Buyer’s guide: How to choose the right business laptops

Business-ready notebooks come in all shapes, sizes, and prices. Here’s how to pick the best laptops for all your users, whether you’re leasing or buying outright.

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Ultraslim laptops

Slim is in when business travelers need a powerful notebook that won’t weigh them down.

The slim, sleek laptops in this class squeeze the essential elements of mainstream systems into smaller, more travel-friendly packages — but at a price. Typically measuring around half an inch thick, ultraslims must balance battery life and performance potential.

lenovo thinkpad x13s 2022 Lenovo

Lenovo ThinkPad X13s

Windows ultraslims often use midrange AMD Ryzen or Intel Core i3, i5, and i7 processors. ARM-based chips like Qualcomm’s Snapdragon 8cx and Apple’s M1 and M2 truly shine in this category because of their low power profiles. While vendor battery life claims need to be taken with several grains of salt, Apple says its M2-powered MacBook Air can run for upward of 18 hours on a charge. Using a Qualcomm Snapdragon 8cx processor, the ThinkPad X13scan go for 28 hours, according to Lenovo.

Because these systems spend lots of time remotely connected to the internet and the company’s server infrastructure, Intel-powered Windows ultraslims take security seriously, with most having Intel vPro and TPM. The ThinkPad X13s takes a different route with TPM and Microsoft’s Pluton security system, which uses Snapdragon’s Secure Computing Unit (SCU) to protect the system’s software from being compromised as well as receive authenticated Windows updates directly from cloud servers. Note, however, that it requires Windows 11 to operate.

The typical design starts with 12.5- to 13.3-in. display that can show FHD (1920 x 1080) or UHD (3840 x 2160) resolution. Some offer OLED screens, and many have a touchscreen option. Low weight goes hand in hand with a slim profile — for instance, the Samsung’s 13.3-in. Galaxy Book2 Pro is 0.5-in. thick and weighs in at 1.9 lb.

apple macbook air m2 2022 Apple

Apple MacBook Air (2022) in four colors

Other components typically include 8GB to 16GB of RAM, integrated Intel or AMD graphics, and an SSD with a capacity ranging from 128GB to 512GB. These systems are aimed at executives, with luxuries like high-end audio, full HD webcams and backlit keyboards.

Most ultraslims rely on 802.11ac Wi-Fi for internet connectivity, and ports are far sparser than those found on mainstream systems. While some include a dedicated HDMI connection for a display or projector, sometimes there’s only a single USB connection to the outside world. This makes packing a USB hub a necessity.

These sleek systems are the ones we lust after, although their high price tags make them appropriate only for the most mobile — or most high-profile — members of an organization.

Ultraslim laptops at a glance

Buying tip: Get a system that’s easy to carry yet has the power and speed to get the job done.

[ See hands-on reviews of the Apple MacBook Air M2, the Asus Zenbook S 13 OLED, the Lenovo ThinkPad X13s Gen 1, and the Samsung Galaxy Book2 Pro from Macworld, Tech Advisor, and PCWorld. ]

Tablet/laptop hybrids

These 2-in-1 devices let users fold the keyboard out of the way or strip it away entirely for true mobility.

The essence of tablet computing is shedding nonessential elements to produce the most mobile-friendly systems around. The category is dominated by two basic designs for tablets that can double as laptops, each aimed at a different type of business user.

  • First, detachable devices are built around true tablets that have snap-on keyboards available when needed for typing, making for the most travel-friendly package. They typically weigh just 1 to 2 lb., with full HD (or better) screens from 10 to 13.3 in.
  • Convertible devices are typically a little heavier and thicker (2 to 3 lb.), but their design includes a high-quality keyboard. The devices have a 360-degree hinge that lets the screen bend over backwards to assume a multitude of configurations, including a tablet, an A-frame tent shape, a presentation machine (with the screen pointing away from the user), laid flat on a tabletop, and a traditional clamshell shape that puts the keyboard front and center. With screens up to 16.3 in., they show from full HD (1920 x 1080) to UHD (3840 x 2160) resolution.
acer travelmate spin p4 2022 Acer

Acer TravelMate Spin P4

Many of today’s hybrids are built around Intel’s Evo platform for mobile machines. In addition to a low-power 12th-generation Intel Core processor, at least 8GB of RAM, and a 256GB SSD, an Evo laptop must have the latest Wi-Fi 6E hardware and optional 4G mobile data (or better). It needs to weigh under 3.3 pounds and have USB-C/Thunderbolt 4 connections.

