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Buyer’s guide: How to choose the right business laptops


They may be part and parcel of everyday business, but with hundreds of business-oriented laptops to choose from — everything from sleek ultralight tablets to huge portable workstations — picking the right ones to outfit your company’s workforce can make finding a needle in a haystack seem easy. We’re here to help with a buyer’s guide that breaks the options into categories and provides details, price estimates, and pros and cons of each.

Let’s begin with the basics. Business laptops are not meant for gaming, movies, or idle web surfing — unless that’s your business. First and foremost, these systems are serious tools to help people do their jobs. They focus on reliability and durability, with models available for several years to accommodate long enterprise deployments; many vendors promise to stock replacement parts for five years.

The price to pay for this dependability is, well, price. The typical business laptop can cost 20% to 30% more than a consumer model with similar specs. On the other hand, those prices are generally the starting point for a negotiation over cost for a bulk order. In fact, the more you buy, the more leverage you have to get a better price or extras such as an extended warranty.

Leasing the systems — sometimes called device-as-a-service (DaaS) or PC-as-a-service (PCaaS) — is an increasingly popular way to turn a large capital cost into a predictable monthly expense, usually at little or no cost premium over its life. Plus, at the end of the lease, you don’t have to worry about hardware disposal.

(An upcoming Computerworld story will go into much more detail about sourcing business PCs through a reseller, managed service provider, or directly from the vendor.)

And with an expected three- to five-year usable lifespan, many mid- and upper-price-range business notebooks go beyond the standard single-year warranty with three years of coverage. This is often worth several hundred dollars compared to systems aimed at home users.

This guide concentrates on Windows systems, but in an age of workplace diversity, Apple MacBooks and Google-based Chromebooks are also represented. While they’re not as popular with IT buyers, they have their place in a modern business.

What to look for in a business laptop

Whether it’s a two-pound ultralight or an eight-pound traveling workstation, all laptops are basically desktop computers with built-in screens, keyboards, miniaturized components, and batteries. Without a doubt, the processor and the system’s size and weight get the most attention, but other areas like the screen and battery should also be considered.  

Processor

The brains of the operation, most Windows systems use Intel or AMD processors, although a small number of ARM-based CPUs are being used in ultralight systems. Apple has taken this idea to its logical conclusion with its M1 and M2 MacBooks.

The minimum processor you’ll need to satisfy users varies widely and depends on the tasks at hand. A receptionist or call center worker might need nothing more than an Intel Celeron or Pentium, while a salesperson might need an Intel Core i3 or i5 and a graphics designer an i7 or an M2 Pro.

RAM

Random Access Memory (RAM) is short-term data storage used for immediate processing tasks such as displaying websites, running Excel calculations, or showing CAD imaging. It comes in many sizes and speeds, and having more generally translates into better performance. 4GB should be the minimum for any business computer.

Storage

Every laptop needs a place to stash everything from the day’s emails to huge video files — either a traditional hard drive (HDD) or a solid-state drive (SSD). SSDs remain more expensive but are faster and more rugged, use less power, and are dominating new laptop models. Look for at least a 128GB SSD or a 1TB HDD.

Battery

Meant to power the system between charges, all notebooks use lithium-ion batteries. All other things being equal, a 3,500 miliamp-hour (mAh) capacity powerpack will likely run for longer than one with 3,000mAh. This could pay dividends on a flight from Seattle to Seoul.

hp elitebook 840 g9 2022 HP

HP EliteBook 840 G9 

Screen and form factor

While a tablet might get by with an 11.5-in. display (measured diagonally), 13.3- to 16-in. screens are the norm for laptops, with some models going up to 17.3 in. Look for a screen with the highest resolution as you can afford, particularly if the intended purpose is graphics oriented. Today, for all but the cheapest systems, full HD resolution (1920 x 1080) should be the minimum.

