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Product Reviews

Should it stay, or should it go?

It’s not always worth the cost of fixing repair-prone appliances and PCs

Replacing electronic gear might be less costly than most people think because prices are steadily dropping in some categories. Replacing electronic gear might be less costly than most people think because prices are steadily dropping in some categories. (Istockphoto.Com)
Consumer Reports / September 11, 2011

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What do side-by-side refrigerators, laptop computers, and zero-turn-radius riding mowers have in common?

They are among the most repair-prone products consumers can buy, according to Consumer Reports’ most recent product reliability survey. And in a separate repair or replace survey, more than 27,000 subscribers reported troubles that they had with about 53,000 broken appliances, electronics, lawn equipment, and more.

Though consumer goods have become more complex and contain more electronics than they did a decade ago, the 33 products featured in the survey aren’t failing more frequently. But when things go wrong, they tend to go horribly wrong.

Consumer Reports National Research Center found that more than half of the products that did break stopped working altogether, and another 30 percent still worked, but poorly. Here’s what else the survey found:

Computers break - a lot. Around 1 in 3 laptops and desktops break by their fourth year. Many computer breakdowns are due to malicious software (malware) or hard drive failure. Installing antivirus software on a computer is the best defense against malware. To be safe, always shut down the device before traveling even a short distance.

Some technologies are finicky. Refrigerators with icemakers are twice as likely to break down as those without. The device’s complicated design and the extreme environment it must operate in explain the high failure rate.

Among laundry appliances, front-loading washers are more repair-prone than top-loaders. The large rubber gasket that forms a watertight seal around the door is often the culprit. Mold is another issue. Manufacturers recommend periodically cleaning the gasket with a bleach solution and keeping the door ajar after each use to allow ventilation.

Extended warranties don’t deliver. Based on Consumer Reports’ survey, appliances usually don’t break during the extended-warranty period. Even when breakdowns occur in that time the median repair cost isn’t much more than the median price of a warranty. A computer might be an exception, especially if you travel frequently and take the device along. Make sure the warranty covers accidental damage and extended tech support.

Brand reliability varies by product. Manufacturers often have strengths and weakness in different product categories. GE, for example, has made very reliable cooking appliances, but its refrigerators with icemakers have been repair-prone. John Deere’s lawn tractors have been very reliable, but its self-propelled lawn mowers have been significantly more prone to repair than other brands. And LG has made reliable plasma TVs and clothes dryers, but not reliable side-by-side refrigerators.

The 50 percent rule still stands. Consumer Reports recommends purchasing a replacement if the repair will cost more than half the price of the new product.

Replacing electronic gear might be less costly than most people think because prices are steadily dropping in some categories. Major appliances, on the other hand, are getting more expensive and usually have long service lives.

Some products are harder to repair. The survey indicates that repairs of gas cooktops, built-in refrigerators, and home-theater systems can also be frustrating because they take an inordinately long time or cost a lot, or because the item requires further service calls. Dryers, electric cooktops, and digital cameras have the highest success and satisfaction rates.

Consumer Reports writes columns, reviews, and ratings on cars, appliances, electronics, and other consumer goods. Previous stories can be found at consumerreports.org.