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The problem with Lifehacker’s computer manufacturer ranking

Lifehacker posted a controversial computer manufacturer ranking this week. I’m not sure how you can rank anything with Apple, HP, and Dell in it and not be controversial–someone’s going to be offended that their favorite isn’t at the top and their least favorite isn’t dead last–and while I agree with it more than I disagree with it, there are at least three problems with it.

So, let’s go.

Business class vs. consumer class. There’s a huge difference between consumer-grade and business-grade, even when the price difference is only about 10 percent. This ranking didn’t take that into consideration at all. A business grade laptop from any manufacturer is going to be more reliable than a consumer laptop from the same manufacturer. This is especially true of everyone’s favorite whipping boy, HP. HP’s business laptops are well built and reliable. Their consumer laptops, which are made to hit a price point, are less so. Get to the very bottom of the price scale, and they’re likely to be even more so.

It’s not fair to compare a $238 $178 (yikes!) Black Friday special with the $800 laptop of a different brand you replaced it with. It’s especially not fair to compare a $238 Black Friday special from 2011 with the laptop your company issued you. Think about it. You’re paying $100 for the software and seventy eight lousy dollars for the hardware. Remember, Android is free, so a $78 tablet is $78 worth of hardware. Compare the $178 laptop to the $78 tablet. You buy a $78 tablet expecting to replace it in a year, and you’re happy if it lasts any longer than that.

I buy business-class laptops when I have the option. Even used. They’re reliable and last a good while. My main laptop is 8 years old now, and probably has a couple of years left in it. If you only have $178 to spend on a laptop, buy a business laptop that’s a few years old. It will last longer. It might be faster, too. If you want or need a desktop, get a used workstation. I don’t care what the brand is, workstations are going to be great.

When an HP isn’t an HP. HP doesn’t actually manufacture very much anymore, and their laptops are pretty much all rebrands. The same is true of many brands, but there’s a big extreme with HP that you don’t necessarily see elsewhere. HP’s cheapest laptops are built by the lowest bidder, whoever that may be. HP’s costliest laptops, for many years, were made by Asus, who ranked #1 in Lifehacker’s ranking. I used to recommend high-end HP laptops for exactly that reason. I don’t know if Asus is still making laptops for anyone else anymore or not. So if I’m going to buy an already-assembled machine, I buy an Asus to make sure I get an Asus.

But the problem with lists like this is that in one case, you can get the very worst by buying the cheapest HP you can find, but if you buy an expensive HP, there’s a pretty good chance it’s going to be reliable.

Factors beyond the manufacturer’s control. All of the manufacturers buy hard drives from the same three companies, because there are only three companies left that make them: Seagate, Western Digital, and Toshiba. So unless your laptop has an SSD, it has a hard drive from one of those three companies in it. There’s no difference between the drives they sell to each company. Every time someone’s hard drive dies and someone posts about it on Facebook, someone makes a snarky reply like, “Shoulda bought Mac.” (Usually with no prepositions in it.) It doesn’t matter. A $35 hard drive is a $35 hard drive whether HP bought it or Apple bought it, with exactly the same life expectancy. Apple doesn’t have any special pixie dust to put on its hard drives. Neither does Dell, or anyone else.

Apple doesn’t put hard drives in its laptops anymore, as far as I can tell. That helps their reliability, but if you’re willing to pay a comparable price for an SSD-equipped laptop from a PC maker, you’ll get comparable reliability.

Whatever you buy, you’ll have much better luck with it if you burn it in right after you get it. If it’s going to fail, you want it to fail very early, before you’ve migrated everything to it and are depending on it every day.

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