Netbook failure rate disappoints major user

IS project manager questions short lifespans of netbooks purchased

Netbooks are cheaper, lighter and generally operate more slowly than an ordinary laptop -- but should their expected lifespan be shorter?

That is the question Public Service Association (PSA) IS project manager Richard Finlay is asking after three of the six Hewlett Packard mini notebooks he purchased failed in less than 15 months. He met with HP and distributor The Laptop Company to formally complain and was later informed that the models he had purchased -- HP2140 and HP2133 -- were not expected to last beyond two years.

"The units purchased are essentially low-end models and as such the lifespan is only estimated to be 15-24 month," HP business development manager Gill Brown wrote in an email to Finlay.

He is disappointed with her reply. "HP's netbooks are not the cheapest on the market. My users accept that to get the convenience of the small and lighter equipment there is a trade off in performance. I don't accept that there should be a trade off in quality," he told Computerworld.

The PSA is a union representing 57,000 members in government departments, local government, the health sector and other government agencies. The majority of the union's workforce is mobile, as is reflected in its IT spend -- of the 125 users, only 15 have desktop computers, the rest are supplied with laptops and netbooks.

Finlay points out in an email to HP that the PSA bought more than 80 HP laptops and in 18 months only one has failed (another five have been "destroyed" by users), but he is satisfied with that failure rate.

In response to questions from Computerworld, HP market development manager for business notebooks Simon Molloy says the expected lifespan for desktop and notebook PCs is three to five years.

"Notebooks and netbooks do, by their very nature, tend to have a shorter lifespan than desktop PCs as they can be knocked, bumped or dropped while being carried or moved," he wrote in an email response.

Depending on the model, netbooks and notebooks come with a year or three-year warranty. "As netbook prices continue to drop, the cost to repair the unit can be prohibitive and at times it can be more cost effective to replace it. HP encourages customers to upgrade their warranty to provide total peace of mind for the expected lifespan of the device," Molloy wrote.

He was unable refer directly to Finlay's complaint because "HP is unable to comment on particular customer cases."

As the PSA netbooks were purchased with a standard 12-month warranty Finlay was advised by The Laptop Company corporate account manager Vince Eggels to buy two additional years of warranty to cover the netbooks that hadn't failed, and the others that have been replaced.

Eggels says that netbooks are not designed to the same spec as a laptop and that they are manufactured for a niche market. He describes it as "a student or a person that generally uses email only and doesn't mind the slower speed or the smaller screen."

Sales of netbooks have not been as buoyant as was first predicted he says. "As with anything that comes out to the market there is a lot of rah-rah and there was a lot of rah-rah about netbooks, but I think customers have been quite savvy and realised they aren't the be-all-and-end-all and they probably haven't taken off as much as the manufacturers had hoped."

So are netbooks suitable for the major users? Not according to Gary Wicks, the Toshiba country manager, information systems division. "It is not something we recommend corporates buy. We don't believe the user experience is what they desire from a corporate point of view. We have an offering of course, because there is a demand for it," he says.

Toshiba began manufacturing netbooks after Intel introduced the Atom processor in late 2008 he says. The company has two netbooks specifically for the corporate market, which are a "slightly tougher build" and that these are "definitely three-year machines".

"If I was to look at the whole life cycle and say has it been a good product?," Wicks says. "Well, it has been OK, nowhere near as profitable as other mobile products, but that also puts a negative on it from our point of view."

Meanwhile, Finlay says demand for netbooks continues to grow from users in his organisation.

He has considered purchasing Apple's iPad instead of netbooks, but two things have held him back -- it is not possible to print from an iPad and it does not have an inbuilt camera.

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Tags hardware systemslaptopsHewlett-Packardnetbooks