Getting Started: Selecting a Small Business Laptop

For many business owners, mobility isn’t a luxury; it’s a necessity. Whether you’re visiting client sites or squeezing in a little extra work at home after hours, a good notebook PC makes an invaluable companion. But even for mostly desk-bound employees, a laptop may be the way to go. Today’s models are affordable, offer all the power of a typical business desktop and deliver flexibility should the need to travel arise.

The choices today are more varied than ever, and while some of the features—choice of OS, level of processor, and so on—are similar to those you would make when buying a business desktop, you’ll need to ponder other attributes (size, weight, battery life) unique to the portable form factor. As for prices, expect to pay around $1,200 to $1,800 for a full-featured model powerful enough for office tasks and then some.

Acer TravelMate 4230-6499
The Acer TravelMate 4230-6499

Sizing it Up: Smaller Still Costs Extra
Your first decision when choosing a laptop is what class of machine fits your needs and budget. If you are on the road daily, or commute by bus or train and want a computer with you at all times, you want an ultra-portable model, which is typically defined as one that weighs less then four pounds.

Miniaturization still costs a small fortune, so the smaller and lighter a machine is, the more expensive it will be: A good business ultra-portable will run you $2,000 or more. And for that extra money you’ll get a smaller screen and keyboard, perhaps no built-in optical drive (in the lightest entries) and a less-powerful processor. On the plus side, you’ll generally see better battery life than that of larger model, and you’ll have a machine you can easily carry with you, rather than leaving the burden behind only to regret that decision later.

Most business buyers will want to consider a thin-and-light laptop. These four- to six-pound machines are still fairly svelte, but offer roomier keyboards and screens—and lower prices—than ultra-portables.

One notch further up the size continuum come the mainstream portables. Typically weighing six to seven pounds, these are good for occasional travel or for people who just need to carry the PC from the car to the office and back again. This class also offers the best bargains, since size and weight considerations don’t factor much into the development costs.

Finally, some buyers will prefer a desktop replacement notebook. Here you’ll find a large screen (15.4 inches and larger) and the option for desktop-caliber CPUs and graphics engines. But at eight pounds and up, these are better suited to desktop duty with only the occasional trip.

Apple MacBook Pro
The Apple MacBook Pro

Screen Size: Go Wide
Before you settle on a weight class, be sure you can live with the screen-size choices available to you in such a model. For example, an ultra-portable will have a screen that is 12.1-inches (diagonal), and some even have 10.4 inch LCDs. The small screens make for easier computing on an airline tray table, but for extended use day-in and day-out, you may find them too small.

The thin-and-light and mainstream classes will have a screen that’s anywhere from 13 inches to 15.4 inches. These sizes make for more comfortable viewing, and the larger screens above also create enough room for a full-size keyboard below. Desktop replacement models have a screen at least 15.4 inches in size, and some have desktop-quality 17-inch and even (unbelievably) 20-inch LCDs.

The trend over the past few years has been toward widescreen LCDs in portables; that is, those with a wider 16:9 or 16:10 aspect ratio, rather than the nearly square 4:3 dimensions of older monitors and TVs. The extra width can aid productivity, as you can view multiple open windows at once, or fill one side of the screen area with the handy floating “widget” mini-apps now popular with the latest Mac and Windows operating systems.

Another consideration is the screen’s resolution (the measure of how many pixels are found in the horizontal and vertical dimensions). The rating you’ll see in a manufacturer’s specs is the highest resolution a screen can deliver. While you can set a high-res panel to a lower resolution in the machine’s display properties utility, it isn’t recommended. LCD panels deliver the best image quality at their native resolution.

Dell Latitude D531
The Dell Latitude D531

When shopping, be sure you can work comfortably on the screen at its native res. For example, on a 15.4-inch widescreen, 1,280 x 800 delivers text that is easy on the eyes. But a 1,680 x 1,050 panel, while allowing you to see more of each open window without scrolling, will mean small type in text documents and Web pages, so you’ll be constantly adjusting zoom levels and text-size settings.

