Whether you're a small business owner purchasing laptops for your team or an in-house tech pro who's responsible for outfitting a startup, the task of choosing laptops for everyone is a major one. While many small businesses are adopting a policy called BYOD (bring your own device) when it comes to hardware, in most industries it's still standard practice to provide employees with primary devices.
What makes buying laptops more challenging for small business owners, as opposed to owners of large businesses and enterprises, is typically a lack of in-house knowledge. Without a team of dedicated tech pros to lean on during the purchasing process, many SMB owners feel as if they're flying blind when they buy hardware.
This step-by-step guide will fill in the gaps in your laptop buying knowledge and help you find the best business laptops for your entire team. [In the market for a new business laptop? Check out our top picks.]
Step 1: Set your budget based on employee tiers
When entrepreneurs don't set a budget before shopping, especially for technology, they often end up overspending. Not every business needs a fleet of top-of-the-line machines, and it's a waste of time to consider high-cost options if they don't suit your bottom line. Of course, you don't want to go so cheap that your workforce becomes inefficient either.
One popular approach to tech budgeting is to adopt different tiers of devices based on user needs. For example, it may be worthwhile to spring for luxury Dell machines for your C-suite execs and dev team, mid-range Dell laptops for your professional staff, and entry-level Dells for support staff. It's advisable to stick to one or two manufacturers to simplify maintenance and mobile device management (MDM) in the future.
The easiest management approach is to have only one OEM, but if you have creative pros on board, you will likely end up adopting two types of machines (since creatives often require pricey Macs, which are not typically necessary for other employees). [Read related article: What is Mobile Device Mangement?]
If you're not sure how to strike a balance between cost and quality, check out our breakdown of laptop budget ranges and determine your range based on the types of employees you have:
- $300 and Under: In the $300 and lower range, you'll find low-end Chromebooks and Windows machines exclusively. We don't recommend laptops at this price point for business users as they typically have a cheap build quality, limited storage and slow performance. Even for light business use, you can do better.
- $350 to $599: In this price range, you'll find mediocre Windows laptops and good business Chromebooks. The reason Chromebooks are better than Windows machines in this range is because they have far less storage (which is expensive), so they can stay low priced without sacrificing on build and display. Either way, you should only purchase a work laptop in this price range for staff that sticks to basic tasks such as using Microsoft Office, posting on social media and browsing the web. For support staff with limited needs, this price range may be adequate.
- $600 to $900: Most professional business users' needs can be met in the $600 to $999 price range. Users should have no trouble getting the memory and storage they need as well as a processor that's powerful enough for business multitasking at this level. Work laptops in this category often feature business-class security features, such as fingerprint scanners, and they tend to have good battery life, comfortable keyboards and nice displays.
- $1,000 and up: For $1,000 or more, you can get a laptop that's much more powerful or more portable than those in the cheaper price brackets. Premium ultraportable models, such as 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. This is the best price range for your power users, like your dev team, design team and C-level execs who want to project a certain image.
Now that your budget is set, filter your future searches based on cost. Even looking at laptop models that are outside of your price range is a recipe for budgetary disaster, so steer clear.
Step 2: Choose an operating system
Unless you're able to spend at least $1,300 per laptop, you'll be choosing between a Chrome OS and a Windows OS, but there are three primary operating systems, and you should know the difference.Credit: Apple
Apple OS X
Laptops that run Apple's OS X carry hefty price tags, but many die-hard Apple fans are willing to pay a premium for a beautiful machine with a well-designed interface. Historically, creative professionals favored Apple laptops because of their high screen quality, function keys and ability to run high-octane programs such as Avid, Maya and Dreamweaver.
Many creative pros still purchase laptops from Apple, but it's no longer considered the mandatory go-to brand, especially since recent MacBook Pros have featured less RAM than previous models and seem more focused on appealing to a mass audience rather than a niche.
Whether you opt for a machine running Apple OS X or not is primarily up to personal preference and how much you're comfortable spending. The only real exception to this rule is if your business happens to use a software product that can only run on Mac. While this scenario is becoming increasingly less common, you should always ask IT about possible operating system/software compatibility issues before buying new laptops.Credit: Microsoft
In general, Windows is the standard for work laptop operating systems. If you go with a Windows OS, you'll have more laptops to choose from than if you go for Chrome OS or Apple OS X. There are Windows machines available in every configuration and price range possible, which means you can be pretty picky (within your budget of course).
