Notebooks for business

Buying a notebook, or a fleet of notebooks, for your business? Check out our buyer's guide for an overview of what you should be looking out for.

A good hardware product needs to combine form and functionality in a package that solves a real-world problem. The final ingredient, of course, is pricing. Get the mix right, and market success beckons. The marriage of design, features and price is particularly important in business notebooks, because these are devices that are used and transported day in, day out by professionals. 

There are a number of notebook usage modes, and as these become more challenging, so do the design trade-offs involved. For instance, how far can the size and weight of a notebook be reduced in pursuit of portability before the screen and keyboard become too small and the battery too underpowered to be of real use to mobile professionals? This is where clever design (modular notebooks with expansion 'slices' for example) and technological advances (low-power displays, more efficient batteries) can really make a difference. Sometimes, though, the cunning packaging of existing technology at a compelling price point is enough to open up new markets: the rise of the small, low-cost, 'netbook' over the past year or so is a classic example.

This guide describes today's main notebook usage modes, and notes the features that are most important in each category. If you're looking to buy a notebook — or a fleet of notebooks — for business, be sure to check out our recommendations before spending your budget.

 

Notebook usage modes
When a user asks an expert 'what notebook should I buy?', the expert invariably answers with another question, namely: 'what do you want to do with it?'. Only with a reasonably clear picture of the usage mode can you hope to select a product that will get the job done to the user's satisfaction. We've identified five categories of notebook usage, into which most users can (broadly) be fitted. Each category is accompanied by a graphic mapping the importance likely to be placed on two factors: portability (x axis) and budget (y axis).  


Entry-level


Entry-level users need do little more than connect to a company or home network and run standard productivity applications such as a word processor, spreadsheet, email client and calendar; in the future, these (and other) applications are likely to be hosted (either on company servers or in the 'cloud') and delivered via a web browser, which will make entry-level notebooks increasingly thin and inexpensive clients. Cost is the clearly the primary consideration here, but buyers will be looking for as much good design and added functionality as they can get for the (limited) money, within a reasonably portable form factor.


Mainstream


Like their entry-level colleagues, mainstream notebook users are largely desk-bound and perform everyday business tasks using standard office applications. However, to maximise productivity these tasks need to be accomplished that bit faster (more CPU speed and more memory) and in significantly greater comfort (bigger screen, better keyboard), all of which will increase the cost.


Mobile professional


For mobile professionals, a notebook's size and weight are paramount, with battery life, wireless connectivity and security also high on the agenda. Performance doesn't have to be stellar, although some mobile pros will require a fast (and therefore more expensive) machine. Within the constraints of the form factor, ergonomics — mainly of the screen and the keyboard — are crucial. Taking all this into account, it's clear that the mobile professional sector presents notebook designers with considerable challenges — not least because most users in this sector will rely on their notebooks for almost all of their business productivity.


Power user


Power users require performance above all, in order to accomplish advanced business tasks like analysing complex spreadsheets, delivering multimedia presentations or running multiple operating systems on locally held virtual machines. These tasks will generally require a fast CPU, plenty of memory and storage, discrete graphics and a good-sized screen — all of which will add up to a sizeable cost. Some power users will require a degree of portability, while others will place greater value on a large screen and a comfortable keyboard.


Content creator


Content creators such as video editors, web and desktop publishers, software developers, computer-aided designers and 3D modellers push the demands on notebook performance and form factor to their limits. A top-notch specification is essential, particularly for the graphics subsystem (graphics processing unit, graphics memory and screen). In some cases, certification for key high-end applications will also be a requirement. Portability is not a major requirement, although some content creators will need to be able to transport their notebooks to and from clients' premises.

 

Types of notebook
Notebooks are available in a wide range of shapes and sizes, from tiny sub-1kg 'netbooks' to desktop replacement behemoths weighing over 4kg. Here, we describe the main kinds of notebook on the market, arranging them once again according to their portability (x axis) and cost (y axis). 


