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 by Consumer Reports, laptop owners reported that they expected their computers to last five years. And yet, almost one in five 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:
Apple tops Consumer Reports' reliability list. Only 10 percent of the brand's laptops required repairs by the third year of ownership, although those repairs might have been costly, according to the survey. 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 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 tend to reveal themselves rather quickly. About one 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.
When problems strike. 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 one-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.
Are warranty plans worth it? Consumer Reports usually doesn't recommend springing for an extended warranty for any product because it has generally found that the benefits 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.
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 might already be covered by the standard warranty.