Laptops for work and play: the differences that matter
Laptops come in so many flavors: There are thin-and-lights, convertibles, desktop replacements, 2-in-1s, gaming rigs, and even portable workstations. But all laptops can be lumped into one of two buckets: Consumer or business. I'll show you what makes them different, and help you decide which is right for your needs.
Laptop manufacturers make it easy to tell which machines are built for business use and which are more suited for consumers by putting different labels on them: Lenovo sells IdeaPads to consumers and ThinkPads to businesses. Dell’s XPS and Inspiron models are aimed at consumers, while its Latitude lineup is targeted at businesses.
Toshiba uses the Satellite, Qosmio, and Kirabook brands for consumer machines, and the Tecra brand for business rigs. With Acer, it's Aspire for consumers and TravelMate for business users. HP slices the onion thinner than all the rest: They sell consumer notebooks under the Pavilion, TouchSmart, Envy, Spectre, and Split lines, and they market business laptops under the G-series, EliteBook, Pro, ProBook, and ZBook brands.
The next most obvious factor is the price tag: Business-oriented laptops can cost twice as much as consumer models. Both types of machines are based on similar components, and both types run the same basic operating system and software. Do the big PC manufacturers just think businesses have deeper pockets than consumers?
There might be an element of truth to that, but it certainly doesn't tell the whole story. The PC market is incredibly competitive and profit margins are razor thin. The primary reason why business PCs cost more than consumer models is because businesses—large and small—want computers that are built to last and easy to maintain.
Business laptops also come with longer warranties, stockpiled units and replacement parts, robust tech support, extra security features, and remote-management capabilities. The cost of those attributes is reflected in the price tag of the product. Once you understand those differentiators, you can decide if they’re worth the added expense.
Durability and life cycle
Business laptops are expected to remain in service much longer than consumer notebooks, and they’re expected to withstand at least a little rough handling. As such, they’re usually fabricated from stronger material—aluminum or magnesium, for instance—and they feature more rugged construction. Consumer laptops—especially budget models—are often built using copious amounts of plastic.
Most businesses standardize on one or a few laptop models, and they keep them in service for at least three years. This stability reduces the tech-support burden on the company's IT department. When a manufacturer introduces a new business laptop, they often commit to keeping the exact same machine available for 18 months to 5 years, so its corporate customers can add to their fleets down the road.
Business buyers also expect to be able to acquire replacement parts over the laptop’s entire service life. So the manufacturer must maintain an inventory of parts that they might never sell. Some of the cost of those parts is reflected in the price of the notebook.
Consumer laptops tend to have much shorter shelf lives. A given model might be available for a year or even less before being replaced by a shiny new model. Toshiba manufactured a limited number of its luxurious Kirabook, for example, and switched to Intel's fourth-generation Core processor when it produced the next batch.
Consumers are also more apt to replace a failing laptop than have it repaired. Sometimes this is the most sensible strategy. Sometimes it’s the only strategy, as manufacturers often don’t maintain large inventories of replacement parts for their consumer product lines. Other times, it just serves as a good excuse to buy a new model with all the latest bells and whistles. Businesses can't afford to flip on a whim, as each switch incurs costs beyond acquiring the new machine: There’s testing, training, software licenses, and more.
Maintenance and repair
Business laptops are generally easier to maintain and fix. You won't find Torx screws or Apple's ridiculous new Pentalobe fasteners on a business machine (unless it’s a MacBook Pro, that is).
A common Phillips screwdriver should be all you need. And with a machine like HP’s ZBook 15 mobile workstation, you won’t even need that. Slide open two friction locks and you can remove its bottom panel to access its memory, storage, Wi-Fi adapter, battery, and more.
User-serviceable components aren’t unheard of in consumer notebooks, but they are becoming increasingly uncommon as laptops become disposable commodities.
Ports and connectivity
The port selection on consumer laptops usually bifurcates according to price tag: High-end machines sport the newest technologies early, while budget machines lag behind. These days, many I/O technologies—such as USB 3.0 and HDMI—have been around long enough to become ubiquitous on consumer laptops at just about every price point. Bleeding-edge technologies, on the other hand, have been much slower to catch on. Thunderbolt is a good example, despite its ability to transfer data twice as fast as a USB port can (10GB per second—and Thunderbolt 2 can transfer files at 20GB per second).