Netbook


Screen  ≤10.4in
Weight  <1.5kg
CPU  single-core, low-voltage Intel Atom or Via processor
GPU  integrated
Storage  60-160GB hard drive or low-capacity solid-state drive (SSD)
Optical drive  external option if offered at all

Connectivity  Ethernet, modem (some), Wi-Fi, Bluetooth (optional), mobile broadband (optional)
OS  Linux or Windows XP
Cost  ≤ £350


The latest category of notebook to shake up the market is the 'netbook', or 'mini-notebook'. Although 'ultraportables' or 'sub-notebooks' existed long beforehand (see below), the small-notebook sector received a massive shot in the arm when ASUS released the 7in.-screen, 920g Eee PC in October 2007. Neither the hardware specification nor the build quality of the Eee was anything special, but the design was pleasing while the price — £219 at launch — really caught the eye. For the first time, a usable (for undemanding tasks) notebook was priced low enough to be almost an 'impulse buy'. Many did just that — ASUS reckons it will have sold five million Eee systems worldwide by the end of 2008.

Naturally, the Eee's success didn't go unnoticed by rival manufacturers, and a year on there are now around 50 systems that can be described as netbooks — including offerings from all of the top-tier vendors (Acer, HP, Dell, Toshiba, Lenovo). Netbooks have had an impact on the operating system arena too, putting Linux into the hands of a great many new users and forcing Microsoft to extend the lifetime of Windows XP (Vista being too demanding on hardware to be suitable for netbooks).


Ultraportable


Screen  ≤14.1in
Weight  <2kg
CPU  low-voltage mobile processors; some dual-core CPUs
GPU  integrated (low end), discrete or dual-mode (high end)

Storage  120-250GB hard drive or mid-capacity solid-state drive (SSD)
Optical drive  integrated, or external option

Connectivity  Ethernet, modem, Wi-Fi, Bluetooth (optional), mobile broadband (optional)
Cost  £500-£1,500+


Netbooks are above all affordable, and often sacrifice features and/or build quality in pursuit of a price point. However, ultraportables need to deliver the functionality required by mobile professionals, which means they are generally better-specified and more expensive than your average netbook. While remaining under the 2kg mark, ultraportables usually offer a 12.1in., 13.3in. or 14.1in. screen, a usable keyboard, a moderately fast CPU and a hard disk up to 250GB in capacity.

Many manufacturers now offer solid-state drives (SSDs) in place of hard disks in their ultraportable ranges, but prices remain high: Toshiba's entry-level Portégé R500, for example, has a 160GB hard drive and costs £999 (ex. VAT), while the SSD models cost £1,199 for 64GB and £1,599 for 128GB. If you can afford them, SSDs offer big advantages in the shape of fast performance, low weight and low power consumption.

Integrated mobile broadband is increasingly common as an option in ultraportables, but manufacturers vary in their abilities to squeeze an optical drive into the system. If there's no built-in optical drive, you'll usually be offered an external option; less common, but useful, is an expansion 'slice' that attaches to the base of the system unit containing an optical drive and extra ports.

Read the latest ultraportable and netbook reviews


 Thin and light


Screen  ≤14.1in
Weight  2-3kg
CPU  low-voltage (often dual-core) mobile processors
GPU  integrated (low end), discrete or dual-mode (high end)

Storage  120-320GB hard drive
Optical drive  usually integrated

Connectivity  Ethernet, modem, Wi-Fi, Bluetooth (optional), mobile broadband (optional)
Cost  £500-£1,500+

Heavier than an ultraportable but still light enough to be carried when necessary, a 2-3kg 'thin-and-light' offers an excellent combination of performance, features, cost and portability. Low-voltage, often dual-core, mobile processors can deliver enough performance to satisfy most users, and most thin-and-lights have a decent-sized keyboard and display, a capacious hard disk and a built-in optical drive. They're often more expensive than slightly larger and heavier 'mid-size' notebooks, but if you need to maximise productivity while retaining a degree of portability, a thin-and-light system is an excellent choice.

Read the latest thin-and-light reviews


Mid-size


Screen  14.1in - 15.4in
Weight  3-4kg
CPU  ranges from slow/budget single-core CPUs to fast dual-core processors
GPU  integrated (low end), discrete (high end)
Storage  60-250GB hard drive
Optical drive  integrated
Connectivity  Ethernet, modem, Wi-Fi, Bluetooth (optional)
Cost  £350-£1,000+

Whereas a desktop replacement (below) is designed to deliver no-holds-barred performance and a thin-and-light (above) combines performance and portability, a typical mid-size notebook is the ultimate generalist. Many (but not all) mid-size notebooks are designed to deliver basic computing functionality for productivity, online communication and entertainment. If you want an affordable notebook as your main computer, you'll generally be looking at a low-end mid-size (netbooks, which are also inexpensive, are more suitable as second systems). Because of their weight (3-4kg) and limited battery life, mid-size notebooks aren't really suitable for taking on your travels.

