Core investment: Business laptops

We round up business laptops in the 13- to 15-inch range. We look at build quality, CPU and graphics performance, accessories, support plans and each model's suitability to your particular use case.

We round up business laptops in the 13- to 15-inch range. We look at build quality, CPU and graphics performance, accessories, support plans and each model’s suitability to your particular use case.

Preparing next year’s budget? For a business, a laptop is more than a portable workhorse, it’s an investment that needs to deliver a clear return. It needs enough performance to handle the software you’ll install over the next 2-3 years, enough of the right type of connections to cope with expansion needs, and a support contract that works with your business, rather than against it.

How we tested

I subjected each notebook to at least a full day’s real-world use (several days in most cases), primarily in Microsoft Word and Excel, The GIMP, Notepad2 and Mozilla Firefox. I carried each notebook home, to events, wherever I went while testing it. This provided an insight into the build quality, portability, display quality and keyboard and touchpad usability of each model.

To measure CPU and GPU performance, I used a combination of Cinebench, 3D Mark 11 and 7-Zip’s multi- and single-core benchmarking options. For those interested, the full results and detailed methodology are available on the PC World website.

In a couple of cases, our pre-production test models didn’t exactly match the specifications of the final production models that will ship to the New Zealand market: you’ll find these differences clearly described in the reviews and specs tables. In these cases, as well as reporting on the pre-production performance, I’ve made performance estimates based on the results of other laptops that match the production models in spec. I’ll revise these estimates (with new ratings, where applicable), as soon as those finalised production models are made available to us.

Samsung QX510

The Samsung QX510's metallic lid, black base and silver interior place it firmly between the established ‘home’ and ‘office’ aesthetics.

Asus B43J

The B43J is a strictly business-focused laptop; clad in metallic black, it feels very sturdily constructed. But inside and out, the high degree of gloss-black surfaces may worry those concerned about the unprofessional look of a fingerprint-smudged machine.

Sony VAIO S

Sony's latest Vaio S, eloquently named the VPCSB17GG, will turns heads with its style and ultra-slim screen.

Lenovo ThinkPad T510

The Lenovo Thinkpad T510 is a serious business laptop, in both form and function.

HP EliteBook 8560p

HP's EliteBook 8560p is chunky, solid and looks like a piece of industrial equipment. In a way, it is.

Business laptop benchmarks

In this online exclusive, you'll find the detailed benchmarking results and methodology from the PC World labs.

Conclusion

Looking inside, there’s a real performance difference between the first-generation Core i5 and i7 chips, and their second-generation Core ‘Sandy Bridge’ replacements. If high-performance is important to you, it really is worth waiting for those newer models to ship. Keep in mind that if you’re making an investment for the next two or three years, the hardware requirements of the software you’re using are likely to increase over time. Buying something low-spec now is not a good idea, unless your replacement cycle is short (12 to 18 months).

Dedicated graphics are a must if you’re going to be working with 3D or other graphically-intensive tasks, but do suck battery life. If your usage is balanced between the graphics-intensive and lighter word-processing and web-browsing sessions, look for something with a switchable graphics solution. Most of the models reviewed here include that functionality. Again, buy over-spec if you want your investment to last.

In terms of service, warranties are worth it. The longer, the better. Onsite is great if you can get it, and may even be worth a premium depending on where you’re located and how much time you’re willing to spend boxing up or hand-delivering failed laptops.

Buying twenty-five of the same model for your office? Vendors such as Lenovo offer a wide range of support plans that can be customised to suit your needs.

Docking stations are an essential add-on for the 8:30-till-5 desk worker, unless you want to spend fifteen minutes a day plugging in and unplugging various cables. The same applies to road-warriors forever popping in and out of a home base, be it the office or home. Factor in the cost when pricing up your next notebook purchase. For serious road-warriors without a home-base, docks may fall into the “nice but not essential” category. Be aware that only some manufacturers retain the same dock connector across models and generations, which may factor into your decision.

Most importantly, look forwards when choosing your next business laptop. You might be willing to replace a cheap home model every year: not so much with a $2000-$3000 business machine, with its associated docking station and accessories such as high-capacity batteries.

Make sure you’ve got a spec that will cover your needs now and in the future, and a support plan to keep your laptop working as it should, for as long as you need it to. Do that, and your purchase will serve you well.

Security

For many smaller businesses, your laptop is not just an investment, it also contains all your business intelligence and vital data. The risk of losing that data to theft (not to mention accident) is unthinkable.

If you’re in that situation, check for Kensington lock slots, so that you can attach laptops to desks when they are not on the road, and ensure that your laptop has at least one form of onboard security, such as a fingerprint reader, to ensure that your eyes are the only ones that can see your valuable information. All the models in this test have a fingerprint reader.

Laptops may also include a TPM chip (trusted platform module) in combination with additional security such as BIOS passwords, password security, drive encryption or face recognition.

Reseller

The warranty options included here cover the basics if you purchase the product from a consumer outlet – however, keep in mind that additional services and complete packages may work out cheaper (or simpler) by using a reseller. Contact the laptop distributor for the brand you are interested in (see the table below) to find a reseller in your area and find out what they can do for your business over and above the manufacturer’s warranty and service support.