IT buyer’s guide to business laptops

Business-friendly notebooks come in all shapes, sizes and prices. Here's help picking the laptops best suited to your organization’s various employees.

guide book for business laptops computers2
Thinkstock/Lenovo/Asus/HP

With hundreds of business-oriented laptops to choose from — everything from sleek ultralight tablets to huge portable workstations — picking the right ones to outfit your company’s workforce can make finding a needle in a haystack seem easy. We’re here to help with a buyer’s guide that breaks the options into categories and provides pros and cons of each.

Let’s begin with the basics. Unlike consumer systems, business laptops are not meant for gaming, movies or idle web surfing — unless that’s your business. First and foremost, these systems are serious tools to help people do their jobs. In addition to sporting less garish color schemes than many consumer models, they focus on reliability and durability. Manufacturers typically sell business models for close to two years to accommodate long enterprise deployments; many promise replacement parts for five years.

Turned off by the price tags of business systems? Unlike consumer purchases, they are generally the starting point for a negotiation over cost. Most vendors offer volume discounts or the option to lease, which turns a large capital cost into a predictable monthly expense, usually at no cost premium over its life. Plus, at the end of the lease, you don’t have to worry about hardware disposal.

And with an expected three- to four-year usable lifetime, many mid- and upper-price-range business notebooks go beyond the standard single-year warranty with three years of coverage. This is often worth several hundred dollars compared to systems aimed at home users.

Based on what most large companies use, this guide concentrates on Windows systems, but in an age of workplace diversity, Apple devices are also represented. Chromebooks are also gaining traction among companies outfitting employees who don’t need peak performance: See “A new business tool: Chromebooks.”

What to look for in a business laptop

With all the hacking horror stories, security is critical in today’s business. Companies that use Windows PCs should look for systems with a Trusted Platform Module (TPM) and some sort of biometric authentication method, such as a fingerprint reader or a camera capable of Windows Hello facial recognition for password-free log-ins. Business-oriented Windows laptops should also support serious manageability features, such as the ability to tap into Intel vPro processor extensions so IT departments can remotely diagnose and service a system.

Although they do not include a TPM or vPro support, Mac laptops can readily be secured and managed in the enterprise as well. Most companies today have a mixture of both platforms. Windows PCs are widespread for general use and where cost and operability with legacy software are key considerations, while Macs show up more in application development; creative work such as marketing, design and video editing; and for executives and road warriors.

When it comes to under-the-hood components, balancing costs against users’ typical tasks and environment is the name of the game. For basic document creation and online work, budget laptops with 2GB to 4GB of RAM, slower processors that run at 1.1GHz to 2GHz, a 500GB hard drive and a standard display might do just fine. For computationally intensive tasks like video editing, content creation and coding, you’ll need to shell out for high-performance systems with 8GB to 16GB of RAM, newer Intel Core i5 or i7 CPUs that run at 3.0 to 4.7GHz, discrete graphics engines, solid state drives with up to 1TB of storage, and high-resolution (HD or UHD) displays.

Likewise, workers who occasionally tote a laptop between work and home can make do with heavier models, whereas road warriors need the smallest, lightest systems that will get the job done — even if that means sacrificing ports and performance while raising the price.

Above all else, a business notebook should fit the user’s needs, not the other way around. There’s no sense in providing an 8-lb. mobile workstation to a traveling salesperson or a budget laptop to a video producer. To those who say that workers can get by with whatever they are given, you might find that with the right tools, workers can be more productive, happier and better at their job. Just ask yourself if the competition is using anything but the best available technology.

The six sections that follow include everything from basic budget and mainstream models to ultraslim systems, hybrid laptop/tablet combos, rugged machines and high-end portable workstations. A table at the end of the story offers a quick side-by-side comparison of key specs and more in each of the categories. Each category of laptop has a purpose, a place and a typical user, but the lines between them are fluid rather than hard and fast boundaries. This opens an opportunity for business buyers to shop at the margins of the categories to snag a bargain or get exactly what your company is looking for — or both.

The seemingly limitless variety of systems can be overwhelming, but rest assured, there’s a perfect laptop for every employee, task and budget; you just need to know how to look. Here’s how to make sense of it all.

Budget laptops

When price counts for everything, performance, svelteness and security take a back seat.

Lenovo ThinkPad E475 Lenovo

The Lenovo ThinkPad E475

They may not be sleek, thin or particularly powerful, but companies, nonprofits and educational institutions could not do without the basic budget notebook. In fact, this is one area where corporate buyers sometimes cross over and get systems aimed at consumers, because the price can’t be beat. Aimed at employees who need neither the power nor the mobility of a mainstream system, these devices carry price tags as low as $250 (but are more typically in the $300 to $500 range) and are seen everywhere from reception desks to call centers.

To get to these bargain-basement prices, designers and engineers have cut more than a few corners, and compromise is the name of the game. For instance, these systems are often armed with a 500GB traditional hard drive or 64GB of solid state storage and as little as 2GB of RAM. And most won’t have a recent Intel Core i5 or i7 processor. This category is dominated by older Intel Pentium, Celeron and occasionally Core i3 CPUs, but you can also find AMD processors on some models.

These systems typically are built around 14- or 15.6-in. displays, but there are several models that get by with displays as small as 11.6 in. Their native resolution is typically 1280 x 820 or 1366 x 768 pixels rather than full HD (1920 x 1080 px).

Often as big as a legal pad and about an inch thick, the biggest devices tip the scales at around 5 lb. and are not meant for lightweight travel. They do provide the room for a few goodies like Ethernet ports and DVD drives.

