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.
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.
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.
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|
|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.
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