Small Business Buying Guides

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How to choose a laptop for your small business

Typing on a laptop
If you're shopping for a business laptop for your small-to-medium-size operation at your local big-box store, you're barking up the wrong tree. The average consumer laptop found there simply doesn't provide the customization and service that you'll need, whether you're looking for one unit or for a whole fleet. Instead, you should shop online at a large vendor's site, or at an authorized local reseller.

Rolling out even a small fleet of laptops requires a reliable stream of parts and replacement units, otherwise known as a stable platform. While it's corporations that demand those features, they are certainly of benefit to SMBs. The less time you spend in maintainance, the more time you can spend concentrating on growing your business. Read on for the features and specs you should be looking for. (You may also want to take a look at the laptop results for our 2011 Reliability and Satisfaction survey.)

If you have questions about laptop basics, such as which category, CPU, or display you need, please head to PCWorld's consumer laptop buying guide first.

Form/Laptop Type

Ultrabooks
Ultrabooks--a new category of superlight and superthin laptops.
Laptops come in various sizes, from netbook to desktop replacement. Which type you need obviously depends on how you will use it. If you travel a lot, you should be looking at an ultraportable with a 12-inch screen size, or perhaps a 13.3-inch or 14-inch mainstream laptop. Super-lightweight Ultrabooks--a term Intel has trademarked--are a new category of models that are extremely easy to tote around (think Macbook Air), but slightly compromised in their connectivity and integrated peripherals; they'll likely lack an internal optical drive, for example.

If you're simply looking to replace a PC that sits on your desk all the time, then a 17-inch unit is probably best suited for such replacement duty, and you can also skip most of the subsequent discussion other than the section on security.

Durability

You don't want your hefty investment breaking down or falling apart on you after only limited use. A solidly constructed laptop will save you money in the long run.

Case: How rugged your laptop needs to be depends upon its size and how you use it. Plastic is fine for a laptop that doesn't travel much; however, plastic tends to flex too much--especially on Ultrabooks and thin-and-lights. Most vendors will hype the use of aluminum and magnesium, which are indeed more rugged and stiffer to prevent internal component flexing. Metals also shed chip-killing heat far better than plastic.

Hard Drive: The component most prone to damage is the hard drive--a delicate mechanism, and especially vulnerable when spinning. Any business laptop using a traditional hard drive should provide shock insulation, as well as a sensor that can detect a fall and park the heads on the hard drive before impact. In some cases, such as with Seagate's Momentus FDE drives, this sensing takes place within the drive itself.

Intel 510 Series SSD
Alternatively, a solid-state drive (SSD) with no moving parts is a good option, especially if you know you'll be working in hazardous (for the laptop) conditions. SSDs are relatively expensive, but far cheaper than a data recovery service. Also, while more capacious 500GB and 750GB hard drives look good on a spec sheet, for a purely business laptop that won't be used for entertainment, such high capacities are usually overkill.

Using both a smaller, more affordable SSD internally and an external 2.5-inch external hard drive for multimedia purposes is a good compromise.

Keyboard and Touchpad: The modern trend towards breathable keyboards is a bit of an issue--as anyone who's ever spilled coffee on a laptop can attest. Breathable, ventilated keyboards allow heat to escape, but anywhere air can go, liquid can too. Although it can take a while for liquid to seep down, you should always immediately remove the battery when a spill occurs. You may then proceed to let things dry out.

Other than survivability, never underestimate the long-term effect that the feel of the keyboard and the response of the touchpad and buttons will have on your satisfaction with your laptop purchase. If you do a lot of typing, as many business users will, a keyboard with crisp tactile feedback is a must.

Operating System

Though it's tempting for a small business to buy the cheaper Home versions of Microsoft Windows, that's usually a mistake. The Home versions lack encryption, don't play well on network domains, won't back up across a network without third-party software, and aren't multilingual.

It's the domain issue that affects larger businesses If you use nothing but peer-to-peer networking and employ your own backup program, the Home versions are doable, if not optimal.

There is also a very real snob factor in play. If you're trying to impress a business prospect, don't let them see you with a home version of Windows 7. Microsoft took full advantage of the human condition with the naming convention.

Security

Security is important, but don't overbuy if you don't have anything to protect. If you do have sensitive data on your laptop, which most business users will, consider one or a combination of the following features.

TPM:

Security chip
The Trusted Platform Module. This discrete chip (it's also a specification) provides hardware encryption keys, passwords, and other features that are employed to lock down your laptop and help secure encryption. In conjunction with the BIOS, it basically locks the hardware configuration in your laptop.

BitLocker: With this standard, data is encrypted at the volume level (such as the C: drive). It's available with Windows 7 Ultimate and Enterprise, and works on its own or in conjunction with a TPM.

Self-Encrypting Drive (SED): These drives perform their own hardware encryption but rely on the TPM, BIOS, or a software component for a password.

Using a fingerprint scanner (click to zoom).
Fingerprint scanner: Biometric fingerprint scanners are more secure than passwords because your prints can't be stolen or hacked, at least not via any nonmorbid scenario. They're also easier in that you don't have to remember to bring your fingers.

Smart card: A Smart card is basically the same thing as an entry card for an office building, only in this case it's for your laptop. It's about the most secure way of locking down your notebook, but you must remember to remove that card and carry it around with you for it to be effective.

All business laptop vendors include utilities on their machines for setting up various security features.

Next page: Graphics, Peripherals, and More...

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