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.Credit: Google
Google's Chrome OS is the new kid on the block when it comes to operating systems, so if you're not sure what to expect from a Chromebook, you're not alone. When Chromebooks first hit the market, they were primarily created with students in mind, because they have a super low starting price point.
Now the offering of Chromebooks is more diverse, and there are business-focused laptops running Chrome OS. Chrome is a great choice if you're an entrepreneur who is comfortable living in the cloud (you can't download programs on a Chromebook) and who doesn't want to worry about updates.
Chromebooks are built to automatically download and deploy updates for you, which is a great time-saver for busy entrepreneurs. Thanks to an increase in cloud-based programs, such as the Adobe Creative Cloud, Microsoft Word, Excel and PowerPoint, Chromebooks are growing more functional for a broader range of business owners.
Step 3: Choose a design
The key to choosing the right laptop design is considering how you (and your team) work. Here are a few questions to ask yourself (or your employees) before you shop.Credit: Lenovo
Do I want a hybrid laptop or a traditional laptop?
You're already familiar with traditional laptops that open on a hinge, but now there's a new breed of hybrid laptops to consider. Hybrid laptops, also called convertible laptops or 2-in-1s, are laptops that double as stand-alone tablets.
Some hybrid laptops feature screens that detach completely from the keyboard, while others have hinges with a 180-degree range of motion, so you can fold the laptop inside out and use it as a tablet. Employees that travel a lot or currently switch back and forth between laptops (for typing) and a tablet (for stylus/touchscreen use) may be a good match for a hybrid design.Credit: Laptop Mag
Is a comfortable keyboard a high priority?
When you're busy looking at laptop designs it can be easy to forget about the basics, but keyboard comfort is an important feature for most business users. Keep in mind that the smaller the laptop, the smaller the keyboard, and typing on a miniature keyboard for hours at a time can be tiresome.
If possible, test out keyboards to get a feel for what you like, but if you can't do that, at the very least, make sure you take note of the size of the keyboard on any laptop you consider. If you choose a laptop with a less-than-ideal keyboard, you can invest in an external keyboard for long typing sessions, but, of -course, this is not ideal.Credit: Laptop Mag
Will I be traveling with my laptop or mostly working in one place?
Portability is a major concern for some business owners and a nonissue for others. If you travel a lot or work in different locations on a regular basis, it may be worth sacrificing screen size and keyboard size for a lighter computer. You can always check the dimensions and weight of a laptop under the technical specifications online.
Keep in mind that laptop screens, like television screens, are measured diagonally (corner to corner) and that, in general, any device that weighs less than 3 pounds is portable enough for business travel. Before you choose an ultraportable, though, make sure the device has the ports you require and a battery life you can live with.Credit: Acer
Do I need a touch screen or stylus support?
Touch screens are a nice feature if (and only if) you use them a lot. Laptops that have touch screens and/or stylus support are nearly always more expensive than similar models without touch screens.
Computers with touch screens also use a lot more battery power than those without, even if the touch screen feature isn't actively used, and to top it off, touch screens are heavier than regular screens. If you need a touch screen or stylus support, you should absolutely look for that feature in a laptop, but don't spring for it just because you think it seems like a cool add-on.
Step 4: Compare these three specs
By now you've probably found a couple laptops that fit your budget, have the operating system you want and meet your design needs. Choosing between them comes down to the specs. Looking at specs can be overwhelming when you're not familiar with all the tech talk, so we're breaking it down in simple real-world terms.
Under the technical specs you'll see the laptop's CPU (central processing unit, also just called the processor) listed. The CPU is the first thing you should look at when comparing laptop options.
If your laptop were a car, the CPU would be the engine. As you can imagine, the quality of your laptop's processor has a huge impact on usability. That said, many people overspend for top-of-the-line processors when they don't need them (an equivalent would be someone who buys a Porsche but never drives more than 40 mph).
As you compare CPUs on the laptops you're looking at, keep these general guidelines in mind:
- Low-end CPUs: Low-end CPUs include the Intel Atom, AMD E Series, Intel Pentium and Intel Celeron. These CPUs are best suited for very light use. If all you plan on doing is typing and web browsing, a low-end CPU may be fine, but, in general, we don't recommend these for business use.
- Midrange CPUs: Midrange CPUs include Intel Core m3, Intel Core m5 and Intel Core m7. You will likely only see these CPUs in lightweight laptops and hybrid laptop designs. These CPUs are alright for basic work tasks. If the laptop you're buying is a secondary machine for travel, or something you'll only use occasionally to take notes and send emails, this range of CPUs should suit your needs. If your business requires you to run robust programs on a regular basis, spring for more power.
