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I hope today's column and the reviews accompanying it online don't sound like I'm burned out on computers.

I have, however, been finding the same faults in laptop computers for a while now. The PC industry can remind me of the worst stereotypes of Detroit automakers -- but instead of a lineup of lookalike, gas-guzzling SUVs, you've got a store shelf's worth of overweight, poorly configured laptops. (You could even argue that there's the same puzzling overlap of apparently identical brands: Compaq is to HP and eMachines is to Gateway as Plymouth was to Chrysler.)

This, I think, ties into a broader malaise in the PC industry. Personal computers are supposed to represent the apex of consumer electronics, but they're become far less exciting than, say, cellphones or digital cameras.

Not everybody is in this rut. There's still Apple, along with a variety of smaller PC vendors that put considerable creativity and ingenuity into their hardware. Asus and Fujitsu, for instance, have done interesting work in the ultralight laptop sector. You can still pick out a Sony Vaio or a Lenovo ThinkPad from the crowd as well.

In my column, I alluded to some ways that manufacturers could try to stand out from the crowd. Beyond more distinctive design, they could simply try bundling better software -- or giving customers the cleanest, most efficient system possible, without any of the usual added junk.

Good service would be another way. My friend Robert Schlesinger, who has had good reason to bash poor customer service in the past, sent me an e-mail yesterday with the subject header of "dell customer support." I expected another rant as I started reading about the extended warranty he'd bought for his Dell laptop, and how he had to exercise it after a fall damaged both the computer and its power cable. Not quite:

DHL... came and picked up my computer on Monday. Tuesday I got in the mail from Dell a new power cord. This morning I got from Dell via DHL my laptop, completely repaired (they fixed a couple of things about which I had not thought to complain). To review: I called Monday afternoon and had the laptop back on Wednesday morning. That's good stuff.

I don't know if Robert could name one Dell-only feature in his laptop's hardware or software, but I suspect he'll remember that service for a long time.

Am I being too hard on these companies? Do you not need a laptop to be more than a commodity product nowadays? Let's ponder that issue in the comments.

By Rob Pegoraro  |  August 30, 2007; 2:00 PM ET
Categories:  Computers  
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Next: Where Did Your Tech-Support Call Go?


Well it depends, Rob.

For most people, I believe they would like to consider their laptop and PC as appliances.

It should just work.

It doesn't need to be especially stylish, although the latest features are important. There shouldn't be much maintenance involved either (like antivirus and spyware updates).

Your friend, Mr. Schlesinger, exemplifies this. Essentially the appliance broke and the manufacturer responded with excellent service.

To others, often referred to as the Internet elite; those who appreciate their computer usage as an extension of their personality, do care about looks and style (in addition to usefulness). It's like anything else, cars too!

We laugh at boring cars like the Ford Taurus (dell inspiron), but as long as they hold up, a large swath of the population (non car enthusiasts) are happy as clams.

Posted by: G Man | August 30, 2007 2:58 PM | Report abuse

The main thing I'm looking for in a computer is that it works well with minimal hassle. I'm not looking for anything that particularly stands out in any other way.

I agree with your comments about how to make a computer stand out these days. Customer service and a lack of useless software goes a long way in my mind.

So when my Dell died two years ago, I got a Mac.

Posted by: jp | August 30, 2007 3:18 PM | Report abuse

I have to agree with G Man. I just want a computer that does what it needs to do and will let me watch a complete DVD when I am stuck on plane without a power source.

Great service from Dell--wish I could say the same about HP. My son's new laptop wouldn't download Vista updates. I couldn't figure out from their website (or the paperwork they sent with the $400 3-yr extended warranty) who to call, so I went with the "live chat" option from their website. Totally useless and frustrating.

Posted by: WA2CHI | August 30, 2007 3:25 PM | Report abuse

I always advise everyone who asks me about buying a notebook to go for the three-year extended warranty, as notebooks seem to have a built-in knowledge of when that warranty expires, and unlike with desktop systems, repairs are very expensive (if even possible). While notebook vendors would no doubt love it if everyone bought a new notebook every year, the reality for most people I talk to is that they want it to last 3 to 5 years, and they need it fixed quickly. Including the quality and length of service programs in the comparison of products is something that everyone should be doing.