Be aware that hybrids often have minimal ports. In a few cases there’s only a single USB-C connection, which can force users to decide between charging the system or connecting it to a projector. A hub is a must-have accessory here.

Tablets’ touchscreens make them excellent systems for everything from checking email to outlining new product ideas. They may not always have the most powerful processors (typically midrange Core i3, i5, i7), but tablets provide enough performance to get through typical work tasks. (The iPad Pro is an outlier here, with Apple’s powerful M2 processor inside.)

With a stylus available for the touchscreen, they are good for sketching a diagram, marking up a document, or just doodling. On the other hand, these pens are easy to lose, so choose a tablet that holds onto the stylus. Some detachable tablets use magnetism, while some convertibles have a place to securely stash the stylus and charge it at the same time. When the pen is needed, press its edge and it pops out of the system’s side, ready for work.  

Be careful when shopping for tablets; many are geared toward consumers and come with Windows 10 Home. That said, several do come with Windows 10 Pro and include business-friendly features such as TPM and a fingerprint reader or webcam that supports Windows Hello. Some newer Windows 11 hybrids like the Acer TravelMate Spin P4 include AMD Ryzen PRO processors with integrated Microsoft Pluton security technology. Alternatives to Windows tablets include Chromebooks, Apple’s iPad Pro, and Android tablets like the Samsung Galaxy Tab S8+, but they might require different apps to blend in with a business environment.

hp elite chromebook enterprise c1030 2022 HP

HP Elite Chromebook Enterprise C1030

Many hybrids are highly configurable, with an array of processors to choose from, SSD storage ranging from 128GB to 1TB, RAM ranging from 4GB to 16GB, and prices that rise accordingly. When factoring costs, keep in mind that with convertible devices have built-in keyboards, which often cost extra with 2-in-1 tablets. With either type of device, a stylus may or may not be included in the base price. For instance, while the Microsoft Surface Pro 9 starts at $1,000, you need to add $280 for the keyboard cover and $130 for the Surface Slim Pen 2. That adds up to an acquisition cost of over $1,400.

Finally, don’t expect anything more than a one-year warranty on these systems. In other words, for those who travel, three years of extended coverage is a good investment.

Tablet/laptop hybrids at a glance

  • Target audience: Those who travel light and are more oriented towards viewing content than creating it.
  • Pros: Small and light; touchscreen; choice of add-on keyboard or convertible design; stylus
  • Cons: Can be expensive; limited ports; accessories can be extra
  • Price range: $650 to $2,900
  • CPU: Intel Core i3, Core i5, Core i7; AMD Ryzen PRO; Apple M2
  • RAM: 4GB to 16GB
  • Storage: 128GB to 1TB SSD
  • Screen size (diagonal): 10.2 to 16.3 in.
  • Native resolution: 1920 x 1080 to 3840 x 2160
  • Ports and connectivity: USB 3.0/C or Apple Lightning (iPad Pro); USB 3.0/C; HDMI; microSD; 802.11ax Wi-Fi; Bluetooth 5.2
  • Weight: 1 to 2 lb. (detachable); 2.2 to 2.9 lb. (convertible)
  • Examples: Acer TravelMate Spin P4; Apple iPad Pro; Asus Chromebook Flip CM3; HP Elite Chromebook Enterprise C1030; Microsoft Surface Pro 9; Samsung Galaxy Tab S8+

Buying tip: Try to get a tablet with a pressure-sensitive stylus that can help when sketching maps for clients or drawing a new product design.

[ See hands-on reviews of the Apple iPad Pro M2 and the Microsoft Surface Pro 9 from Tech Advisor and PCWorld. ]

Mobile workstations

Power, performance, and price go hand in hand with this genre of notebook.

Whether it’s an engineer working in a construction trailer or an animator creating the next anime cartoon hit, when a worker needs the utmost in portable power, only a mobile workstation will satisfy. With the fastest processor, loads of RAM, and a take-no-prisoners graphics engine, these are the power elite of the notebook world.

dell precision 5570 workstation 2022 Dell

Dell Precision 5570 Workstation

The key here is that mobile workstations typically get the best of everything, starting with a high-end Intel Core i5, i7, i9, or Xeon. The Core i9 1290H processor popular in this class has 14 computing cores versus two or four for most notebooks. These systems have a discrete graphics accelerator with between 2GB and 64GB of dedicated video memory. On the Apple side, the MacBook Pro 16" is built around an M1 Pro or M1 Max system-on-a-chip with a 10-core CPU, a 16- to 32-core GPU, and a 16-core neural engine.

