Consumer Reports: The facts on laptops that you need to know


For most people, a laptop isn't just a tool; it's more like a home for family photos, finances, musings, music, contact info, schedules and more. The very thought of losing all of that data in an instant is enough to make even the most callous person feel heartsick.

In a survey conducted by Consumer Reports, laptop owners reported that they expected their computers to last five years. And yet, as was discovered in a recent survey of more than 58,000 subscribers who purchased laptops between 2010 and 2015, almost 1 in 5 of those computers will experience some kind of breakdown in the first three years.

To improve your odds of making a choice that goes the distance, here's what you need to know:

• As in years past, Apple tops Consumer Reports' reliability list. Only 10 percent of the brand's laptops required repairs by the third year of ownership, according to the survey estimates, though to be fair, those repairs may have been costly. Among Apple owners whose laptops weren't covered by an extended warranty or additional service contract, about one-third paid $300 or more out of pocket to fix them. And Apple laptops are pricier to begin with.

• Windows laptop repairs are usually less costly, with only 10 percent of owners forking over $300 or more, but their failure rates are higher. For Samsung and Gateway, the estimated failure rate was 16 percent; followed by Acer and Lenovo at 18 percent; and Toshiba, HP, Dell and Asus at 19 percent each.

• The problems with Windows laptops also tend to reveal themselves rather quickly. About 1 in 10 devices requires repairs in the first year. Failure rates slow down in the second and third years. Apple models, on the other hand, remain consistent, with a 3 to 4 percent failure rate in each of the first three years.

So it's not surprising that overall, 71 percent of Apple laptop owners were completely satisfied with the reliability of their computers compared with just 38 percent of Windows laptop owners.

When problems strike

In addition to the frequency of failure, there's also the issue of the severity of those problems. Survey respondents told Consumer Reports that the majority of their worst laptop breakdowns were "serious" (the computer still worked, but poorly) or "catastrophic" (it stopped working entirely). Only about a quarter of the breakdowns were described as "minor" (a part broke, but the computer worked almost as well as before), and 3 percent were "cosmetic" (the finish became discolored, scratched or rusted).

It stands to reason that the more you use your laptop, the more likely it will break down. Repairs increase if you often use your computer more than 20 hours per week, according to the survey findings. But again, Apple is an exception. Apple owners said they used their laptops an average of 23 hours per week (compared with 20 hours for Windows owners), but their laptops had lower failure rates overall.

Among Windows that failed, 55 percent did so multiple times. For Apple, the rate was only 42 percent.

Warranty plans

Consumer Reports usually doesn't recommend springing for an extended warranty for any product because it has generally found that the benefits simply aren't worth the price. But it does advise Apple owners to consider Apple Care. That's because Apple's telephone tech support ends after 90 days, and consumers tend to be very pleased with the service they get from Apple's technicians, according to the surveys about technical support. Others should probably pass on extended coverage, especially given survey findings showing that Windows laptops experience the highest failure rates in year one, when repairs may already be covered by the standard warranty.

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