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Reg Reader poll on notebook quality: results are in

Are Apple and Sony worth the price premium?

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Our recent poll of Reg readers on their perceptions of some of the most prominent brands in the notebook PC space provided some interesting food for thought for those looking to make procurement decisions in this area. While it is tempting to focus on specs and prices, it was clear from results that there is much more to it than that.

To begin with, we gathered perceptions of quality and value for money, and some pretty big differences in how various manufacturers were perceived emerged from the 400 poll respondents:

Fig 1

What you can see here is a plot of the responses as we received them, ranked in order of the frequency with which brands were cited for high quality. If you squint a bit more closely, the composition of the bars on the chart provide a view of how the value for money dimension overlays this, but the picture becomes clearer if we use this same data to position the various players on a quality/value quadrant as follows:

Fig 2

In this diagram, the closer to the top a brand appears, the more people associated it with good value. Going the other way, the closer to the right, the more votes were registered for high quality. Unlike some other quadrants for comparing technology offerings, the goal with this one is not necessarily to be in the top right hand corner as there is a clearly a place for both basic quality and high quality kit when deploying notebooks in a business environment. It is, though, desirable for manufacturers to be in the upper half of diagram, as this represents a net positive perception on the value for money dimension.

With this in mind, and on the basis that the bulk of the demand in the business market is for ‘workhorse’ machines for use broadly across the workforce, the cluster of mainstream brands in the top left quadrant – basic quality kit representing reasonable value for money - makes absolute sense. It’s worth bearing in mind, however, that we made no attempt at differentiating between perceptions of sub-brands in this poll – e.g. manufacturers such as HP and Dell have multiple product lines ranging from entry level to the higher end. Nevertheless, it is still interesting to see that at an overall level, the brands that we might regard as ‘mainstream’ are largely associated with delivering ‘good enough kit’ at a ‘good enough price’, mirroring the volume level demand.

For the more discerning, but still value conscious customer, it is also interesting to see Toshiba being considered as representing a good balance, and Lenovo highlighted from a quality perspective while still maintaining a net positive perception on price. Of course if money is no object, then Apple and Sony really stand out for quality, but the overwhelming view is that you are paying over the odds for these brands from a value for money perspective. This is consistent with the feedback received via an open question in the poll in which we asked readers to name any brands they would regard as ‘premium’; Apple and Sony were mentioned far more than any other manufacturer.

The other outlier on the above chart is Packard-Bell, but it is probably not fair to dwell too much on its position, as it is largely perceived as being a consumer-oriented brand.

Switching tack, one of the big considerations from an IT perspective is how easy it is to maintain and support the kit once it is in place. The good news is that most of the mainstream brands are considered to be ‘easy’ or ‘OK’ to look after on balance from an operations, troubleshooting, repairs and upgrade perspective, as we can see from the relative size of the green and red segments on this chart:

Fig 3

The other interesting observation here is that the two brands highlighted previously as ‘premium’, Apple and Sony, fare rather less well. Those offering an opinion on these two brands were, for example, more than twice as likely to have highlighted supportability issues compared to, say, Dell, Toshiba or Asus. And if you put Apple to one side for a minute, and focus on the two Windows oriented brands with the highest perception on quality, the difference between them is very clear – while Lenovo kit is considered to be inherently supportable, a significant proportion seem to struggle with Sony.

Beyond looking after the kit within IT, there is then question what happens when you need to call the supplier for help. Players like Lenovo, Toshiba and Asus continue to do pretty well here, and Apple makes up some ground with the perception of good customer service on balance. Sony takes a second hit, however, and the perceived Achilles heel of players like Dell, HP and Acer starts to become apparent. Of course we always need to be careful with online polls about those with extreme views, in this case as a result of bad support experiences, being over-represented (as they take the opportunity to vent their spleen). However, if there were no differences in service experience between brands, we would expect proportionally as many disgruntled Lenovo, Apple, Toshiba and Asus customers to come out of the woodwork too, which we are not seeing. The variation observed is therefore likely to be reflective of reality

But we have to be careful not to take polls like this as absolute gospel. People’s experiences and perceptions are shaped by all kinds of things – an obnoxious sales person or customer services agent could easily colour someone’s view negatively, and predispose them to find fault elsewhere. And it works the other way around too, e.g. Apple users who love their machines have been known to downplay or turn a blind eye to issues that would have Windows users up in arms. And you never know when perceptions were formed either – things may well have changed since a respondent last had experience of a brand if that was several years ago.

That said, a lot of what’s come out of this poll appears to make sense, and if nothing else, it highlights that it’s not just about specs and price when comes to selecting notebooks. Quality, value, supportability and service are important too, as they all impact the ongoing total cost of ownership (TCO). ®

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