Choosing a new business laptop can be hard work. Your new notebook needs to be more durable and secure than your personal computer, and depending on your workload, it probably needs to be speedier, too. And if you commute between home and the office? Well, you'll need something that fits in your work bag and that won't weigh you down.
With all of that in mind, here's our step-by-step-guide to choosing your next business laptop.
Step 1: Choose your operating system
You don't necessarily have to choose a Windows PC for work. Here are the pros and cons of each of the three major laptop operating systems.
The de facto standard for business laptops, Windows is probably your best bet for a new work computer. For starters, it's the most flexible option by far; Windows laptops come in all shapes and sizes and at a wide range of prices. And if you want business-class features — such as military-grade toughness, hardware-level encryption or a fingerprint sensor — Windows laptops are your only option. Windows PCs are generally favored in corporate environments, so buying one for yourself will help you integrate into your next office.
Windows 10, the latest version of the operating system, comes with a handful of new features that can boost your productivity. Cortana, Microsoft's virtual-assistant app, can perform all sorts of tasks, from scheduling appointments to checking the weather. Then there's Task View, which lets you set up multiple virtual desktops for easier multitasking.
Mac computers run on Apple's OS X operating system, which is similar to Windows in most regards. Many consumers prefer OS X, favoring its slick design and integration with Apple's iPhones and iPads. And individual business users will probably find that it's just as good for work as Windows because it can run just about all of the same software. The downside is that you're limited to Apple's small range of MacBook computers, which may or may not meet your hardware needs. Moreover, most corporate offices don't use Macs.
The latest version of OS X is called El Capitan, and like Windows 10, it packs in a bunch of fresh productivity-focused features. Mission Control lets you see all of your open windows in a clean, organized grid; Split View lets you quickly position windows side by side for easy multitasking; and Spotlight is a system-wide search that makes it a snap to find files.
Don't worry if you've never heard of Chrome OS. The operating system is designed by Google, and it comes on low-cost laptops called Chromebooks. The most important thing you need to know about Chrome OS is that it can't run Mac or Windows software; instead, it relies on internet applications. If there's a particular piece of desktop software you absolutely need in order to do your job, then Chrome OS isn't an option.
Chromebooks do have a couple of advantages over other laptops, though. First, they're inexpensive. And second, Chrome OS is extremely simple and easy to use. Plus, you might be surprised by how many great web apps there are, including online versions of Microsoft's Word, Excel and PowerPoint.
Step 2: Consider security
If your laptop contains private or otherwise sensitive data about your business, you'll want extra security options that you can't find on consumer laptops. Here are three features to look for.
Biometrics: Any computer can be protected with a simple password, but biometric authentication is more secure because it doesn't rely on data that can be lost or stolen. A built-in fingerprint sensor is the most common tool for biometric authentication, letting you access your workstation with a quick touch. If you can afford it, look for a model with a single-touch sensor, which is more reliable than older sensors that require you to slide your finger over them.
But fingerprint sensors aren't the only form of biometric authentication out there. Laptops that come with a built-in Intel RealSense 3D camera can log you in just by recognizing your face. Tests show that the technology is even more accurate and secure than a fingerprint sensor.
Trusted Platform Module: A Trusted Platform Module, or TPM, is a special security chip that comes attached to some laptop motherboards and enables hardware-based encryption for your files. In other words, it blocks thieves and attackers from reading your personal data unless they have access to a special code, which is partially stored on your computer’s internal drive and partially stored on the TPM itself. That way, an attacker can’t simply view your files by stealing your drive, or by accessing it remotely. And since a TPM chip has built-in tamper protection, a thief can’t place it on another motherboard to bypass the encryption.
When you’re protected by a TPM, the only way to access your files is to log onto your computer legitimately. The best part is that you don't have to be tech savvy to use a TPM; if your computer comes with one onboard, it will work automatically to encrypt your data.
vPro: vPro is an umbrella term for a variety of security features, though some of them are relevant only to corporate IT departments. For starters, a vPro-enabled processor lets you or your IT manager access your computer remotely for software and group policy updates, and it works at the hardware level. That means that your computer can be accessed even if it's been turned off, so you can locate it, restrict access or wipe it clean if it's been lost or stolen.
vPro also enables hardware-based multifactor authentication. This feature enables users to access their work machine only if they know a PIN, have possession of a connected smartphone and can also present biometric authentication (like a fingerprint). All of the authentication data is encrypted and stored on the hardware itself, making this an extremely secure technology.
Step 3: Factor in portability
Are you typically tied to your desk, or do you need a mobile work companion that you can take anywhere? Commuters and frequent travelers will want to pick a portable laptop, but prioritizing portability can mean sacrificing other features. There are two main factors that determine portability: physical size and weight, and battery life. Here's a brief breakdown.
Size and weight: A big display gives you more room for multitasking, but a bigger screen means a bigger laptop. Here are the four main size categories, along with their typical weight ranges:
- 10 to 12 inches (2.5 to 3.5 lbs.): The most portable laptop computers come with screens that are smaller than 13 inches. These laptops often come in the form of detachable tablets that ship with snap-on keyboards. They're superportable but usually have cramped keyboards and sometimes underpowered processors.
- 13 to 14 inches (<4 lbs.): This is the sweet spot for mobile workers. These laptops offer the best balance between portability and productivity, and can provide enough power to be your primary work machine.
- 15 inches (4.5 to 6.4 lbs.): Offering a bit more screen space, 15-inch laptops are the best option for workers who need to move their system only occasionally.
