Monday, May 27, 2024

Insider’s Guide to Business Laptops

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In 2008, unit shipments of notebook PCs outpaced sales of desktop PCs for the first time, and for good reason. With their fast dual-core processors, large screens, spacious hard drives and various connectivity options, today’s laptops don’t exact many feature compromises and still give you the freedom to work where and when you want.

Better still, prices continue to drop: A well-equipped business portable can be had for around $800, and $1,400 will get you a model with almost all the bells and whistles. You also have more varied choices than ever, with 16-inch screens available in larger machines and a new class of ultra-compact, ultra-affordable netbooks designed to be take-everywhere Internet/e-mail companions.

Here we offer guidance on the type, components and features to consider when selecting your next laptop, as well as some of our current favorite entries in each category.

Select Your Size: Bantamweight to Heavyweight

Before you start thinking about the specs of your notebook, you first have to decide which category of machine — determined by its weight and screen size — best fits your needs and working style. Display sizes range from a somewhat cramped eight inches to a behemoth 18.4 inches (with stops at nearly every size in between), while weights range from less than three pounds to almost nine pounds.

Dell Studio XPS
Dell Studio XPS

Netbooks are the smallest laptops. Designed to be Internet companions (hence the name) for checking e-mail and surfing the Web while on the go, they are small and light enough (typically 2.5 to three pounds) to toss in a bag and have with you all the time. The smallest netbooks have eight-inch or nine-inch LCDs, which means you’ll have to scroll both horizontally and vertically to see all of a Web page or document.

The sweet spot for this nascent category has quickly become the 10-inch models, which relieve you of the need to scroll sideways to see most Web pages. That larger screen also lets manufacturers squeeze in wider keyboards, which makes typing much more comfortable than on an eight- or nine-inch netbook.

Aside from portability, the major selling point for a netbook is its low price (for the majority of models anyway). At anywhere from $299 to $499, you can commit to a netbook without applying for a government bailout. But that low price comes with an important caveat: A netbook is intended to be a complement to your main PC, not a replacement for it.

Elite Book
HP EliteBook

While a netbook has the essential computing gear — Wi-Fi and Ethernet for connectivity, built-in storage, USB ports and memory card slots for loading files — there’s no room for a CD or DVD drive on board. And to keep prices (and internal heat levels) low, netbooks typically have low-power processors (Intel’s Atom line has become the standard) that are fine for simple Web and word-processing tasks, but would be maddeningly underpowered for tasks such as creating a PowerPoint presentation. Think of it this way: A netbook is the right choice for content consumption, not content creation.

Moving up the size, power and price ladder brings you to ultraportables. This class of machine typically has a 12.1-inch screen (and hence a roomier keyboard than a netbook) and weighs three to four pounds. If you are on the road daily or travel frequently (two or more times per month) and want a machine with you at all times, an ultraportable is the best fit.

Unlike netbooks, ultraportables typically have comparatively powerful processors, so you won’t trade much in the way of performance to get a compact machine. Many models even have optical drives built in, so you have all your essential components. Of course, miniaturization doesn’t come cheap, so you’ll pay a premium for an ultraportable compared to a larger laptop with similar specs. An entry-level ultraportable can be had for just over $1,000, while a more robust configuration will set you back $1,500 to $2,000.

If your job entails a lot of note taking, you may want to consider a convertible tablet PC. Models in t ultraportable sub-class are typically outfitted with 12.1-inch screens that swivel and fold flat against the keyboard, so you can use the included stylus to jot electronic notes or use your finger to navigate Windows and application with the touch of a finger.

Lenovo ThinkPad
Lenovo ThinkPad

For the majority of business buyers a notebook in the thin-and-light category is the best bet. Sporting screens that are either 13.3 inches or 14.1 inches in size, these machines give you a bigger view of your work while still maintaining comfortable portability — four to six pounds and about an inch or so thick. All thin-and-light machines have the optical drive built in and most are powered by dual-core CPUs, so you can use one as your primary PC. A good thin-and-light costs around $1,000, so you don’t pay the premium an ultraportable exacts.

Price-sensitive buyers will want to consider a machine in the mainstream category. Laptops in this class, which includes budget models, are equipped with 14.1- or 15.4-inch displays and are heavier (six to seven pounds) and larger (around 1.5 inches thick).

But if your travel consists of schlepping the machine from your home to the car to the office and back again, the extra heft may not matter to you. But the savings will: A solid mainstream laptop costs about $800, and if you don’t mind settling for a lesser processor you can find a bargain machine for hundreds less.

If you want all the comforts of a desktop PC in a form factor that you can still tote when necessary, consider a desktop replacement notebook. New models with 16-inch screens deliver a good balance of big-screen comfort and reasonable portability.