Posted by: R. Watson | August 30, 2007 4:39 PM | Report abuse

Worse than short battery use is short battery life. The battery on my Inspiron has given out and a new one apparently costs $200. Is this a joke?

Posted by: KC | August 30, 2007 6:34 PM | Report abuse

I pretty look at my laptop as just an appliance I expect to work. My Dell does just fine. "Stylish" computers are rarely worth the additional price to me.

However, my mother recently got a Toughbook form her office. I was amazed at how much nicer it was to have a fully-functional computer (w/ optical drive) weighing under 3.5 lbs.

I wouldn't pay the $1000 difference in price, though.

Posted by: Jerry | August 30, 2007 7:20 PM | Report abuse

I am a ThinkPad loyalist, so I'm a little disappointed you haven't spent more time on them. After seeing many a flimsy Inspiron keyboard and snazzy-but-unwieldy Vaio, I have concluded that it's well worth the extra cost to get a sturdy, carefully designed system with no-hassle support.

Posted by: William | August 30, 2007 8:55 PM | Report abuse

After 20 years of PC's and laptops, I gave up and got a mac.

While some say it is stylish, to me it is basic, intuitive, and works. If something is wrong, it tells you. No hunting and searching.

I wanted to keep my 4 year old dell but it was maxed out on memory at 512 mg and required constant tweaking to run. Vista would have killed it.

While I paid twice as much for the mac, compared to the dell, I can see owning it for twice as long as the dell, maybe longer.

I just want it to work.

Posted by: islander | August 30, 2007 9:46 PM | Report abuse

I agree with "William's" comments. Of course, I may be prejudiced, since I'm one of the guys you would talk to if you have problems with your Thinkpad. We are all here in the Atlanta, GA call center, which is manned 24-7. We provide Warranty support for the hardware and the IBM ThinkVantage applications.

All shipping (parts, boxes for Depot repairs, etc.) is sent overnight, Monday-Friday, by DHL. We also provide the same support for the Lenovo 3000 laptops, but they're just not in the same league with Thinkpads, in design or quality of components (so don't buy a Lenovo 3000 thinking they're the same inside).

If your Thinkpad is in warranty, ALL component failures are repaired or replaced at no cost to you. This means EVERYTHING, except batteries and accidental or willful damage (cracked LCD, liquid spill, case broken by impact, etc.). Even accidental damage is covered if you purchase "Thinkpad Protection" when you buy the laptop. And, you can extend your warranty as long as you like (in most cases).

Batteries have a 1-year warranty, because they are a "consumable" part, and battery life is VERY dependent on your power settings.

Thinkpads are designed so that most major components, except the System Board and the LCD, are USER REPLACEABLE! There are pages on the Lenovo Web site for written removal & installation instructions with drawings, as well as removal & installation movies, if you have trouble following written instructions. The User Replaceable Parts on most systems include the hard drive, keyboard, memory, optical drive, palm rest with touchpad and/or fingerprint reader, modem/Bluetooth daughter card, and Wi-Fi card. This minimizes the customer's down time, since the laptop doesn't have to be sent to the Repair Depot. It also saves money for the company.

If you DO have to send the laptop in for repair, we overnight a box (with a return shipping label) specifically designed to protect the Thinkpad in transit. And if your problem doesn't involve the hard drive, we show you the Removal & Installation page, so you can remove it before shipping. This safeguards your data, and prevents the possibility of vibration-induced problems with the drive.

And, if you call before 5:00PM your local time, your part or box is shipped that same day, so you'll receive it the next day (except weekends & holidays).

I think that's pretty good service, and most customers seem to agree. A large percentage of customers own more than one Thinkpad, which is why we have to ask for the serial number every time you call.

And, now, Microsoft even lets us sell downgrades to XP Pro for those poor unfortunates who bought laptops with Vista Business or Vista Ultimate until 7/31/08! Unfortunately, Vista Home Basic & Home Premium owners still have to suffer, unless Microsoft relents and includes them, too.