Read the latest mid-size reviews


Desktop replacement


Screen  >15.4in
Weight  >4kg
CPU  fast dual-core processors
GPU  discrete
Storage  120-320GB hard drive
Optical drive  integrated
Connectivity  Ethernet, modem, Wi-Fi, Bluetooth
Cost  £750-£1,500+

Desktop replacement notebooks are designed to do what it says on the tin: deliver equivalent features and performance to a desktop PC. Not that these 4kg-plus behemoths are in any way 'portable' computers — except for occasional between-room travel within an office or home. Desktop replacements typically offer excellent performance, large screens and big keyboards (often with a desktop-style separate number pad). These systems deliver the computing muscle required for tasks like 3D modelling and advanced digital audio and video editing./> The top end of the desktop replacement category is occupied by workstation-class notebooks, such as those provided by Dell, Fujitsu Siemens, HP and Lenovo. These systems are designed to run specialised high-end applications and have the ISV certifications to prove it.

Read the latest desktop replacement reviews

 

Matching users to notebooks
Putting the main notebook usage models and device types together gives a picture like this:


As far as entry-level users on a limited budget are concerned, the choices are a netbook if portability is required and a low-end mid-size notebook for the more desk-bound.

Mainstream users are best served by the 2-3kg thin-and-light category, which forms the bulk of 'fleet' notebooks in businesses these days. Again, if portability is less important, then a larger mid-size system may be more appropriate.

The ultraportable is the ideal notebook for mobile professionals — netbooks are generally too cramped and too underpowered to do duty as a main computer (although they may prove valuable as a second system). If a bigger screen and a more spacious keyboard are required, then mobile pros should look for a thin-and-light notebook.

Power users need a high-spec notebook, which means a reasonably bulky system. Their requirements are likely to encompass the high end of the thin-and-light category if portability is important, and the lower reaches of the desktop replacement category if screen size is the main attraction. Most power users who are largely desk-bound will be suited by a high-end mid-size system.

Content creators need desktop PC or workstation levels of functionality, and that will generally mean a no-holds-barred desktop replacement system with screen sizes in 17in. territory. These machines will not be especially portable (some don't even bother to include a battery), nor will they come cheap. Those who need a system that can be transported to and from clients' premises may be better served by a high-end mid-range system that comes in under the shoulder-busting 4kg mark.

 

Understanding notebook specifications
As we've seen, notebook specifications vary widely depending on the usage mode for which they're designed. Generally speaking, as notebooks get smaller and more portable, the more trade-offs manufacturers must make in terms of processor speed, screen and keyboard size, battery capacity, number of ports and connectors and so on. In this section, we look at the main system components and outline what you're likely to see in different kinds of notebook.

Processor
The processor, or CPU, is at the heart of any computer. Mobile models have power-management features that help to extend battery life (although the screen, rather than the CPU, is usually the biggest power drain on the system). The table below lists the AMD and Intel processors that are currently found in notebooks and indicates their relative performance, power consumption and price.


Although it's clearly not the only factor involved, CPU clock speed is a useful guide to overall system performance, as the chart below shows. This plots the average component score from Windows Vista's internal benchmark, Windows Experience Index (WEI), against CPU speed for a range of notebooks tested by ZDNet UK.


Windows Experience Index (WEI) comprises five component tests: Processor (Calculations per second); Memory (Memory operations per second); Graphics (Desktop performance for Windows Aero); Gaming graphics (3D business and gaming graphics performance); and Primary hard disk (Disk transfer rate). Scores range from 0 to 5.9.

Chipset
A notebook's chipset provides the interface between the CPU and the remainder of the system. In Intel designs, it consists of two chips: a Northbridge with the memory controller and (in some cases) an integrated graphics module; and a Southbridge that houses the I/O controller. Since 2003, Intel has been promoting its mobile chipsets, processors and wireless (Wi-Fi) modules at a 'platform' level under the Centrino brand (and variations thereon). Subsequent Centrino platform generations were codenamed Sonoma (2005), Napa (2006), Santa Rosa (2007) and Montevina (2008).


