How to Buy a Small Business Notebook Computer

 Acer Aspire One 532H-2223; netbook pc
The Acer Aspire One 532H-2223 netbook.
(Click for larger image)

As an entrepreneur, choosing the tools with which your small or midsize business (SMB) will operate is among the most important capital expenditure decisions you will make. The computers you and your staff will use are no exception.

First, you should consider what specifications will best serve the application needs of the person using the computer. You don’t want to pay for more capacity than you need. At the same time, you need to be certain the computer you buy will have the power to perform the tasks you require of it and to run the software upgrades you are likely to buy over the computer’s lifespan of three or more years.

Small Business Solutions: Select Your Category

If you’re considering a notebook computer rather than a desktop, you’ve already decided that mobility is important to your business, but what sort of mobility you anticipate is just as important. You have to decide which category of notebook PC — as determined by weight and size — best fits your needs and working style. Notebook computers come in five categories: netbook, ultraportable, thin-and-light, midsize and desktop replacement.

Netbooks are the smallest notebook PCs. Designed to be Internet companions for checking email and surfing the Web while on the go, they are small and light (typically 2.5 to 3 pounds). Though limited in processing power and RAM, netbooks are an excellent choice for mobile workers who only need access to email and the occasional Web page.

Sony VAIO VPC-Z116GXS; notebook computer
The Sony VAIO VPC-Z116GXS.
(Click for larger image)

Most netbooks feature a 10.1-inch display with a resolution of 1,024 by 600, which is enough to view a standard Web page without horizontal scrolling, though you should still expect to do a lot of vertical scrolling to read most Web pages. If you’re willing to tote a slightly larger and heavier netbook around (and give up a bit of battery life as well) in exchange for more desktop real estate, seek out models with 11.6 or 12.1-inch screens, which typically bump the resolution up to 1,366 x 768.

Netbooks generally cost between $299 and $499, but it is important to note that a netbook is intended to be a complement to your main PC, not a replacement for it. A netbook has the essential computing gear — Wi-Fi and Ethernet for connectivity, built-in storage, USB ports and memory card slots for loading files — but there’s no room for a CD or DVD drive. Netbooks also typically have low-power processors (Intel’s Atom line has become the standard) that are fine for simple Web and word-processing tasks, but would be maddeningly underpowered for tasks such as creating a PowerPoint presentation. A netbook is the right choice for content consumption, not content creation.

Ultraportables are the next class of notebook computers up from netbooks. Ultraportables typically feature a 12.1-inch screen and weigh 3 to 4 pounds. Ultraportables are a great choice for road warriors who are on the road daily or for entrepreneurs who are frequent travelers (two or more times per month) and need a notebook PC with them at all times.

Unlike netbooks, ultraportables typically have comparatively powerful processors. Many models even have optical drives built in, so you have all your essential components. Of course, miniaturization doesn’t come cheap, so you’ll pay a premium for an ultraportable compared to a larger laptop with similar specs, though prices have begun to creep down. An entry-level ultraportable can be had for about $725, while a more robust configuration will set you back $1,500 to $2,000.

Lenovo ThinkPad X201 Tablet; notebook computer
The Lenovo ThinkPad X201 Tablet.
(Click for larger image)

If your job entails a lot of note taking, you may want to consider a convertible tablet PC. Notebook computers in the ultraportable subclass are typically outfitted with 12.1-inch screens that swivel and fold flat against the keyboard, so you can use the included stylus to jot electronic notes or use your finger to navigate Windows and application with the touch of a finger.

For the majority of SMB buyers, a notebook PC in the thin-and-light category is the best bet. Sporting screens that are either 13.3 inches or 14.1 inches in size, these notebook computers give you a bigger view of your work while still maintaining comfortable portability — 4 to 6 pounds and about an inch or so thick. All thin-and-light notebook computers have the optical drive built in and most are powered by dual-core processors, so you can use one as your primary PC. A good thin-and-light notebook PC costs around $1,000, so you don’t pay the premium an ultraportable exacts.

Price-sensitive SMB buyers will want to consider a notebook PC in the midsize category. Notebook computers in this class, which includes budget models, are equipped with 14.1- or 15.4-inch displays and are heavier (6 to 7 pounds) and larger (around 1.5 inches thick).

Lenovo ThinkPad SL510; notebook computer
The Lenovo ThinkPad SL510.
(Click for larger image)

If your travel consists of schlepping the machine from your home to the car to the office and back again, the extra heft may not matter to you. But the savings will: A solid midsize notebook PC costs about $800 and, if you don’t mind settling for a lesser processor, you can find a bargain machine for hundreds less.

If you want all the comforts of a desktop PC in a form factor that you can still tote when necessary, consider a desktop replacement notebook PC. Models with 16-inch screens deliver a good balance of big-screen comfort and reasonable portability.

Other models have 17-inch or even 18.4-inch screens, and are usually laden with all manner of multimedia and/or gaming goodies that drive up the prices to north of $2,000. But if you want a small business solution for work and play, a desktop replacement might make more sense than buying a separate desktop and laptop.

Once you’ve settled on the right category and screen size for your SMB needs, you’ll have to decide whether you want an antiglare coating on your screen. Most notebooks come standard with glossy LCD panels that don’t feature a coating, giving them crisper text reproduction and more vibrant color reproduction. However, if your work environment consists of harsh lighting conditions, like overhead fluorescent lights or lots of windows, consider opting for the antiglare coating. It will cut down the reflection of ambient light.

You may also have a choice of screen resolution (the measure of how many pixels are found in the horizontal and vertical dimensions) for the model you’ve chosen. The decision you make here is crucial: LCD panels are designed to look best at their native resolution, so you won’t be able to change your mind and simply set it to a different resolution and expect it to deliver the same image quality.

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