Note to Thinkpad owners:
Try to avoid calling on Monday or Friday, if you can. They're our busiest days, and you'll probably have to wait in a queue. And, if someone gives you a case or reference number before transferring you to a tech, tell the tech you have an EXISTING case, please.

Note to Rob: If a laptop has discrete graphics, it means there's a separate graphics chip and graphics memory, but they're still usually a part of the system board. The only laptop brand I know that has a removable graphics CARD is Alienware.

Posted by: Bill in Atlanta | August 31, 2007 5:50 AM | Report abuse

To Bill in Atlanta, I own a Lenovo with Vista Premium so I am interested in knowing more details about your comment. Can you please expand, thank you.

"And, now, Microsoft even lets us sell downgrades to XP Pro for those poor unfortunates who bought laptops with Vista Business or Vista Ultimate until 7/31/08! Unfortunately, Vista Home Basic & Home Premium owners still have to suffer, unless Microsoft relents and includes them, too."

Posted by: Fern | August 31, 2007 8:01 AM | Report abuse

I've been an Apple laptop owner ever since my clamshell (toilet lid?) iBook, and I've progressed to a Titanium G4 and now a MacBook Pro. Despite the silly names, IMHO, they work great and last for years. I've got the iBook running OS X.4; It's slow, but works fine. In fact, the most limiting thing about it is the screen resolution.

The only thing I'm worried about is that as Apple computers grow in popularity (great computers, great OS, cool factor) and size, their customer service will naturally decline. And that's a shame.

And they really need to change the name of their so-called "Genius Bar." Yikes.

Posted by: Charles | August 31, 2007 9:04 AM | Report abuse

I've been looking for the same things in a laptop since my 1995 Toshiba Satellite -- in this order: clean function, lots of RAM, light weight and affordability. I am not a MAC person AT ALL and loved my VAIO -- I had one of the early light weight ones. When it just got tired I got on my present roller coaster but finally gave up and bought a PowerBook because it was the cheapest high-memory lightweight. It's really tough going back and forth between Windows and MAC; Typepad does not provide spell check on the Mac interface, Word and Excel for Mac are just different enough to be annoying etc. But at least it holds my music and photos and I can carry it without falling over. Sigh.

Posted by: Cynthia Samuels | August 31, 2007 9:29 AM | Report abuse

I am with G Man who says most people want a Tarus for a laptop. It should just work and doesn't need to be stylish.

Unfortunately, I don't think you can have a notebook that just works and doesn't worry about style. After using both Windows-based and Mac notebooks, I can tell you, there is no comparison. Mac's are far less trouble. Unlike perhaps other Mac users who love the design and style of Mac notebooks, I don't care one thing or another about the styling. However, having a computer that is little trouble is the important thing to me. I'll just have to live with the style.

Posted by: Greg Smith | August 31, 2007 10:16 AM | Report abuse

Well, I'm a longtime macfanboy fully capable of working with XP -- heck, it's running on my macbook right now! -- whose main reason for pushing macs is,


More and more of the programmers in my office are switching to macs (or installing Ubuntu on their aging PCs). Yes, they're a BIT more expensive than the cheapest PCs out there, but once you compare apples to apples and match specs, the price differences fade.

When your PC ends its useful life after 2-3 years, your mac's only about halfway. Since 1985, my macs average about 7 years of useful lifespan. No WAY a $500 dell will do that.

By the way, Rob, check out this review by Jenn of on her initial setup of her brand new Vaio TZ. It'll blow your mind how bloated and bogged down by extraneous crapware it is. Who needs to wait 17 minutes to have their welcome screen come up??

Bah. Gimme a mac or gimme pen and paper.

