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Notebook PCs spell trouble

A market research firm says that a number of notebooks are prone to glitches because makers push them out the door too quickly.

Gartner Group has released a report stating that there is a crisis in the notebook PC industry rooted in the tendency of manufacturers to frantically ship systems because of the fast pace of processor introductions.

"The notebook industry is experiencing a crisis of quality...the quality problems are due in large part to Intel's closely spaced processor introductions, which reduce the testing and planning time available for each new model," the report says.

In the rush to get products out the door, vendors may be shipping lower-quality products than they normally would. "They'll hold a product if it crashes dead, catches on fire, or loses data. Otherwise they'll ship it out the door with patches," said Leslie Firing, a vice president at Gartner.

Notebooks are harder to upgrade and redesign than desktops because of their tight integration and lack of internal space. This means that changes to designs need more testing then the same modifications to a desktop unit might require.

"Everybody is having problems. There is not a single vendor that is immune," said Leslie Firing, a Vice President at Gartner. "We've been saying this for about a year."

Quality problems have become so widespread that Garnter no longer considers it a problem when there's a single flaw in a single product. "It doesn't hit the radar anymore," Firing said.

The report goes on to say that notebook vendors generally release systems before they are thoroughly tested because "notebook products will only be profitable for the first few months of their life. If a vendor delays release too long, to fix every known bug, the product will probably ship too late to realize a profit margin."

One of the main causes, according to the report, is a notebook's BIOS, or Basic Input-Output System, software that is crucial for setting up hardware configurations when the computer starts up. BIOS software that has not been properly "debugged" can cause a host of problems.

"BIOS has become very complex in notebooks, requiring complex testing protocols and high levels of research and development spending," according to the report.

The report says that notebook vendors' policy for shipment is to eliminate all the "fatal" bugs and handle remaining bugs after the computer is shipped, with fixes, patches, and help desk support.

The report cited certain Compaq Computer models, though Compaq has been quick to address the claims and disputes some.

Gartner has put the Compaq Armada 4100 on its Problem Watch list with a "do not buy" rating; the LTE 5000s were tagged as "buy with caution."

Compaq acknowledged the problems but was quick to note that solutions for many common problems are available. For example, Compaq recommended that LTE 5000 users upgrade to ROM version 5.50 or later, and noted that similar upgrades are available for the Armada 4100s.

The company also says it is implementing changes in its support policies, spare parts refurbishment, design, and manufacturing processes.

"We have corrected the 4100 problem...any problem we see gets corrected in anything we have not sold to a customer. We update inventory prior to customer sale," said Ted Clark, vice president of notebook PC marketing. "The design changes are immediately instituted in the factory," he added.

Indeed, notebook quality problems are certainly not limited to Compaq. The press has reported problems with several top-tier notebook PC companies, including market leader Toshiba.

Obtaining spare parts is currently a big issue for Toshiba owners, according to Firing. "You can wait 6 weeks for a part." Losing the use of a notebook for such a long period of time can adversly affect the unit's total cost of ownership, an important issue for companies that own large numbers of the same laptop.

Apple computer is recovering from major quality problems with its 1996 line of laptops, particularly the ill-fated 5300, which caught fire and had other less dramatic hardware defects. Having replaced the 5300 line, Apple is now trying to rebuild its reputation as a quality laptop vendor.

Hardware and software glitches are more common with notebooks than desktop PCs, which are built from more standardized and widely tested hardware. Construction of notebooks is in some cases more of an art than a science because each vendor's system is based on a unique design with fewer off-the-shelf components.

The study is the result of a compilation of complaints from Gartner Group clients during the first quarter of 1997. The complaints were mainly related to high "dead on arrival" and "infant mortality" (failures within 30 days) rates, as well as component failures in areas such as power supplies, batteries, motherboards, hard drives, and ROMs.

Problem Watch monitors notebooks from major vendors and reports transient or localized problems of several kinds, including product quality. "Vendors' products must have multiple, recurring problems across a variety of models to be on Problem Watch," according to the consulting firm's announcement.