Another important Intel platform is vPro, which refers to a bundle of CPU, chipset and software technologies that are designed to help IT managers administer and secure notebooks (and desktops) across (and sometimes beyond) the company network. The key enabling technology in vPro is the chipset-based Active Management Technology (AMT), which provides an out-of-band (OOB) — or OS-independent — communication channel that IT managers, armed with suitable software, can exploit. AMT functionality can be limited when a notebook is connected over a host OS-based VPN, when connected wirelessly to the public internet, or is on battery power, sleeping, hibernating or powered off. Even so, businesses needing to manage large numbers of Intel-based notebooks should be looking at vPro as a means of reducing the total cost of ownership (TCO).

Memory
These days it's rare to see a notebook with less than 1GB of RAM, unless it's a low-end netbook running Linux. A gigabyte is generally the minimum you should look for, while Windows Vista really needs 2GB for decent performance. Beyond that, there's little point in going above 3GB unless you're running the 64-bit version of Vista. This is because 32-bit systems need to use part of the theoretical 4GB maximum address space for various system resources, which usually makes between 512MB and 1.5GB unavailable to the OS and applications. This is evident in our Windows Experience Index results for (32-bit) Vista notebooks:


 Windows Experience Index (WEI) comprises five component tests: Processor (Calculations per second); Memory (Memory operations per second); Graphics (Desktop performance for Windows Aero); Gaming graphics (3D business and gaming graphics performance); and Primary hard disk (Disk transfer rate). Scores range from 0 to 5.9.

 

Graphics subsystem
A notebook's graphics subsystem comprises the LCD display and backlight, the graphics processing unit (GPU) and video memory. In most notebooks, this subsystem is the biggest drain on the battery.

Where long battery life and/or low cost are important, a notebook will have a small or low-resolution LCD driven by a chipset-integrated GPU that dynamically accesses system RAM for use as video memory. A performance-orientated notebook will have a large high-resolution display powered by a discrete GPU with a generous complement of dedicated video memory. Some notebooks include both integrated and discrete GPUs, and can switch between them (with varying degrees of elegance) depending on whether the priority is to conserve battery life or maximise graphics performance.

Both major processor manufacturers are working on chips that combine the CPU and GPU on a single piece of silicon — Intel with future mobile Nehalem (Core i7) designs and AMD with its Fusion architecture. Both are due in 2009 and both should deliver improvements in battery life.

As far as the LCD itself is concerned, these range from 7in. (across the diagonal) on the original ASUS Eee 701 to 17in. and even 18.4in. on desktop replacement systems. Resolutions used to follow the 'standard' 4:3 aspect ratio, ranging from 800 by 600 pixels (SVGA) on 12.1in. screens up to 1,400 by 1,050 on 15.4in. displays. Nowadays, widescreen ratios (16:10 or, increasingly, 16:9) are more common — a trend that's largely driven by the consumer electronics industry. It's important to note that, for a given diagonal screen size, a widescreen display will have less depth than a standard one. For example, a common widescreen resolution at 15.4in. is 1,440 by 900 pixels (WXGA+), while the equivalent standard resolution is 1,400 by 1,050 (SXGA+). Business users looking to exploit the widescreen format — for displaying two document windows side by side, for example — will generally need a large display (15in. or bigger) with at least 900 pixels of depth.

Other screen-related factors to look for when choosing a notebook — apart from basic brightness, contrast, colour and viewing angle — are LED backlighting, which is more power-frugal (but also currently more expensive) than traditional fluorescent backlighting, and the presence of an ambient light sensor that automatically adjusts screen brightness to suit the lighting conditions.

Storage
Hard drives remain the predominant internal storage medium for notebooks, although solid-state drives (SSDs) are making inroads into the netbook and ultraportable categories thanks to their light weight and low power requirements. SSDs, particularly Intel's new-generation X-25M drives, are also very fast, which makes them potentially attractive to power users. However, capacities are currently on the low side (the X-25M is only available at 80GB at the moment) and prices are high (a typical notebook hard drive costs about 25p per GB, a typical SSD costs £2.50 per GB and Intel's X-25 costs £5 per GB).

