There aren’t a lot of big computer brands left today, unlike the 1990s. Here’s a look at the most popular computer brands of today and what you might need to know about each.
Personally, I don’t worry a lot about brand anymore. Most popular computer brands actually use the same suppliers these days, so there isn’t a lot that differentiates them besides styling. All of them have outsourced their tech support. And all of them run the same computer software, at least if you buy a PC. But let’s run through the most popular computer brands and then I’ll tell you what I look for in a computer beyond brand name.
Acer is an Asian conglomerate that has, over the years, absorbed other leading brands and divested itself of many parts of its business but remains one of the largest and most popular makes of PCs. It’s always been a big player in the budget space and its computers tend to be a good value. Acer has always been middle of the road in terms of popularity and reliability. But it’s been consistent about that for more than two decades. Remaining consistently average isn’t a bad formula for lasting success.
Gateway used to offer the best customer support in the business, but that went away many years ago, before Acer bought the brand.
Apple is, of course, the brainchild of Steve Jobs and Steve Wozniak, the maker of Macintosh computers and popular phones and tablets. Its computers are expensive, designed to look that way, and lack the upgrade options you get out of an open-architecture Windows machine, but if you want the Mac experience. you buy an Apple. Apple is in the business of selling an experience as much as they are in the business of selling computers, which is a big part of the reason for their profitability.
Apple computers tend to be reliable, which is a good thing. But when you need to upgrade, upgrades that take minutes on ordinary PCs turn into long projects, if they’re possible at all. But thanks to the Mac experience, it consistently ranks at the top of the most popular computer brands. Apple sells half as many computers as HP or Lenovo in a good year but its margins keep it immensely profitable.
Asus had its roots in selling motherboards to enthusiasts. It also expanded into supplying parts to HP and Dell and that eventually led to competing directly with them. An Asus PC won’t necessarily be as good as something you build yourself from Asus’ enthusiast-grade parts, but it won’t be bad.
Dell is a classic American Dream story. A college student, Michael Dell, resold gray-market IBM PCs out of his dorm room that he souped up himself. When he couldn’t get enough genuine IBM PCs to meet demand, he started building clones himself. Today Dell is #41 in the Fortune 500 and employs 140,000 people. Dell emerged as a popular national brand in the late 1980s, selling computers built to order. Today it sells computers at retail as well as direct. It’s been among the most popular computer brands for about three decades, even through the crowded 1990s market.
In 2006, Dell led the industry in market share. It’s stubbornly held on to the #3 spot ever since.
HP started out as a maker of scientific instruments, founded in a garage by Bill Hewlett and Dave Packard in 1939. In 1984, it introduced its first printers, which led to it becoming the world’s leading manufacturer of printers. Its printers are expensive and so are the supplies for them, but they are the standard by which all other printers are judged. HP sold a number of devices that meet the modern definition of a computer starting in the late 1960s, but its PC products date to the 1980s. Due to a number of controversial acquisitions starting in 2001 including Compaq, HP eventually split into two companies in 2015. HP Enterprise sells servers and enterprise services and HP Inc. sells printers and desktop PCs.
Don’t confuse Hewlett-Packard with the similarly-named Packard Bell. Packard Bell had a deservedly poor reputation. HP never had any connection to Packard Bell.
HP consistently battles Lenovo to lead the industry in sales volume. It’s been #1 or #2 for the past decade.
Lenovo is a Chinese conglomerate that bought and turned around IBM’s flagging PC and server lines. It sells both business and home PCs. In terms of volume, Lenovo consistently battles HP and Dell for the top spot, and most years, it outsells both of them.
Lenovo doesn’t build PCs exactly the way IBM used to, but I can still see some IBM heritage in Lenovo’s business PCs. They tend to be pretty easy to work on and upgrade, without needing a lot of tools, and that’s nice. Sometimes, in the case of their desktop PCs, you don’t even need a screwdriver.
