Buying Laptops for Small Business
The lowest price isn’t always the best value; paying a little extra for a notebook that’s designed for business could be a better deal.
When one of your customers hires a new employee, or someone starts working out of the office enough to need a laptop instead of a desktop, do they ask you to supply a new PC for them or do they pop down to PC World at lun-chtime and buy whatever the cheapest machine happens to be? Apart from the question of whether you get any commission on the deal, should you care? Yes, you should.
Especially for notebook PCs, the difference between a PC designed for a home user and one with business features is more than skin deep. The hardware you need to take advantage of business tools like XP Mode, the version of Windows that comes with it, the software that’s pre-installed, the warranty and service options – even how easy it is to get a spare battery or replace the power supply all make a difference to how suitable a notebook is for a business user. Business models are also less likely to have large amounts of trial software that you’ll need to either remove or support.
Most notebook PCs used by a small business will be crammed full of the data that keeps that business running from day to day, making it a false economy to skimp on the purchase. If you're basing your business on your laptop, you need it to keep going whatever happens – and you want something that keeps going for the full three years it takes to depreciate.
On the road
Carrying a notebook from the living room to the kitchen isn’t the same as dragging it on and off planes and in and out of meeting rooms; a notebook that stands up just fine to home use may not last nearly as long on the road. Many consumer laptops have plastic cases over a metal chassis; business models tend to be made of stronger stuff and these days that doesn’t always mean they’re big and heavy.
Sony’s Z series VAIOs are milled out of solid aluminium and the lid is made from carbon fibre; Lenovo uses carbon and glass fibre for the ThinkPad range, with magnesium alloy roll cages. Even Dell’s budget Vostro line for SMBs has a magnesium alloy chassis and aluminium case. Toshiba also uses magnesium alloy, simulates five years of laptop use to test its chassis and designs the case so that the motherboard doesn’t go quite to the edge, which means it’s less likely to be damaged if the case does crack; you’ll still need to repair or replace the machine soon but a business model is more likely to last to the end of the business trip after it’s been damaged.
HP tests EliteBook models for 100,000 hours and says you can put up to 136kg of pressure on the lid ?of an Elite-Book notebook without damage (you can drop an EliteBook “on all sides several times” says Manuel Linnig of HP’s Personal Systems Group, ?and use it in temperatures between -29C and 60C without problems).
Even in less extreme environments, accidents happen. 3D accelerometers detect when a notebook has fallen off the table and park the heads of the hard drive to preserve the data; they’ll also notice when a machine is being shaken so hard on a bumpy train that the hard drive might easily crash (back in 2001 I came across a company that lost an av-erage of a laptop a week to Midland Mainline’s uneven ride). Accelerometers are starting to appear in some consumer models but they’re in all business-grade notebooks and often the hard drive is shock-mounted for additional protec-tion. Vulnerable areas are more likely to have extra protection on a business notebook; screens in Toshiba business models are mounted in rubber to protect against shock.
Spill a cup of coffee into most consumer notebooks and you need to buy a new notebook. Toshiba was one of the first manufacturers to introduce a spill-proof keyboard some years ago. They’re now common on business models from many manufacturers and most say they will protect against the amount of water or coffee you can spill in three minutes (which is about how long it takes you to grab the cup, get it out of the way and drain the worst of the liquid off the keyboard). Impressively, we’ve seen a Toshiba notebook still running after having had water pour through the keyboard for three days.
When it goes wrong
The industry average for laptop failures (for both consumer and business machines bought and used between 2008 and 2009) is about 1.25% a month (according to Gartner); after a year 12% of most laptops will have failed; Lenovo claims that only 9% of their ThinkPads fail in a year and Toshiba’s figures are even lower at 7%.
Whatever the percentage, if your customer’s laptop is one of the ones that fail, they’re going to get it replaced or repaired faster if they have the warranty that comes with a business laptop. One-year warranties are the standard for consumer models. A three year warranty is standard with business models from Lenovo; Sony’s standard for business models is two years but they will collect, repair and return anywhere in the world – and you can extend the warranty to three or even four years and add next-day, on-site service from an engineer. HP warranties are for up to three years, but they will collect from a home address for no extra charge and aim to repair the machine within five days. Unusually HP and Lenovo also offer warranties on batteries for three years; for other business notebooks the warranty on the battery is still only a year.
With the business Latitude models, Dell has warranties for up to five years with the options of service within four hours and cover against accidental damage. For the SMB Vostro range, it offers a very flexible choice of warranty - from six months to three years, with the choice of next-day, on-site support, accidental damage cover, ‘complete care’ (which includes repairing a notebook locally if you're travelling or shipping out a replacement), or on-site diagnosis so customers can pick and mix exactly the options they want to pay for.