Many of today’s Chromebooks and Windows laptops, even those with a standard clamshell design, include a touchscreen. A touchscreen can be a big benefit for a designer sketching products, a marketer highlighting a new campaign, or even a salesperson drawing a crude map. There are also many tablet/laptop hybrids with touchscreens, which we’ve covered in their own section of this guide. It’s worth noting that Apple does not offer touchscreens on any MacBooks but does on its iPad Pro.

Security and manageability components

Security is critical in today’s business. Companies that use Windows PCs should get systems with a Trusted Platform Module (TPM) and some sort of biometric authentication method, such as a fingerprint reader or a camera capable of Windows Hello for Business facial recognition for secure password-free logins. Many Chromebooks include a TPM and fingerprint readers as well. Macs lack TPM but have their own defensive phalanx, including fingerprint scanners.

Business-oriented laptops should also support serious manageability features, such as the ability to tap into Intel vPro processor extensions so IT departments can remotely diagnose and update a system.

Operating system

For optimal security and manageability, most IT departments opt for laptops running at least Windows 10 or 11 Pro. These systems add protections that the Windows Home editions lack, such as BitLocker drive encryption, and support management and deployment tools such as Mobile Device Management, Azure Active Directory Join, and Windows Update for Business. Organizations that need enterprise-class security and manageability can opt for Windows 10 or 11 Enterprise (available only with a volume licensing agreement).

Apple’s macOS platform has strong security and enterprise manageability features, and today’s unified endpoint management (UEM) systems can manage macOS devices in addition to Windows PCs. Most popular business apps offer versions for macOS, although companies that use legacy Windows-only programs should be prepared to invest in virtual machine (VM) software from Parallels or VMware to allow Mac users to run them.

Most UEM platforms can manage ChromeOS devices as well, or companies can deploy and manage Chromebooks through the Google Admin console. Any web app that runs in the Chrome browser works fine on a Chromebook, and the Google Chrome Web Store’s vetting of apps makes ChromeOS devices less susceptible to picking up rogue software that can infect the enterprise. Today’s Chromebooks can also run both Android and Linux apps — and, using Parallels VM software, they can even run Windows apps.

Accessories

Whether it’s at the office, on the factory floor, or on the road, a laptop on its own is never enough. Plan on spending hundreds to properly equip a system with things like a USB hub (to turn a single port into three or four), an extra power adapter (for home and away work), and a padded bag (to protect it en route).

To those who say that workers can get by with whatever they are given, you might find that with the right tools, workers can be more productive, happier, and better at their job. Just ask yourself if your competition is using anything but the best available technology.

Above all else, a business notebook should fit the user’s needs, not the other way around. There’s no sense in providing an 8-lb. mobile workstation to a traveling salesperson or a budget laptop to a video producer. The six categories that follow cover basic mainstream laptops, budget systems, ultraslims, hybrid tablets, performance-oriented portable workstations, and rugged machines for field work. A table at the end of the story provides a quick side-by-side comparison of key specs and example models.

Each category of laptop has a purpose, a place, and a typical user, but the lines between them are fluid rather than hard and fast boundaries. This opens an opportunity for business buyers to shop at the margins of the categories to snag a bargain or get exactly the right system — or both.

This seemingly limitless variety of systems can be overwhelming, but rest assured, there’s a perfect laptop for every employee, task, and budget; you just need to know how to look. Here’s how to make sense of it all.

Mainstream laptops

Mainstream business notebooks offer an infinite variety of features and add-ons, but the costs add up.

Typically priced from around $500 to $1,000 but sometimes reaching $2,500 or more, mainstream notebooks make up the bulk of laptops used in business. With their middle-of-the road approach that stresses reliability and the ability to handle a variety of tasks, these are what most of the company’s employees will use to collaborate on documents, check sales spreadsheets, join video calls, and perform online research.

microsoft surface laptop 5 2022 Microsoft

Microsoft Surface Laptop 5 (13.5-in. and 15-in. models)

Compared to budget systems, mainstream laptops get more power, better screens, and a few creature comforts to help people get their jobs done. On the other hand, they’re less powerful than mobile workstations and heavier than ultraslim devices.

