There are plenty of top-10 lists out there for people who want a quick reference for the best work laptops on the market, but this laptop buying guide will teach you how to buy computers the clever way, without relying on the (often sponsored) opinions of someone else. Don't be concerned if you have little to no tech support or limited experience – once you know the nuts and bolts of what makes a good laptop, the shopping process will be much less overwhelming.
This buying guide is designed to be worked through step by step and considers general hardware best practices as well as the budgetary and deployment concerns of small business owners.
Step 1: Set your technology budget and optimize your shopping strategy.
The best way to optimize your tech spending is to set a clear budget before shopping. As you set your budget, be sure to consider not only the overall amount you're willing to spend but how that will amortize over the number of laptops you'll buy. When entrepreneurs don't set a budget before shopping, especially for technology, they often end up overspending or underspending. 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. On the other hand, underspending can end up costing you more in the long run if you don't get what your employees need the first time around.
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, midrange 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. For this reason, it's best to keep tech purchasing decisions in the hands of a small number of high-level employees and not open the conversation to your entire staff.
In fact, the easiest management approach is to have only one original equipment manufacturer and two or three model variations. If you have creative pros on board, though, 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 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 at a low price 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, like receptionists and assistants, 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 powerful enough processor 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 portable than those in the cheaper price brackets. Premium ultraportable models, such as Dell's XPS 13, offer fast performance in an extremely sleek package. Bulky, powerful workstations also fall into this category and 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 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 the Chrome and Windows operating systems, but there are three primary operating systems, and you should know the differences between all of them. If, after reading these descriptions, you are still unsure which operating system to select, choose Windows. Windows is still the business standard worldwide, and you are unlikely to regret the decision.
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 for 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 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 than a niche.
Whether you opt for a machine running Apple OS X or not is mainly 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 less common, you should always ask IT experts about possible operating system and software compatibility issues before buying new laptops. Some businesses also choose Apple OS machines for the image they project, and if you are in a field where looks matter and cultivating a luxe vibe is important to your clients, that may be a valid choice.
Windows 10 OS
As we already mentioned, 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, can perform all sorts of tasks, such as scheduling appointments and checking the weather. Then there's Task View, which lets you set up multiple virtual desktops for easier multitasking.
The main benefit to choosing Windows is familiarity. It's highly unlikely that your employees have never used a Windows laptop before, and most IT pros (even those with limited experience) know how to provide support for Windows devices. Ease of use is an important part of business tech adoption, and the average office worker is comfortable with Windows.
Google's Chrome OS is the new kid on the block of 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.
Now the offering of Chromebooks is more diverse, and there are business-focused laptops running Chrome OS. Chrome is a great choice for an entrepreneur who is comfortable living in the cloud (you can't download programs on a Chromebook) and doesn't want to worry about updates.
Chromebooks are built to automatically download and deploy updates for you, which is a great timesaver for busy entrepreneurs. Thanks to an increase in cloud-based programs such as Adobe Creative Cloud, Microsoft Word, Excel and PowerPoint, Chromebooks are growing more functional for a broader range of business owners.
Step 3: Choose a laptop 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.
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 another 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 who travel a lot or currently switch back and forth between a laptop (for typing) and a tablet (for stylus and touchscreen use) may be a good match for a hybrid design. However, you should be aware that a 2-in-1 with high specs will be costlier than a standard hinge laptop with the same specs.
Is a comfortable keyboard a high priority?
When you're busy looking at laptop designs, it can be easy to forget about the basics and be dazzled by gorgeous chassis and high-resolution screens, but keyboard comfort is an important factor for most business users. In fact, an uncomfortable keyboard will end up being a much bigger barrier to getting work done than a slightly unimpressive PPI or a bland design. While you shop, keep in mind that the smaller the laptop, the smaller the keyboard, and that 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. If you can't do that, at least 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 this is not ideal, of course.
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 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.
Do I need a touchscreen or stylus support?
Touchscreens are a nice feature if (and only if) you use them a lot. Laptops that have touchscreens and/or stylus support are nearly always more expensive than similar models without touchscreens.
Computers with touchscreens also use a lot more battery power than those without, even if you don't actively use the touchscreen feature. To top it off, touchscreens are heavier than regular screens. If you need a touchscreen 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.
Do I need a rugged laptop?
Rugged laptops are essential for some businesses, especially those that employ servicepeople in rugged or remote conditions. Toughbook by Panasonic is the most high-profile of the rugged laptop lines, and it's very popular with public service professionals (police, fire, EMT, conservation) as well as private companies that require ultra-resilient laptops (oil, fishing, agriculture, construction, delivery).
Rugged laptops and tablets are often offered with accessories that are not available for mainstream laptops, such as vehicle mounts and vehicle battery packs (some rugged laptops can operate for days at a time with these packs). Rugged laptops are also typically waterproof, drop-proof, and able to be used with gloves on (even if they have touchscreens). However, they're also usually larger and clunkier than consumer or business laptops, and they can be expensive once you factor in accessories.
Most businesses do not need rugged laptops, but if yours does, don't even bother looking at standard consumer or business machines. Instead, start by checking out these rugged lines: Toughbook by Panasonic, Getac and Dell Rugged Extreme.
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 let's break 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 OK 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, like running QuickBooks while managing massive spreadsheets in Excel when your browser has 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 compare in 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, also just 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 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, which is why you'll almost always find them in rugged laptops.
Here's how to figure out if the laptop you're looking at has enough memory and storage for your business use:
RAM: Skip any laptops with 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 (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 (which is fine if you're OK with living in the cloud and running mobile apps). 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 dealbreaker 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 take each one's reported number as more of an estimate than an absolute fact.
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: Buy laptops for your business.
Now that you've successfully narrowed down your choice of work laptops based on what you need and what you can afford, you can confidently make your purchase. The basic approach outlined in this laptop buying guide can be used to buy other technology too, like printers and copiers and business phone systems. We also have helpful guides to advise you on software buying decisions.