Business OEMs like Toshiba and Lenovo put support for services like Computrace in the BIOS (and Dell is consider-ing it for the Vostro range); subscribe to ant-theft services like Computrace and you can find where a lost machine is and lock or even remotely wipe it if it turns out to be stolen. This will work on any PC, but if Computrace is supported in the BIOS, the agent will re-install itself even if the thief replaces the hard drive.
Other security options common on business notebooks protect business data, from easy-to-use backup tools and recovery partitions you can access remotely to fingerprint readers for more secure password protection and optional smartcard readers. Lenovo offers self-encrypting hard drives.
Better by business design
Say notebook design and most people think colours and sleek angles. You can get those in business machines – Dell offers a range of colours in both the Latitude and Vostro range – but “sexy, slim consumer devices absolutely come with a price” according to Dell’s James Jones; the slimmest machines are tending to be sealed units. That means replacing the battery needs an engineer on site (or someone suitably confident with a screwdriver). Not only can you swap out the battery on a business notebook when you run out of power halfway through the day or replace it when it stops holding a full charge, but there’s a wide choice of extended and secondary batteries for most business models. Lenovo promises up to 21 hours of battery life on the ThinkPad T410, the Dell Latitude E runs for up to 20 hours and HP has models with 24 hours of battery life; all use a slab-like battery that fits under the base. On a short business trip, that kind of battery life means you wouldn’t need to pack the charger.
You can leave another charger at home with some business notebooks. Powered USB ports – which let you charge a phone or anything else powered by USB even if the notebook is turned off – are becoming increasingly common on business models. There are plenty of third-party options but Lenovo is one of the first manufacturers to offer a stan-dard, slim line power supply that plugs into charging sockets in cars and planes as well as the power socket and lets you charge two devices at once; alternative tips are available at lenovopowertips.com.
Opinion is divided as to whether you get the latest processor technology first in consumer or business notebooks. What you will get is machines with Intel’s vPro and AMT technology which allows remote management and support, and you're more likely to get hardware support for virtualisation. Virtualising the OS on a notebook isn’t common yet, but the hardware support means that XP Mode in Windows 7 will have much better performance.
XP Mode is only available in the business versions of Windows 7; a consumer notebook is likely to come with the Home edition of Windows 7, which can’t join a domain either, or switch printers automatically by location. You can always do an in-place Anytime Upgrade or re-install Windows 7 Professional, but that’s more time and money to get a business-ready system. If your customers prefer Linux, many OEMs offer that as an option on business models – and you get a version that’s more powerful and easier to support than the locked down Netbook Remix common on last year’s netbooks. If you want SSD for performance and reliability and built-in mobile broadband, you're looking at business notebooks; no netbook can compete with the Quad SSD RAID 0 on the Sony VAIO Z. An increasing number of business notebooks include both a touchpad and a trackpoint, so users have the choice of which to use and on larger models there’s often the option of a numeric keyboard. As more small businesses use VOIP and Skype for telecoms, sound quality matters more. HP, Dell and Lenovo business notebooks all have dual array microphones to improve the quality of calls and recordings.
Few consumer notebooks have eSATA ports, which transfer data at roughly the same speed as the internal hard drive, making for much faster backups; they’re common on business notebooks and are often combined with an extra USB port. Express Card slots have vanished from many consumer notebooks; if you need them for expansion options, you’ll find them on many business models.
There are consumer notebooks with 17” and larger screens for gaming and entertainment; if you're looking for a mo-bile workstation for CAD, image editing or development, business models have business features. Lenovo’s Core i7 W701 has a 17” screen and a second 10.6” screen that slides out to the side – and it’s AutoCAD certified. If you're looking for a transflective or super-bright screen to use outdoors, manufacturers like Lenovo, Toshiba and Pana-sonic offer these as options Although there are a handful of touch notebooks and netbooks designed for consumers, if your customer are looking for a true tablet PC for vertical applications like form filling, flight planning and any other situation where a keyboard isn’t convenient they’re better off looking at business models; again they’re more rugged and have more battery op-tions.
