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Cheap laptops unlikely to survive business use Add to ...

These days, it's virtually impossible to run a business of any size without a computer. And, increasingly, that computer is a laptop.

In fact, in the first quarter of this year, twice as many portable PCs were shipped in Canada as desktop computers, according to IDC Canada. That's just over a million units out of a total of 1.6 million.

Impressive gains were made "in the consumer and small office spaces" especially, according to IDC.

Laptops are on a roll. With our increasingly mobile work force and the powerful and inexpensive laptop machines now available, it makes no sense to buy a desktop computer, says independent analyst Carmi Levy.

"Today's collaborative work teams absolutely need the kind of tote-it-anywhere capability that only a laptop can offer," he says. "Even if you have no road warriors on staff, the ability to be productive in every nook and cranny of the office makes the laptop-vs-desktop decision an easy one. In today's office, mobility is king and the desktop PC is virtually dead for most mainstream users."

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Selecting a laptop for business use is not, however, simply a matter of picking up what's on sale. Brian Bourne, president of Toronto-based CMS Consulting, points out that smaller organizations can save themselves a lot of grief by applying more rigorous IT and business protocols to such purchases.

For example, buying consumer machines for business use is false economy, Mr. Bourne says. Two consumer laptops that appear to be the same model could contain different components, since vendors tend to source whatever is least expensive at the time. This can cause issues such as driver incompatibilities. Consumer models also tend to have shorter life spans, with sexy newness trumping longevity.

Business models, on the other hand, tend to be reliably consistent, with the same components in machines of a given model. Drivers work, accessories are interchangeable, and even when the machine is out of warranty and breaks, it can be cannibalized for parts to repair other units.

And, Mr. Bourne says, "Small businesses are more likely to run equipment out of warranty."

What works at home probably won't survive the average office environment, Mr. Levy says. "There's a reason some laptops sell for rock-bottom prices at the local big box store: their relatively cheap, plastic-heavy construction compromises their long-term durability."

Instead, he recommends spending a few extra bucks on a business-grade laptop. "Look for corporate-focused machines that are built to higher standards. Magnesium or aluminum typically replaces cheap, flexible plastic in case and chassis construction. Hard drives ship with built-in shock absorbers to protect data in the event the machine is dropped. Even keyboards and track pads are coated with materials that result in less long-term wear - no more shiny spots after three months of use."

In addition, he says, "they typically come with longer, more comprehensive warranties, as well as improved access to corporate support resources like technical-support help desks and service departments. For small businesses without their own in-house IT department, this kind of support is crucial to maximizing uptime and ensuring business continuity in the even of hardware failure."

Every machine should have complete warranty coverage, says Mr. Bourne. Complete coverage, which is branded differently by each vendor, covers not only the usual component failures but accidental damage. The price may seem high, but the first time a user slams the lid of a laptop shut on the car keys and cracks the screen (true story, by the way) it will have more than paid for itself.

Another factor to consider, says Mr. Bourne, is the operating system.

"People buy machines with home editions of the operating system and then wonder why they can't join them to the domain," he notes. "There are a lot of things like that that large enterprises do that small businesses could learn from and apply on a small scale."

A domain computer can be centrally managed, making life easier for the administrator, whether that's an IT expert or the boss.

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