Other models have 17-inch or even 18.4-inch screens, and are usually laden with all manner of multimedia and/or gaming goodies that drive up the prices to north of $2,000. But if you want a single machine for work and play, a desktop replacement might make more sense than buying a separate desktop and laptop.

Specs: Screen Type and Resolution

Once you’ve settled on the right class and screen size for your needs, you’ll notice that many manufacturers offer a selection of LCD panels. Most consumer laptops these days come standard with “glossy” panels that don’t have a coating to cut down on glare and reflection from ambient light.

These panels tend to have crisper text reproduction (especially at smaller point sizes) and more vibrant color reproduction, since there’s no coating to dull things down. But if you tend to work in harsh lighting conditions — overhead fluorescents, lots of windows — you may want to opt for a panel with an anti-glare coating, which is available in most business lines.

You may also have a choice of screen resolution (the measure of how many pixels are found in the horizontal and vertical dimensions) for the model you’ve chosen. The decision you make here is crucial: Since LCD panels are designed to look best at their native resolution, you won’t be able to change your mind and simply set it to a different resolution and expect it to deliver the same image quality.

Toshiba Protege M750
Toshiba Protege M750

There are differing schools of thought on selecting a screen resolution. Some believe you should opt for the highest-resolution panel you can get, and then use the application’s zoom feature to overcome the often-tiny default text sizes you’ll find displayed at that high resolution.

Others believe that you should pick a resolution that delivers a comfortable working environment in the applications you use most often. One rule of thumb: If you work with video and images regularly, a high-res screen is the way to go; if all your work is text-based, a quality lower-res screen will suffice.

Specs: Processor RAM, and GPU

Though you might be tempted by the $400 price of a Celeron-based notebook, we strongly recommend you select a model with a processor from Intel’s Core 2 Duo family or AMD’s Turion X2 Ultra line. A new laptop should give you three to five years of productive life, and these processors have enough overhead to handle whatever demands Windows 7 and next-generation applications might place on them. (The exception is with netbooks: Since dual-core powerhouses aren’t offered in this class, your best choice is an Intel Atom-powered machine.)

As for all the various GHz ratings, there’s no need to get too hung up on the processor speed. Yes, a 2.4-GHz processor will be about 10 percent faster than a 2.2-GHz chip, but you would likely only be able to tell if you ran a PC benchmarking program. In real-world use, you won’t notice that much of a difference.

What will have a noticeable impact on performance is the amount of RAM in your system. Buyers on a budget can scrape by with 2GB, but if you can afford it, step up to 3GB or 4GB. The graphics chip in your system will also have a significant impact on perceived speed, though most business users will be well served by the integrated graphics that come standard with the Intel Core 2 Duo or AMD Turion X2 Ultra platforms.

That said, if you indulge in video work or like to occasionally play 3D games on your work system, configure a machine with a dedicated (often called discrete) graphics engine from Nvidia or ATI.

Specs: Storage

As the saying goes, you can never be too rich or have too much hard drive capacity. Fortunately, drive makers are ahead of the curve when it comes to capacity, and getting a spacious hard drive doesn’t add much to the cost of a new laptop. Given the low prices and the explosion in multimedia content (not to mention your desire to have your iTunes library with you), get at least a 250GB drive, and ideally a 320GB or even 500GB unit.

Specs: Connectivity

Wi-Fi wireless connectivity is a given in today’s portables, but you still need to know your alphabet. Most business buyers will be fine with a machine with built-in 802.11g capability, as it will also be compatible with older (and slower) 802.11b networks. Some larger businesses may have opted for 802.11a routers and hubs, and if that’s your case, then look for an 802.11a/b/g chipset.

Many machines are also compatible with the newer 802.11n wireless standard, which offers faster throughput and better range than the older Wi-Fi modes. It makes sense to get an 802.11n Wi-Fi notebook now, even if you have an older router or access point. When you do replace your wireless equipment it will likely be with an 802.11n unit, so you want your notebook to be able to take advantage of the speed.

Frequent travelers may also want to consider getting a wireless broadband (also called WWAN, for wireless wide-area network) chipset and radio built in. This adds around $125 to the cost of a notebook, though note that not every model in a maker’s line will have it as an option. The data service isn’t cheap (typically $59.99 a month, through Cingular, Sprint or Verizon), but it lets you connect at near-DSL speeds in the hundreds of greater metropolitan areas where a given carrier’s network is deployed. This means no more hunting for Wi-Fi hotspots around town, or paying for connectivity at airports and hotels.

Gateway 7844u
Gateway M-7844u

If you decide to pass on built-in WWAN at the time of purchase, you can always add the capability via an add-in card later on. Just pay attention to the type of expansion slot a machine has. The newer type is ExpressCard, and modules for that type of slot are generally more expensive than those for the older standard, called PC Card (or PCMCIA). Conversely, if you have a card device that you use, be sure the machine you buy has the right slot.

