyboard, and touchpad you can live with. I’m willing to live with a slight difference in reliability to have a comfortable computing experience. And the difference will be rather slight. Both companies use all of the same suppliers. Both of them have some contract supplier, like Foxconn or Pegatron, put their computers together for them. A pair of $199 laptops from both companies will have more in common with each another than they will have in common with a business-grade laptop from the same company.
But is there a difference in durability or reliability?
Historically, Dell laptops, at least their business-grade ones, tend to hold up slightly better under abuse. But the difference is fairly slight, and when it comes to heavy abuse, there’s always some luck involved.
There are other factors that make about as much of a difference. I’ll take any SSD over any conventional hard drive, regardless of who made either, and who made the rest of the machine. And good quality memory is absolutely essential. A business-grade laptop with commodity memory in it is no longer a business-grade laptop. Either buy memory with HP or Dell FRU numbers on it, or buy a good name brand of memory like Crucial or Kingston.
How I buy laptops
When I buy a laptop, I go out of my way to buy a used business-grade laptop. If I have $100 to spend, I buy the best used laptop I can find for $100. If I have more to spend, I buy something a little newer or faster, and I probably will be able to keep it longer. I prefer to buy one I’ve seen, or better yet, used, in a business setting.
Regardless of what I have to spend, I can get a decent laptop that way. Champagne taste on a beer budget isn’t as much of a problem with used business laptops. I can get something decent for $100, and the more I’m willing to spend, the nicer laptop I can get. But I don’t have to worry about reliability unless I buy something crazy old and cheap. And even at a $100 budget, I can get my kids something and be pretty confident what they’re going to want to do will work on it, it will probably hold up, and it won’t cost a fortune.