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Macs beat all in Consumer Reports computer issue

If you're shopping for a computer with a good balance of features, performance and price, check out a Mac. And if solid tech support is a major concern, your choice is even clearer – Apple's support tops all competitors.

So says Consumer Reports in its annual computer-buying extravaganza (June issue). The latest data continues the trend, as it has the past few years, of overall praise for Apple's line of Mac laptops and desktops an in particular for its customer support.

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On tech support issues, Apple stands out. Its reader score for laptops is 83 out of 100 (meaning it solved the problem 83 percent of the time), well ahead of Lenovo's 66 and Dell's 60.

Apple beats its rivals by an even greater degree in the desktop category. Its score of 81 percent led the field by an embarrassingly large margin; second-place Dell (56 percent) trailed by 25 points, just ahead of Gateway (54 percent).

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Not that Consumer Reports has been chugging Steve Jobs' Kool-Aid. As it has done often, CR criticized Apple for its brief 90 days of free tech support compared with a year for most other PC makers.

Because of that, as well as the above-average service Apple customers get with paid support plans, the magazine advises Mac buyers purchase an AppleCare plan.

Consumer Reports also points out, however, that all Mac owners can get free tech support at the Genius Bar in Apple's retail stores, which CR says solved problems an impressive 90 percent of the time. But the customer is responsible for the cost of any required repairs.

However, the CR piece misleads a bit when it describes the Genius Bar as "walk-in support." Yes, you can walk in to any Apple Store with a Mac problem but you can't consult with a Mac Genius unless you've made a reservation.

The only truly bad news for Apple appears in the main article, in the "Brand Repair history" survey chart. While Apple's desktops boast the fewest repairs – 12 percent versus 17 percent for its closest PC competitors – Apple's laptops sit at the bottom of their category.

According to the CR survey, 23 percent of Mac laptops required repair or had a serious problem. While that's not so far from Lenovo's category leading 20 percent, Apple should take note that the quality control of its laptop line could stand improvement.

Elsewhere in the main article, in which CR makes its general recommendations, both Mac laptops and desktops earn high marks.

In the 15.4-inch "workhorse" laptop category, the MacBook Pro was the magazine's top choice: "The Apple weighed the least and had the best battery life among the 15-inch models."

The beefier 17-inch MacBook Pro earned top honors in the "Best Desktop replacement category despite its much higher price relative to its competition (it costs $1,000 more than the next cheapest laptop in that category – a Sony Vaio VGN-AR770).

Meanwhile the newest member of the MacBook family, the MacBook Air, managed to take second in the "Best Lightweight laptops" category on the strength of its exceptionally low weight (3 pounds), strong battery life and slim form factor. The CR editors apparently decided those characteristics trumped the Air's higher price and missing features (no CD/DVD drive or Ethernet port).

Here's how CR assesses the Air: "This somewhat pricey, ultra-thin ultra-portable won't replace your everyday laptop, but the generous keyboard, touchpad technology, and small size make it worth considering. The compromises are in performance and ease of loading and unloading data."

On the desktop side, the Mac appears absent at first, but it turns out Consumer Reports has added a third Apple-inspired category: all-in-ones.

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CR says the best inexpensive all-in-one is the 20-inch iMac ("excellent performance and good ergonomics") -- and that was before last week's processor upgrade. Going from a 2.0 gigahertz Intel Core 2 Duo to a 2.4 GHz Core 2 Duo, the 20-inch iMac represents an even better value now.

The 24-inch iMac was ranked behind the HP TouchSmart IQ775 (who comes up with these names?), but that model's processor upgrade to a 3.06 GHz Core 2 Duo from 2.4 GHz enhances its value quite a bit, too.

Curiously, the Mac Pro got no mention in the "high-end" desktop category, perhaps because it's not aimed at ordinary consumers but rather video and graphics professionals.

Overall, this year's CR report card looks as more favorably upon the Mac than ever. That's the sort of positive reinforcement that could encourage more potential Windows users to switch in the months ahead, maintaining the Mac's market share growth momentum.

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