As for other ports, all machines will have several USB 2.0 ports for peripherals, as well as a VGA connector for connecting an external monitor or projector. Multimedia-centric machines will also have an HDMI port for connecting to a high-def TV or other display device, and perhaps a similar (but less popular) DisplayPort connector. If you need a lot of hard drive storage and tend to connect to external drives, look for a laptop with an external SATA (eSATA) connector, which will let you hook up the latest, fastest drives.

Durability and Security

By its nature, a laptop is vulnerable to being dropped, lost or stolen. So since your data is critical to your business, look for features that will protect it.

Better business machines will have durable-but-lightweight magnesium (and in some cases, aluminum) outer shells (not plastic), as well as added shock- and vibration-protection around the hard drive and other internal components.

Road warriors will want to look for a machine with active hard-drive protection, which parks the hard drive heads should the machine sense a fall and hence protects the platter from impacting with the heads (a leading cause of data loss). A spill-resistant keyboard is also a plus; it can funnel away a spill of about six ounces of liquid without damage to the sensitive components underneath.

To keep your data safe should your machine be lost or stolen, insist on a model with a fingerprint reader, which will prevent the typical thief from accessing your hard drive. If you carry true business secrets, you’ll need to add another layer of security, such as a data-encryption program. In fact, some machines now offer a built-in encryption utility, and some Seagate hard drives deliver on-the-fly data encryption capabilities.

Finally, be sure to have a data backup solution in place (and actually use it), so if the machine dies or disappears all you lose is the hardware. Many notebook makers offer automatic online backup services for a monthly fee at time of purchase, or you can sign up on your own with a service like MozyPro or Carbonite.

Samsung NC10
Samsung NC10

An intriguing option on some ultraportable and netbook models is the relative new Solid State Dive (SSD). Instead of the platters and heads of a traditional hard drives, SSDs use flash memory to story your programs and files. These drives use less power and are faster than a regular hard drive, but more importantly, they have no moving parts and can take extreme abuse without failing.

This makes an SSD ideal for a mission-critical machine that sees active duty in the field. Unfortunately, SSDs still cost much more than a hard drive — trading a 500GB hard drive for a 256GB SSD will cost you and extra $500 or so — and capacities trail those available from a regular drive, so they aren’t for everyone.

As for removable storage, you’ll certainly want a laptop with a CD/DVD burner — make sure it can write, not just read, DVDs — so you can create your own backup discs and video projects. A writable dual-layer DVD gives you more than 8GB of archival capability per disc. If you also use your work machine for pleasure, you may want to step up to a laptop with a Blu-ray drive and an HDMI out port. This lets you use your notebook as a portable high-def Blu-ray player.

Small Business Notebooks: Sample Configs and Pricing
Vendor Model Category Recommended
Memory Hard Drive Other Base price/As-configured price
Samsung NC10 Netbook Intel Atom N270 (1.6GHz) 1GB 533MHz DDR2 SDRAM 160GB 10.2-inch LCD, 802.11b/g, Windows XP $499/$499
HP EliteBook 2530p Ultraportable Intel Core2 Duo Processor SU9300 (2.16GHz) 2GB 800MHz DDR2 SDRAM 160GB 12.1-inch LCD, dual-layer DVD SuperMulti drive, 802.11a/b/gn, Windows Vista Business $1,549/$2,212
Toshiba Portégé M750-S7202 Tablet Intel Core 2 Duo P8600 (2.4GHz) 2GB 667MHz DDR2 SDRAM 160GB 12.1-inch LCD, DVD+/-RW drive, 802.11a/g/n, Windows Vista Business Edition $1,799/$1,799
Lenovo ThinkPad SL400 Thin-and-Light Intel Core 2 Duo T6570 (2.1GHz) 2GB 667MHz DDR2 SDRAM 250GB 14.1-inch LCD, dual-layer DVD+/-RW drive, 802.11a/g/n, Windows Vista Business Edition $635/$1,019
Gateway M-7844u Mainstream Intel Core 2 Duo T6400 (2.0GHz) 4GB 667MHz DDR2 SDRAM 320GB 14.4-inch LCD, dual-layer DVD+/-RW drive, 802.11b/g/n, Windows Vista Home Premium $749/$749
Dell Studio XPS 16 Desktop Replacement Intel Core 2 Duo P8600 (2.4GHz) 4GB 1,000MHz DDR3 SDRAM 320GB 16.0-inch LCD, Blu-ray/DVD drive, 802.11a/b/g/n, Windows Vista Home Premium $1,199/$1,804

Jamie Bsales is an award-winning technology writer and editor with nearly 14 years of experience covering the latest hardware, software and Internet products and services.

This article was first published on Small Business Computing.

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