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Laptops and Gadgets

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William Hanson of Winston-Salem, North Carolina, says that he chose a SanDisk MP3 player in part because of the sturdy flash drive it has inside.
Photograph: Will McIntyre
Notebooks are more delicate than desktops--a fact that is painfully obvious to anyone who has ever dropped one. Fortunately, laptop design continues to improve, says analyst Kay of Endpoint Technologies. In the two years since our previous Reliability and Service survey, more vendors have added features to boost durability, such as accelerometers that detect when the laptop is falling and park the hard drive's head.

Screen breakage used to be the number one vulnerability of portables, but it's less of a concern now that vendors have strengthened laptops with magnesium alloy frames that reduce torque, resulting in less panel damage. "There's an added cost involved, but it's a trade-off that companies are willing to make," says Kay. "It works in the vendor's favor because it reduces warranty costs, and that's a pretty important thing."

In the future, the expected switch to solid-state hard drives will make laptops even more durable. "Once you have those, you've eliminated a huge source of failure, and that's the spinning media," Kay says. "Coming up, that's going to be one of the most important changes in reliability for notebooks." Solid-state drives haven't made a big impact yet because they're too expensive for mainstream use. Putting a solid-state hard drive into a Dell Precision M4300 notebook, for instance, cost an extra $554 at press time. And that solid-state drive was only 32GB, less than half the capacity of the 80GB traditional hard drive that comes standard. That gap will shrink, however, as solid-state manufacturing improves.

Brooks, the longtime IBM/Lenovo user we spoke with, agrees that today's laptops offer better durability, computing power, and connectivity: "Overall, I believe they're better. Especially the hard drives--they live a lot longer than they used to, and the displays are better."

Survey respondents were happier about the reliability and service for their MP3 players, routers, and digital cameras, on the whole, than they were about desktop PCs, laptops, and printers. Among MP3 vendors, for instance, Panasonic, Samsung, and Sony were the only vendors to receive even two subpar scores apiece. Why? Because MP3 players, cameras, and routers have very few moving parts to break.

William Hanson of Winston-Salem, North Carolina, says that he bought a SanDisk MP3 player because he didn't want to be locked into Apple's iTunes format, but also because he prefers flash drives over hard drives. "I did not want to deal with anything mechanical because they're not as durable," he says.

Readers gave camera vendors--in particular, Canon and Sony--high marks for both the reliability and the ease of use of their products. "Product failures are few and far between in digital cameras, and unless it's a specialized camera with a unique feature, most of the problems are user error," says IDC digital camera analyst Chris Chute.

And what sorts of things qualify as "user error"? First and foremost, Chute says, digital cameras are often dropped or set down in places where they can come to harm, Chute says.

Similarly, our readers reported few major reliability problems with routers. Jeff Babcock of Kaukauna, Wisconsin, says his Linksys router works fine, though he wishes it had a stronger wireless signal: "I live in a small one-bedroom apartment, and when I take my laptop into the bedroom, which is probably 60 feet from the router, [the signal] is flaky."

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