Buying a Windows laptop? Five must-have features for my next notebook

When it's time to buy a new portable PC, there's more to consider than just the standard specs. I've found five features that can't be benchmarked but have an undeniable impact on productivity.
Written by Ed Bott, Senior Contributing Editor

We're about to enter peak PC buying season. The final quarter of the year is when businesses have to spend their remaining capital budget ("use it or lose it!") and when families are likely to consider buying the top Windows laptop for the holidays.

When most people offer advice about choosing a new PC, they turn to the standard "speeds and feeds" items. Yes, you should insist on a modern CPU, enough RAM and solid-state storage to handle your expected workloads, and the right graphics processor, especially if you're into gaming.

But the current crop of business-class notebook PCs includes a handful of important options that aren't part of the standard spec sheet. These are features you can't typically measure using a performance benchmark, but their impact on productivity is undeniable.

See also: My seven favorite Windows 10 features  

For my next notebook, these are the five features I plan to insist on, based on the way I work. Your criteria might be different, of course, so take this as a personal story and not as cast-in-stone recommendations.

Biometric authentication

I understand the need for strong authentication, but I also hate typing strong passwords. The solution, of course, is hardware-based biometric authentication.

Over the past few years, I've owned several laptops with built-in fingerprint readers. I've also purchased several add-on fingerprint readers, including small devices that plug into the USB Type-A port on the side of a laptop. The technology works most of the time, especially on newer devices, but it still fails often enough to be annoying, and in those cases I have to enter a password or type a PIN.

Windows Hello facial recognition technology, by contrast, has been far more accurate in my experience than fingerprint readers. On my Surface Book 2, for example, about the only time I have to enter a password is in extremely low light conditions or when there's an overpowering backlight

All of the top Windows OEMs offer a choice of laptops with biometric support, although fingerprint readers are more common than facial recognition because of the cost of the IR cameras required for Windows Hello. I prefer the latter but will settle for the former if necessary.

The right display aspect ratio

Most business-class laptops today are designed as if they were little high-definition TVs, with a widescreen display whose aspect ratio is 16:9. That's the optimal configuration if you're watching a full HD movie, but it feels unbearably cramped when you're trying to get work done.

The much more productivity-friendly display option is the 3:2 aspect ratio found on every Microsoft Surface laptop since the Surface Pro 3. That design results in a taller screen that easily accommodates two documents snapped into side-by-side windows.

I wish more manufacturers would embrace that design, but the economics of the PC business apparently make it cost-prohibitive; the only recent exception I could find is from is Huawei. A few OEMs, including Dell, LG, and ASUS, are moving some models to a 16:10 aspect ratio like that found on Apple's MacBooks.

I might consider a 16:10 device, but the 16:9 display is a dealbreaker.

Robust USB Type-C support

In "How I learned to stop worrying and love USB Type-C," I made my feelings for the latest all-in-one peripheral connection standard abundantly clear. But like all things we love in the abstract, specific implementations of USB Type-C can be maddening.

If the only benefit offered by the USB Type-C connector was the fact that it's reversible, that would probably be enough. But on a system designed to take full advantage of the standard, a USB Type-C connector does much more.

For starters, you can choose your own power adapter from a wide range of shapes, sizes, power capacities, and port configurations. As long as the charger and your laptop support the USB Power Delivery (PD) standard, you should be able to replace your OEM charger with one that matches your needs. For example, I have an ultra-small 45W PD charger that's perfect when I'm traveling light, and a slightly larger charger that has the same power output but also includes three USB ports for charging phones, tablets, and other devices.

A brief history of Microsoft's Surface: Missteps and successes

An even bigger advantage of USB Type-C on a modern laptop is support for docking stations that can turn a laptop into a desktop with a single connection that handles charging, one or more desktop displays, an external keyboard and mouse, and essential USB peripherals for storage, scanning, printing, and other tasks. And the selection of docking stations is impressive, at a variety of price points, so that you don't have to pay for more connectivity than you need.

So what's the maddening part? USB Type-C is a connection standard, which means you can't just be swept up by the presence of a USB Type-C port. You have to research its capabilities to make sure you're getting everything you need. I found at least one Dell device recently that didn't support Power Delivery through its USB Type-C port. Ouch.

Mobile data support

Last year, a Microsoft executive told me that the company considered LTE connectivity a killer feature for Windows devices. At the time, I was skeptical, but after testing multiple LTE-equipped devices this year, I get it.

The advantage really becomes obvious on a device equipped with an eSIM, which can be configured through software and doesn't require a physical SIM card (although that option is available). On the ARM-powered Lenovo Yoga C630 PC I've carried on several recent trips, I can switch in seconds between mobile carriers. That's especially useful when traveling overseas where high-speed mobile data might be unavailable or an expensive option from your service provider.

What I didn't appreciate until I used it was how relatively friction-free the built-in mobile data option is compared to tethering to a mobile phone. The ability to switch between different mobile data networks also turned out to be a good thing when I found myself on a multi-day stay in a hotel where data coverage from my normal carrier was practically nonexistent.

Someday, I hope mobile data support is ubiquitous, but for now it's unfortunately hard to find. Still, if an LTE modem is available as an option, that laptop just landed on my shortlist.

Touchscreen and pen support

I know, this one almost seems obvious, but it's the one feature that knocks every current MacBook out of the running. And there are still plenty of non-touchscreen Windows laptop options for people who are content to use the keyboard and trackpad.

But for my workload, a touchscreen is convenient and pen support is occasionally essential. I routinely sign contracts and other legal paperwork and annotate manuscripts, and that activity works best with a pen.

Yes, I could accomplish the same goal with an iPad and Apple Pencil and cloud connections, but I'm still not thrilled with the iPad keyboard options and would rather have those annotation functions on the same PC I use to create and edit the documents.

That's my list, and as I said it's based on my specific workflow. So which features are on your PC (or Mac) must-have list?

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