If you want high capacity and good value for money, you're looking at a conventional hard disk. Capacities are available from 60GB up to a massive 400GB in the shape of Toshiba's 2.5in. MK4058GSX drive, which sells for around £100. Capacity isn't everything though, so be sure to check the drive's rotation speed: performance improves significantly from 4,200rpm through 5,400rpm to 7,200rpm, as our Windows Experience Index testing on Vista notebooks shows:


 Windows Experience Index (WEI) comprises five component tests: Processor (Calculations per second); Memory (Memory operations per second); Graphics (Desktop performance for Windows Aero); Gaming graphics (3D business and gaming graphics performance); and Primary hard disk (Disk transfer rate). Scores range from 0 to 5.9.

Hard disks are complex mechanical devices that can be damaged if treated harshly. If your notebook is likely to suffer the slings and arrows of life on the road, look for a model with built-in 'shock protection' where an accelerometer senses untoward movement and parks the drive heads safely to avoid disk damage. A good implementation of shock protection will allow you to fine-tune its sensitivity so that it doesn't kick in unnecessarily.

Optical drive
Optical drives, usually multi-format DVD burners these days, are pretty much guaranteed to be integrated on thin-and-light notebooks and above. Ultraportables may or may not have one, while netbooks never do. If your notebook lacks an integrated optical drive, you may need an external USB unit in order to install software or watch the occasional movie.

For maximum flexibility with larger notebooks, look for a swappable drive bay where you can remove the optical drive when it's not needed; you can usually replace it with a second hard drive, a second battery or a weight-saving blanking plate.

Most notebook optical drives are tray-loading devices, but if you want a touch of sophistication, or are suspicious of the fragility of some CD/DVD trays, look for one with a slot-loading drive (as found on Apple MacBooks, for example).

 

Expansion slots
The original notebook expansion card format, PC Card, is gradually making way for the more compact next-generation ExpressCard standard, although you can find either or both on today's systems.

Expansion cards are used to add functionality such as solid-state storage, wireless connectivity (via Bluetooth, Wi-Fi or mobile broadband), TV reception or high-end audio processing. If your notebook only has a PC Card slot, you can still buy newer ExpressCard peripherals and use them via a PC Card-to-ExpressCard adapter. Likewise, you can get an ExpressCard-to-PC Card adapter that will allow you to use older PC Cards on newer notebooks that only have ExpressCard slots.

Most notebooks come with at least one memory card reader, but there is now a bewildering array of memory card formats in circulation — including CompactFlash, SmartMedia, Memory Stick (Duo, PRO Duo, PRO-HG Duo, Micro M2), MMC, RS-MMC, SD, miniSD, microSD and xD-Picture Card. If you must have compatibility with a particular type of card, check the specs of the reader in your proposed notebook carefully. Even if your favourite card isn't supported directly, a suitable adapter may be available.

Networking
Most notebooks come with a wired Ethernet connection, usually up to 1000Mbps (Gigabit Ethernet) speed, although netbooks tend to be restricted to 100Mbps. Built-in modems are becoming rarer, so if you still do dial-up, make sure your chosen notebook has one.

As far as wireless networking is concerned, 54Mbps 802.11g is the prevalent Wi-Fi standard, and most notebooks have this built in. Because the 2.4GHz frequency band in which 802.11g (and the older 11Mbps 802.11b) operates is also used by Bluetooth, microwave ovens other equipment, some businesses use 5GHz 802.11a, which also supports 54Mbps throughput. The latest standard is 802.11n, which is widely available even though still yet to be ratified. Draft-N Wi-Fi operates at either 2.4GHz or 5GHz and employs MIMO and channel-bonding technology to achieve throughput of up to 300Mbps. Because of its lack of ratification (this is expected in 2009), 802.11n has yet to be taken up by many large organisations, although it's already popular in homes and some small businesses.

Mobile broadband is required if you need internet connectivity outside of Wi-Fi range. You'll find integrated mobile broadband modules on a number of netbooks, ultraportables and thin-and-lights; if there's no integrated option, you can add this functionality via a USB adapter or an expansion card (PC Card or ExpressCard). All of the UK's network operators offer mobile broadband adapters along with various tariffs; be sure to check the conditions — especially regarding charges for international roaming and data above the tarrif's monthly limit.