Business laptops at all price points usually lag in offering the latest connection technologies. In this case, it's because corporate nickel-nursers don't want to pay for something that's not—and might never be—mainstream. That same penny-pinching mindset explains why legacy technologies like VGA hang around for so long on business laptops—they're needed to connect to aging video projectors.
Wireless networking is de rigueur in both classes of laptops. An integrated 802.11ac Wi-Fi adapter is your best choice, but 802.11n adapters are cheaper and more common. Some business laptops also offer the option of cellular connectivity via a SIM card that can be installed inside the laptop or plugged into an external port.
Smart card and ExpressCard slots are found exclusively on business laptops. Smart cards are a robust security feature that can be used to prevent unauthorized users from gaining access to the computer while it's powered up but unattended. ExpressCard is more of a legacy interface that replaced the even older PC Card and PCMCIA technologies. You can use it to connect cards with specialty I/O ports (FireWire, eSATA, network interfaces, and so on) and special features (everything from TV tuners to sound cards). The HP ZBook 15 shown above has both Smart card and ExpressCard slots.
Many business laptops come with docking ports, while consumer laptops almost never do. If you spend a lot of time working behind a desk, but still need the mobility of a laptop, a docking station or port replicator can be a godsend. You hard-wire your desktop mouse, keyboard, display(s), ethernet, USB desktop storage device(s), and other peripherals to the docking station, and then physically connect the laptop to the docking station. Push one button (or pull one cable) and you can grab your laptop and go.
But you don’t have to buy a business laptop to use a docking port. Third-party devices such as the Targus Universal USB 3.0 DV take advantage of USB and DisplayLink technologies to deliver nearly all the same functionality as a proprietary dock. The only drawback is that you might need to unplug a couple of cables to disengage your laptop (and plug them back in when you switch back to desktop mode). DisplayLink technology also uses real-time compression. You'll be hard pressed to see or hear compression-induced artifacts in day-to-day use, but you might not want to use a DisplayLink dock if you use your laptop for professional audio or video editing.
WiGig wireless technology eliminates the need to establish any physical connection between your laptop and dock. WiGig has been curiously slow to catch on, but Dell jumped on it early to produce the Wireless Dock D5000, which is now compatible with a number of Dell laptops (there was just one when we originally reviewed it).
The graphics processors integrated into modern CPUs are all you need for surfing the web, watching movies, and most other common tasks. But you need a discrete graphics processor for computationally intense applications. If a consumer laptop has a discrete graphics processor, it’s one that’s designed to play games. If a business laptop has a discrete GPU, it’s one that’s designed for very different applications: Computer-aided design (CAD), 3D modeling, scientific and medical imaging, content creation, and so on. Look for machines outfitted with AMD FirePro Mobile Graphics or Nvidia Quadro Mobile Workstation cards inside.
Since most HDTVs have HDMI ports, it’s not surprising that consumer laptops often use this same interface. But DisplayPort, used on business-oriented laptops and displays, is a superior video interface for business users if for no other reason than a single DisplayPort 1.2 interface can support up to four monitors at 1920-by-1200-pixel resolution each, or two monitors at 2560-by-1600-pixel resolution. In both cases, each display can receive independent audio and video streams. Both DisplayPort and HDMI can support a single 4K monitor (defined as 3840 by 2160 pixels).
Management and security features
For the enterprise that deploys hundreds or even thousands of laptops, it’s essential that the corporate IT department be able to manage these devices remotely. While most small businesses don’t have IT departments, many pay consultants to manage their IT resources. Buying a laptop equipped with CPU- and BIOS-level technologies such as Intel’s vPro, DASH (Desktop and Mobile Architecture for Hardware), or HP’s SureStart can save them time, and your business money.
These tools enable an IT department to monitor, manage, remotely access, and even repair laptop software installations in the field. The user doesn’t need to be present, and the laptop can be so compromised—by a malware infection, a borked software install, or a corrupted file—that it’s incapable of booting to its operating system.
Remotely re-imaging (that is, copying all the software, including the OS, back to the laptop's hard drive over a network connection) will save a ton of time as well as the expense of travel or shipping. vPro can also prevent certain types of malware and attacks that occur below the operating system level. HP’s SureStart technology can quickly restore a computer’s BIOS if the BIOS is attacked or corrupted, but it's available only on HP machines.
