Best Business Laptops – May 2013by Jarred Walton on May 17, 2013 4:50 AM EST
It’s been a couple of weeks since our last “best laptop” article, mostly because I had concerns about recommending anything with AMD’s Richland and Intel’s Haswell processors right around the corner. At this point, it looks like Haswell is going to be a relatively small portion of Intel’s shipments for the near term, with a heavy focus on higher performance quad-core parts and Ultrabooks—basically, a focus on the more lucrative markets. AMD’s Richland APU on the other hand will be a drop-in replacement for Trinity that offers slightly faster CPU and GPU performance, but nothing earth shattering. That leaves plenty of room for laptop recommendations for the next several months, and today we’re going to look at the business sector.
Let’s first start by discussing what it means to be a business laptop. My take is that a business laptop needs to offer three things. First, it should be easy to service, so anything with an integrated battery or with memory and/or storage that can’t be upgraded is out. Second, warranty support needs to be there, and this mostly means that I’m going to look at larger OEMs, specifically Dell, HP, and Lenovo—sorry, but in my experience as an IT professional, those three brands account for roughly 90% of all business laptops, and for the most part that’s with good reason. (Most of the remaining 10% comes from businesses either using Apple products or else trying to cheap out and get by with consumer laptops; since I already cover those areas elsewhere with these guides, we should be okay.) Finally, features and build quality are important—this can include security features like TPM, remote management solutions, better materials, etc. All things being equal, the laptop with the better features/quality (and/or the lower price) wins out.
Just to quickly go over each OEM, Dell has five different “business” laptop lines: Vostro, Latitude, Precision, Inspiron, and XPS; however, the last two (Inspiron and XPS) are really just their consumer lines so I’m going to leave those out of the running, and the Precision line is more for Enterprise and mobile workstation users—that’s basically limited to the very high end and could almost be a topic for another laptop guide—leaving us with the Vostro and Latitude lines. Similar to Dell, HP has quite a few laptop product lines; the Pavilion, Envy, Spectre, and Essential Home are all more or less consumer brands, so we’ll simply bypass those and focus on the ProBook and EliteBook offerings. There are mobile workstation EliteBook options as well, but like the Dell Precision lines, those are mostly for the highest end users. Finally, Lenovo has IdeaPad and ThinkPad laptops, and our focus here will be on ThinkPad offerings as IdeaPads are mostly for consumers. The ThinkPad consists of several different lines as well, however, with the L-series being more budget friendly and the T, W, and X series focusing on higher build quality and materials.
And with that out of the way, here’s a look at what the three primary OEMs have to offer in the way of budget ($500 or so), midrange ($800-$1000), and high-end ($1200+) laptops. While many will shop directly at the OEM site, in general you can find better prices and/or better configurations elsewhere, so I’ve done my best to search for good prices as well as configurations. I’ll pick what I feel is the best overall laptop for each price range, along with mentioning some alternatives as appropriate.
Business on a Budget
When it comes to budget business laptops, the base level of features for around $500 is similar among all three OEMs: Core i3, 4GB RAM, 320GB HDD, 1366x768 LCD, and the various other typical accessories. I ended up narrowing down the field to three choices, the Dell Vostro 3460, HP’s ProBook 4440s, and the Lenovo ThinkPad Edge E430 (even the budget L-series from Lenovo ends up starting at closer to $700). There are 15.6” options that are priced similarly as well (Vostro 3560 and ProBook 4540s), but I’m biased towards 14” business laptops at this price point.
Ultimately, my pick goes to the Dell Vostro 3460, because I like the “boring” aesthetic it offers, but the ProBook 4440s is a very close second. The Vostro 3460 gives you 4GB RAM, i3-3120M CPU, and a 500GB 7200RPM hard drive for $539—nothing spectacular, but not too bad all considered. Other features include a fingerprint reader, four USB 3.0 ports, a DVDRW, and an 8-in-1 flash card reader. The 3460 isn’t quite what I would call a “thin and light”, but it weight just under five pounds and measures 13.6”x9.61”x1.1” so it’s at least somewhat close. While Dell ships the 3460 with 4GB RAM on most models in a single-channel configuration and the specs page lists a single DIMM slot, but there are in fact two SO-DIMM slots so upgrading to 8GB total RAM is easily accomplished (and maximum RAM support tops out at the usual 16GB). You can also upgrade to a larger/faster HDD/SSD without trouble, and the internals are quickly accessed by removing one screw and the pulling off the back plate. Sadly, only the most expensive 3460 allows you to choose a different color, as I’d otherwise like the red Vostro!