Bluetooth is the wireless technology for short-range connectivity. Many, but by no means all, notebooks have Bluetooth built in, so check the specification if you need a wireless link from your notebook to a mobile phone (for an internet connection, for example), a printer or some other peripheral. Bluetooth's data throughput is limited (version 2.0+EDR runs at up to 3Mbps), but this is likely to be fixed when 'Bluetooth 3.0' (not an official name) appears, as it will incorporate ultrawideband technology, giving theoretical data rates up to 480Mbps.

Ports and connectors
The number of ports and connectors you get on a notebook will depend on the system's physical size. On a netbook, for example, you'll be lucky to get more than one USB port, a VGA port for an external monitor, modem (RJ-11) and Ethernet (RJ-45) ports, plus a pair of audio jacks. Larger systems will add more USB ports, plus DVI and FireWire (IEEE 1394) connectors, while more consumer-orientated notebooks will feature things like HDMI, S-Video, eSATA and digital audio (S/PDIF) ports. The occasional legacy parallel and serial port is to be found on some mainstream and desktop replacement notebooks, but you'll need to hunt around for these.

We'd advise paying particular attention not only to the number of USB ports, but also to their physical layout. Often, a pair of USB ports can be so close to one another — either stacked vertically or arranged side by side — that a peripheral such as a mobile broadband dongle or a flash memory stick in one port can render the other one unusable.

 

Multimedia
An increasing number of notebooks, particularly the more portable categories, come with an integrated webcam designed to facilitate videoconferencing. These rarely offer more than 1.3-megapixel (1,280x1,024) resolution, but that's perfectly adequate for most business purposes. If a webcam is important to you, consider seeking out the rarer swivelling type, as it can be tricky to combine an optimal screen-viewing angle with a suitable webcam image when you're videoconferencing. The bundled webcam software can vary in quality too, so check out whether useful features like automatic brightness/contrast and white balance settings, and face-tracking are supported.

The audio subsystem is obviously important for videconferencing too. Although most (but not all) notebooks come with a built-in microphone, for best results you'll want a microphone array that efficiently separates a voice signal from any ambient noise.

Docking solutions
A docking station provides extra ports, slots, drive bays and security features, and usually attaches to a notebook from beneath. Docking stations come in a variety of shapes, ranging from the same footprint as the notebook itself (when it's often referred to as an expansion or media 'slice') to much bigger — some protrude more than 10cm beyond the back of the notebook itself. The docking station is where you park your notebook when you're in the office, its permanent connections giving convenient access to the company network, a bigger monitor, a full-size keyboard and additional storage devices, for example.

A port replicator is a smaller, stripped-down version of a docking station mainly featuring ports such as USB, FireWire or S-Video. When you're on the road, a port replicator is a convenient way to increase the connectivity of a small notebook.

Most business-oriented notebook ranges feature common docking options, so that a vendor's thin-and-light system will slot into the same docking station as the mainstream model, for example. This makes it easier for IT staff to manage a fleet of corporate notebooks.

Power
Notebooks that are designed for portability — netbooks, ultraportables and thin-and-lights — generally offer 'standard' and 'extended-life' batteries. Mobile professionals who regularly work on battery power are advised to take the extended option, which will usually deliver around 4 hours' life. If you regularly need to do a full day's work (8 hours) away from mains power, you're likely to need to carry a second high-capacity battery.

Power management settings (especially screen brightness) can make a big difference to battery life, so power management software is especially valuable. Most leading notebook vendors bundle their own power management utilities that augment (and sometimes supersede) the standard Windows applet. Be sure to check out the functionality and usability of these programs.

Security
Business notebooks are valuable pieces of hardware and, even more importantly, have sensitive data stored on them. Security should therefore figure prominently in IT managers' plans, particularly in terms of implementing management and security technologies like Intel's vPro.

As far as the notebook itself is concerned, biometric access control technologies like fingerprint readers and smartcard readers are widely available, and can complement keys, passwords and digital certificates stored in a Trusted Platform Module (TPM) chip on the notebook's motherboard.

Also, look for a Kensington lock slot and buy a suitable cable if you want to make sure your notebook stays put on an office desk.

 

Additional material courtesy of CNET.com

 

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