Which laptop should I buy for a small business? – The Guardian

I am setting up an office for a new business and my boss would like to purchase two laptops with two external monitors. I know we need a docking station. Any advice? Heather

Business computers are different from home computers, and have different requirements. One major consideration is the cost of downtime if your PC has a problem or stops working altogether. How quickly can you recover? Will you need a next-day on-site repair service?

Try to work out how much productivity – or business – you would lose if your PC wasn’t available for anything from three hours to three days. The bigger the number, the more you need to worry about downtime.

Because of the different purchasing criteria, large PC manufacturers offer different ranges for businesses and home users. For example, Dell makes Inspiron and XPS PCs for consumers, and Latitude and Optiplex PCs for business users. HP’s Pavilion and Envy ranges target home users while ProBooks and EliteBooks are for businesses. (Yes, there are two ranges for each segment: one for “value” or price-conscious buyers and one for “luxury” or performance-oriented buyers.)

In general, business laptops tend to be solid, reliable, and relatively easy to repair. Many include fingerprint or smartcard readers for extra security. Also, business laptops are slow to change, and manufacturers keep spare parts for several years. By contrast, consumer laptops are designed more for price and/or style than reparability – parts get soldered down in sealed cases – and models may change every year.

Business PCs come with Windows Pro installed; this includes downgrade rights to run Windows 7, the business standard. Consumer laptops come with Windows 8 or 10 Home, and probably an extra helping of “crapware”.

You are only buying two laptops rather than 2,000, so you can probably buy consumer models if you want. Just remember there are differences that are not obvious from the specifications.

Hardware and support costs

You don’t mention any specific needs, or a budget. However, a typical business laptop has an Intel Core i5 processor, 4GB or preferably 8GB of memory, and a 500GB hard drive. You can save money by choosing a Core i3, but it will cost more in lost productivity over three years. You could also spend more on a Core i7, but it’s probably better to spend the extra cash on more memory and/or a solid-state drive. SSDs are much more responsive than traditional hard drives, so they increase productivity in the long run. (All those milliseconds add up.)

Picking a typical example, the Dell Latitude E5550 is a basic business laptop with a Core i5-5200U, 4GB of memory, 500GB hard drive and Windows 7 Pro for £670.80, including shipping and VAT. The options include basic and advanced docking stations at £165.49 and £191.59, a choice of 18 external monitors, and spare batteries. You can ignore those, but I strongly recommend adding three or four years of ProSupport or ProSupport Plus with 24/7 telephone support and next-business-day on-site service.

With support, you can spend £800 on what looks like the equivalent of a £400 consumer laptop. However, £780 is only £1 per day over three years, assuming a five-day week (and no holidays). It’s the equivalent of six minutes per day for a worker on £10 per hour.

Alternatively, you could just buy three £400 laptops instead of two, so you have a spare. That might suit a new business that can’t see three years ahead. However, you must be sure that when a laptop fails, you can swap to the backup machine without losing data or wasting too much time.

Possible purchases

There’s not a huge amount of difference between basic business laptops, but start by looking at Dell, HP and Lenovo. These three dominate the business market, ahead of Toshiba, Fujitsu and a few others.

If you want something cheap but reasonably effective, a Dell Vostro 3558 would do the job. (Vostro is the Dell brand for home office/small office users, and has only just returned to the UK market.) If you want something stunning but expensive, check out the new XPS 15. The Latitude E5550, mentioned above, is a middle-of-the-road option.

Looking at the HP range, the HP ProBook 350 G2 is a decent entry-level laptop, with the new ProBook 450 being a nicer system for a bit more money. Remember to include a Care Pack for HP’s on-site service.

If you want to go for consumer laptops, there are too many alternatives to think about. Also, with the market switching from Windows 8 to 10, ranges are in flux and prices are variable. However, if you can visit a few shops, look for the Asus X555LA and its close relatives: Toshiba Satellites and HP Envy laptops. You can compare screen and keyboard quality, and feel whether the case and hinges seem robust enough.

The Asus X555LA looks cheap at the moment. You can get one with an Intel Core i3-5005U, 4GB of memory and a terabyte hard drive for £299.99, with a Core i5-5200U and 8GB for £399, or with a Core i7-5500U and 8GB for £499.99. You could also get a Toshiba Satellite Pro R-50 with a Core i5-4210U, 8GB of memory and a terabyte hard drive for only £359.97, or a Satellite L50 with a Core i7-5500U and 8GB for £599.95. Shop around for prices and services. What you won’t get is business-class support.

Docking stations

A lot of business laptops have docking stations, and these provide a tidy way of connecting an external screen and keyboard. They are also very easy to use. However, they tend to be expensive, and they aren’t necessarily flexible: docking stations designed for one range of laptops won’t fit dozens of others.

Universal docking stations are not as tidy, but more flexible and probably cheaper. Previously, I’ve suggested the Plugable UD-3900 at £99.95. This has both HDMI and DVI/VGA ports, so it can support two screens. It also provides an Ethernet network connection and six USB ports. Of course, each laptop must have a USB 3.0 port to connect to its own UD-3900.

There are alternative USB 3.0 docking stations from Woopower (£82.99) and Kensington, with the Kensington SD3500v (£104.20).

You can, of course, connect a monitor to most Windows laptops: they usually have an HDMI port or DisplayPort or even a VGA port. You can also connect a USB or Bluetooth mouse, and a USB keyboard. The disadvantage is that you have to unplug everything when you want to move the laptop. If all the accessories are connected to a docking station, you only have to remove one USB 3.0 plug at most.

If you will never move your laptop, it’s worth considering a desktop PC or a big screen all-in-one instead. But that’s another story.

Have you got another question for Jack? Email it to Ask.Jack@theguardian.com

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