Displays range from 14 to 17 in. and show between FHD (1920 x 1080) and UHD (3840 x 2160) resolution. While touchscreens remain rare here, some workstations have calibrated displays so the on-screen color matches what prints.

To do their job, these mobile monsters need certification with a variety of software packages. Even if you don’t plan to use them all, it’s a good idea to insist on accreditation for everything from AutoCAD and SolidWorks (design) to Paradigm VoxelGeo (energy exploration) and Autodesk Stingray (virtual reality) — it means the system is more robust and is able to handle all kinds of different high-intensity software.

Because these are fat programs, load up on RAM (32GB to 64GB) and storage space. While a 2TB SSD should be plenty for most, the HP ZBook Power G9 Mobile Workstation and the MacBook Pro 16" can go up to 8TB.

On non-Apple mobile workstations, Windows 10 or 11 Pro comes standard, and they don’t skimp on security. Most have TPM, vPro processors, and some biometric authentication method, like a fingerprint scanner or a Windows Hello-capable camera.

msi we76 2022 MSI

MSI WE76

With large screens and all that power packed inside, mobile workstations are typically so big and heavy that they are akin to desktop systems, sometimes weighing 7 lb. or more. Most workers will use them to bring illustrations, videos, or CAD designs to meetings down the hall or to bring work home for the weekend.

The payoff of a big system is room for a mix of USB 3 and USB-C ports as well as HDMI, Ethernet, and, frequently, high-speed Thunderbolt. Mobile workstations also come equipped with 802.11ax Wi-Fi and Bluetooth 5.0 for wireless connectivity. These connections can be expanded with a docking station like the HP Thunderbolt Dock 280W G4, which adds a Thunderbolt 4 port and two Ethernet ports (for 1Gbps and 2.5Gbps speeds), as well as the ability to drive four 4K displays at the office.

All this adds up to power-hungry devices with huge fans. Figure the battery life will be disappointing at best, so plan on not straying far from an AC outlet. Many include a 280-watt power supply (versus a 65-watt one for a mainstream system).

While some workstations can cost less than $2,000, a fully tricked out model might go as high as $8,000. Most include a year of warranty coverage; our advice is to spring for the extended warranty, particularly if the laptop is going to travel.

Obviously not for everyone in the enterprise, these highly capable devices are for employees who have to churn through computational problems, work on CAD images of the company’s next-gen widgets, create videos, or perform other processor-intensive tasks while remaining (somewhat) mobile.

Mobile workstations at a glance

  • Target audience: Engineers, designers, animation artists, and other workers who need to create detailed video work or churn through processor-intensive tasks
  • Pros: Peak performance; top graphics hardware; lots of RAM; certified software
  • Cons: Very expensive; big and heavy; short battery life
  • Price: $2,000 to $8,000
  • CPU: Intel Core i5, i7, Core i9, Xeon; Apple M1 Pro, M1 Max
  • RAM: 16GB to 64GB
  • Storage: 256GB to 8TB SSD
  • Screen size (diagonal): 14 to 17 in.
  • Native resolution: 1920 x 1080 to 3840 x 2400
  • Ports and connectivity: USB 3.0/C; Thunderbolt; HDMI; VGA; Ethernet; SD card slot; 802.11ax Wi-Fi; Bluetooth 5.0
  • Weight: 4 to 8 lb.
  • Examples: Apple MacBook Pro 16"; Dell Precision 5570 Workstation; HP ZBook Power G9 Mobile Workstation; Lenovo ThinkPad P16 Mobile Workstation; MSI WE76

Buying tip: Look for a system with a dock that provides extra connections and can power multiple displays.

Rugged laptops

Built to military specs, this class of notebook can stand up to punishment but can be expensive.

Although notebook durability has improved over the years, most laptops could be damaged or destroyed in a blink if dropped, shaken, or spilled on. Not so with rugged systems, which have been designed and built to shrug off all sorts of punishment.

getac b360 2022 Getac

Getac B360

Among the most expensive systems around, they sell for as much as $6,000, but are worth it for employees who work in dangerous (at least for the computer) locations where reliability counts for everything. In addition to serving in the military, rugged laptops show up in police cars, in fire trucks, and alongside the toolboxes of construction and utility workers.