Since sensitive information might be stored on a business laptop, these machines often have additional security features integrated into their hardware. A biometric device such as a fingerprint scanner can verify an authorized user’s identity, for instance, while encryption tools such as a TPM (Trusted Platform Module) chip and Windows BitLocker can scramble data as it’s written to the laptop’s hard drive. Encrypted data cannot be read in the clear if the user lacks the proper keys to decode it.
If you decide that vPro or DASH are must-have features in your notebook, make sure the notebook you buy actually has those features. Not every notebook that's marketed as a business machine will. For models with Intel CPUs, check Intel's ARK site to see if the chip has vPro support. Any laptop equipped with an AMD CPU that is also outfitted with a TPM chip will support DASH. And as noted earlier, SureStart is an HP technology, so check the specs for the model you're interested in buying to see if it has that feature.
Unpack a consumer laptop and you’ll find all manner of junk already consuming its storage space: Games, demos, trialware, links to websites, and more. Software companies pay laptop manufacturers to preinstall this and other bloatware, which can reduce the price of the finished product. You’re under no obligation to leave any of it there, of course, but removing it is an annoyance, even with free software like Piriform’s CCleaner. The tech-support desk at your local big-box store will be more than happy to do this for you, too. But they won’t do it for free.
Businesses don't want to waste time and money removing software, so manufacturers reduce or eliminate the junkware on business laptops. And businesses that buy in bulk can specify the exact software footprint they want.
Because corporations are usually keen to keep all employees on the same platform (to simplify and reduce the cost of tech support), they often stick with an operating system long after a new version is released. When you buy a consumer laptop, it will most likely come with Windows 8.1 installed. Business laptops often come with the rights to downgrade from Windows 8 to Windows 7, or with the option to have a flavor of Linux.
Warranties, service, and tech support
The typical consumer laptop is protected by a manufacturer’s warranty that it will be free from defects for one year. Low-ball units might be protected for a paltry 90 days. This keeps the purchase price low, and it allows retailers to pitch third-party extended warranties—at additional cost, of course. Any business laptop worthy of the name will come with a three-year warranty, and that’s often extensible to five or even six years.
When a consumer laptop fails, you’ll typically need to ship or carry the unit (at your own expense) to a service depot for diagnostics and repair. You’ll rarely get a guaranteed turn-around time; and if a component needs to be replaced, you'll receive no assurance that they’ll have the parts in stock. In a worst-case scenario, your laptop could be missing in action for weeks.
Businesses can't afford to have their employees sit around twiddling their thumbs as they wait for their laptop to be fixed. An enterprise IT department will have loaner units on hand, and they’ll often perform the repairs in-house or deal with the vendor directly. Small businesses can save beaucoup bucks in lost productivity by taking advantage of the on-site service and short-turnaround guarantees (typically 24 hours, not including transit time if the unit must go back to the factory) that come with the purchase of a business laptop.
Consumer tech support varies in its efficiency, but it's generally a hit-or-miss proposition that often can be conducted only via email or online chat. If there is a 1-800 support number, it's unlikely to be available 24/7, and you’ll probably experience long hold times. Software issues might not be covered at all.
Business travelers who must finish their work before a big meeting need their problems solved right away, so support policies for business laptops are far more robust. While they’re typically optional—to spare the expense for IT departments that do their own support—24/7/365 telephone tech support is nearly always available, and it includes software support.
So what'll it be, business or consumer?
This article may sound a tad like I'm shilling business laptops. I'm not. They tend to be more expensive at the outset, and their higher cost of ownership doesn't make sense for non-business buyers who can DIY.
If you're not purchasing a fleet of laptops, you aren't completely reliant upon your laptop for your livelihood (smartphones and tablets are bearable stopgaps these days), a consumer laptop should fill your business's needs.
But if time is money in your world, then the better support, longer warranties, extended life cycle, and added security features of business laptops will save you some cash over the long haul—even if your "fleet" consists of a single laptop.
Consumers should, for the most part, stick with consumer products. Buying a higher-end model will get you many of the features you'll find in a business laptop, but for less money (although you're unlikely to find vPro or HP's SureStart in any consumer SKUs).