There are dozens of mainstream Windows notebooks, and we classify the MacBook Pro 13″ in this category as well. While their low starting prices place most Chromebooks in the budget category, some include or can be configured with components such as high-end CPUs, backlit keyboards, and fingerprint readers, bringing them squarely into mainstream territory.

For instance, when Synchrony Financial (formerly GE Capital’s credit card business) moved its 6,000 call-center employees to work at home during the early days of the COVID-19 pandemic, it chose Acer Chromebook Enterprise 715 systems. Because of the platform’s simple, straightforward design, remote management capabilities, and Google’s powerful Admin console, the March 2020 deployment took weeks — not months — including employee training. Citrix thin-client software tied the Chromebooks to Synchrony’s data center, creating a virtual environment for the call-center employees to work in.

Displays are the focal point in this genre. With screen sizes ranging from 12.5 to 16.2 in., these systems offer a minimum of 1920 x 1080 full HD resolution, but increasingly they’re shifting to sharper screens. For instance, the Microsoft Surface Laptop 5 offers 2256 x 1504 resolution on its 13.5-in. version and 2496 x 1664 resolution on its 15-in. model, while the MacBook Pro 13″ has a 2560 x 1600 Retina display.

Another display option to consider: Organic Light-Emitting Diode (OLED) displays, where each pixel acts like a tiny lightbulb to produce sharp and bright images. By contrast, traditional Liquid Crystal Displays (LCDs) shine light through a panel that creates the images, dulling the sharpness and brightness considerably.

More display diversity is offered by HP’s Sure View Reflect Privacy display. Available as an option for the vendor’s EliteBook 840 G9, it can obscure the screen image for anyone peeking from the side.

Mainstream Windows laptops are typically powered by up-to-date Intel Core i3, i5, i7, or AMD Ryzen CPUs, while Apple’s home-grown M2 ARM-based system-on-a-chip with eight processing cores and 10 graphics cores powers its MacBook Pro 13″. High-end Chromebooks like the HP Elite Chromebook Enterprise C1030 include a Core i7 processor. While most mainstream laptops make do with integrated graphics, some offer a discrete graphics card, but it can add hundreds of dollars to the price tag.

apple macbook pro 13 m2 2022 Apple

Apple MacBook Pro 13″ (2022)

Just about all mainstream models have eschewed traditional rotating storage media for smaller, low-power SSDs; look for between 128GB and 1TB of storage space. Most provide between 4GB and 16GB of system memory. And while they’re not nearly as durable as the laptops in our rugged category later in the story, some mainstream models pass some of the stringent MIL-STD-810 standards for withstanding abuse.

Because mainstream laptops make up the bulk of many companies’ devices, security and remote management are paramount. Your checklist for Windows and ChromeOS devices should include an Intel vPro processor, TPM, and biometric identification, although you may have to settle for two out of three to keep costs down.

Mainstream laptops typically include a 1080p webcam for videoconferencing and offer an array of ports and connectivity options, including USB 2.0 and 3.0, USB-C, HDMI, Ethernet, and the newer, faster, and more secure 802.11ax Wi-Fi and Bluetooth 5.2. Other luxuries include a backlit keyboard, 5G mobile data network card option, and even high-speed Thunderbolt 4 ports.

Put it all together and mainstreamers offer freedom of choice in a mid-3-lb. package, although some touch 5 lbs. While they generally offer thinner, sleeker, and lighter designs than budget systems, mainstream laptops can seem like a ball and chain for frequent flyers lusting after ultraslim, ultralight devices, covered later in the story.

Mainstream laptops at a glance

Buying tip: Look for multiple options, like screen technology that can help business users excel.

Budget laptops

When price counts for everything, performance, slimness, and security take a back seat.

