Key small business laptop features to look for in 2020

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Key small business laptop features to look for in 2020

From Dell's airplane tray-sized XPS 13 to HP's laptops with WiFi 6 capabilities, here's a quick guide to what's on offer from some of the big brands in 2020.

If you shop for a new laptop this year, you might consider each device’s screen size, battery life, design, performance, storage capacity and whether it has a touchscreen.

But those aren’t the only business laptop features on show in 2020. You may come across laptops equipped with everything from 5G connectivity to advanced security or Artificial Intelligence (AI).

To give you a snapshot of the market, we asked laptop companies which features small business users should look for in 2020.

A common theme was ‘productivity’. Laptop makers aren’t just making lighter, faster devices – they’re also touting other ways their devices are more useful for work. Some are spruiking AI optimisation and unified management tools, while others focus on display quality and e-ink screens.

Another popular focus is security and privacy. Laptop companies offer multiple layers of hardware and software-based security. And they’re offering screen-blocking features designed to stop someone else spying on your screen in public.

New connectivity options are also on the agenda, with some laptops getting 5G and WiFi 6 capabilities.

Below is a summary of these and other features the companies pointed to.

Mobility features

Smaller, lighter laptops

Dell says this new XPS 13 fits on an airplane tray.

Business laptops continue to get lighter. For example, HP’s sub-1Kg Elite Dragonfly laptop has a 13.3inch screen and was billed as the world’s lightest “business convertible” laptop when it was announced last year. That’s lighter than Apple’s current MacBook Air with Retina display, which weighs 1.25kg.

Dell recommended its 1.4Kg Latitude 9510, which it previously claimed was the world’s lightest commercial laptop that has a 15inch screen.

Then there’s ASUS, which has upped the ante with its 870gram ExpertBook B9450, which will go on sale in Australia later this year.

If you fly a lot, you might benefit by choosing a laptop with a small physical footprint. Dell pointed to its XPS 13, which has 13.4inch screen that can “fit neatly on an airplane tray table”, according to Ben Jackson, Dell ANZ General Manager, Consumer and Small Business.

But don’t select an ultra-lightweight device that compromises on performance, ASUS’s commercial team reminded us. To avoid making that mistake, you’ll also need to consider CPU, memory and whether the laptop has a solid state drive, which can speed up performance.

Better battery life

Dell claims this Latitude 9510 can run for up to 30 hours on its battery.

We haven’t had the fortune to use a business laptop that runs on batteries for 24 hours without recharging, but you’ll find several companies promising that.

“Whereas in years gone by, 5-6 hours of battery life would have been acceptable, models now exist which allow for 24 hours of operating from one charge,” stated the ASUS team. The ASUS team admitted it might cost more for better battery life, but argued that the extra expense would be worthwhile.

HP also referred to its business laptops’ “long-life” batteries. And Dell boasted that its Latitude 9510 could provide up to 30 hours battery life. It also flagged its Dell Optimizer software, which uses AI to “help improve” battery life, system responsiveness, and application and audio performance.

Meanwhile, Lenovo recommended its ThinkPad’s standby feature, which allows it to keep receiving emails and messages while in low power mode.

Of course, the caveat with all these features and claims is that laptop battery life will depend on how you use the device.

Connectivity
Laptop companies also encouraged small business users to buy a device that works with the latest wireless technology.

For example, HP is offering optional Gigabit-class 4G LTE wireless broadband technology with 4x4 antennas, and Bluetooth 5.0 for “cleaner connections”.

You should also consider 5G compatibility, argued Stephen Lau, SMB Lead at Lenovo ANZ. “Telecommunication networks are improving rapidly, and 5G in 2020 will be one of the most significant telecommunications advancements yet. It will become easier for organisations to stay connected and access critical information from anywhere, at any point in time,” he said. Lenovo plans to begin offering ThinkPad laptops with 5G in Australia later this year.

Lenovo and HP also recommended WiFi 6. It has a theoretical maximum data transfer rate of 9.6Gbps, which is almost three times the maximum speed of WiFi 5. HP offers WiFi 6-equipped laptops in Australia today, while Lenovo plans to offer the technology in its ThinkPad laptops later this year.

