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All of these technologies make today’s business happen.

What constitutes a business laptop these days? The lines get blurrier every time a laptop so classified launches with multiple color options, a metallic finish, different screen option, and all sort of wireless and port acronyms. And with prices for laptops reaching all-time lows, businesses would rather save money buying a whole fleet of cheap consumer laptops than spend three or four times as much on an enterprise model (or so recent sales figures indicate). But make no mistake, business laptops have their place in the commercial world, and choosing the right one can determine whether you run a company that’s successful or one that suffers from downtime.

In this buying guide, we will walk you through essential business features, the parts you’ll need, and, more important, how to differentiate a business laptop from a consumer model.

How Much Power?

Dual-core processors, particularly the Intel Core i series or an AMD Athlon II or Turion II, are the norm in business PCs, though quad-core processors such as the Intel Core i7s and the AMD Phenoms are available for more strenuous business applications. Really thin laptops like the Dell Vostro V130 and Dell Latitude 13 resort to low-voltage Intel Core processors, while business ultraportables, like the Lenovo ThinkPad X220 and Sony VAIO VPC-Z214GX, can be configured with a Standard Voltage processor, with which speed takes precedence.

Look for at least 4GB of RAM. Anything more is overkill and anything less is not worth the few bucks you save. The right amount of memory allows you to do multiple things: open up more programs and windows at once and perform multimedia processes (like editing photos) faster. If you’re business laptop is running integrated graphics (this type of graphics eat up system memory) or if you’re the type who keeps 15 tabs open in Firefox or Internet Explorer, you’ll need to have more than 2GB of memory.

Storage: Plenty to Go Around

With businesses using video, multimedia PowerPoint slides, and heavy pixilated photos in staff meetings, a spacious hard drive is a good idea. A 500GB to 750GB hard drive is a good balance between economy and space. While meager in their storage capacities and pricier, Solid State Drives (SSDs) don’t have any spinning parts and are therefore more ruggedized and better suited to take a licking on the road.

Optical drives are less critical for consumer PCs these days, what with being able to stream multimedia content from the Internet or downloading content directly to hard drives. But IT managers are reluctant to let them go, because you may need it to burn copies of projects for your clients, and you’ll still need to read the occasional CD or DVD sent to you by a supplier or customer. The Lenovo ThinkPad T420s has a DVD burner that can be swapped out for an additional battery or a plastic filler, so you don’t have to be married to the optical at all times. High-end business laptops like the HP EliteBook 8560p and Lenovo ThinkPad T410 have an option for a Blu-ray drive, so you can get your fill of the latest flicks in 1080p HD.

High-Powered Graphics Not Necessary

Most business PCs come with integrated graphics, whether from Intel, AMD, or Nvidia. Integrated graphics are fine for business laptops, since you won’t be playing 3D games on the system. (Installing games is the easiest way to make a system unstable, and you don’t want your money-earning system to go down unnecessarily.) Most professionals who require discrete graphics will use them for specialized tasks like GPU acceleration in Photoshop CS5, high-definition video creation, or 3D graphics visualization used in architectural drawings and CAD software. The HP EliteBook 8560p and the Lenovo T410 can be configured with workstation class graphics that, in addition to running GPU-accelerated tasks, are also certified on all industry-leading professional applications.

Stay Connected

A ubiquitous wireless connection is vital if you want access to valuable internet information and real-time emails at all times. Every laptop these days has some flavor of Wi-Fi built-in. It gets you terrific throughput, but you have to find a hot-spot or an unprotected network in order to surf the net. On top of that, you have to worry about security and nefarious activities going on within these networks.

That’s why many business laptops are shipping with mobile broadband, or 3G wireless modems, built-in. They work in tandem with an available network provider, like Verizon and AT&T, to bring broadband speeds to your laptop wherever there’s a cell phone signal. Many laptops, including the Lenovo X220, Lenovo ThinkPad X1 , and Dell Vostro 3350, have these modems integrated for a nominal fee. Data plans, on the other hand, don’t come cheap. Depending on whether or not you have an existing cell phone plan, rates can run as high as $60-$80 per month. The good news is that there’s another wireless standard that can mean big savings for businesses. WiMax, or 4G wireless, is a liked to a WiFi connection, except this one spans an entire city. Service providers like Sprint and Clearwire have already put up WiMax towers in 54 cities nationwide, with plans that cost anywhere from $20-$40 a month. WiMax can also serve as a backup internet connection, in case the primary one goes down. Slowly trickling out is Verizon’s LTE, another 4G technology, promising realistic data rates of 50Mbps. That’s about 50 times as fast as 3G wireless.

Where Do Netbooks Fit In?

Price is arguably the biggest reason why businesses should use netbooks. The Lenovo Thinkpad X120e and HP Pavilion dm1z are netbooks that are selling for less than $500 and can easily adapt into a corporate environment. The HP Mini 5103, by the same token, is designed with a business in mind. It has options for a touch screen, a 1,366-by-768 resolution, and 3G connectivity. With netbooks, you can buy and trash several of them before equaling the cost of a full-blown business laptop, like the Lenovo ThinkPad T420s.

The majority of netbooks are built to surf the Web, run Office apps, and perform other very light computing duties, but they are also compatible with the gamut of security applications, VPN and e-mail clients, and countless hardware peripherals like printers, scanners, and network-attached storage (NAS) devices. I wouldn’t run an entire business on a netbook, but it can be a nice take-along unit for an offsite meeting or used as a portable alternative to your 6-pound business laptop.

Battery Bliss

A big battery can be your best ally on a lengthy flight or a long commute. Business laptops usually come with multiple battery options. The Lenovo X220 and the Dell Latitude E6420 , for instance, have two to three different kinds of batteries (4-, 6-, and a 9-cell). The more “cells” you buy, the longer the battery life. A big battery adds some heft, but being able to run the system unplugged from dawn ’til dusk is worth the weight gain.

The Lenovo X220 has a battery slice that slide underneath the base. Combined with their extended-battery offerings, it can deliver battery life in the 19-to-24-hour range.

Final Thoughts

A bit of thought on the nature of your particular job should point you toward the ideal business laptop. Paying a little extra for more power or capabilities now will save you headaches down the road. The added value of a longer warranty (some business laptops come with 3 years off-the-bat), specialized tech support, and a more ruggedized frame (fortified by magnesium alloy) are some of the extra benefits you may get with a business laptop. If your work is graphics-intensive, you’ll want to opt for a laptop with discrete graphics. When choosing a processor, you’ll have to find the right balance between power and energy efficiency, and in selecting a battery, you’ll need to choose between its capacity and weight. When you determine the best features for your needs, you can focus on just those laptops that incorporate them.

Source: pcmag.com