Operating System: Vista Thinks Mobile
As we said in our Business Desktop Buyer’s Guide, the new Windows Vista adds a layer of complexity to your purchase decision. For many people, good old Windows XP is the way to go, offering a known entity and proven compatibility with all the hardware and software you’re likely to use.

But in addition to the security and backup enhancements Vista Business Edition delivers compared to XP, Microsoft also added features just for the mobile crowd. For starters, the new Windows Mobility Center puts settings for screen brightness, battery options, presentation settings, and more in a single pane, rather than making you hunt around in various Control Panel areas. The operating system also includes the Remote Desktop Connection feature for accessing a remote PC via the Web. And the Sync Center helps you synchronize all your mobile devices.

Processor, RAM and GPU: More Powerful Options
As with a desktop PC, we recommend you look beyond the ultra-inexpensive laptops (if possible) and opt for a machine powered by an AMD or Intel dual-core CPU. The performance gains versus a single-core processor will be noticeable right away and even more so in coming years as more business applications take advantage of dual processor cores.

Gateway NX570X
The Gateway NX570X

Additionally, Intel recently introduced its latest Centrino Duo mobile platform (its branding for the CPU and supporting chipsets). Codenamed “Santa Rosa,” the platform consists of several small improvements that together add up to faster speed and improved battery life.

Among the improvements is a faster integrated GPU (graphics processing unit), the Intel Mobile GMA X3100, which does a better job handling Vista’s demanding Aero interface elements. You’ll also get 802.11n wireless LAN support, which offers faster throughput when paired with an 802.11n router or access point. Some higher-end business laptops will also employ the new Intel Turbo Memory feature, which combines on-board flash memory with BIOS tweaks to speed Vista boot-up and application-launch times.

All told, the new Centrino Duo models deliver around a 10 percent performance boost compared to older models. That said, if all you do is office apps, an AMD platform or older Centrino would suffice (not to mention save you money). Just don’t skimp on the RAM. Configure a machine with at least 1GB of memory, and get a full 2GB if you’re buying Vista (or think you might upgrade to Vista down the road).

Storage: More is Better
When opting for a desktop PC, there’s no need to configure it with the maker’s largest offered hard drive unless it will see duty as a video-editing or multimedia workstation. But laptops have drives that are physically smaller in size, so you may want to get the most spacious drive a maker offers, if only to avoid the expense and considerable hassle of having to upgrade the drive eventually.

HP Pavilion dv2000t
The HP Pavilion dv2000t

If you’re on a tight budget — and can control yourself when it comes to loading random applications and media files — an 80GB drive will suffice. But we recommend you spend the $75 or so extra and get a 120GB drive, and double that if you plan on housing your iTunes and photo collection on your work machine.

Most low-priced business laptops still come with CD-RW/DVD-ROM combo drives, which is fine if you have a backup option in mind that doesn’t involve the machine’s optical drive. But ideally, step up to a dual-layer DVD burner, which will give you more than 8GB of archival capability per disc.

Connectivity: Plug in to Wireless
Wi-Fi wireless LAN 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.

The new kid on the block is 802.11n; in fact, the final spec has yet to be ratified by the Wi-Fi standards body. Still, “Draft N” equipment you buy now will very likely be compatible with products that adhere to the final 802.11n spec. So to future-proof your laptop purchase, it makes sense to buy one with 802.11n support — especially if you have an aging 802.11b network you were planning on upgrading in the next year or so, as 802.11n will probably be your solution of choice.

Lenovo ThinkPad T61
The Lenovo ThinkPad T61

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 $150 to the cost of a notebook (and note that not every model in a maker’s line will have it as an option). The data service isn’t cheap (typically $79.99 a month, through Cingular, Sprint or Verizon), but it lets you connect at near-DSL speeds in the hundreds of greater metropolitan areas that support a given carrier’s network. 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 less common and more expensive than those for the older PC Card slot. Similarly, 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. If you have a digital-capable LCD desktop monitor you want to use when in the office, look for a laptop with a DVI connector. Most notebooks no longer come with serial and parallel ports; if you need one, look for a laptop model that offers a port replicator option with those ports.