They may not be sleek, thin, or particularly powerful, but companies, nonprofits, and educational institutions could not do without the basic budget notebook. In fact, this is an area where corporate buyers sometimes cross over and get systems aimed at consumers, because the price can’t be beat. Meant for employees who need neither the power nor the mobility of a mainstream system, these devices carry price tags as low as $150 (but are more typically in the $300 to $600 range) and are seen everywhere from reception desks to call centers.

hp laptop 17z 2022 HP

HP Laptop 17z

To offer budget laptops at bargain-basement prices, designers and engineers have cut several corners, and compromise is the name of the game. For instance, budget Windows systems are often armed with a 1TB traditional hard drive or a 64GB to 128GB SSD and just 4GB of RAM. And don’t expect a recent Intel Core i5 or i7 processor. This category is dominated by Intel Pentium, Celeron, and occasionally Core i3 CPUs, as well as AMD Athlon 3000 processors.

While Windows systems have long dominated the budget category, Chromebooks have become a compelling alternative, delivering a lot of computer for a very low price. Budget Chromebooks typically offer a 32GB to 128GB SSD and 4GB of RAM, and some are equipped with ARM-based processors such as the MediaTek 8183.

Budget systems typically are built around 11.6- to 15.6-in. displays, although HP’s Laptop 17z provides a 17.3-inch screen for those who like to stretch out with their data. The native resolution for budget Windows machines is usually 1280 x 800 or 1366 x 768 pixels rather than full HD (1920 x 1080), although some budget Chromebooks offer full HD displays.

Often as big as a legal pad and about an inch thick, these devices typically weigh around 5 lb. and are not meant for lightweight travel. (With a simpler design, Chromebooks tend to be a bit lighter, typically 3 to 4 lb.) Budget models do provide room for basics like Wi-Fi and Bluetooth, HDMI, Ethernet, and USB ports but usually skip extras like a touchscreen display and a full HD webcam; you might have to settle for a 720p camera for video calls.

samsung chromebook 4 2022 Samsung

Samsung Chromebook 4+

Note that few budget models include security and manageability components such as a TPM or vPro processor extensions. And when purchasing Chromebooks, be sure to check when the devices will stop receiving software updates.

When purchasing Windows notebooks, be aware of the operating system: some budget models come with Windows 10 or 11 Home edition, which can lower the price of a system by as much as $50. Although both Home editions include basic security features such as device encryption and secure boot (and Windows 11 Home devices have a TPM 2.0 module), they lack enterprise-grade security, manageability, and deployment support. That said, IT can lock Windows 10 and 11 Home systems down to some extent by running them in S mode, which boosts security and performance by requiring that users install apps that come from the Microsoft Store only.

Whether Windows or ChromeOS-based, any budget system should handle email, document creation, basic web surfing, and online forms with ease. They will likely disappoint when it comes to performing processor-intensive tasks like multimedia-heavy PowerPoint work or video editing. For those tasks, your users would be better served by a mainstream system.

Budget laptops at a glance

  • Target audience: Workers who can get by with a bare minimum of performance, system memory, and storage space
  • Pros: Low price; adequate performance and battery life for simple tasks; simple design for Chromebooks
  • Cons: Windows machines are heavy and thick; older components; many lack latest security
  • Price range: $150 to $600
  • CPU: Intel Celeron, Pentium, Core i3; AMD A-series, Ryzen 3 series; ARM-based processors
  • RAM: 4GB
  • Storage: 1TB HDD or 32GB to 128GB SSD
  • Screen size (diagonal): 5 to 17.3 in.
  • Native resolution: 1280 x 720 to 1920 x 1080
  • Ports and connectivity: USB 2.0/3.0/C; HDMI; VGA; Ethernet; 802.11ac Wi-Fi; Bluetooth 4.0/5.0
  • Weight: 9 to 5.5 lb.
  • Examples: Acer Aspire 5; Dell Inspiron 15 3000; HP Chromebook 11a; HP Laptop 17z; Samsung Chromebook 4+

Buying tip: Make sure the system will fit into the company’s IT landscape with sufficient power and security.



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