How to Buy a Small Business Notebook Computer

by Thor Olavsrud

Whether your SMB needs cheap laptops for checking -mail while on the go or a desktop replacement behemoth, these tips will help you choose the right small business notebook computer for your needs.

 Acer Aspire One 532H-2223; netbook pc
The Acer Aspire One 532H-2223 netbook.
(Click for larger image)

As an entrepreneur, choosing the tools with which your small or midsize business (SMB) will operate is among the most important capital expenditure decisions you will make. The computers you and your staff will use are no exception.

First, you should consider what specifications will best serve the application needs of the person using the computer. You don't want to pay for more capacity than you need. At the same time, you need to be certain the computer you buy will have the power to perform the tasks you require of it and to run the software upgrades you are likely to buy over the computer's lifespan of three or more years.

Small Business Solutions: Select Your Category

If you're considering a notebook computer rather than a desktop, you've already decided that mobility is important to your business, but what sort of mobility you anticipate is just as important. You have to decide which category of notebook PC -- as determined by weight and size -- best fits your needs and working style. Notebook computers come in five categories: netbook, ultraportable, thin-and-light, midsize and desktop replacement.

Netbooks are the smallest notebook PCs. Designed to be Internet companions for checking email and surfing the Web while on the go, they are small and light (typically 2.5 to 3 pounds). Though limited in processing power and RAM, netbooks are an excellent choice for mobile workers who only need access to email and the occasional Web page.

Sony VAIO VPC-Z116GXS; notebook computer
The Sony VAIO VPC-Z116GXS.
(Click for larger image)

Most netbooks feature a 10.1-inch display with a resolution of 1,024 by 600, which is enough to view a standard Web page without horizontal scrolling, though you should still expect to do a lot of vertical scrolling to read most Web pages. If you're willing to tote a slightly larger and heavier netbook around (and give up a bit of battery life as well) in exchange for more desktop real estate, seek out models with 11.6 or 12.1-inch screens, which typically bump the resolution up to 1,366 x 768.

Netbooks generally cost between $299 and $499, but it is important to note that a netbook is intended to be a complement to your main PC, not a replacement for it. A netbook has the essential computing gear -- Wi-Fi and Ethernet for connectivity, built-in storage, USB ports and memory card slots for loading files -- but there's no room for a CD or DVD drive. Netbooks also typically have low-power processors (Intel's Atom line has become the standard) that are fine for simple Web and word-processing tasks, but would be maddeningly underpowered for tasks such as creating a PowerPoint presentation. A netbook is the right choice for content consumption, not content creation.

Ultraportables are the next class of notebook computers up from netbooks. Ultraportables typically feature a 12.1-inch screen and weigh 3 to 4 pounds. Ultraportables are a great choice for road warriors who are on the road daily or for entrepreneurs who are frequent travelers (two or more times per month) and need a notebook PC with them at all times.

Unlike netbooks, ultraportables typically have comparatively powerful processors. Many models even have optical drives built in, so you have all your essential components. Of course, miniaturization doesn't come cheap, so you'll pay a premium for an ultraportable compared to a larger laptop with similar specs, though prices have begun to creep down. An entry-level ultraportable can be had for about $725, while a more robust configuration will set you back $1,500 to $2,000.

Lenovo ThinkPad X201 Tablet; notebook computer
The Lenovo ThinkPad X201 Tablet.
(Click for larger image)

If your job entails a lot of note taking, you may want to consider a convertible tablet PC. Notebook computers in the ultraportable subclass are typically outfitted with 12.1-inch screens that swivel and fold flat against the keyboard, so you can use the included stylus to jot electronic notes or use your finger to navigate Windows and application with the touch of a finger.

For the majority of SMB buyers, a notebook PC in the thin-and-light category is the best bet. Sporting screens that are either 13.3 inches or 14.1 inches in size, these notebook computers give you a bigger view of your work while still maintaining comfortable portability -- 4 to 6 pounds and about an inch or so thick. All thin-and-light notebook computers have the optical drive built in and most are powered by dual-core processors, so you can use one as your primary PC. A good thin-and-light notebook PC costs around $1,000, so you don't pay the premium an ultraportable exacts.

Price-sensitive SMB buyers will want to consider a notebook PC in the midsize category. Notebook computers in this class, which includes budget models, are equipped with 14.1- or 15.4-inch displays and are heavier (6 to 7 pounds) and larger (around 1.5 inches thick).