Familiarity breeds simplicity
If you only look at the price label, consumer models bought off the shelf look cheaper than notebooks designed for business users. But even a small company buying all its notebooks from one supplier may be able to negotiate a discount – and the advantage of having a range of machines from the same supplier goes beyond any immediate savings. If all the notebooks in a business are HP EliteBooks or Lenovo ThinkPads, you can use the same power supply with all of them (and you can share power supplies between Dell Vostro and Latitude notebooks). If you buy new machines from the same family, you can share batteries and other accessories as well. Ports will be in the same place, keyboards will have the same layout and any OEM utilities will be the same, which prevents confusion when users get a new machine – especially if they’re using a temporary machine while their own is repaired.
Machines from the same supplier have advantages for you as well, because it simplifies support. As Richard Lee of Lenovo puts it, “if you go into PC World and buy a PC and then you go back three months later or maybe even three weeks later and buy another three PCs for more users, what is the chance of you being able to by the same configu-ration, what is the chance that you're getting the same chipset that uses the same drivers? You’re going to build a new image and download all the drivers for that – and you’re going to have another image to support.” If your customers end up with 50 different laptops from a variety of suppliers, you could be keeping 50 different images, or having to patch and update machine individually rather than being able to use an image at all.
All OEMs keep their business models on the market with the same configuration and components for longer and they often have programmes to help you add support for new generations of hardware; Lenovo provides advance information under NDA, Dell offers 90 day transition loans of new models so you can test your image and update it so you can manage older and newer models with the same image.
The tough get going
Panasonic Toughbook 19
If your customers need something that can literally take a beating, Panasonic’s Toughbook line includes fully rugged machines like the Toughbook 19 where every port is sealed individually, so the dirt and dust of a building site won’t cause problems, and you can drop it up to six feet without worrying (twice the three foot test specified by military standards) – although you're not likely to as it has a handle. Semi-rugged machines aimed at travellers who don’t need quite so much protection, like the 14.” F8, the C1 tablet with ten hours of battery life or the Core i5-based Toughbook 52 keep the handles and weigh much less than you’d expect. These aren’t machines for occasional tra-vellers and the price is higher. A 3 year warranty comes as standard and a maximum five working days turnaround is guaranteed.
Business at PC World
Toshiba Satellite PRO l450d
If your customers are still planning to buy their next laptop off the shelf in a big box store, you can guide them toward business-friendly models that come with Windows 7 Professional; PC World carries the low-end models from Toshiba’s Satellite Pro range like the 15” Core 2 Duo L450D model. You don’t get options like a numeric keypad, eSATA or a fingerprint reader but if your customer doesn’t need those they’re still getting a business-grade PC with a Webcam and Toshiba’s handy software utilities at a price cheaper than many of the consumer models on sale.
Netbooks for Business
HP Mini 5102
The appeal of a netbook is its portability but to get that you’re usually sacrificing a lot of features. HP’s Mini 5102 comes in three colours but it’s more of a business machine than many. It’s thin and light but feels sturdy and durable thanks to the magnesium and aluminium chassis (the base is rubberised metal for an easier grip and you can order it with an optional handle). The hard drive is a fast 7200rpm SATA or an 80GB SSD and upgrading the memory is sim-plified by a latch that opens the RAM module. With the 6 cell battery you get a useful eight to nine hours of battery life. It has a much larger keyboard than most netbooks, with separated keys that make it easier to type on; it’s not the same experience as a full-size notebook but you’re much less likely to hit the wrong key or two keys at once than on most netbooks. It’s also spill resistant, which is rare on netbooks. The matte screen is more practical for travelling than the usual gloss, the touchpad is extremely responsive and there’s an optional touchscreen, although that starts pushing up the ?256 price rather higher. The Webcam can be used for facial recognition for logging on to Windows and Web sites without typing in a password. You will however want to upgrade the OS and warranty; it comes with Windows 7 Home Premium or XP Home and a one year pickup and return warranty.
Budget not basic
Dell Vostro 3500
Dell’s Vostro line is designed specifically for small business and includes business features at consumer prices. Ma-chines come with the minimum of bundled software for you to deal with; Trend Micro Internet Security is there be-cause many small businesses ask for bundled anti-virus software to make sure new PCs are protected straight away and there’s a simple Backup and Recovery Manager. The 15” 3500 model has the new Core i5 processor, up to 6GB of RAM and standard Vostro features; eSATA and HDMI ports, a 2 megapixel Webcam and array microphones, a fin-gerprint reader, 3D accelerometer and shock absorbers for the hard drive and a Kensington cable lock. Optional NVI-DIA GeForce discrete graphics means you can switch between longer battery life or more powerful graphics. Another option is a backlit keyboard; handy if you need to take notes in dimly-lit presentations or on an overnight flight. The 17” Core i7 3700 has enough space for a numeric keypad.