So, you are making the move from a desktop machine to a laptop. Or maybe your portable is too slow to get the job done. Here are the four key decision points for small businesses choosing their next laptop.
Set your core specs but don’t fixate on the rest.
Laptops with a 14 inch screen offer the best combination of usability and portability.
You shouldn’t have to spend much more than $1,000.
Think twice about buying second-hand or at auctions. These will generally become obsolete more quickly.
Size matters, but not as much as it used to
Screen size is the main factor affecting the cost and usability of a laptop. The biggest laptops are those with a screen size between 17-18 inches (measured diagonally).
Many people trade up from their old desktop PC to one of these big-screen behemoths, which is why these laptops are often called desktop replacements. But you can pretty much forget about taking one on your daily commute, let alone going on a business trip with one.
The best-selling laptops are mid-size models sporting a 15-16 inch screen. They’re the four-door sedan of the notebook world, with analyst firm GfK Australia estimating that 70 per cent of notebooks sold to consumers sit in this range.
These mid-size notebooks are most popular with first-time buyers as they offer a generous screen and keyboard with a degree of portability, although when you get to a 16 inch screen that's still a bit large for lugging around.
If ‘go-anywhere’ appeals to you, you’re best served by compact notebooks with 13-14 inch screens.
I’ve used laptops of all sizes, from pint-sized 10 inch ‘netbooks’ to 17 inch behemoths, and I find that 14 inches is the sweet spot for portability and usability.
The keyboard and screen are large enough so they don’t cramp my style, but the laptop’s dimensions makes it a snap to slide into a backpack or briefcase and use just about anywhere. Better yet is that they pack as much punch as a 17 incher when it comes to performance and capabilities.
Some of the latest laptops in this class are ‘Ultrabooks’ engineered to be thin and light, while delivering upwards of 6-8 hours of battery life. If you are looking for a do-it-all laptop, put these on your shortlist.
Business laptops vs consumer laptops
You might notice that a few laptop makers split their range into ‘business laptops’ and personal or consumer laptops. There’s relatively little difference under the hood.
The business models tend to come with a wider range of technical support options, including faster turn-around for repairs.
Sometimes the consumer models will include more features plus gustier speakers for playing music and videos.
But just because you’re running a business doesn’t mean you have to choose a business laptop. In fact, the smaller your business the more likely you are to use the same machine for your work and for the other parts of your life.
So feel free to ignore the business/consumer divide and pick a laptop that you will be happy with for both parts of your life.
Set your baseline specs
Laptop makers and retailers delight in serving up an alphabet soup of technical specifications. All too often this ‘jargon gumbo’ serves to confuse rather than enlighten. And it’s not made any easier when prices vary widely and wildly between brands, models and retailers.
My advice is to focus on these three key specs:
For the processor: most laptops use an Intel ‘Core’ chip in one of three flavours: the Core i3, i5 and i7. The entry level Intel Core i3 processor is fine for running email, internet and office applications. The Core i5 is a mainstream option with more muscle for cooking up presentations and running multiple programs at the same time. If you’re working with multimedia, CAD/CAM software, HD content, video conferencing or just want an extra performance boost when it’s needed, set your sights on a Core i7 processor. My suggestion is to go for a laptop packing the Core i5 chip, or the Core i7 chip if you can afford an extra few hundred dollars
For RAM (memory): get at least 4GB, and splash out on 6-8GB if you’re running heavy-duty software that puts your current desktop through the wringer.
For hard disk storage: 500GB and upwards.
How much should you pay?
The good news is that a brand-name laptop which ticks all those boxes should cost you no more than $1,000.
Every other spec in the laptop recipe has pretty much become commoditised to the point where they are rarely worth fretting over. Specs are a key part of the laptop buying process but they’re not the whole game by any means.
New vs second hand
Of course, every few months you wait before buying is going to deliver better value. Newer models will come out – many brand-name notebooks are refreshed with faster chips and more memory every three months.
I have some advice here.
Be wary of waiting for cashback offers. Find the best deal for starters and then offer cash up front for negotiating discounts.
I would advise you forget about buying second-hand or even at auctions - with laptop prices being so low, and technology moving so fast, you’ll find a new machine is always the best value.
That said, some laptop makers offer clearance sales (such as Dell and Apple), while Apple also sells refurbished products complete with a one-year warranty.
David Flynn is an award-winning technology journalist, editor of Australian Business Traveller (www.AusBT.com.au) and mobile computing expert who has been living and working in 'laptop-only' mode since ditching his desktop PC in 1994.