Lenovo ThinkPad SL510; notebook computer
The Lenovo ThinkPad SL510.
(Click for larger image)

If your travel consists of schlepping the machine from your home to the car to the office and back again, the extra heft may not matter to you. But the savings will: A solid midsize notebook PC costs about $800 and, if you don't mind settling for a lesser processor, you can find a bargain machine for hundreds less.

If you want all the comforts of a desktop PC in a form factor that you can still tote when necessary, consider a desktop replacement notebook PC. Models with 16-inch screens deliver a good balance of big-screen comfort and reasonable portability.

Other models have 17-inch or even 18.4-inch screens, and are usually laden with all manner of multimedia and/or gaming goodies that drive up the prices to north of $2,000. But if you want a small business solution for work and play, a desktop replacement might make more sense than buying a separate desktop and laptop.

Once you've settled on the right category and screen size for your SMB needs, you'll have to decide whether you want an antiglare coating on your screen. Most notebooks come standard with glossy LCD panels that don't feature a coating, giving them crisper text reproduction and more vibrant color reproduction. However, if your work environment consists of harsh lighting conditions, like overhead fluorescent lights or lots of windows, consider opting for the antiglare coating. It will cut down the reflection of ambient light.

You may also have a choice of screen resolution (the measure of how many pixels are found in the horizontal and vertical dimensions) for the model you've chosen. The decision you make here is crucial: LCD panels are designed to look best at their native resolution, so you won't be able to change your mind and simply set it to a different resolution and expect it to deliver the same image quality.

 HP EliteBook 8440w; notebook computer
The HP EliteBook 8440w.
(Click for larger image)

Small Business Computing Specs

When it comes to notebook computers, the category will generally limit the range of other specifications and will thus be your most important top-level consideration. Still, as with other computers, key specifications include processor speed, memory and storage.

Processing Speed: The processor (CPU) is where most of your computer's calculations take place. A processor's speed, also called its clock rate, is the speed at which it executes instructions. Every computer contains an internal clock that regulates the rate at which instructions are executed and synchronizes all the various computer components.

The processor requires a fixed number of clock ticks (or clock cycles) to execute each instruction. The faster the clock, the more instructions the CPU can execute per second. The speed, measured in gigahertz (GHz), of a computer processor determines how quickly applications run.

Memory: Random Access Memory (RAM), or main memory, is the physical memory internal to the computer, somewhat akin to a person's short-term memory. Computers can only manipulate data that is in main memory, so every program you execute and every file you access must be copied from a storage device, like a hard drive, to main memory.

The amount of RAM determines how many programs can be executed at one time and how much data can be readily available to a program. Once the RAM is full, a computer must resort to a technique called swapping, in which portions of data are copied into main memory as they are needed and then swapped out as necessary. Adding RAM reduces the amount of swapping necessary to complete a given task, allowing the computer to work faster.

Storage: Storage is the computer's capacity to hold and retain data, measured in gigabytes (GB). While there are multiple types of storage, for the purpose of this buyer's guide, storage refers to the computer's hard drive. The larger the hard drive, the more applications and data you can save on your notebook PC.

To determine what you need in a notebook computer, assess the minimum software requirements of the software you need your notebook computer to run. You can find the specifications on the side of the software package and they are readily available online as well. The minimum requirements are just that -- the minimum. To run your software without headaches, you'll want to exceed them.

 HP ProBook 4720S; notebook computer
The HP ProBook 4720S.
(Click for larger image)

Notebook PC Specs: Processor

Though you might be tempted by the price of a Celeron-based notebook PC, we strongly recommend you select a model with a processor from Intel's Core family or AMD's Turion X2 Ultra line. Next-generation applications will be created with newer processors in mind. If you want to upgrade your software as updates and new versions become available -- and thus squeeze the most longevity out of your new machine -- you'll choose the more current processors. If you have decided to purchase a netbook, your best option is an Intel Atom processor.

While you should choose a newer processor, don't worry too much about processor speed. Yes, a 2.4 GHz processor is about 10 percent faster than a 2.2 GHz CPU, but you'd likely have to measure the speed with a PC benchmarking program to tell the difference.

Notebook PC Specs: RAM

RAM is a different story. It will have a noticeable effect on performance -- the more you have, the better. Small business technology buyers on a budget can scrape by with 2 GB, but step up to 3 GB or 4 GB if you can afford it.

As a rule of thumb for the specifications you'll want in your new notebook computer, take the minimum system requirements for the operating system and productivity suite you plan to run (Windows 7 and Microsoft Office 2007, for instance) and sum them. Look for a notebook computer with specifications double that of the combined minimum system requirements.