Posted by: Bush -- not related | August 31, 2007 12:39 PM | Report abuse

Rob, as I said yesterday, for many folks, laptops are becoming the new desktop replacements, so weight, size, and battery usage life are not as important for them. I agree with the others here that distinctive design is less important than reliability. Also, what I didn't say yesterday re a suggestion of yours: getting "free" tech support by relying on a geek friend is a good way to lose a friend AND your tech support. Better to pay upfront for tech support if you are not inclined to figure things out for yourself. I just went through this with a friend of mine.

Posted by: Pam Clonaze | August 31, 2007 3:42 PM | Report abuse

I too went to a Mac about 18 months ago after a dreadful experience with Toshiba; I replaced the motherboard twice plus there were other bad events too numerous to mention, including a promise of complete replacement of this lemon, as they should have done, a promise never carried out. Toshiba is now on its third "official" repair site in the San Francisco Bay area. The last guys seem to know what they're doing. Fortunately I bought the Toshiba insurance program. That expires in a few months. Then it's another Mac for me. As the mantra goes, "They Just Work."

Posted by: Sandy | August 31, 2007 5:13 PM | Report abuse

To Fern:

If your Thinkpad came with Vista Business or Vista Ultimate as the pre-loaded operating system, you can call laptop tech support (1-800-426-7378, opt 1, opt 5, opt 1) and purchase Windows XP Pro Recovery CDs for your Thinkpad. You will need a credit card, and the cost is $45 + $3.03 Shipping + Tax (varies by state). You can do this 24 hours a day, 7 days a week.

For more information, go to:

Again, this is available for Vista Business and Vista Ultimate ONLY.

PLEASE DON'T CALL if you have Vista Home Basic or Vista Home Premium, because we CAN'T sell you the discs, no matter how nicely you ask, how many times you call, or how much you threaten or cajole. Even if you do manage to get a TSR to try and order them from you, the people who take your payment information won't approve the order.

Posted by: Bill in Atlanta | September 1, 2007 2:15 AM | Report abuse


If I forgot to mention, this offer applies to ALL Lenovo laptops, not just Thinkpads.

Posted by: Bill in Atlanta | September 1, 2007 2:17 AM | Report abuse

I've been a loyal Macintosh user since 1988 for several reasons (including style, design, power, and ease of use) but primarily because they make sense and they WORK.

For the past 18 months I've been employed by a huge company with wall-to-wall Dell computers in every cube running Windows XP "Pro" on what appears to be a sluggish intranet/internet with several EXPENSIVE but pathetic industry-specific software programs (by different publishers and each one flawed for similar reasons) as well as the standard "Office" crap from Redmond. My Mac-bias has no relevance in this scenario as the daily frustration of my department team members is evidence enough that decision-makers in Corporate America have their neckties too tight, cutting off oxygen to their brains. What they've collectively decided is "standard" and "acceptable" for workflow process and efficient productivity is a sad joke.

After a ten-hour day in this so-called "enterprise" setting, co-workers are stunned to find me outside the coffee shop downstairs, surfing the free WiFi on my personal 17" MacBook Pro. I simply reply, "that upstairs was WORK, this is relaxing and FUN."

Windows users seem to have a certain mindset that computers are merely tools to get things done. The several comments above about "appliances" are case in point. My questions remain: why are so many of these appliances defective? How can Gates and company get away with shipping over-priced products with so many bugs? If these Dell, HP, and Gateway machines (and bundled software) were indeed appliances like freezers and microwaves, you all wouldn't think twice about returning them to the big box superstores in the suburbs from whence they came!

What a joy it is to use my sleek, stylish, and WELL-DESIGNED Apple laptop. OS X 10.4 rocks. The Intel Dual Core 2 processor inside (yes, OMG, it has "Intel Inside!") kicks butt, too.

iLIfe, iWork, OS X, and all of the Mac-based programs I run (from Adobe, Nikon, and Roxio among others) simply WORK, making my computing experience a pleasure.

Having an appliance that LOOKS cool is one thing. Having an appliance that looks cool and produces quality RESULTS is what it's all about. Design that factors in all aspects of my needs through an interface that is intuitive and hardware that is up to the challenge of the tasks at hand is how it SHOULD be done. THIS, my fellow Windows-slaves, is the REAL standard. The bar gets raised by Apple at every turn. They do it right. Then, they continue to surprise and wow me with their genius and creativity.

