Notebook makers take great pains to differentiate between their consumer and business-oriented wares, but are consumers ignoring the better of the two categories? In their rush to carve out different market segments, vendors have made certain assumptions about what it means to be a “consumer” and build their products accordingly.
With some vendors those assumptions lead to great laptops. With others, our reviews have highlighted basic, but important mis-steps in consumer machines that aren’t present in the same company’s business machines. In fact, business laptops are often better than their consumer-oriented counterparts.
When shopping for a new laptop, should consumers focus their search on business-oriented models? Here are ten good reasons why.
- Better Build Quality: Want a notebook that can stand up to a little abuse? Then you probably want a business system that uses sturdy, lightweight materials like carbon fiber and magnesium rather than cheap plastic. For example, the Lenovo ThinkPad T400 is currently available on sale for well under $700 and has a durable carbon fiber lid. The 14-inch consumer oriented IdeaPad Y450 is a lot cheaper, starting at under $500, but it also feels a lot less sturdy.
- Matte Displays with Better Viewing Angles: Glossy displays have become nearly ubiquitous on consumer notebooks, because vendors believe consumers shopping at retail will be swayed by their shininess and slightly more vibrant colors. However, the glossier the display, the worse the viewing angles. (Imagine trying to read a Web page and seeing your reflection more than the text.) Some business systems have glossy displays too, but most let you choose an “anti-glare” option. For example, the Dell Inspiron 13 comes with only a “Glossy, widescreen” display while the Dell Vostro 13 can be configured with either an “Anti-Glare” (aka matte) or a “TrueLife” (aka glossy) screen.
- Better Keyboards and Touchpads: We’re not saying that consumer keyboards and touchpads are no good, just that their business counterparts have to bring something really tactile and responsive to the table in order to court businesses, who are obviously focused on productivity (aka typing). The 13-inch IdeaPad U350, currently selling for $850, has noticeable flex under its keys. For the same price, one can get a 12-inch Thinkpad X200s, which has an incredibly responsive keyboard with no flex at all. HP’s 13-inch consumer-oriented Pavilion dm3 has one of the worst touchpads we’ve ever used, but the 13-inch HP ProBook 5310m’s touchpad is incredibly accurate and pleasant.
- Less Crapware: A large or mid-size business simply can’t afford to pay its IT department to sit there uninstalling crapware from each new noteboook it orders. Vendors know this and intentionally avoid overloading their business notebooks with too much unwanted trialware. You still find trial versions of security software, but there’s a reason why business notebooks tend to have faster boot times than consumer models.
- More Pointing Options: We can’t name a single consumer notebook with anything other than a touchpad for navigation. However, if you like pointing sticks (and we do), several business systems have them in addition to touchpads. Everyone knows that Lenovo ThinkPads have their famous red TrackPoints, but several HP ProBooks, Dell Latitudes, and Toshiba Tecras also have pointing sticks between their G and H keys. Many people love these so-called “nubs” because they’re more accurate than touchpads and because touch typists don’t have to lift their fingers off the home row to use them.
- More Storage Options: Want an SSD or a 7,200 rpm drive to speed up your system? You have a much better chance of getting it on a business notebook. For example, a quick check of Toshiba’s consumer-oriented Satellite line showed that only the 16-inch Satellite A500 was configurable with a 7,200 rpm drive and only the 18.4-inch Satellite P500 had an SSD option. Most of the business-oriented Tecras and Porteges have SSD and 7,200-rpm choices.
- Enhanced Security Tools: As a consumer, you may not have sensitive corporate research on your notebook, but you probably do have personal data on your hard drive that an identity thief could use to ruin you. Business notebooks tend to come with security software that helps you not only password-protect and encrypt your hard drive, but also do things like manage your passwords, and securely erase sensitive files. HP’s Protect Tools are particularly strong, but you’ll find them on the business-centric ProBook line, not the consumer-oriented Pavilions. Many business notebooks also come with fingerprint readers that let you quickly swipe your way into Windows. Consumer notebooks have facial recognition software, which is more of a gimmick than a feature, as it takes longer and is more annoying than typing in a login password.
- More Expansion Options: Many business notebooks offer unique ways to expand your system’s functionality, including custom docking stations, removable optical drives that can be swapped out for a bay battery or second hard drive, and battery slices that attach to the bottom for extra endurance. You can buy generic docking stations from companies like Kensington and Belkin, but if you want something that’s made to plug right into the bottom of your notebook, you’ll likely need a business system.
- They Finally Look Cool: Business notebooks used to be known for their functional, put plain — some would say ugly — designs. However, in the past year, some of the sleekest systems on the block have been business portables. See the anodized aluminum lid and deck on the HP ProBook 5310m, the slim lines and carbon fiber lid on the ThinkPad T400s, and super slim design on the new Dell Vostro V13. And you’re not limited to black and silver designs; Dell Latitude E series, for example, is available in black, red, and royal blue.
- You Can Still Watch Movies, Play Games: If you want to turn your PC into a home theater and use it to watch Blu-ray discs. or if you want to play an intense game like Crysis then you should definitely get a consumer system that’s designed for multimedia and gaming. However, if you want to watch DVDs, stream video from sites like YouTube or Hulu, listen to music or play casual games, a business notebook is no better or worse than a similarly configured consumer model. To play a game with modest 3D graphics like World of Warcraft, you may need discrete graphics, but many business notebooks have discrete graphics options.
Now you might be asking: what about price? While some business systems are pricier than their consumer counterparts, many are comparable or even less expensive. For example, as of today, a 15.6-inch IdeaPad G550 is on sale for $551 with a Core 2 Duo 2.2-GHz CPU, 4GB of RAM, a 320GB hard drive, and Nvidia GPU, but a ThinkPad SL510 with a better keyboard though somewhat lesser specs starts at $499.
When business notebooks cost more, the advantages above make them worth the extra money. For example, the HP ProBook 5310m costs a couple of hundred dollars more than Pavilion dm3, largely because the latter is on all kinds of sales, but the build quality, better keyboard, and security tools on the 5310m make it a much better investment.
Given the breadth and depth of the notebook market, it’s dangerous to overgeneralize and say that consumers should ignore consumer notebooks in favor of their business brethren. The most important thing is that you look beyond marketing labels like “business” and “consumer” and focus on the features that best suit your usage patterns. You may find that a business system has more to offer.