In a real sense, it’s what you don’t get that defines this price-sensitive genre. Most models don’t offer a touch screen, a backlit keyboard or a USB-C port for high-speed data transfers. And IT beware: Few budget models include the latest security and manageability features such as a TPM, vPro processor extensions, a fingerprint reader or a camera capable of Windows Hello facial recognition for password-free log-ins.

Asus VivoBook W202 laptop Asustek Computer

The Asus VivoBook W202

Also be aware of the operating system. Many budget laptops come with Windows 10 Home, but your business may require at least Windows 10 Pro; be sure you know what you’re getting. A new class of budget systems that use Microsoft’s Windows 10 S software appeals to enterprise buyers because the OS can only run approved software from the Microsoft Store, reducing the risk of malware intrusions. The first generation of these devices are coming out now.

Any budget system should handle email, document creation, basic web surfing and online forms with ease, but they’ll disappoint when it comes to performing processor-intensive tasks like multimedia-heavy PowerPoint work or video editing.

Need more? You might be better served by moving up half a rung on the laptop ladder and looking at inexpensive mainstream systems.

Budget laptops at a glance

  • Target audience: Workers who can get by with a bare minimum of performance, system memory and storage space.
  • Pros: Low price; adequate performance and battery life for simple tasks
  • Cons: Large, heavy and thick; older components; lack latest security
  • Price range: $300 to $600
  • CPU: Intel Celeron, Pentium, Core i3; AMD A-series
  • RAM: 2GB to 4GB
  • Storage: 500GB HDD or 128GB SSD
  • Screen size (diagonal): 11.5 to 15.6 in.
  • Native resolution: 1280 x 720 or 1366 x 768
  • Ports and connectivity: USB 2.0/3.0; HDMI; VGA; Ethernet; 802.11n Wi-Fi; Bluetooth 4.0
  • Weight: 4 to 5 lb.
  • Examples: Lenovo ThinkPad E475; HP 250 G6; Asus VivoBook W202
  • Buying tip: Make sure the system will fit into the business’s IT landscape with the right OS and sufficient security.

Mainstream laptops

Many of the features that budget systems lack can be had with a mainstream business notebook, but the costs add up.

HP ProBook 430 G5 HP

The HP ProBook 430 G5

Typically priced from around $500 to $1,000, mainstream notebooks make up the bulk of laptops used in business because of their middle-of-the road approach that stresses reliability and the ability to handle a variety of tasks. This is the class of system for workers in a company who create ad campaigns, use sales or HR software, code apps, work with spreadsheets, do light video editing or some combination thereof.

Compared to budget systems, mainstream laptops get more power, better screens and a few creature comforts that help people get their jobs done — but they’re larger and heavier than ultraslim devices.

Powered by up-to-date Intel Core i3, i5 or i7 processors, mainstream systems have been designed for the long run. A big selling point for enterprise buyers contemplating a long deployment is that manufacturers often make models available for a couple of years and replacement parts for even longer. And while they’re not as durable as the laptops in our rugged category, many mainstream models pass some of the stringent MIL-STD-810G standards for being dropped, shaken or spilled on.

They typically weigh in the mid-3-lb. range and can be a bit thick compared to more expensive systems. They come with between 4GB and 8GB of system memory. Most offer a base 500GB or 1TB rotating hard drive for the corporate data hog or a 128GB solid state storage system for those who stash things online.

Because they make up the bulk of many companies’ devices, security and remote management are paramount. Your checklist should include an Intel vPro processor, TPM and biometric identification, although you may have to settle for two out of three to keep costs down.

Lenovo ThinkPad T470 Lenovo

The Lenovo ThinkPad T470

While a professional or enterprise edition of Windows may be de rigueur in most companies, some organizations opt for MacBook Pros powered by Apple’s macOS. Note, however, that the entry-level 13-in. MacBook Pro costs a cool $1,300, and prices rise steeply from there.

With displays around 12.5 to 14 in., mainstream laptops have video abilities that are a step up from budget systems, usually offering the latest Intel graphics accelerators and full HD (1920 x 1080) resolution screens, although some base models still use 1280 x 820 displays. One thing that’s likely out of reach below $1,000 is a touch-screen option.

Mainstream laptops typically include a webcam and offer an array of ports and connectivity options, including USB 2.0 and 3.0, USB-C, HDMI, Ethernet, 802.11ac Wi-Fi, Bluetooth 4.x, and an SD card slot. Other luxuries are available, such as backlit keyboards and mobile network cards that deliver data everywhere for traveling workers. These often are expensive options, though.

It all adds up to thinner, sleeker and lighter designs compared to budget systems. Still, they can seem like a ball and chain for frequent flyers lusting after a system that weighs half as much.

Mainstream laptops at a glance

  • Target audience: Workers who handle a variety of tasks, from working with spreadsheets to using the company’s online apps.
  • Pros: Reliable; many available options; up-to-date security and enterprise manageability
  • Cons: Thick and heavy compared to ultraslims; can be expensive
  • Price range: $500 to $1,000 (more for Macs)
  • CPU: Intel Core i3, Core i5, Core i7
  • RAM: 4GB to 8GB
  • Storage: 500GB to 1TB HDD or 128GB SSD
  • Screen size (diagonal): 12.5 to 14.0 in.
  • Native resolution: 1920 x 1280
  • Ports and connectivity: USB 2.0/3.0; USB-C; HDMI; Ethernet; 802.11ac Wi-Fi; Bluetooth 4.1
  • Weight: about 3.5 lb.
  • Examples: AsusPro B9440; HP ProBook 430 G5; Lenovo ThinkPad T470; Apple MacBook Pro 13
  • Buying tip: Look for a system with options that can help people work, like a mobile data card, but be aware of add-on costs.
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