- 17 to 18 inches (>7 lbs.): Laptops with displays of 17 inches or bigger are great for screen-intensive productivity tasks, and can come with powerful, workstation-class hardware. These hulking machines are best left at your desk most of the time.
Battery life: What good is a superlight laptop if it's always running out of juice? Battery life is a big part of what makes a laptop functionally portable. Our advice is to not settle for a laptop with less than 6 hours of battery life, and to shoot for 8 or more hours if you can afford it.
It can be tricky to evaluate battery life, though, because manufacturers often overstate how long their systems will last in real-world usage. Instead of taking their word for it, check reviews from Business News Daily or our sister site LaptopMag.com for accurate battery life ratings.
Step 4: Check the design
There's more to a laptop's design than its size and weight. Here are four design features to check for when considering a new work notebook.
- Comfortable keyboard: Every laptop has a keyboard, but not every keyboard has good ergonomics. A shallow, mushy keyboard can make marathon typing sessions downright painful. The best laptop keyboards offer 1.5 to 2.5 millimeters of key travel (the distance a key moves down when pressed), as well as snappy tactile feedback. Check out reviews from Business News Daily or our sister site LaptopMag.com for the lowdown on a particular notebook's keyboard.
- 2-in-1 design: Laptop-tablet hybrids — also called 2-in-1s — typically come in two varieties. Detachable notebooks (such as those from Microsoft's Surface line) are tablets that connect to snap-on keyboards. Folding notebooks (such as those from Lenovo's ThinkPad Yoga line) can fold backward 360 degrees so they can be used like large tablets. Hybrid functionality isn't a must for workers, but it's handy for using touch-screen apps in cramped quarters, like on an airplane tray table.
- Touch screen: While 2-in-1 laptops always have touch screens, these displays are also available on standard laptops. Touch screens aren't very useful on your typical business notebook, though. Plus, they cost extra and drain your battery more quickly.
- Stylus support: Some 2-in-1 laptops come with built-in stylus support, letting you take notes right on the screen with full pressure sensitivity.
Step 5: Determine your budget
The cheapest laptop computers can be purchased for less than $200, but budget models aren't always great options for workers. Pricier systems will provide a more durable build, better security and faster performance. Here's a breakdown of what to expect for your money.
- ~$200: Low-end notebooks, including Chromebooks and budget Windows machines, can be had for as little as $200. Expect slow performance, limited storage and cheap build quality, though. These machines generally aren't cut out for work.
- $350 to $600: Workers with only basic computing needs can get away with spending less than $600 for a new laptop. These machines have good enough performance for daily business tasks, such as using Microsoft Office and browsing the web, but they usually suffer from low-res displays, slow hard drives and short battery life.
- $600 to $900: This is the sweet spot for the average worker. In this price range, you can get a full-HD display and speedy solid-state-drive storage, as well as business-class security and durability.
- $1,000 and up: For $1,000 or more, you can get a laptop that's much more powerful or much more portable than those in the cheaper price brackets. Premium ultraportable models like Dell's XPS 13, for example, offer fast performance in an extremely sleek package. Bulky, powerful workstations also fall into this category, and can range from $1,500 to $3,000 or more.
Step 6: Choose your specs
The amount of power and storage space you'll need can vary widely depending on your workload. This is the last step in picking a new laptop, because most models can be ordered in a range of hardware configurations. Because spec sheets can be confusing, here's an overview of the main considerations to keep in mind.
Processor: Also called the CPU, your laptop's processor is basically your laptop's brain, so it has a big impact on your system's overall performance. Here are the most common options:
- Intel Core i3 or Core i5: Most workers will want a laptop with one of these, which strike an excellent balance between price and performance. A Core i5 is recommended for moderate multitasking, but a Core i3 is plenty fast for everyday computing needs.
- Intel Core i7: Don't bother with an Intel Core i7 CPU unless your workload includes heavy-duty tasks like high-end video editing.
- Intel Core m3/m5/m7: These low-power CPUs come in some superlight laptops and 2-in-1s, allowing for a thin, fanless design. Their performance is a bit below that of a Core i3 but zippy enough for basic work tasks.
- Intel Pentium/Celeron: These budget processors come in low-cost laptops, and will struggle to keep up with anything but basic document editing and Web browsing. They're a notch below Core m3/m5/m7.
- AMD E series: These offers performance comparable to that of Intel Pentium/Celeron chips.
- Intel Atom: These are also similar to the Pentium/Celeron series but offer better battery life. They typically power low-end Windows tablets and 2-in-1s.
RAM: Your laptop's short-term memory is called RAM. Aim for at least 4GB on a work laptop, or 8GB if you can afford it. Low-end laptops with just 2GB of RAM will seriously struggle with multitasking.
Storage: Your computer's storage capacity, also known as its hard drive size, determines how many files you can store and how many programs you can install. Storage needs vary widely, but 256GB is a good sweet spot for most users.
If you can afford it, look for a laptop with a solid-state drive (SSD) instead of a standard hard drive. SSDs are much faster than hard drives, letting you access files and load programs three to four times as quickly.
Graphics card: Most laptops have built-in graphics capabilities that are more than sufficient for the average business user. If you need to do 3D modeling — or just want to blow off some steam with computer games after work — you'll probably want to invest in a model with a discrete graphics card from Nvidia or AMD.
The bottom line
Even if you know what you're looking for in your next business laptop, it can be tricky to track down the perfect model. For an overview of the best that the industry has to offer, check out our frequently updated list of the top business laptops currently on the market.