The key to this category is passing the Army’s rigorous MIL-STD-810-H spec for battlefield ruggedness. The drops, vibrations, temperature extremes, and dousing with water systems endure to meet this standard are more than enough to turn the typical laptop into a pile of broken glass, plastic, and silicon. Add in an IP66 rating for greater resistance to water and dust intrusion, and these systems can seem almost immortal.

Typically, ruggeds like Panasonic ToughBook 40 are housed in magnesium-aluminum alloy cases that act as armor plating to protect the delicate components inside. The ports and keyboard are sealed to stave off damage.

Increasingly, manufacturers are replacing the rigid metal case with lighter, flexible plastic skins. Getac’s B360, for example, has a rigid metallic frame that’s covered with a composite shell.

If you don’t need a computer that’s ready for battle, semi-rugged systems like the Durabook S14I or the Dell Latitude 5430 Rugged meet the 810-H standards but have a lower IP53 intrusion rating. They should be fine for most outdoor users but might not survive being dunked under water or exposed to a dusty factory floor.

Rugged laptops can weigh up to 8 lb., while semi-rugged systems are more likely to come in at 4 to 5 lb. Carrying one of these behemoths is eased by the inclusion of a handle and/or shoulder strap. Still, lugging one around for a day can be a good substitute for a daily workout at the gym.

The displays range from 11.6 to 15 in., and all but a few offer full HD resolution of 1920 x 1080 pixels. Some add optional touchscreens as well as displays that work outdoors in bright sunlight. 

durabook s14i 2022 Durabook

Durabook S14I

Windows 10 or 11 Pro is standard on rugged laptops, as are enterprise-friendly features such as TPM and support for Intel vPro extensions. RAM and storage range from 4GB to 16GB for the former and 128GB to 1TB of solid-state storage for the latter. Most pair Core i5 and i7 processors with integrated graphics. 

Some rugged models don’t get refreshed often. While the Dell Latitude 5430 Rugged, Getac B360, and Durabook S14I all use reasonably up to date 11th-generation Intel processors, the Durabook S15AB uses older 8th-generation Intel hardware.

With a mix of old and new ports, rugged systems have the expected USB 2.0, 3.0, and increasingly USB-C. Look for HDMI, Ethernet, and often an RS-232 serial port, long extinct on mainstream systems. Some have swappable modules that include a DVD drive, a second battery, more storage, and ExpressCard 54 and PCMCIA card slots, as well as a module for RJ-45 networking and a second RS-232 serial port.

Because these devices are often used in the field, wireless connectivity abounds, with 802.11ax Wi-Fi, Bluetooth 5, and optional mobile broadband. Some, like the ToughBook 40, have docking stations available from vendors like Gamber-Johnson for attaching the system to a police car, fire truck, or loading dock forklift.

Those that don’t come with a three-year warranty offer it as an option. Of all the laptop categories, this is the one where corporate buyers have the least room for bargaining with the vendor, because both parties know that paying for ruggedness and durability can be cheaper than repeatedly buying and breaking new systems.

Rugged laptops at a glance

  • Target audience: Military, utility, factory, or public safety employees, or anyone who works outdoors.
  • Pros: Stand up to punishment; reliable; well-designed; modular component design
  • Cons: Older components; thick and heavy; very expensive
  • Price range: $1,000 to $6,000
  • CPU: Intel Core i5, Core i7
  • RAM: 4GB to 16GB
  • Storage: 128GB to 512GB SSD
  • Screen size (diagonal): 6 to 15 in.
  • Native resolution: 1920 x 1080
  • Ports and connectivity: USB 2.0/3.0/C; VGA; HDMI; Ethernet; RS-232; SD card slot; 802.11ac Wi-Fi; Bluetooth 5.0
  • Weight: 4 to 8 lb.
  • Rugged examples: Durabook S15ABGetac B360; Panasonic Toughbook 40
  • Semi-rugged examples: Dell Latitude 5430 Rugged; Durabook S14I

Buying tip: If these systems will be used in vehicles, get an in-car dock for charging and connecting with powerful antennas.

Business laptops compared: Key specs and more

Scroll or drag right to see rightmost columns.

This article was originally published in August 2014 and most recently updated in December 2022.

Read this next: How to buy PCs for your enterprise

Copyright © 2022 IDG Communications, Inc.

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