You probably already use a desktop, but today's full-featured laptops make a handy addition to any startup-especially if you'll be traveling anytime soon. You might want to feel the wind in your hair, heed the call of the open road or see a laptop warming the airplane tray table in front of you. Whether you need to fly to exotic locales, attend a trade show in Cincinnati or just trundle down to your local Wi-Fi-equipped coffee shop, a notebook computer is your ticket to computing on the go. A laptop can increase your flexibility and productivity-and when you're working to grow your business, you need as much of both of those as you can get.
Seeing the Lightweight
Expect to spend anywhere from $800 to $2,500 for a new notebook-a range that covers everything from bulked-up widescreen models to tiny units that will slip effortlessly into your briefcase. To narrow your choices, first consider just how far you'll range on a regular basis and what you'll need to take with you application-wise.
If you travel a lot but don't log too many hours computing on the road, you'll find the ultraportability of an ultraportable well worth its somewhat higher price tag, says Corey Gunn, manager of the mobility category at CDW, a Vernon Hills, Illinois-based technology products and solutions provider. Toshiba's PortÃ©gÃ© R200, for example, runs about $2,100 (all prices street), quite a bit above the entry-level price tags of standard 6- to 8-pound laptops. But you get a 12.1-inch screen, built-in Wi-Fi, a finger-print reader for security and a three-year warranty, all squeezed into a 2.68-pound package measuring less than an inch thick.
"You pay a premium for something that portable and with the latest and greatest technology," concludes Gunn.
Desktop-replacement notebooks are at the opposite end of the spectrum. They are cheaper but heftier-8 pounds plus-and usually fully loaded. Many have screen sizes that rival your desktop LCD. The downside is that you don't want to haul one of these through an airport terminal or try to open it on a tray table. But if your itinerary usually includes travel from office to office or office to home office, they aren't so bad. The 7.7-pound Gateway M680X comes with a substantial 17-inch display, integrated Wi-Fi and a cutting-edge double-layer DVD writer. It starts at about $1,500, but boost the memory to 1,024MB, upgrade to Windows XP Professional and go for the ultrabright display, and you'll land at $1,765.
There is a compromise-a thin-and-light notebook. The Dell Latitude D510, for example, starts at just $779 and weighs a little over 5 pounds. A more fully featured version runs about $1,300 and includes an extended warranty and Windows XP Pro. It's the kind of portable most likely to be found among a traveling businessperson's luggage.
There is also another class of notebook. Tablet PCs haven't hit the mainstream with a vengeance, but they are an intriguing alternative to standard notebooks. They come in two types: slate and convertible. Slate tablets appeal to users in specialty areas that essentially need a very portable digital writing device. The $2,349 slate-style Fujitsu Stylistic ST5020 comes with Wi-Fi, Bluetooth and an integrated fingerprint reader. The easy-to-carry package weighs 3.5 pounds. Convertibles have a wider appeal. "A convertible tablet is more of a mainstream notebook with tablet functionality," says Gunn. The Hewlett-Packard Compaq tc4200 Tablet PC is a good example of the convertible genre. Starting at $1,599, it features a 12.1-inch screen and a three-year warranty, and weighs a very reasonable 4.6 pounds. Cutting-edge technology fans, crea-tive entrepreneurs, and those who just can't pass up the notebook-and-pen functionality should check into tablet PCs.
Sorting the Specs
There are a lot of factors to sort through when you're selecting or customizing a new notebook. Gunn recommends at least 512MB RAM, a 1.4GHz processor (a 1.6GHz or 1.7GHz processor is preferred), a CD-RW/DVD-ROM combo drive, and a hard drive of no less than 40GB (60GB is preferred). If you don't find a notebook's standard configuration quite up to snuff, you can usually find a variety of upgrades available at the time of purchase. It's also possible to upgrade your hardware down the road, but with a certain degree of inconvenience, of course. Says Gunn, "If you're going to need it down the road, you might as well make that investment now."
Screen size is also a major factor in your total computing experience. It's common for featherweight ultraportables to have 10- to 12-inch displays, while super-hefty desktop replacements like the Gateway M680X can have screens as large as 17 inches. Gunn suggests looking out for some of the newer ultrabright screen technologies for improved colors and viewing experiences. That can be important if you plan to handle graphic design or multimedia duties on your laptop. Widescreen notebooks are not only nice for video and DVD use, but also give you more room to multitask with a couple of spreadsheets or side-by-side documents. Tradeoffs in weight, display size and cost are inevitable on both ends of the spectrum.
The Way of the Warranty
Expect to get at least a one-year warranty with your new laptop. High-end notebooks tend to come with three-year warranties. Looking at the Dell D510, the $779 entry-level version comes with a one-year, mail-in warranty, while the $1,300 version comes with a three-year on-site warranty. That's pretty typical of what you will get in those respective price ranges. Shorter warranties can usually be upgraded at the time of purchase if you desire longer-term peace of mind. Expect to pay an extra $200 to $300 to push a one-year warranty up to three years.
Notebooks can be accident-prone. They can be dropped, shuffled around, left on a car roof, stepped on, sat on-the possibilities are endless. The standard warranty doesn't cover accidents. If your laptop takes a dive off a meeting-room desk and the screen gets cracked, you're up a creek-unless, as Gunn recommends, you've invested in accidental damage protection. That can cost an additional $150 to $250 upfront, but that's not bad, considering the replacement cost of a screen can be upward of $700. Frequent travelers and entrepreneurs who go out to work sites might find the investment well worth it. If the manufacturer doesn't offer such a warranty, check with your retailer to see if they have a plan available.
Gotta Have It
Wi-Fi is an absolute must. Chances are, you won't have to worry about adding wireless to your new laptop. Most notebooks come equipped with 802.11b, 802.11g or a combination of the two. Laptops with Intel Centrino technology are already equipped to handle your wireless needs. Even if you don't already have a wireless network set up at your office, you'll definitely put it to use when you're on the road. Wireless hot spots are everywhere you go-in airports, in restaurants, in hotels and at your clients' offices. Sites like Boingo and WiFinder can help you find wireless locations wherever you're headed. Don't forget that the simple act of getting out of the office and heading over to a Wi-Fi-ready coffeehouse can be a big boost to your productivity.
You might want to add some extras to your notebook. A sturdy, comfortable carrying case and a set of universal power adapters if you travel out of the country are both good ideas. For even more ideas, check out theses nifty gadgets to help you hit the road:
If you've just shelled out $2,000 for an ultraportable laptop, you may think twice about spending that much for a projector. But when it comes to presenting a professional image, the $2,300 Hewlett-Packard mp3135 covers the bases. At 3.8 pounds, it packs a lot of high-end features into a little space and has an optional wireless connection.
Battery life is a valuable commodity. For those long stretches when you're away from a power outlet, APC's Universal Notebook Battery can tide you over. It comes in under 2 pounds and offers up to eight hours of extra battery life. Your actual time can vary a bit depending on your notebook model and power settings. Street price is $230.
Save the Data
Chances are, the value of your data far outstrips the value of your laptop itself. We're talking business files, spreadsheets, e-mail archives and more. The best way to protect yourself is to back up your information. The CMS Products Automatic Backup System is essentially a tiny, portable hard drive that can back up your entire system. A USB 2.0 version of the ABSplus notebook system runs $259 for 40GB of capacity. Other capacities are also available.