The MacBook Pro is an ideal laptop. I LOVE it!

Posted by: Keith in Pittsburgh | September 1, 2007 8:06 AM | Report abuse

Laptops should be treated as commodities. Otherwise, you are wasting your money looking for latest and tweakiest got-to-have-it laptop thingie. For me, I just get USED laptops from Ebay. I keep getting the same HP Omnibook (that's before Pavilion) laptop model when my current laptop dies and swap out my harddrive and the ram that then gets inserted into the newly-arrived-but-same HP laptop model that I bought off of Ebay. I've been doing this after the warranties expired on the original-same-model laptop that I had. (And buying extended warranties is for the birds!) My original-same-model laptop died years afterwards after those warranties expired. After looking at the then still outrageous prices on new laptops, I found the same model on Ebay for much less. Bought that and continued doing that more ever since. Why should I get a brand new laptop, when what I had was working fine with Windows XP with all my software the way I want it all to work with all of my tweaked settings. I didn't want to start with a new laptop doing all that new stuff again getting the laptop to work the way I would want it to work. If there is nothing worse, it's that getting a new laptop for too much money at a store and then having to get it to way you want including removing all the crapware that you get on a new laptop. No Thank You. I'll just treat my laptop as a commodity. Don't succumb to the got-to-have-the-latest geek nonsense. I instead reincarnate my laptop by getting the same model on Ebay for a lot less money and swapping and backing up my harddrive so I can get the same laptop experience that I've always been getting. Don't need that overly hyped Vista-not-ready-for-primetime nonsense on new too-expensive over-powered over-heated bulky battery-exploding laptops that probably have a good chance of being recalled anyways. I do just about the same thing with my car where I'm just doing maintenance, changing the oil, tires, whatever to keep it working instead of buying a damn new car because my car is "old" because it's several years old when it is still a damn good car which is just a commodity that you can keep running. Computers should be treated the same way. You don't have to bow to the whims of Microsoft whenever they come up with some new convoluted operating system that requires that you buy a new laptop. That's nonsense. Just treat the laptop as a commodity and don't just discard because you have to have latest trendy thing.

Posted by: LaptopShouldBeCommodities | September 1, 2007 5:28 PM | Report abuse

Keith in Pittsburgh said:

"How can Gates and company get away with shipping over-priced products with so many bugs?"

How? By using one of the most outrageous pieces of legal fiction ever written, the End User Licence Aggreement (EULA).

Have you ever actually READ the EULA for Windows? It's AMAZING! Basically, it says that Microsoft (or any other software company, for that matter) bears NO responsibility for the software failing to fulfill ANY possible function, ADVERTISED OR NOT. In fact, they won't take responsibility for it to work AT ALL! And, if it doesn't work, your only recourse is to exchange it FOR THE EXACT SAME THING!

"Refunds? Hah! We don't give no stinking refunds!"

By the way, you don't really "buy" Windows anymore. Since XP, when "validation" became necessary, you're only granted permission to "use" Windows. And now, if you're foolish enough to drink the Microsoft Kool-Aid and get Vista, Microsoft can disable your computer AT WILL whenever you connect to the Internet.

Caveat Emptor.

Posted by: Bill in Atlanta | September 2, 2007 4:39 AM | Report abuse

Oh, oh... this comments section has turned into yet another "I hated Microsoft. I love Apple." discussion. If I had a nickel for every one of these that has appeared on the Web in the last 15 years, I'd be living next to Steve Jobs. For whatever reason, most people have PCs that run Windows. That is simply the reality. Fanboy and girl discussions to the contrary, this not likely to change anytime soon. What I like about Rob Pegoraro is that he deals in this reality, AND holds manufacturers' feet to fire by offering good suggestions about how they can improve their products. Lighter, faster laptops filled with less mediocre productivity software are in everybody's interest, no matter who makes them and no matter what software they run.

Posted by: Pam Clonaze | September 3, 2007 3:53 PM | Report abuse

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