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A guide to buying the best business laptop

HardwareGuides
by Joel Santo Domingo, 07 Oct 2013Guides
A guide to buying the best business laptop

Business laptops may not be the sexiest players in the PC market, but in terms of the actual number of units the big laptop makers ship each year, they represent a significant segment. While tablets like the iPad have made some in-roads into the enterprise, it's almost impossible to stay in business without a laptop, since the web is such an essential part of communicating with suppliers and potential customers, and getting the word out through email and social networks like Facebook and Twitter. All of these technologies make today's business happen.

What constitutes a business laptop these days? The lines get blurrier every time a laptop classified as such launches with multiple colour options, a metallic finish, different screen options, and all sort of wireless and port combinations. And with prices for laptops reaching all-time lows, businesses would rather save money buying a whole fleet of cheap consumer laptops than spend three or four times as much on an enterprise model.

Lines are even blurring between tablets and laptops: Once they were separated by operating systems, but tablets running "real" versions of Windows are the hot new products aimed at businesses. Some of these tablets have removable keyboards, some don't. But make no mistake, business laptops have their place in the commercial world, and choosing the right one can determine whether you run a company that's successful or one that suffers from too much downtime.

In this buying guide, we will walk you through essential business features, the parts you'll need, and more importantly, how to differentiate a business laptop from a consumer model.

How much power?

Dual-core processors, particularly the Intel Core i3/i5 series or AMD E-series and A-series APUs, are the norm in business PCs, though quad-core processors such as the Intel Core i5/i7s and the AMD A-series are available for more strenuous business applications. Intel-based Ultrabooks – and their kin, the AMD-CPU-equipped sleekbooks – by definition use ultra-low voltage processors, which help keep the laptops thin, while extending battery life to approach eight or nine hours and beyond.

Even though some midrange business laptops may not qualify as Ultrabooks under Intel's strict definitions, many thinner and lighter laptops use the same CPUs and other components as Ultrabooks. Higher powered low-voltage and standard mobile processors can be found in desktop replacement and entry-level laptop categories. You'll also find the occasional desktop-class processor in power users' systems and mobile workstations. It’s generally true that the more powerful the CPU, the shorter the expected battery life, especially when we’re talking about the latter categories of notebook.

Look for at least 4GB of RAM – anything less is not worth the few pounds you’ll save. Graphics-based users and spreadsheet ninjas will welcome 8GB of memory to help speed project work, but 4GB is plenty for the rank-and file worker. The right amount of memory allows you to do multiple things: Open up more programs and windows at once and perform multimedia processes (like editing photos) faster. If your business laptop is running integrated graphics (this type of graphics eats up system memory) or if you're the type who keeps 25 tabs open in your browser, you'll absolutely need to have more than 2GB of memory.

Storage

With businesses using video, multimedia PowerPoint slides, and multi-megapixel photos in staff meetings, a spacious hard drive is a good idea. A 500GB to 750GB hard drive is a good balance between economy and space. While meagre in their storage capacities and pricier, solid-state drives (SSDs) don't have any spinning parts and are therefore better suited to taking a licking on the road. SSD-equipped systems also boot faster and launch apps faster as well.

Optical drives are less critical for consumer PCs these days, what with being able to stream multimedia content from the Internet or download content directly to hard drives. But IT managers are reluctant to let them go, because you may need a drive to burn copies of projects for your clients, and you'll still need to read the occasional CD or DVD sent to you by a supplier or customer. You can of course hook up an external USB DVD drive to any laptop without one. Blu-ray drives are only necessary if you need to view Hollywood movies as part of your work. Their usefulness as a data transport medium was squashed by the ubiquity of broadband.

High-powered graphics not necessary

Most business PCs come with integrated graphics, whether from Intel, AMD, or Nvidia. Integrated graphics are fine for business laptops, since you won't be playing 3D games on the system. (Installing games is the easiest way to make a system unstable, and you don't want your money-earning system to go down unnecessarily). Most professionals who require discrete graphics will use them for specialised tasks like GPU acceleration in Photoshop, HD video creation in the likes of Adobe Premiere, or 3D graphics visualisation used in architectural drawings and CAD software. Mobile workstation-class laptops will usually come with some sort of discrete graphics, either for their 3D capabilities or to drive multiple monitors.

Stay connected

A ubiquitous wireless connection is vital if you want access to valuable Internet information and real-time emails at all times. Every laptop these days has some flavour of Wi-Fi built in. It gets you terrific throughput, but of course you have to find a hotspot to surf the web. Look for dual-band Wi-Fi (2.4GHz and 5GHz) for the best flexibility for your IT organisation. Offices in high-density buildings may wish to use the less populated 5GHz bands, as the 2.4GHz channels get more crowded. On top of that, you have to worry about security and nefarious activities going on within these networks. However, don't discount Ethernet entirely: You'll still need it for some hotel rooms and offices that don't use Wi-Fi.

That's why many business laptops are shipping with mobile broadband, or 3G/4G wireless modems, built-in. They work in tandem with an available network provider to bring broadband speeds to your laptop wherever there's a cell phone signal. Many laptops have these modems integrated for a nominal fee. Data plans, on the other hand, don't come cheap.

What about tablets?

Price and portability are arguably the biggest reasons why businesses should use tablets. Some tablets are selling for truly budget prices these days, and they can easily adapt into a corporate environment. While specialised (read expensive) tablets have been in the vertical markets (healthcare, customer service) for years, the ubiquity of the iPad means that people are becoming used to carrying a computer that doesn't have a keyboard built in. Look for Windows 8/8.1 (as opposed to Android, Windows RT, or iOS) if you need to run in-house or third-party apps that were originally created on PCs. True enterprise-class tablets running Windows 8 are in their infancy, but as the personal tablet takes off, people are going to start to expect their office computer to work the same way.

The majority of tablets are built to surf the web, run Office apps, and perform other very light computing tasks, but they are also compatible with the gamut of security applications, VPN and email clients, and countless hardware peripherals like printers, scanners, and network attached storage (NAS) devices. I wouldn't recommend running an entire business on a tablet, but a slate can be a very handy take-along unit for an offsite meeting, or it can be used as a portable alternative to your 3kg business laptop.

Battery bliss

A big battery can be your best friend on a lengthy flight or a long commute. Business laptops usually come with multiple battery options. Some enterprise-class laptops have two to three different kinds of batteries (4, 6, and 9-cell). The more "cells" you buy, the longer the battery life. A big battery adds some heft, but being able to run the system unplugged from dawn until dusk is worth the weight gain. Some Ultrabooks and Ultrabook-style laptops have non-removable sealed batteries. Look for a system with removable batteries if you need more than 6-8 hours before you have a chance to recharge.

If battery life is important to you, you should look for a tablet or ultraportable with a removable battery slice that slides underneath the base. Combined with its extended-battery offerings, the battery slice can help deliver battery life in the 19-24 hour range. Just be forewarned that these extra life batteries can weigh your system down by a noticeable amount.

Final thoughts

A bit of thought on the nature of your particular job should point you towards the ideal business laptop. Paying a little extra for more power or capabilities now will save you headaches down the road. The added value of a longer warranty (some business laptops come with 3 years off-the-bat), specialised tech support, and a more ruggedised frame (fortified by magnesium alloy) are some of the extra benefits you may get with a business laptop.

If your work is graphics-intensive, you'll want to opt for a laptop with discrete graphics. When choosing a processor, you'll have to find the right balance between power and energy efficiency, and in selecting a battery, you'll need to choose between its capacity and weight.

When you determine the best features for your needs, you can focus on just those laptops which incorporate them.

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