Battery Life: Longer is Better
The runtime a notebook delivers per charge depends upon a number of factors: the battery’s size, the screen size and resolution, the type of internal components and the tasks you perform. If you simply move the machine from office to home each day, battery life is less of an issue — though you may want to invest in a second power adapter so you don’t have to worry about forgetting it one place or the other.

Toshiba Satellite A205- S4578
The Toshiba Satellite A205- S4578

Battery life is paramount for road warriors. Some ultra-portables can deliver more than eight hours per charge for typical office applications. Larger models won’t come anywhere near that, so opt for the largest battery a maker offers, and spring for a spare. Also, look for a notebook that offers a fast-charge feature, which will bring the battery up to 80 percent capacity in less than an hour (ideal for topping it off during that airport layover).

Crucial Extras: Security, Durability
By its nature, a laptop is vulnerable to being dropped, lost or stolen. Since you data is critical to your business, look for features that 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 a machine with active hard drive protection, which parks the hard drive heads should the machine sense a fall, and thus protect the platter from knocking into the heads (a leading cause of data loss). A spill-resistant keyboard is also a plus, especially for travelers who often find themselves stuck in coach. 

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 critical business secrets or sensitive data, you’ll need to add another layer of security, such as a data-encryption program.

Finally, be sure to have a data backup solution in place (and actually use it). If the machine dies or disappears all you’ll lose is the hardware. And as with any piece of business equipment, consider signing up for the insurance offered by most major makers. This will protect your investment should disaster strike.

Small Business Notebooks: Sample Configs and Pricing
Vendor Model Recommended
Memory Hard Drive Other Base price/As-configured price
Acer TravelMate 4230-6499 Intel Core 2 Duo T5500 (1.6GHz) 1GB 533MHz DDR2 SDRAM 120GB 15.4-inch LCD, DVD+/-RW drive, 802.11a/b/g, Windows Vista Business Edition $1,199/$1,199
Apple MacBook Pro Intel Core 2 Duo T7400 (2.16GHz) 1GB 667MHz DDR2 SDRAM 120GB 15.4-inch LCD, dual-layer DVD SuperDrive, 802.11n, Mac OS X 10.4 $1,999/$1,999
Dell Latitude D531 AMD Turion 64 X2 Mobile Processor TL-50 (1.6GHz) 1GB 667MHz DDR2 SDRAM 120GB 14.1-inch LCD, DVD+/-RW drive, 802.11b/g, Windows Vista Business Edition $649/$898
Gateway NX570X Intel Core 2 Duo T5300 (1.73GHz) 1GB 667MHz DDR2 SDRAM 120GB 15.4-inch LCD, dual-layer DVD+/-RW drive, 802.11a/b/g, Windows Vista Business Edition $699/$1,058
HP Pavilion dv2000t Intel Core 2 Duo T5300 (1.73GHz) 1GB 667MHz DDR2 SDRAM 120GB 14.1-inch LCD, dual-layer DVD+/-RW drive, 802.11a/b/g, Windows Vista Business Edition $629/$986
Lenovo ThinkPad T61 Intel Core 2 Duo T7100 (1.8GHz) 1GB 667MHz DDR2 SDRAM 120GB 14.1-inch LCD, dual-layer DVD+/-RW drive, 802.11a/b/g, Windows Vista Business Edition $1,060/$1,162
Toshiba Satellite A205- S4578 Intel Core 2 Duo T5300 (1.73GHz) 1GB 667MHz DDR2 SDRAM 160GB 15.4-inch LCD, dual-layer DVD+/-RW drive, 802.11a/b/g, Windows Vista Business Edition $1,050/$1,050

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