What is now important in a new laptop and why you should care

What features should you prioritize in a laptop for the enterprise?

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I was at a huge monitor launch event put on by Dell (disclosure: Dell is a client of the author) in New York last week. One of the things they, and other OEMs spoke about was how millennials are avoiding companies that equip their employees with old out-of-date hardware. The report they showcased was at a firm that I’m not allowed to mention (it dominates its industry and should be easy to guess). At this firm they brought in a bunch of high-quality interns (top of their class kind of thing) and put them on a very visible project with deep implications for the firm. At the end of the project the firm was so impressed it generated offers for all the interns who promptly turned them all down. The reason was the firm had supplied the interns with old laptops and they didn’t want to work for a company that didn’t equip their employees with the best tools.

There is a huge and increasing labor shortage in the market and this is resulting in not only the rise of employee activists, as Facebook, Google and Amazon just discovered, but the ever more critical behavior of avoiding firms where the working environment or equipment load out sucks.

But what features should you prioritize? Let’s chat about that this week.

Design

At the top of this list and the top problem is design. There was a time when Apple had the most desirable PCs, but they have largely let their lines languish. This means the Windows PC OEMs now constantly point out that their products are better, but it is kind of like a car company arguing they make a better car than Studebaker does in that it doesn’t feel like Apple even thinks it is in the PC business anymore. This has caused a ton of design divergence between the PC makers but, looking at trends, metals stand out as generally being favored. 

I think you can watch the emergence of natural materials, like leather, as potentially attractive (though we won’t know until a critical mass of leather covered laptops ship), with some form of black or white (mostly Asia and Asian-sourced employees) continue to dominate colors. Color selection may come into play but hasn’t yet and there is potential for products to be wrapped or clad with natural materials which seems to be emerging as a trend. Safest would be sleek designs in black or real metal finishes (not painted silver which the market continues to reject). I continue to believe there is a potential for real carbon fiber or other advanced materials but there is, as yet, no product I can point to in volume that has gone down this path.

Ports

USB-C stands out as the primary desirable port both for charging and connectivity (this allows you to more easily swap power supplies and stock spares as well). Increasingly monitors from companies like Dell are coming in with the built-in laptop chargers making this port ever more critical (no one likes dongles). Thunderbolt ports are mostly tied to animators, engineers and some graphics artists so aren’t required for the general rank and file employee. Full-sized HDMI seems to have eclipsed both Micro-HDMI and any flavor for DisplayPort mostly due to convenience and the potential ability to plug into a TV for movies.  

One new rising port/feature is a SIM slot for 4G WAN communication. While available in some lines for some time and often unused, recently concerns surrounding rogue Wi-Fi access points and saturated Wi-Fi networks has resulted in far more sales of laptops with this feature and far more users who equip and use it. SD card slots have appeared to have fallen off at the same time, but it isn’t clear if that was user driven or just the result of the SIM slot displacing the SD slot. 

Electronic privacy screen

What is fascinating about this is that HP (disclosure: HP is a client of the Author) is really the only large PC OEM that has an electronic privacy screen as part of their offerings. But they claim that this feature is one of the most asked for and partially credit it for market share gains in the segment. This hot key feature does adversely impact battery life when active, but it allows a user to work (or watch movies) with far greater privacy particularly on planes. I know I’m very uncomfortable with the idea of people next to me on a plane being able to read my stuff, a fear I know is shared widely, suggesting a far stronger foundation for this feature than just millennials.

Outdoor viewable displays

Typically, we are talking around 700 nits and these outdoor viewable displays with anti-glare coatings appear to be tied with to the growing need for employees to work out in the fresh air. Most screens become very difficult to see outside and that appears to be driving a clear preference for designs that can be viewed outside. I guess the millennials figured out ahead of the rest of us that a portable device that you really can’t use outdoors is kind of stupid. 

Conventional laptops

I continue to see that, when given a choice, new employees seem to prefer conventional laptops over 2-in-1s. This is largely, I think, because laptops still largely suck at being tablets and tablets aren’t exactly setting the world on fire either at the moment. As a result, the ability to turn into a heavy tablet that the user doesn’t want to actually use isn’t as highly valued. Plus, Intel is no longer heavily marketing the concept which is allowing the market to revert, again, to the older and more focused design. 

Battery life

Generally, the target is “all day” coupled with fast charging. Employees don’t want to worry about plugging in suggesting, were it more widely available, wireless charging would rank reasonably high on this list of employees driven features. In terms of measuring battery life only Apple really does a good accurate job of it suggesting most will have to internally test to see what the actual battery life in production is. I’d recommend setting a minimum of 9 hours with mixed use and a strong guideline. 

Monitors

This was also highlighted at the Dell monitor launch and tied to that firm’s market share gains and monitor dominance. But in certain segments (like financial trading) monitors have become huge differentiators with Dell’s new 49” beast and prior 43” efforts allowing them to stand out sharply in a crowded field. The greater screen real estate has a close tie to productivity for those that need to both view reference material and what they are writing side by side or monitor several active charts at once.  

Wrapping up

I’ve always felt that equipping employees, particularly hard to find valuable ones, with the tools they want is great way to assure loyalty and productivity. Back when there were far more people than jobs getting away with giving new employees old PCs worked though it was kind of being penny wise and pound foolish given it adversely impacted job satisfaction and productivity. With the increasing labor shortages employees, particularly in areas where the shortages are pronounced, have choices and they are choosing to work for firms that treat and equip them well. The good news is that if you change policy to better equip millennials you should also benefit and be able to upgrade that old crap your company likely stuck you with at the same time. Employees have choice and will increasingly gravitate to the best places to work, making sure you are on that list may also assure you are around in a few years and having up to date hardware that employees want to use is an increasing part of that.   

Oh, and if your firm isn’t on the list of best places to work and gives you a crap PC, maybe it’s time to consider working someplace else. There are a ton more openings than people at the moment.

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