IT departments in large businesses buy computers by the thousands; these computers are expected to operate through the end of their service life (usually two to four years) without failure. They’ll be used (and likely abused) by less than careful employees – bumps, drops, the occasional spill … the list goes on. In this article we’ll explore the features and engineering traits that separate business from consumer notebooks.
High Build Quality
Build quality is a combination of two items: materials and construction.
Even higher-priced business notebooks may have plastic exteriors. Brushed aluminum is expensive and unnecessary to achieve durability or strength for most business requirements. The high-strength ABS plastic used on business laptops is usually thicker than what’s used in consumer notebooks for increased strength, and has its color dyed all the way through; it’s not just a painted finish that’ll wear off over time.
The brushed aluminum used on consumer devices is typically just for aesthetics; it’s stamped on over plastic. Typically only the most expensive business notebooks utilize aluminum because when they do, it’s for strength – in other words it’s a solid piece, not just stamped on.
The second element of build quality is the construction. Consumer laptops are normally built from the outside in; external pieces and how they fit together are the support structure. It’s the opposite with business notebooks; support comes from the internal structure.
IBM made this concept famous in the 2000’s with its ThinkPad business notebook line and its “roll cage,” a metal enclosure designed to protect the notebook’s internals; every manufacturer has some form of this concept for premium devices. A proper support structure prevents the chassis from flexing; this in turn keeps the motherboard and other internal circuitry from flexing. Circuit boards aren’t flexible; when they bend, they can crack or break and cause the computer to fail completely. This is an often overlooked cause of notebook failure.
Some of the very highest quality notebooks available today are the HP ZBook mobile workstations. We reviewed and recommended the ZBook 17 earlier this year; it has an exceptionally strong chassis and is tested to MIL-STD-810G standards for durability. For even more durability, we look towards Panasonic’s Toughbook lineup of rugged notebooks which can stand up to the harshest conditions.
For more budget-friendly business notebooks that still have great build quality, we’ve favorably reviewed the Lenovo ThinkPad T-series for years; the latest example is the ThinkPad T440s. We also like the well-built and well-priced HP EliteBook 850 series.
What’s something that nearly every corporate office has in common? Overhead lighting – usually the fluorescent kind. This kind of lighting plays havoc on the mirror-like screens found on consumer devices; the reflections are distracting and irritating. Business notebooks come with anti-glare/matte surface coatings to minimize reflections. This is much easier on the eyes in offices and most other environments, including the great outdoors.
We’ll subdivide this section into two areas: layout and durability/feedback.
Our primary interaction with computers is through key input and the mouse; it’s been this way since the Apple II. True business notebooks always have a standardized keyboard layout; this means six rows of keys including a dedicated function key row (F1-F12). We mention the function key row because it’s often being left out of consumer notebooks these days or turned into secondary functionality. This isn’t permissible on professional devices because business software often requires these keys; software manuals aren’t written to take alternate layouts into account (especially the exclusion of important keys).
This year we reviewed two competing business Ultrabooks whose keyboards directly affected our final recommendation; the Lenovo ThinkPad X1 Carbon (2014 edition) and the HP EliteBook Folio 1040 G1. The ThinkPad X1 Carbon’s keyboard suffered from a productivity-crippling layout while the EliteBook Folio 1040 G1 had an excellent desktop-like layout that was easy to use for extended periods.
Like the rest of the notebook, a business model’s keyboard is designed to withstand a beating. The keyboard tray is typically spill-resistant or spill-proof on more portable models, employing holes to route liquid through to the bottom and away from internal circuitry. The keyboard tray is also quite rigid. This prevents it from coming into contact with any of the internal circuitry and has the secondary benefit of improving tactile feedback.
Docking Station Support
Docking station support is critical for the mobile workforce. Notebooks are great tools but can be confining to use for extended periods, especially the smaller ones with less than a 15″ screen. A docking station allows an employee to use their notebook in a desktop-like format simply by connecting it; the docking station serves as a single-point conduit for connecting external monitors, a keyboard. mouse, printer, and other devices. From a business perspective, a docking station makes an employee more productive in the office and is cheaper than buying a desktop.
It’s been a challenge for notebook manufacturers to include docking station support in Ultrabooks, but it certainly can be done. A great example of this is the Dell Latitude E7440, which we ended up recommending for all-around excellence in a 14-inch package.
End User Serviceability
Notebook makers typically don’t want anyone but themselves servicing the computer. This doesn’t fly in the business world; a large IT department would more or less need a dedicated shipping department to handle the amount of computers needing repairs.
Business notebooks are therefore built with end-user serviceability in mind. This adds cost and complexity to the design but it’s worth paying for from IT’s perspective. We should also point out this applies to the battery; it’s becoming more and more common for notebook batteries to be non-replaceable. In a business notebook, the battery is always replaceable.
Enhanced Warranties and After-Sales Support
Consumer and business after-sales support have and always will be different. Business support is almost always domestic and has more experienced operators. Service time is usually expedited and advanced services such as cross shipping are available (they ship you a new part while you ship back the old one). On-site support is also common; local technicians are usually respond within a guaranteed time period, typically less than 24 hours.
Consumers Can Buy Business Notebooks, Too
Although business notebooks are designed for professional matters, they can still be purchased by general consumers.
Visit the business section of any notebook maker to view its lineup. It may take some getting used to the model ranges, so consider asking in our forums for help choosing a new notebook.
We explored the ins and outs of business notebooks in this article to illustrate how and why they’re different from consumers devices. The first item was build quality; we explained how business notebooks are built to take a beating. Next we explained how screens on business notebooks have anti-glare properties to reduce glare from the overhead lighting common in office buildings. Continuing we reviewed why business notebooks always have standardized keyboard layouts. Docking station support is another critical component of a business notebook; they connect all manner of devices to the notebook easily and can make employees more productive in the office. Finally we reviewed the serviceability, warranties and after-sales support aspects to illustrate that business needs are more demanding than the needs of consumers.
Business class notebooks may be designed for professional usage but can still be purchased by consumers. Even though they may be priced a bit higher than a comparable-spec consumer notebook, they may end up being a smarter purchase for the aforementioned reasons.