Gateway NV7915u; notebook computer
The Gateway NV7915u.
(Click for larger image)

Notebook PC Specs: Connectivity

Wi-Fi wireless connectivity is a given in today's notebook computers. Most small business technology buyers will be fine with a machine with built-in 802.11g capability, as it will also be compatible with older (and slower) 802.11b networks. Some larger SMBs may have opted for 802.11a routers and hubs, and if that's your case, then look for an 802.11a/b/g chipset.

Many notebook computers are also compatible with the newer 802.11n wireless standard, which offers faster throughput and better range than the older Wi-Fi modes. It makes sense to get an 802.11n Wi-Fi notebook computer now, even if you have an older router or access point. When you do replace your wireless equipment it will likely be with an 802.11n unit, so you want your notebook computer to be able to take advantage of the speed.

Entrepreneurs who are frequent travelers may also want to consider getting a wireless broadband (also known as a wireless wide area network or WWAN) chipset and radio built in.

Notebook PC Specs: Durability and Security

By its nature, a notebook computer is vulnerable to being dropped, lost or stolen. So since your data is critical to your SMB, look for features that will protect it.

Better business notebook computers will have durable-but-lightweight magnesium (and in some cases, aluminum) outer shells (not plastic), as well as added shock- and vibration-protection around the hard drive and other internal components.

Road warriors will want to look for a machine with active hard-drive protection, which parks the hard drive heads should the machine sense a fall and hence protects the platter from impacting with the heads (a leading cause of data loss). A spill-resistant keyboard is also a plus; it can funnel away a spill of about six ounces of liquid without damage to the sensitive components underneath.

To keep your data safe should your notebook computer be lost or stolen, insist on a model with a fingerprint reader, which will prevent the typical thief from accessing your hard drive. If you carry true business secrets, you'll need to add another layer of security, such as a data-encryption program. Some machines now offer a built-in encryption utility, and some Seagate hard drives deliver on-the-fly data encryption capabilities.

Finally, be sure to have a data backup solution in place (and actually use it), so if the notebook computer dies or disappears all you lose is the hardware. Many notebook computer makers offer automatic online backup services for a monthly fee at time of purchase.

Small Business Notebooks: Sample Configs and Pricing

Vendor/ModelCategory ProcessorMemoryHard DriveOtherBase Price
Acer Aspire One 532H-2223NetbookIntel Atom N450 (1.66 GHz)1 GB 687 MHz DDR2 SDRAM160 GB2.76 lbs., 10.1-inch LCD, 802.11b/g/n, Windows 7 Starter$300
Sony VAIO VPC-Z116GXSUltraportableIntel Core i5-520M (2.4 GHz)4 GB 1066 MHz DDR3256 GB SSD3 lbs., 13.1-inch LCD, nVidia GeForce GT 330M graphics card, dual-layer DVD+/-RW, 802.11n, Windows 7 Professional$2,299
Lenovo ThinkPad X201 TabletUltraportable TabletIntel Core i7-640LM (2.13 GHz)2 GB PC3-8500 DDR3 SDRAM 1067MHz SODIMM250 GB4.2 lbs., 12.1-inch display, 802.11a/b/g/n, Windows 7 Professional$2,109
Lenovo ThinkPad SL510Thin-and-lightIntel Core i7-640LM (2.67 GHz)4 GB 1333 MHz DDR3 SDRAM320 GB5.6 lbs., 14.10-inch LCD, nVidia Quadro FX 380M graphics card, dual-layer DVD+/-RW, 802.11n, Windows 7 Professional$1,024
HP EliteBook 8440wThin-and-lightIntel Core i7-640LM (2.67 GHz)4 GB 1333 MHz DDR3 SDRAM320 GB5.6 lbs., 14.10-inch LCD, nVidia Quadro FX 380M graphics card, dual-layer DVD+/-RW, 802.11n, Windows 7 Professional$1,629
HP ProBook 4720SMidsizeIntel Core i5-M450 (2.26 GHz)4 GB 1066 MHz DDR3 SDRAM500 GB6.8 lbs., 17.3-inch LCD, ATI Mobility Radeon HD4500 graphics card, DVD SuperMultiDrive, 802.11b/g/n, Windows 7 Professional$1,059
Gateway NV7915uDesktop replacementIntel Core i3-330M (2.13 GHz)4 GB DDR3 SDRAM500 GB7.4 lbs., 17.3-inch LCD, DVD+/-RW, 802.11b/g/n, Windows 7 Home Premium$570

Thor Olavsrud is a freelance writer and a former senior editor of InternetNews.com. He has covered operating systems, standards, telecom and security, among other technologies.


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This article was originally published on Thursday Jul 15th 2010
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