The A-list: top technology for small businesses

Summary:Which products and technologies should small businesses be considering when investing in IT? We have some suggestions.

NComputing's M300 trio of thin clients Image: NComputing

Client devices
The desktop PC market may be in decline , but plenty of small businesses still require large-screen computers that don't need to be moved very often. If expansion isn't an issue, one of the many all-in-one devices from leading players like Dell, HP, Lenovo or Apple could fit the bill. Alternatively, an entry-level thin-client/virtual desktop system such as the N-Computing M300 is a very cost-effective and power-frugal solution: you can run up to low-power 45 M300 thin clients from a single host Windows Server system (the precise number depends on the server configuration).

The current flavour of the month for laptop vendors is the '2-in-1' Windows 8 tablet/ultrabook, with the latest models based around Intel's new low-power 4th-Generation Core (Haswell) processor. All of the leading laptop manufacturers have products in this sector, and a number of form factors are being experimented with, including fully detachable screen/tablets from a keyboard dock and screens that slide up and down over a keyboard section.

A high-end tablet/ultrabook: Lenovo's ThinkPad Helix. Image: Lenovo

At the top end, we like the design of Lenovo's ThinkPad Helix , although it reportedly runs hot and may benefit from an upgrade to the aforementioned Haswell chip. Asus is the manufacturer with the most heritage in the tablet/laptop hybrid sector with its Transformer and ViviTab devices; the company's most recent announcement is the Transformer Book Trio , which runs Android in undocked tablet mode and Windows 8 (by default) when docked with the keyboard section.

Samsung's Series 3 Chromebook costs just £229. Image: Google

If you're happy with the traditional clamshell form factor, there's a huge amount of choice available, from desirable high-end kit like the 13-inch or 15-inch MacBook Pro with Retina display to Lenovo's ThinkPad X1 Carbon Touch , to Google's premium 12.85in. Chromebook Pixel , which not only boasts a higher-than-Retina pixel density, but also a touchscreen (the Pixel's downsides are its high price and limited-functionality Chrome OS operating system). Chromebooks are available for much more affordable prices, in the shape of Samsung's Series 3 device, for example. And of course, there's any number of budget Windows 7 and 8 notebooks, with and without touchscreens, available from the likes of Dell, HP, Lenovo, Toshiba, Acer and Asus.

Apple remains the biggest player in the tablet market with its iPad, now on its 4th generation and joined by the small-screen iPad mini. However, things have been made more interesting by the recent entry of Microsoft into the tablet arena with its ARM/Windows RT-based Surface RT and Intel Core i5/Windows 8-based Surface Pro devices, and also by serious competition from Samsung's Galaxy Tab and pen-enabled Galaxy Note Android tablets. At the lower end of the price scale, Google's excellent Nexus tablets, which come in 10-inch and 7-inch form factors, have also made an impact.

Microsoft's Surface tablets have enlivened the tablet market, although Apple and Samsung remain the leading players. Image: Charles McLellan/ZDNet

Which kind of tablet should an SME choose — iOS, Windows (RT or 8), Android, large-screen or small-screen? That depends, of course, on the budget and the use case: if you need to run Microsoft Office, for example, you're looking at a Windows RT tablet (which comes with Office Home & Student 2013 bundled), a Windows 8 tablet or at running Office web apps in a browser. Alternatively, you can create and edit Office documents on non-Windows platforms using third-party applications like QuickOffice.

As far as native apps are concerned, the iOS and Android app stores have the most choice (although a significant number will be optimised for smaller-screen smartphones), with 'modern' Windows Store apps a long way behind at present. A Windows 8 tablet will run a huge number of 'legacy' desktop Windows apps, but few of these are optimised for touchscreen operation. What's key here, of course, is not so much the total number of apps available on any particular platform, but whether the subset that your business needs is supported.

Other factors to consider: do you need an add-on keyboard (for creating longer documents than brief emails and notes); how much internal storage do you require, and is storage expansion supported; is pen input important; do you need mobile broadband or will Wi-Fi connectivity suffice?

The smartphone market has seen considerable change recently, with Apple's once-dominant iPhone challenged, and now overtaken, in market share by a flood of Android devices — led by the prolific Samsung. Apple's next iPhone (iPhone 6 or iPhone 5S), expected in the autumn, is awaited with great interest, as there's a lot riding on both it and the recently unveiled iOS 7 redesign/refresh.

ZDNet's current favourite high-end smartphone: the HTC One. Image: HTC

Samsung is the dominant manufacturer in the Android space, with its extravagantly-featured Galaxy S4 recently replacing the highly-regarded S III as its flagship device. There's an almost bewildering choice of Samsung Android smartphones, with the company's UK website listing no fewer than 34 models, so there's almost certainly something for every use case and budget. Nevertheless, our current favourite high-end Android smartphone (high-end smartphone, period, in fact) is the Editors' Choice-winning HTC One — an excellent effort from a company that has suffered badly from Samsung's rise.

Another once-mighty smartphone manufacturer to struggle recently is the company formerly known as RIM, which is pinning recovery hopes on its new BlackBerry 10 operating system and the (touchscreen-only) Z10 and (keyboard-equipped) Q10 handsets. One of BlackBerry's biggest draws is BlackBerry Enterprise Service (BES), now at version 10.1 , which can secure and manage not only BlackBerry devices but also iOS and Android handsets. It does this via a new module called Secure Work Space, which adds the company's native Balance functionality that separates work and personal data. Of particular interest to SMEs is the fact that BlackBerry has recently launched BES 10.1 as a cloud service — previously it only ran on in-house servers. For more on managing 'Bring Your Own Device' deployments, see our special feature on BYOD and the Consumerization of IT.

Windows is a minority platform in the smartphone space — something that Microsoft, in partnership with Nokia, is making a concerted effort to change. Although there's a lot of ground to catch up, Nokia's Windows Phone handsets — such as the Windows Phone 8-based  Lumia 920, 720 and 520 — have generally been well received, with HTC and Samsung the main third-party Windows Phone vendors.


Topics: SMBs


Hello, I'm the Reviews Editor at ZDNet UK. My experience with computers started at London's Imperial College, where I studied Zoology and then Environmental Technology. This was sufficiently long ago (mid-1970s) that Fortran, IBM punched-card machines and mainframes were involved, followed by green-screen terminals and eventually the pers... Full Bio

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