Mobile Computing: Which Notebook to Buy?

The other day, my friend Don asked me something many of you are probably asking yourself this time of year. And no, the question wasn't "Paper or plastic?" It was "Which laptop should I buy?"

To help you find the answer, I've sifted through editorial ratings and reader survey results from PC World, Consumer Reports, and some of our competitors, including PC Magazine, CNet, and Mobile magazine (which recently ceased publication). Based on my highly unscientific survey, I've come up with some likely notebook contenders to get you going.

The Best Reviews

Acer TravelMate. Every month, PC World updates its "Top 10 Notebook PCs" chart. Among the models recently listed, the $1999 Acer TravelMate 8100 was the top desktop replacement model (PC World's rating is 86, Very Good). I found other Acer TravelMate models on the chart, including the 4564 (no longer offered on Acer's Web site) and the 3000 series, listed among the top-ranked notebooks at some of our competitors' Web sites. Based on this consensus, then, you might take a look at Acer TravelMate notebooks.

Dell Inspiron 6000. With a PC World Rating of 83 (Very Good), this notebook was recently among our top desktop replacement notebook picks. Consumer Reports' December 2005 issue also lists the Dell Inspiron 6000 among its highest-rated models, and it was also among two of our competitors' top-rated notebooks. The price of our review unit was $1964.

Other notebooks earning a thumbs-up from PC World and at least one other reviewer include:

The Best Tech Support

Apple consistently tops reader-survey rankings of notebook makers with the most satisfying tech support. For instance, in Consumer Reports' December 2005 survey, Apple received the top reader score of 82. However, PC World's latest reliability and service survey rated Apple's service satisfaction as "average"; and Mobile magazine editors recently gave Apple a "D" for tech support. My take: I've never had anything but good experiences with Apple's support technicians.

Lenovo/IBM has also received high marks from PC World and Consumer Reports readers, as well as from most other sources I checked. Mobile editors disagreed, however, giving IBM a "D" (before its ThinkPad line was acquired by Lenovo).

Dell tech support usually earns solid, though not great, scores. PC World readers gave Dell an average score for service in its most recent survey, and the company was the fourth best for tech support in the Consumer Reports survey.

The Most Reliable Notebooks

Apple often tops the charts in product reliability surveys--and in results published in its January 2006 issue, PC World readers rate Apple's notebook reliability near the top. The Cupertino, California technology giant earned better-than-average scores among PC World readers, and it was the number-one company in the PC Magazine reader survey.

Lenovo/IBM earned above-average scores in at least two surveys--and was in first place in the January 2006 PC World report.

The Take-Aways

  1. Mac fans, take heart: Based on reviews from Consumer Reports and others, you probably won't go wrong with an Apple PowerBook. (PC World doesn't rank Apple notebooks.) But PowerBooks still tend to be pricier than Windows notebooks, and you can't easily or efficiently run your Windows applications on one.
  2. Dell's Inspiron 6000 is a routinely popular choice. And you'll most likely get reasonably good tech support from Dell. Dell's reliability scores are typically average.
  3. The ThinkPad R52 is another contender, earning good reviews from PC World and CNet. Lenovo/IBM's above-average scores for service and reliability from multiple sources certainly add to the ThinkPad R52's appeal.
  4. While Acer notebooks get good reviews, my research turned up precious little information on the company's tech support and reliability track record. So if you don't want to roll the dice on support and reliability, you might be better off with a PowerBook or notebook from Lenovo/IBM or Dell.

What's Your Pick?

What's your nominee for best notebook? Send me an e-mail with the specific name of your notebook choice. Please cast your vote only for a model that's currently available from a major retail source, such as the manufacturer's Web site, Amazon.com, Best Buy, and others. Also, please offer a brief explanation of what you like about your notebook. I'll publish the results in a future issue.

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