Buying a business laptop isn't quite as easy as driving to your local big box store and grabbing the latest model on sale at the end of an aisle. There are a few factors to consider, particularly if you're the decision maker tasked with buying hundreds or thousands of the same PC for your company's workforce.
These work-oriented PCs have the same basic components as consumer laptops, but PC manufacturers include features to meet business needs, like biometrics (fingerprint readers and facial recognition); rugged, MIL-SPEC-tested chassis and keyboards; Intel-vPro-certified networking and power management; and Trusted Platform Module (TPM) for secure access. You'll also find choices for professional versions of Windows, and less bloatware than comes with consumer PCs. Design similarities are bound to crop up with so many thin black or silver laptops on the market, but the differences are below the surface.
The line between tablets and laptops is also blurring. Once the two were separated by operating systems, but there are now several tablets aimed at businesses that run true versions of Windows. Some of these tablets even have physical, detachable keyboards. 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. We will walk you through essential business features, the parts you'll need, and, more important, how to distinguish between a business laptop and a consumer model.
Muscle and Memory
Dual-core processors, particularly the Intel Core i3/i5/i7 series or AMD A-series APUs, are the norm in business PCs, though quad-core processors, such as the Intel Core i5/i7s and the AMD PRO A-series, are available for more strenuous business applications. Power-saving processors like the Intel Core m3 are taking the place of the venerable Intel Atom line in tablets and other ultraportable laptops. And note that in Intel's latest Kaby Lake line of chips, ultra-low-wattage processors of the Y series may be marketed alongside higher-performance chips; look for the Y in the chip name to be sure.
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, though those types of computers also typically have the shortest battery life.
Look for no less than 4GB of RAM if shopping for a PC for a rank-and-file worker, but go for 8GB or 16GB if at all possible. (Graphic artists and spreadsheet ninjas will need 4GB as their absolute minimum.) The right amount of memory allows you to keep more programs, windows, and browser tabs open at once, and perform multimedia processes (like editing photos) faster.
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 1TB hard drive is a good balance between economy and space. While pricier and more meager in their storage capacities, solid-state drives (SSDs) don't have any spinning parts and are therefore better suited to take a licking on the road. SSD-equipped systems also boot and launch apps faster as well. These days, it's tough to find less than 128GB capacity for a solid-state boot drive on a Windows machine or on a MacBook, but upping the amount to 256GB or 512GB is a good idea if you can do it.
Optical drives are less critical for consumer PCs these days, given the proliferation of streaming multimedia content and the ability to download content directly to hard drives, and because machines are getting thinner you won't even find the drives on many of today's major laptop releases. But IT managers are reluctant to let them go, because you may need one to burn copies of projects for your clients, read the occasional CD or DVD sent to you by a supplier or customer, or retrieve files or records stored on discs when they were still in vogue not that many years ago. Luckily, an external drive can help out a lot in this situation; that might be a smarter move if you know you're not quite done shuffling discs yet.
Choosing Graphics Support
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 a computer meant for work, right? Most professionals who require discrete graphics will use them for specialized tasks like GPU acceleration in Photoshop, high-definition video creation in Premiere, or 3D graphics visualization 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.
LCD screens with 1,366-by-768 resolution are still available if you're trying to save some money on your laptop, but your eyes will thank you if you upgrade to at least a 1,920-by-1,080 display with In-Plane Switching (IPS) technology. This combination will ensure that you have plenty of space for displaying many columns of numbers in Excel or arranging many windows on the screen at once, and that your coworkers will be able to see them from any angle while clustering around your desk. For graphics or scientific work, a 3K or 4K display provides more real estate still, as well as sharper text and more detailed visuals. Though these are still fairly uncommon fixtures on business laptops, they're becoming more common, and worth the money if your job will make use of extra pixels.
The Right Amount of Connectivity
A strong wireless connection is vital if you want access to valuable information on the web and real-time emails at all times. Every laptop these days has some flavor of Wi-Fi built in. It gets you terrific throughput, but you have to find a hotspot or an unprotected network to surf the Web. Look for dual-band (2.4GHz and 5GHz) Wi-Fi for the best flexibility for your IT organization. 802.11ac Wi-Fi runs primarily on 5GHz networks, but will work with 2.4GHz networks as a fallback. 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. Don't discount Ethernet entirely, though: You'll still need it for some hotel rooms and offices that don't have Wi-Fi, so if your laptop is too thin to house an Ethernet port, an adapter is a worthwhile investment.
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These difficulties are, in part, why many business laptops now have built-in mobile broadband wireless modems as options. They work in tandem with available cellular networks to bring broadband speeds to your laptop wherever there's a cellphone signal available. Many laptops have these modems integrated for a nominal fee. Data plans, on the other hand, don't come cheap. Depending on whether or not you have an existing cellphone plan, rates can run as high as $60 to $80 per month. The faster 4G LTE wireless will give you transfer speeds rivaling what you get from a Wi-Fi connection, and it's available from the top cellular networks with the most coverage, notably AT&T, Sprint, T-Mobile, and Verizon. Mobile hotspots are also available in case you don't want to buy internal modems for all your employees; consider carrying one if you only need mobile internet part-time.
Keeping Your Laptop Alive
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 (four-, six-, and nine-cell options). The more "cells" you buy, the longer the battery life. A big battery adds some heft, but being able to run unplugged from dawn 'til dusk is worth the weight gain. Some ultraportable laptops have non-removable sealed batteries. Look for a laptop with removable batteries if you need more than six to eight 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 slice can help deliver battery life in the 19-to-24-hour range. Just be forewarned that these extra-life batteries can weigh your system down by an extra pound or more.
The Appeal of Tablets
Price and portability are arguably the biggest reasons why businesses should consider tablets. Some tablets are selling for less than $500 and can easily adapt into a corporate environment. While specialized (read: expensive) tablets have been in the vertical markets, like health care, for years, the ubiquity of the iPad means that people are used to carrying a computer that doesn't have a physical keyboard. Look for a Windows 10 tablet if you need to run in-house or third-party apps that were originally created for PCs. True enterprise-class tablets running Windows 10 are still evolving, but people expect their work computer to work the same as their personal tablet. Apple fans will have to be content with using the iPad for business, as a tablet-optimized version of OS X doesn't yet exist.
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 run an entire business on a tablet, but one can be a nice take-along unit for an offsite meeting or used as a portable alternative to your 6-pound business laptop.
Chromebooks: Simple and Affordable
With the cloud becoming an omnipresent feature in our computing lives at both work and home, chromebooks are more viable options than ever for laptops devoted to work activity. These laptops are restricted to using Google's Chrome OS, which isn't much more than a souped-up version of the popular Web browser, and thus there's a lot of traditionally useful software (such as the Microsoft Office suite or Adobe Photoshop) that they won't be able to run. But if Web-based collaboration is key to your workflow, a chromebook could be enough, and because they don't need massively powerful hardware to run most Web apps, they can generally be found at much lower prices than other business laptops. Some chromebooks designed for work do have beefier processors and more memory, though, so you'll have the maximum number of options possible for doing the best job you can.
Choosing Your Laptop
A bit of thought on the nature of your particular job should point you toward 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 three years), specialized tech support, and a more ruggedized frame (fortified by carbon fiber or 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 that incorporate them.
Hopefully we've helped ease your mind on what to look for in a business laptop. For more, be sure to also check out our overall top business laptop picks, and if money is tight, our roundup of the best budget laptops is worth a read. If you want to fully outfit your work area, check out our takes on the best business monitors, plus out favorite keyboards, mice, and printers.
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