Enterprise-friendly laptops tend to be as dull as their moniker. But that's on purpose. For maximum service life and to allow for easy maintenance, their components are kept consistent and their accessories and interfaces are carefully designed to be interchangeable.
As more than one vendor has freely admitted, an enterprise-friendly laptop does not tend to be cutting edge. The newest technology is usually reserved for the consumer line, where customers change machines more often and don't need or expect compatibility.
That leaves small business stuck in the middle. Interchangeable accessories and components are good for small business, but so is cutting edge technology like ultra-fast video and uber-connectivity. Small business owners must be nimble, and that must be reflected in their equipment.
For a long time vendors didn't seem to realize this. But in recent years they have begun to manufacture laptops that are partly conservative, partly cutting edge, that will satisfy small business needs.
Dell Vostro V130
The newest machine in the Dell Vostro line is the V130. It starts at a small-business-friendly $499. For lovers of cool and sexy, it's less than an inch thick, starts at 1.7 kilograms and comes in silver or red. It's a definite fashion statement.
But it's also a decent business machine. While the base model has a slower dual-core Celeron processor, which is not for power users, the top-of-the-line model offers a respectable Intel i5-470. The 13.3-inch display is constant across all four models, but memory ranges from 2 to 4 GB and hard disks from 250 to 500 gigabytes. Windows 7 Home Premium (upgradeable to Windows 7 Professional) runs all but the base model, which runs Ubuntu Linux 10.04.
Think of a connection and this computer offers it: gigabit Ethernet, 802.11 a/b/g/n wireless, Bluetooth 3.0 and even HSPA broadband (assuming, of course, a contract with your cellular provider). Ports include a pair of USB 2.0 and one combo eSATA/USB as well as headphone, microphone and speaker jacks, external VGA connector, a 5-in-1 card reader and a built-in webcam. There is, however, no optical drive.
Warranty is one year, except for the top model, which has two-year, next business day on-site response coverage included in the price - a valuable feature for a business that can't afford to have their machine go down for any amount of time. You can, of course, upgrade the warranty on any model to up to five years, next business day onsite, for a price.
On the downside, the Vostro's six-cell battery provides only a touch more than two hours of use, so road warriors need to stay close to an outlet.
HP's small business models begin with the $699 ProBook, robustly configured with an Intel i3 processor, 4 gigabytes of memory and a 500 gigabyte hard drive. ProBooks offer considerably more screen real estate than the Dell Vostro series, with 15.6-inch displays, but you do pay the price lugging around a relatively heavy, 2.39 kilogram machine.
On the plus side, since the machine is more than an inch thick, it can accommodate an optical drive, in this case a DVD+/-RW SuperMulti DL LightScribe drive (there's also a Blu-ray model available).
It comes with Windows 7 Home Premium, although you can upgrade to Windows 7 Professional - a necessity if your company's network is structured as a domain (Windows 7 Home versions are incapable of logging on to a domain).
The ProBook has a media card reader and it adds an Express card slot (the successor to PCMCIA and PC card) slot as well. You get three regular USB 2.0 ports, plus a fourth combo eSATA/USB port, as well as the usual audio and external video (plus HDMI), and gigabit Ethernet. Rounding out the configuration are wireless features - 802.11 a/b/g/n - and an integrated webcam.
Other ProBook models increase processor power to the Intel i7 and beef up graphics capabilities.
If you glance at a ProBook, you'll first be struck by the touchpad's apparent misplacement to well left-of-centre. Then you'll do a double take and realize it's actually perfectly centred under the keyboard, and there's a separate numeric keypad on the right, a real treat for spreadsheet jockeys.
Warranty is one year, though you can purchase extensions.
Lenovo ThinkPad Edge
Lenovo's latest ThinkPad for small business, the Edge series, starts at about $599 for basic machines, with top models hitting $900. In a very atypical ThinkPad move, Lenovo offers two of the four models, the E420 and the larger E520 (which also boasts an integrated numeric keypad) in, of all things, red.
Those two models are just over an inch thick and tip the scales at about 2 kilograms. The higher-end E220s and E420s are less than an inch thick, weighing about 3.5 lb and 4.1 lb respectively.
The Edge series offers up to 8 gigabytes of RAM and a 750 gigabyte hard disk, and runs the gamut of processors right up to the high-powered Intel i7. It ships with Windows 7 Professional.
Lenovo has augmented the usual ThinkPad features such as sturdy construction and superb keyboard with more funky items such as illuminated keyboards in some models. Like the machines from HP and Dell, these include webcams, media card readers and tons of connectivity. They also contain technology that protects the hard drive from impacts and drops. Screens on the newest models (to hit shelves in April) range from 12.5 inches to 15.6 inches. Warranty is one year.
Lenovo's claim to fame, aside from the anomaly of a red ThinkPad, is its boast of super-speedy boot times thanks to the combination of an optimized operating system and optional solid-state drives that replace or supplement the traditional hard drive; Lenovo claims some models can start in 10 seconds.
All in all, it's a good time to shop for small business laptops. Vendors are finally beginning to understand and address needs at price points SMBs can afford. And the machines also contain a fun factor that is missing from corporate models.
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