Before reaching for your wallet, consider whether you’d benefit from the improvement in speed and latency these technologies provide. And check if you’ll have access to 5G network services and WiFi 6 base stations – without those, you won’t see faster data transfer rates.

Durability

ASUS's ExpertBook B9450 is designed to withstand frequent travel.

“Ruggedised” laptops designed to withstand water, hard impacts and other rough treatment are marketed by various companies, including Panasonic and Getac. These devices are sometimes aimed at people who work outdoors in tough, wet, dirty or otherwise rough environments.

We didn’t ask these companies to comment for this article, because we intend to cover “ruggedised” laptops in a separate article. But we’re mentioning the topic, because one business laptop provider – ASUS – pointed to durability as a key feature. It argued that an ultra-thin laptop might be susceptible to damage when travel. So this year it’s going to sell the ExpertBook B9450, a laptop with “military-grade durability”.

Security and privacy features

The HP Elite Dragonfly's Sure View feature is designed to stop others reading your screen.

All the companies that responded to us highlighted the importance of their security features. “Security, and by extension, privacy has shot to the top of our partners’ and customers’ minds over the past few years,” stated Ken Maher, HP ANZ’s Director of Personal Systems. “We’ve seen legislative changes both in Australia and around the world make a significant impact on what it means to be secure.”

They’re offering a number of ways to protect laptops. These include features to protect a laptop BIOS, which is the system that starts first when you turn on a laptop. HP calls its BIOS protection Sure Start, while Dell has SafeBIOS.

They also recommended features that protect system processes and your data. For example, HP’s Sure Run helps “keep critical processes running, even if malware tries to shut them down.” Dell's Trusted Data feature tries to protect your information and keep malware out of your networks. While Dell Unified Workspace aims to help IT managers secure laptops.

Some companies recommended chips designed for dedicated security purposes. For example, Dell SafeID “ensures devices are protected from malware attacks with Dell’s exclusive security chip that stores end-user’s authentication credentials.” And ASUS recommended laptops with a Trusted Platform Module (TPM) chip, which securely creates and stores cryptographic keys.

Screen-blocking features are another way some laptop makers are attempting to protect your privacy. Maher said this is one of HP’s most-requested business laptop features. “Close to 70 percent of offices are open plan, so we’ve seen feedback from customers that they don’t feel as private,” he said.

HP’s Sure View Gen3 screen-blocking feature aims to make screens appear dark and unreadable when viewed from the side. And Lenovo’s ThinkPad Privacy Guard will even warn you if it detects someone looking at your screen. It will offer the feature with its ThinkPad X1 Carbon and X1 Yoga laptops later this year.

Several companies were also keen to promote biometric security. For example, ASUS recommended laptops that have fingerprint readers and a Windows Hello-compatible webcam with IR sensors and a shutter (Windows Hello is the Windows 10 feature that allows you to sign in to Windows using your fingerprint, face or a PIN).

Other features to consider

Design
You won’t need to look far to find premium business laptop designs in 2020. Case in point: HP’s Elite Dragonfly, which has a deep blue finish, “diamond cut accents” and "next-generation magnesium chassis”. Maher says that HP has given a “premium look and feel” to all its devices. He argues that design aesthetic is particularly important to millennials.

E-ink display

You can scrawl notes on this e-ink display on the lid of Lenovo's ThinkBook Plus.

Lenovo’s ThinkBook Plus laptop has an e-ink screen you can see when the laptop lid is closed. You can use a compatible pen to draw diagrams or illustrations on the e-ink display, or use the e-ink display to read important notifications, while the lid is closed. The thinking is you might be less distracted if you don't have access to other software.

Whether or not you think that's useful, it’s an interesting example of how companies are trying to differentiate business laptops. In Australia, the ThinkBook Plus goes on sale in the US in March 2020, but Australian availability hadn’t been announced at the time of writing.

Do you have questions about small business laptops? Let us know what you'd like us to cover.

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