On a separate note, while the price is nice, depending on your needs you may want to upgrade to an i5 laptop instead. That will run an extra $110 in the case of the Vostro 3460, and while most business applications wouldn't notice the difference in speed, there's another reason to get the Core i5 model CPU: it supports the AES New Instructions where the i3 does not. Certain business applications can benefit quite a bit from AES-NI support, so shop accordingly. I should also mention that if you want vPro, VT-d (Intel Virtualization Technology for Directed I/O), or Intel's Trusted Execution Technology, you'll need an i5-3300 series CPU or one of the i7 CPUs (other than ceratin i7-3600 models).
Mainstream Business Users
This is really the sweet spot for business laptops, and not surprisingly it's what most companies buy for their employees. For my midrange business laptop recommendation, I really wanted to get a better display—at least 1600x900, if not 1080p.
Almost all of the OEMs fail to deliver a compelling price for such a configuration if you shop directly at their respective web sites (e.g. I think the Dell Vostro 3560 $999 model is the only option with such a display priced under $1000 that I could find), but a bit of searching via Google turns up plenty of retail outlets with preconfigured models at reasonable prices. (Update: Dell does have 900p and 1080p panels on their Latitude E5430, E5530, E6430, and E6530, if you look at the right model. In all four cases, the least expensive base configuration lists LCD upgrade options, so feel free to shop accordingly.) 1080p tended to be a bit too expensive in most cases, so I settled on 1600x900 LCDs and came up with the Dell Latitude E6430 and Latitude E6530, the HP EliteBook 8470p and EliteBook 8570p, and the Lenovo ThinkPad T430 and ThinkPad T530. A quick look at those prices should tell you why I ended up with another alternative that ends up being from the Mobile Workstation crowd: the EliteBook 8570w.
Dustin reviewed a higher-end model of the 8570w last December, and the biggest concerns were the cost as well as throttling under heavy sustained loads. Well, without the DreamColor LCD and some other pricey upgrades, the 8570w can be had for $950; what’s more, the dual-core i5-3360M isn’t likely to trigger thermal throttling in a chassis designed for quad-core CPUs, and you still get a Quadro K1000M GPU as a bonus—all for less than any of the other “midrange” business options that include a decent LCD. There are a few drawbacks, however, most notably the size and weight: measuring 15”x10.1”x1.5” and weighing 6.8 lbs, the 8570w is substantially larger than other alternatives.
So, if you don’t need the extra power or girth, my secondary pick would be the ThinkPad T430, which for some will be their primary pick. Whichever way you go, the Latitude, EliteBook, and ThinkPad T lines are all high quality machines that are built to last. I think today’s models may actually be less durable than those of a few years back, thanks to concessions towards aesthetics and weight, but they’re still far more durable than the typical consumer laptop.
Straddling the line between the mainstream class of laptops and the Ultrabook and high-end categories, there is one other laptop that deserves a mention: the Lenovo ThinkPad X230. It's a bit too thick to qualify as an Ultrabook, and it has a lower resolution 1366x768 LCD, but that LCD is IPS at least, and that counts for a lot. I'd love to pick a model that comes standard with 8GB RAM and an SSD, but pricing for such builds ends up being in the $1500+ range, and you can perform those upgrades on your own. For $1030, you can get a 4GB/500GB HDD laptop with an i5-3210M processor (faster than any similar size Ultrabook), then upgrade the RAM and storage for another $300 and you're still coming in below the price of similarly equipped business Ultrabooks. 1366x768 isn't actually a bad fit for a 12.5" LCD, but I still wish we could get at least 1440x900 in its place; otherwise the X230 is a strong offering, particularly for those that enjoy a more svelte laptop experience.
Ultra-Business with an Ultrabook
Given the problems with getting good screens and all the other extras that I’d like to see in a decent laptop, it’s no surprise that at the high-end I had to continue sifting through the options before I could find something I really liked. First things first, along with a good LCD, at the high-end having a dedicated SSD for your storage device is absolutely critical. Few users will really notice the difference between a Core i7 and a Core i5 processor, but if you give them a chance to experience an HDD vs. SSD in a laptop it’s like night and day. Naturally, that brings Ultrabooks into the equation, and while I don’t normally consider Ultrabooks in the non-Ultrabook guides, business Ultrabooks are a bit of a special case. I decided that a 256GB SSD and 8GB RAM was a good target, so let’s take the contestants in turn.
