If you want a reliable Windows PC, maybe you should get a Mac.
That’s the conclusion of a new report released today by Soluto, which crunched the data from its cloud-based PC monitoring and management software to come up with a list of the 10 most reliable portable PCs you can buy today.
The most reliable Windows PC you can buy today, according to Soluto’s report, doesn’t come from one of the leading hardware OEMs. Instead, it’s built by Microsoft’s archrival Apple. (You'll have to use Apple's Boot Camp utility and buy your own Windows license to transform the Mac into a Windows PC.)
The report also provides a partial answer to the age-old question of whether you should use a vendor’s OEM image of Windows or wipe it and perform a clean installation.
Soluto’s database includes data gathered from millions of machines running Windows. For this study, the company chose a sample of data gathered in the first three months of 2013 from 150,000 portable PCs. They filtered the dataset so it includes only models available for purchase today, running Windows 7 or Windows 8.
That left a total of 49 models from a who’s who of hardware makers. The world’s leading PC OEM, HP, had the most entries on the list, followed in order by Lenovo, Dell, Samsung, ASUS, Acer, Toshiba, and Apple.
At the top of the Soluto list is the 13-inch MacBook Pro (mid-2012 model), which earned the best reliability score of the bunch. The score takes into account program crashes and hangs (events in which an application becomes nonresponsive for at least five seconds), average boot time, the number of background processes, and the number of BSODs (STOP errors, aka the “Blue Screen of Death”) per week.
What’s most startling about this top-10 list is who’s not on it. HP isn’t represented at all, and giant Lenovo squeaked in to take the last spot on the list with its pricey ThinkPad X1 Carbon. ASUS and Samsung are nowhere to be found.
By contrast, Dell makes half the models on the list, and Acer earned two spots, including a close second.
The secret of their success isn’t all that surprising. Both companies deliver relatively clean installations of Windows, with close attention paid to drivers. Dell includes minimal amounts of third-party software in its PCs, a practice that adds to the reliability of its products. By contrast, when I last looked at consumer PCs from HP and Samsung I found that crapware was a performance-sapping nightmare.
Acer’s Aspire E1, a bargain-priced 15-inch notebook, earned rock-solid reliability scores, nearly equal to those of a clean install of Windows on a MacBook Pro that costs nearly three times as much. That’s a significant data point in favor of the argument that PC OEMs can indeed ship reliable hardware with a factory installation of Windows. Wipe-and-reinstall should be an option, not a necessity.
Soluto shared one data point with me that you won’t find in the report. In their sample, 35 percent of Lenovos had non-OEM Windows installations, meaning they had been wiped and reimaged by the owner. For Dell and HP, the percentages were 28 percent and 22 percent, respectively. By contrast, only 15 percent of Acer machines were reimaged. I suspect the higher percentages are an indication of a greater share of Lenovos and Dells among IT pros and corporate buyers, with Acer being much more focused on a consumer market that is unlikely to do the radical surgery of a clean Windows install.
A closer look at the raw data suggests that BSODs, in which Windows stops working because of a fatal memory error or driver flaw, are relatively infrequent. On a 13-inch MacBook Pro (non Retina) with a clean install of Windows, Soluto’s data suggests you’ll see a BSOD once every two years. On a Dell XPS 13 Ultrabook, a BSOD raised its ugly head at a rate equal to one every nine months or so. By contrast, the sample data from 15-inch MacBook Pros with Retina displays suffered BSODs at a rate of one every five weeks.
Without looking more closely at the data, it’s impossible to tell whether those crashes on the more expensive expensive MacBook Pro Retina are the result of bad drivers from Apple or third-party drivers and system software that don’t play well with Apple’s expensive hardware. They might also have included Windows 8 installations using the Windows 7 version of Boot Camp.
As the report notes, Apple’s two entries in the list should include a giant asterisk. Running Windows directly on a Mac (without the use of virtualization software) requires using Apple’s Boot Camp utility and purchasing a separate Windows license at a typical cost of between $130 and $200. You then have to partition the hard disk and install Windows yourself.
Despite those extra hurdles, there were enough Mac owners willing to endure the hassle of running Windows on a Mac to put those models on Soluto's radar.
Because of the timing of this study, most of the machines (roughly 89 percent) were running Windows 7, with just over 10 percent running Windows 8. Neither Microsoft’s Surface Pro, which went on sale in the middle of the data-collection period, nor any touchscreen-equipped Windows 8 PCs are represented in the report. That situation should change over the course of the next few months, and those models will be reflected in future editions of Soluto’s reports.
There’s more to purchasing a PC than just reliability, of course. Price is an important consideration for both consumers and businesses. The average price of the eight Windows PCs in the Soluto list is $682. That’s $1500 less than you’ll pay for a MacBook Pro with Retina display.
And there are other considerations as well. Some, like build quality, size, and weight, can be quantified. Others, like the feel of a keyboard or the operation of a trackpad, are intangible. And running Windows on a Mac adds other headaches, including compatibility issues with imaging and backup software.
If you’re attracted to any of these PCs, I urge you to read the entire Soluto report so you can catch some of the subtleties in their analysis.