Personal computers are mysterious things, representing both promise and peril. Master their wizardry, and play a part in a bright and prosperous future. Fail to catch on, and get left behind in the technological junk heap of history. The lure -- the demand -- to be computer-literate today is stronger than ever, a trend that's bound to continue. Sure, you can do well in society without knowledge of PCs, but you'll have to work harder at it, same as doing without a telephone or a car. Problem is, computers aren't like other appliances. They're more complex and more likely to break down or not work at all, despite continuing improvements. When consumers invest in a PC, and it doesn't work as it should, they might blame themselves, thinking they aren't smart enough or that using the computer is too complicated. And, too often, people give up. Computer companies are to blame, partly. Their business model is based on pushing out millions of machines at a low profit margin per unit. Quality gets sacrificed. In all likelihood any PC you buy never will be thoroughly tested before leaving the factory. Companies typically only spot check batches of machines for defects. But consumers are partly to blame also because most insist on a low price above all else. So it becomes a game of chance. You spend a thousand or so dollars for a new computer, betting that yours will be one of the machines that doesn't have problems. Fortunately, there are ways to improve your odds. Some companies simply produce higher-quality computers than others, at similar prices. Computer and consumer magazines and market research organizations for years have been surveying the computer-buying public to gauge which brands of computers are of higher quality and which are more likely to have problems. Here's a roundup of the latest findings on desktop PCs: PC Magazine: Readers, who are largely business users, say companies with the best reliability, in order, are Dell, Micron, Quantex, Gateway 2000, and Sony. Those with the worst reliability are Packard Bell, Tandy, CompuDyne, AT&T, and Zenith. PC Magazine readers are most likely to buy again from Dell, Micron, and Gateway 2000; and least likely to buy again from Zenith, AT&T, CompuAdd, and Tandy. Companies with a consistently outstanding record of both good reliability and service over the last five years, according to PC Magazine, are Dell, IBM, and Hewlett-Packard. Those with a poor record, and showing no signs of improvement, are Packard Bell, Zenith, and Tandy. Ziff-Davis Market Intelligence: According to this survey of households, the companies with the greatest consumer loyalty are Gateway 2000 and Hewlett-Packard. Those with the worst are Packard Bell and IBM. Consumer Reports: According to the readers of this magazine, the two companies with the best overall scores for reliability and service are Apple and Dell. The two with the worst scores are Packard Bell and AST. Windows: Readers of this magazine rate Dell, Hewlett-Packard, IBM, and Quantex highest on reliability and technical support. They rate AT&T, Digital, and Packard Bell lowest. The companies whose computers needed the most repairs were Packard Bell and AST. Those needing the fewest repairs were Hewlett-Packard and Dell. Companies taking the longest to repair problems were Packard Bell and Digital. Those repairing problems quickest were Toshiba, Quantex, and IBM. Windows readers say they would most likely buy again from Dell, Quantex, Hewlett-Packard, and IBM. They said they would least likely buy again from Packard Bell, Compaq, Digital, and AT&T. PC World: Readers of this magazine rank Dell, Hewlett-Packard, and Apple as the companies offering the best reliability. Those companies chosen for offering the worst reliability are Packard Bell, Acer, and NEC. The best service scores go to Dell, Hewlett-Packard, Gateway 2000, and IBM. The worst go to Packard Bell and Acer. PC World readers were most likely to buy again from Dell, Gateway 2000, and Micron. They were least likely to buy again from Packard Bell, Acer, and AST Research. Spread the word. In the computer industry, as elsewhere, money talks. If you buy from companies that place a premium on quality, the companies you don't buy from will get the message. The end result only can be fewer expensive personal computers. Reid Goldsborough is a syndicated columnist and author of the book Straight Talk About the Information Superhighway. He can be reached at [email protected] or http://members.home.net/reidgold.