Time for a second look at business laptops

Smartphones and tablets aren’t the only gadgets getting thinner and lighter. If you’ve put off upgrading your business notebook, it’s time for another look. The three 14-inch models I've been testing show the business laptop has come a long way.
Written by John Morris, Contributor

Most of the action in PCs has shifted to smaller laptops and hybrids as the industry attempts to fend off tablets. But larger laptops remain popular partly because they offer the best value--the top sellers on Best Buy’s site all have 15.6-inch displays and range in price from $250 to $400—but also because bigger, high-resolution displays are easier on the eyes.

Although I generally carry an ultraportable, over the past few weeks I’ve been trying out the latest generation of larger laptops designed for business users including the Dell Latitude E7440, HP EliteBook Folio 1040 G1 and Lenovo ThinkPad T440s (I covered some of these new models after CES earlier this year). 

These are not your typical 14-inch business boxes. All three are made of high-quality materials and are built to last, meeting a variety of U.S. military standards for temperature, humidity, vibration, shocks and dust. Yet they all measure well under an inch thick and weigh less than four pounds, which means they’ll be equally at home on your desk or on the road.

The three systems I tested were virtually identically configured. The Latitude E7440 and ThinkPad T440s both had a 1920x1080 touchscreen and came with Windows 8 Pro. The Folio 1040 had a standard 1600x900 display and came with Windows 7 Pro (HP says the so-called “downgrade rights” are the most popular option among business users), though I upgraded to Windows 8 for testing. The Folio 1040 is also available with a Full HD display.

The Latitude E7440 came with a Core i5-4300U processor, 4GB of memory and a 256GB solid-state drive pushing the price to $1,869, though the Latitude 14 7000 series starts at a little more than $1,000 with a 1366x768 display, Core i3 chip and standard hard drive. The Folio 1040 and ThinkPad T440s both came with the Core i5-4200U, 4GB of memory and a 128GB SSD for $1,299 and $1,409, respectively. For an apples-to-apples comparison, with the faster processor, 1920x1080 display and 256GB SSD, the Folio 1040 costs $1,729 (no touchscreen) and the ThinkPad T440s comes in at $1,659.

Borrowing some design cues from Dell’s stylish XPS consumer line, the Latitude E7440 has a carbon fiber lid, solid aluminum chassis and a brushed metal back and hinges. (The display folds all the way flat, which is supposed to be useful for presentations, though to be honest I’ve never seen this feature used in a meeting.) In terms of size and weight it is virtually identical to the ThinkPad T440s. The Latitude E7440 measures 13.2 by 9.1 by 0.8 inches and has a starting weight of 3.6 pounds with a 3-cell battery, though the one I tested included a 4-cell (47Whr) battery instead.

Unlike other thin Ultrabooks, the Latitude E7440 still has a good selection of ports including an Ethernet jack, HDMI and mini-DisplayPort, three USB 3.0 sockets and an SD card slot. It also works with standard Latitude docks or via its built-in WiGig with a Dell Wireless Dock. The keyboard is backlit and spill-resistant, and it has both a trackpoint and a touchpad with a row of physical buttons both on top and bottom. I prefer island-style keyboards with some separation between raised keys, but this is really a matter of personal preference.

The Folio 1040 stands out with an aluminum and magnesium case that is very thin and light. In fact, at 0.6 inches deep and 3.3 pounds, it is probably the most portable 14-inch laptop on the market aside from the Lenovo ThinkPad X1 Carbon. This comes at a price, though. The Folio 1040 has a relatively small selection of ports including two USB 3.0 connectors and mini DisplayPort; there is no Ethernet jack, no HDMI or VGA, and in place of an SD card slot it has a microSD one. It does, however, come with an external adapter with Ethernet and VGA that attaches to a proprietary docking connector.

HP emphasizes the bundled software including the Sure Start “self-healing” BIOS, which detects malware and automatically restores the BIOS to its original state; Trust Circles, which lets you set up folders for storing and sharing encrypted files; and a password manager that works with the integrated fingerprint reader.

The keyboard is backlit and spill-resistant, but the keys seem to have relatively little travel and the entire deck flexes as you type.

Although it lacks a touchscreen, the Folio 1040 G1 is the first laptop to offer Synaptics’ ForcePad, which replaces physical buttons or clickable areas with a fully pressure-sensitive touchpad. I had a little trouble getting used to it--I often clicked on things when I meant to select them and vice versa--but it’s an interesting idea and I suspect that by using it over time and making a few tweak to the settings, it could be useful feature. Still it probably works better on a consumer line such as HP’s Envy laptops, especially since unlike the other systems here, the Folio 1040 does not offer the alternative of using a trackpoint.

For the T440s, Lenovo took your standard ThinkPad and put it on a diet. It looks about the same, but it measures 13.0 by 8.9 by 0.8 inches and has a starting weight of only 3.6 pounds thanks to a sturdy frame made of magnesium alloy and carbon fiber. It is about the same size and weight as the Latitude E7440, but neither can match the Folio 1040 or ThinkPad Carbon X1 for portability.

The standout feature of the T440s is its flexible battery options. It has two battery compartments---one for an optional sealed 3-cell (23.2Whr) battery in the front and one for a removable battery in the rear. For the rear battery you can choose a 3-cell (23.2Whr), a standard 6-cell (47Whr) or a high-capacity 6-cell (72Whr) model that protrudes from the bottom. If you choose two batteries, the T440s has what Lenovo calls Power Bridge, which lets you swap out the rear battery and insert a new one without having to shut down.

The T440s has three USB 3.0 ports, VGA and mini-DisplayPort, an Ethernet jack and an SD slot, as well as a fingerprint reader to the right of the keyboard. The keyboard is the best in the group with well-spaced keys with lots of travel that feel nice and soft. It has both the signature trackpoint and a large touchpad, which no longer has separate left and right mouse buttons on the top and bottom.

As you might expect with nearly identically configured systems, all three delivered the same relatively high level of performance. With its slightly faster chip, the Latitude E7440 came out on top on my MATLAB portfolio simulation and asset pricing tests, but only by a sliver. For anything short of workstation-level workloads, these Haswell systems won’t disappoint.

On a tough battery test, which involves continually reloading Web pages over WiFi with the display at maximum brightness, the Folio 1040 G1 with its sealed 6-cell (42Whr) battery came out on top at 5 hours, 5 minutes. The Latitude E7440 lasted 4 hours, 35 minutes and the ThinkPad T440s managed only 4 hours, 15 minutes with the two 3-cell batteries. But swapping in the larger 6-cell battery pushed the battery life to an impressive 8 hours, 20 minutes on the test.

In real-world usage and with more conservative power settings, all of these would probably deliver significantly longer battery life. Lenovo rates the T440s for up to 8 hours with the 3-cell batteries and up to 17 hours with the high-capacity 6-cell one.

Of these I would probably choose the ThinkPad T440s, but all three illustrate how far standard business laptops have come. They are made of high-quality materials that are both stylish and durable, and they deliver a good mix of features and performance, yet they are much thinner and lighter than previous 14-inch notebooks.

Because I spend so much time on the road and in the air for work, I still prefer a laptop with a 13.3-inch or smaller 1080p display and a more compact footprint. But for a business user who wants a good desktop replacement that is also portable enough to bring home on weekends and take on trips a few times a year, any of these thinner and lighter 14-inch laptops would be a good choice.

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