Yes, the software people. Seeing an opening in the market, Microsoft decided to try to enter the high end with its Surface Book and produce an expensive best-of-breed laptop that ran Windows. It’s worked out well enough for them that they’ve stayed in the market for several years.
Toshiba is a large Japanese conglomerate that sells a lot more than computers, but its line of laptop computers was popular for many years. It exited the low-margin consumer PC market in 2016-2017 but continues to sell servers and business PCs, at least for now. Due to its financial difficulties, anything is possible with Toshiba including exiting the business PC market.
What I look for in a computer
Today, the most popular computer brands are actually built by contract manufacturers like Foxconn, Quanta, Compal, Wistron, and Pegatron. On top of that, each brand uses different contract manufacturers across its product line. There was a time when there were brands you definitely wanted to avoid, but there isn’t a tremendous amount of difference anymore among the survivors. When I was working for a Fortune 25 company, someone asked me to track the reliability of its desktop PCs. I didn’t expect any difference. When I gathered the numbers across tens of thousands of machines, they found my percentages closely matched the percentages of the overall population. I don’t pay a lot of attention to manufacturer ratings anymore.
Early in my career I noticed a difference, but the class of PC mattered more than the brand. Departments who bought whatever business-class PCs the rest of the company bought had few issues. Departments that bought consumer-grade PCs out of the Sunday sales ads or mass-market magazines had no end to problems. It’s probably not coincidence that most of those problematic consumer brands no longer exist as independent companies.
I usually buy off-lease business desktop computers, or better yet, workstations, for my own use, even at home. They tend to be cheap, and tend to be more reliable than consumer grade PCs. I do care about memory brands and SSD brands, regardless of the kind of computer I’m putting it in. To a much lesser degree, I also care about the network card.
Right now, the best value in off-lease PCs is an i5-2400. You’ll tend to find the best deals early in the week (here’s why), but if you’re careful, you should be able to find a functioning machine, with operating system, for around $100. The the cheapest computer on the shelf at my local Best Buy as I write this costs $300. An Intel i5-2400 is almost twice as fast as the Pentium J4205 CPU in that consumer-grade PC.
When I buy a laptop, I look for three things. First and foremost, I want a comfortable keyboard. A laptop is pretty useless if you can’t type on it. Next, I look for whether the memory and storage devices are easy to get to for upgrading. Avoid computers with eMMC storage. That almost always means storage soldered onto the motherboard. You want a discrete SSD or hard drive so you can replace it with a bigger model when you need more storage. You also want memory slots so you can install more RAM.
People frequently ask me whether Dell or HP make better laptops. There’s not much difference in their business-class laptops. When it comes to consumer-grade laptops, either laptop brand will be OK but not great. I expect you to be able to get about four years out of one. Here’s why.
Obviously I don’t care about the keyboard that comes with a desktop. I can easily replace a keyboard with whatever I want. Otherwise I want the same thing. I want a discrete SSD or hard drive. I also want at least two memory slots. If I can get four, that’s even better.
If you intend to use a computer for gaming, make sure it has or can take a discrete video card so you can swap the video card as needed, and a standard sized ATX power supply so you can replace it if you outgrow it. Buying an off-lease PC for gaming is a good way to save money, but it involves compromises.
What I do with a computer after I buy it
I always download a fresh copy of Windows 10 from Microsoft, format the hard drive and install it. The major difference between popular computer brands not named Apple is what software they load on it along with Windows, and I don’t want it.
I upgrade the memory if I need to, and usually install an SSD. I routinely keep computers, even laptops, for five years or longer by installing the maximum amount of RAM and swapping SSDs as I outgrow them.
When I conducted my study for that large company, I found that the age of the Windows installation was the only predictor of reliability I could measure with any degree of precision. Even then, it seemed like reliability only started to drop after about four years. If you tend to install Windows and then install a couple of web browsers and an office suite, you’ll have a similar experience. On a gaming PC, where you tend to install and uninstall games more frequently, you may find you need to reinstall Windows more often.