Desktop-replacements for your business

Expert advice on choosing the perfect business portable -- from size and weight to the right processor for your needs.

It used to be that choosing a notebook over a desktop PC required a long list of sacrifices, but those days are disappearing. Want a beautiful 17in. display? A DVD burner? The latest graphics with a whopping 128MB of memory? You can get all that and more in a notebook nowadays. Perhaps that's why notebook sales are booming. But if getting everything you want in a portable package has become easier, choosing the one that's right for your business hasn't, and that's where we come in.

Desktop replacement notebooks like this IBM ThinkPad range in weight from 3kg to over 4.5kg. Screen size is usually 15in. or higher.
Generally speaking, the most important criteria when choosing a notebook are size and weight. But if you're looking for a desktop replacement, or even a slightly smaller mainstream system, those considerations take a back seat to performance and features. These systems may look portable, but the fact is that they are really suitable only for occasional business travel. Desktop replacements can exceed 4.5kg when you throw in the AC adapter, and even the smallest mainstream systems weigh more than 3kg. That may not sound much heavier than some thin-and-lights, but even a few grams can make a big difference if you spend any time on the road. However, if you need a system primarily for your home office or small business that you can move easily from time to time, a mainstream or desktop-replacement notebook is an excellent choice.

A desktop at heart
The biggest development in this category has been the adoption of desktop components, specifically processors and supporting chipsets. By using a desktop Pentium 4, for example, manufacturers can configure notebooks with processor clock speeds in excess of 3GHz, and they can do it at more aggressive prices since desktop parts are cheaper. The result is better bang for the buck, although there's a trade-off in terms of battery life. To address this market, Intel released a Pentium 4-M, a hybrid similar to the Pentium 4 but with Intel's battery-saving SpeedStep technology for notebooks. Don't confuse this with the Pentium M, part of the Intel Centrino technology initially found only in smaller notebooks. Although the Pentium M has much slower clock speeds, it still delivers excellent performance and increasingly is finding its way into desktop-replacement systems as well.

Get the big picture
In addition to size and weight, the type of notebook you choose will also dictate the screen size and other features. Apple set the bar with its 17in. PowerBook G4, and now several manufacturers offer 17in. models, but in. and 16in. displays are the norm. Wide-screen displays are also coming on strong. Instead of the 4:3 aspect ratio of most computer displays and TVs, these systems have the 16:9 aspect ratio found on wide-screen TVs. This makes them great for watching DVD movies in their intended format, and their WXGA resolution (1,280 by 768 pixels) also gives you more screen space, either for viewing two documents side by side or for working in multiple programs at once.

Apple's PowerBook G4 was the first 17in.-screen notebook. Now several PC manufacturers offer 17in. models.
The combination CD-RW/DVD-ROM drive has lessened the need for two drive bays, but all desktop-replacement systems still offer both. Because they are swappable, this gives you the flexibility to drop in a second hard drive or an extra battery in place of one of the drives. At one time, mainstream or value notebooks were distinguished by their two fixed drives, one of which was typically a floppy. Many now have swappable drives, and in order to save weight and cost, some include only one optical drive, making them more akin to budget thin-and-lights.

What to choose
No single configuration will be right for every business user, but for most, we recommend a desktop-replacement system with a Pentium 4-M processor, 512MB of memory, an 80GB hard drive, a 15in. display, a CD-RW/DVD-ROM drive and DVD burner and integrated wired and wireless networking. If you're on a tight budget, a mainstream system with a desktop Pentium 4 processor, 256MB of memory, a 40GB hard drive, a 14.1in. display, a CD-RW/DVD drive and integrated wireless and wired networking, should give you plenty of notebook for about £600. As with desktops, when you are buying several, your best bet is to stick with a single vendor and product line. Some corporate notebooks, such as HP Compaq's nx, Dell's Latitude and IBM's ThinkPad ranges, use the same components across most or all of the line, which means that you can use the same drives, docking stations and port replicators, and AC adapters with any system -- a big advantage in business. Finally, we recommend that you invest in spare or extended batteries for employees who travel regularly.