You're desperately seeking reassurance yet the typical bland mushroom- grey outside of a PC could hardly be less revealing about what is going on inside. Fingering the keyboard of the latest model in the shop tells you nothing about the track record of the company that makes it or how they'll react when problems occur. And problems, as the PC buying public are coming to realise, certainly do occur.
In its August edition, PC Magazine publishes its annual UK service and reliability survey. This report, drawing from the experiences of its readership, amasses statistics from questionnaires covering more than 20,000 pieces of equipment and reveals some amazing facts.
For those anticipating a trouble-free computer purchasing experience, the bad news from the survey is that a staggering 12 per cent of desktop systems were delivered in less than full working order. For some vendors, this figure (known as Dead On Arrival or DOA to the trade) is approaching a shocking 20 per cent. The best result, from Hewlett-Packard, was a more reasonable, though still worrying, 2 per cent.
The questionnaire covered subjects such as system failures, technical support, repairs and overall satisfaction. Respondents were also asked about the put-your-money-where-your-mouth-is likelihood of repurchasing from the same vendor. The winner in that category was Dan Technology, squeaking ahead of Gateway 2000.
Taking every factor into consideration and weighing up all the data, the magazine's overall service and reliability winner for desktop systems was Hewlett-Packard. This is no flash in the pan either - this is the fourth year in a row that HP has won the award.
Portable systems were surveyed separately and, thankfully, proved more reliable on delivery than desktops. DOAs from vendors in the survey ranged from 3.8 per cent to almost 6 per cent. Last year it was the direct-selling Dell that ousted the market-dominating Toshiba to win the portable service and reliability award. This year Toshiba has reasserted itself, coming top and walking off with the prizes, with Dell dropping back to a still creditable second place ahead of IBM and Compaq.
The survey data clearly shows that, regardless of user perception or satisfaction with service and technical support, Toshiba's portables have a lower failure rate than other brands. Dell, on the other hand, evidently puts a lot of care into its customer service, coming out top in satisfaction with support and repairs. This hand-holding pays off as more customers said they would buy again from Dell than any other portable supplier.
Printers were also covered in the survey. The picture here is more complicated in that quite different technologies are compared - everything from dot matrix to laser. In past years, it was the inkjet printer that produced the most popular combination of quality and price. Today, though, it is the laser printer that will be found on most peoples' desks. Two-thirds of new printers use laser technology.
Hewlett-Packard is the market leader in both inkjet and laser printers but, despite its all-powerful position, this company clearly doesn't take service and reliability for granted. Not content with winning the desktop PC award, HP also takes service and reliability honours for printers. It comes out top in almost every area of the printer survey and, unsurprisingly, readers were more likely to want to buy again from this reputable manufacturer than any other supplier.
Overall, the survey shows that the computer industry could do a lot better with its quality. The argument goes, though, that if you want leading- edge technology, the price you pay is less than bullet-proof reliability. Otherwise, there is always the typewriter.