In the Ultrabook camp, Dell has the Latitude 6430u, HP has the Folio 9470m, and Lenovo has their ThinkPad Helix and ThinkPad X1 Carbon (the Yoga 13 ends up falling into the “consumer” classification for me while the ThinkPad T430u lacks a decent LCD, if you’re wondering). Dustin recently looked at the Folio 9470m and the ThinkPad X1 Carbon, and found both were lacking in areas. Thankfully, I’m able to eliminate the dire 1366x768 LCD on the Folio from the equation, but it’s still not without concerns. The ThinkPad Helix is the most revolutionary of the options, but it’s also the most expensive by a sizeable amount, so that’s a tough call to make. In the end, I went with the one option that we haven’t reviewed, mostly because it looks to have a solid feature set and it's priced well (considering).
While most Ultrabooks are often ill suited for IT departments, the 6430u does have most of what they would want: it has a user replaceable battery, two SO-DIMM slots, and only two screws secure the cover that provides access to the internals. Getting such features does make it a bit chunkier, however, as it weighs in at 3.7 lbs (1.69kg) and is 20.9mm thick—so this is as close to the limit as you can get while still being an Ultrabook. In truth, the specs of the 6430u and the HP 9470m have a ton of overlap, but considering the best price I can find on the HP is a full $200 higher, Dell wins out (again). Keep in mind that HP's Folio does give you an mSATA slot along with a 2.5" drive bay, so for some that can still be the better buy, but unless you absolutely need the extra storage space the cost is pretty steep.
For $1449, you probably expect a lot of computer, and Dell does its best to deliver with a 1600x900 LCD, 8GB RAM, and a 256GB mSATA SSD. The CPU is still at the middle of the ULV spectrum (i5-3437U), but you do get Windows 7 Professional and a TPM (the fingerprint scanner is optional on the 6430u, but the top-end model includes it). The 6430u also comes standard with a 3-year basic on-site warranty, which helps make the price a bit more palatable. I’ve found the build quality of Dell’s Latitude line to be quite good, and it’s definitely part of the reason why Latitude costs more than Vostro, but you pay for the privilege.
Let's See the Mobile Workstations
For the high-end, I really wanted something that could handle everything I could possibly want, which means it needs a quad-core CPU, discrete graphics, 16GB RAM, and a 512GB (or 480GB) SSD. Guess what? Only Dell actually let’s you easily configure such a laptop. [Insert frustrated scream here.] HP’s EliteBook 8570w is out as we had throttling issues with the quad-core configuration, leaving the EliteBook 8770w as the only possibility—and it’s a notebook with a beautiful LCD option at least; the largest SSD HP will install is only 256GB, unfortunately, though you could put two of them in RAID 0 at a rather astronomical price. Lenovo is in a similar situation with their ThinkPad W530. Thus, Dell basically wins by default, though you still have to decide between the M4700 and the M6700; I opted for the former, mostly because I don’t really need or want a 17.3” notebook. If you're not opposed to doing upgrades on your own (and you have an employer that allows such things), I'm inclined to go with the Lenovo W530 over the Precision, but opinions on such matters are definitely up for debate. Anyway, let's talk about the M4700.
So how would I configure this bad boy? While some might be tempted to simply max out every component, I’m still reasonable, so the I7-3740QM is more than enough CPU. I’d stick with Windows 7 Professional 64-bit, while on the memory front 16GB of DDR3-1600 in two DIMMs leaves room for an additional 16GB down the road if I get ambitious. The 1920x1080 Premium Panel is absolutely required (and interestingly only add $34 relative to the default 1366x768 junker panel), and for the GPU I’d go for the Quadro K2000M. The SSD is a large expense, and you could potentially stick with a cheap HDD and upgrade on your own to save money, but for simplicity’s sake we’ll grab the 512GB SSD option. (You can also do a 256GB mSATA SSD and still have room for two 2.5” drives if you forego the optical drive.) Add in the backlit keyboard, Centrino 6300 WiFi, and a 9-cell battery and we’re done. The “starting price” comes to over $3900, but Dell has a big sale going right now that brings the final price down to $2658—not too bad considering the hardware, though still way more than I’d actually be able to spend. (That’s what your employer is for, right?)
Here’s the catch: even if I were in a position to buy a high-end business laptop right now, I’d suggest holding off and seeing what Haswell can do next month. It may not matter all that much, and business laptops using Haswell are likely still several months off, but with just a few weeks left to wait there’s no sense in jumping the gun at this stage. Dustin also pointed this out in his M6700 review, but the aesthetics of the Dell Precision line are also falling behind—one more reason to wait and see. For the midrange and budget offerings, Haswell won’t have such an immediate impact, since it sounds like we’ll see quad-core first and dual-core will come later (similar to what we saw with the Sandy Bridge and Ivy Bridge launches). Ultrabooks are the exception here, as Haswell Ultrabooks are apparently going to roll out quickly, so that’s another category where I’d suggest a “wait and see” approach.