- CPUs that are good for most business use: Intel Core i3 and Intel Core i5 processors are suitable for most businesses, they're like the reliable four-door sedans of the laptop world. If you regularly multitask on your machine and do things, like run QuickBooks while managing massive spreadsheets in Excel when your browser had 15 tabs open, a Core i5 is a better choice for you than a Core i3. If you're a standard business user who uses Outlook, types documents, streams media, stores photos and posts to social media, a Core i3 will suit your needs just fine.
- High-end CPUs: When they first came to market, Intel's sixth and seventh generation Core i7 processors were found exclusively in high-end laptops. As with most technology, the price has decreased somewhat, and you can now find laptops for less than $1,000 that have i7 processors. While there's nothing wrong with purchasing a laptop with a Core i7 processor, you probably don't need one.
Many people think a powerful processor equals better performance, and everyone wants the best performance possible, but that idea is both true and false. Here's an analogy: Imagine loading a bag of groceries in the back of your four-door sedan (your Core i3 or Core i5). You can easily drive that bag of groceries home, right? Now imagine putting that same bag of groceries in the back of a high-end pickup truck with way more horsepower. Was it easier to drive the bag of groceries home in the more expensive truck? No, it didn't make a difference, because the task you were performing was so lightweight that you didn't even tap into the benefit of the pickup truck's extra horsepower (the ability to haul massive loads, attach a snow plow, use four-wheel drive, etc.).
The same is true for high-end processors. If you're not going to do video editing or 3D modeling, you don't need a high-end processor, and having one won't improve your laptop experience. If those demanding tasks are part of your daily business, a Core i7 will be well worth the money.
- Luxury CPUs: If you gave yourself an unlimited budget for business laptops, you may encounter a few that feature the Intel Xeon. The Intel Xeon is only necessary for professionals who regularly do hardcore business analytics, vector-based processing, and other highly intensive data science and analytics tasks. If all those terms sound like Greek to you, you don't need an Intel Xeon. If an i7 is a fancy pickup truck, an Intel Xeon is a high-end sports car, like an Aston Martin or a Porsche. There's a very small population for whom buying a sports car is a financially sound decision, and the same is true for a luxury laptop with an Intel Xeon.
Memory and storage
The second most important factor to evaluate when comparing work laptops is memory and storage. There are two basic types of memory and storage that your laptop will have. You can think about them like long-term storage and short-term memory. For short-term memory, there's random access memory (RAM), and for long-term storage, there's your hard disk drive (HDD; it can also just be called a hard drive). Some computers have a solid-state drive (SSD) in addition to an HDD (for long-term storage), while others only have an SSD for long-term storage.
SSDs are newer than HDDs, but they are becoming increasingly popular for storage because they're faster than HDDs (meaning they make your laptop run faster too). SSDs don't have any moving parts, so they're also more durable and compact than standard hard drives.
Here's how to figure out if the laptop you're looking at has enough memory and storage for business use:
- RAM: Skip any laptops that have 2GB RAM as they'll be frustrating to work on. Aim instead for laptops that have 4GB (good) or 8GB (even better). Some laptops come with 16GB, but that's not necessary for most business users.
- HDD and SDD: Unless you're planning on doing a lot of video editing (and therefore storing tons of footage on your machine), you should be fine with a minimum combined storage capacity of around 256GB. Bear in mind that if you opt for a Chromebook, you will have far less hard drive space. (And if you're ok with living in the cloud and running mobile apps, that's ok.) The storage suggestion here is primarily for business users purchasing Windows or Apple machines.
The last major spec you should consider before making your final decision is battery life. Battery life is a nonissue for some business owners and a huge deal breaker for others, and only you know how often you'll be using your laptop without access to power.
In any case, it's a good idea to glance at the battery life of any machine you purchase. Bear in mind that laptop manufacturers use different metrics to measure battery life, so don't take their reported number as an absolute fact but more as an estimate. If you want the exact battery life of a laptop, it's best to check out third-party testers, such as our sister site Laptop Mag. They rigorously test every laptop for battery life.
Some laptop manufacturers make add-on batteries for an additional cost. While these extended-life batteries can massively improve the battery life of a work laptop, they also add considerable weight to the machine, so make sure you consider combined weight if you opt for an extra battery pack.
Step 5: Purchase your work laptops with confidence
Now that you've successfully narrowed down your choice of work laptops based on what you need, you can confidently make your purchase. If you're still feeling unsure about your choice, you can always check out our continuously updated best picks, such as Best Business Laptops and Best Work Chromebooks.