Buying a laptop to fit your business is officially no longer easy. Previously unimaginable technologies and intense competition have spawned a new generation of business-class portable computers, each vying for a niche in the small-business world.
Touch-enabled devices such as the iPhone and the iPad have blurred the boundaries of what a portable device is--and what it isn't. Ubiquitous 64-bit operating systems like Windows 7 have helped PCs outstrip their Mac cousins in many performance metrics. Low-power LED screens have amped-up battery life and created a new class of smaller, cheaper netbooks. And ruggedized technologies spun out of the defense industry have found their way into über-tough portable PCs. The wave of niche business notebooks is just starting to break. International research firm IDG estimates such notebooks will outsell desktops, controlling a 70 percent share of the PC market by 2012. That means businesses will need oodles of laptop savvy to find value in the market.
Whether you're looking for power, strength, value or style, here are our picks for top notebooks for entrepreneurs.
Best small-business apple portable
MacBook Pro, 15 inch, 2.4GHz
For Mac lovers, entry-level Apple portables like the MacBook or slick ultralights like the MacBook Air can be the perfect mobile business solution. But the Air's limited keyboard, small screen size and lack of optical drives mean you'll need extra peripherals, which jacks up the price. The smart Apple mobile buy right now, though pricey, is the entry-level, full-featured, 15-inch MacBook Pro. That single box is all you'll need. The stock 2.4GHz Intel Core i5 processor and 4GB of RAM stoke enough horsepower for most work, save heavy graphics. Toss in an extra $150 for Microsoft Office Mac Home and Student Edition, and you have a legit desktop replacement that can go anywhere.
Most stylish entry-level notebook
Dell Vostro V13
(starting at $560)
There's nothing like a PC entrepreneur in free fall to spur innovation. But Dell's harrowing collapse of market share is producing one heck of a line of business PCs, particularly its new Vostro V13, which has 2GB of RAM, a 13-inch screen, a well-designed, 4-pound form factor and--dare we say it--a real feel for good design. The metal hinges, subtle arrangement of media connectors and good use of color give this Vostro real panache. Nobody will need to know that you spent less than the price of an unlocked cell phone for a full-power portable PC.
Best midpriced portable with
Sony VAIO VPCS111FM/S from Best Buy
For high-touch service, most small-biz types lean to Apple and its national network of more than 200 stores and Genius Bars. But Best Buy gets our vote for sleeper small-business service provider. The company has its own branded notebook PC line, dubbed Blue Label, and the Sony Vaio is the pick of that line. Its magnesium case, backlit keys and punchy and crisp 13-inch screen make this unit a real steal--and its media-oriented processor, RAM and video card give it excellent performance power. Perhaps the only ding is its battery life, which averages a very average five hours. But Best Buy's pay-as-you-go Geek Squad can send out an expert who is just down the road from basically anywhere. Call it reassurance on the fly.
HP Mini 311
(starting at $400)
Samsung, Dell and Sony make solid low-end netbooks. But the nod for the ultramobile entrepreneur goes to Hewlett-Packard and its classic Mini 311. The 11.6-inch screen, nearly full-size keyboard, HDMI outputs and Windows 7 OS make this the mobile weapon of choice for the business user seeking that netbook vibe. Keep in mind, netbooks as a family have no CD or media drives and only work well for basic cloud-based business software--like running Google Apps, for example. But if that's
all you need, there is no reason not to go with a Mini 311.
Best value ruggedized
Not everybody who needs a rugged laptop can afford to drop three large to acquire one. For the rest of us, there's the value-priced Getac and its affordable but still tough P470. Though it has none of the wow factor of other ruggedized super-boxes, its 14-inch screen is surprisingly visible outdoors and it sports a decent-size keyboard. Otherwise of note with the P470 is that the unit has some of the deepest security features on the market: Access to the PC can be controlled by a smart card reader, a fingerprint reader and a so-called Trusted Platform Chip, which keeps snooping eyes out of your business.
Best value desktop replacement
Toshiba Tecra M11
(starting at $900)
Most buyers overspend to get a notebook that will do away with their desktop, and then only move around with it once or twice a year. Toshiba hits the spot just right with the Tecra M11 series. Done in a grime-reducing, high-quality charcoal finish with a surprisingly nice 14-inch screen, the M11 is just big enough to do real work at the airport yet has enough processor oomph (from a choice of the Intel Core i3, Core i5 or Core i7) to drive a full keyboard and monitor back in the office. You can overwork the M11 with serious computation, graphics and engineering software, so this box is not a do-anything office workhorse. But for a reasonable spend, you get a solid, all-around desk PC that also struts its stuff on the go.
Best no-holds-barred ruggedized
Panasonic ToughBook Model 31
Panasonic's Toughbook line defines the high-end ruggedized notebook market, and its spanking new 31 sets the bar. Ridiculously full-featured--and ridiculously expensive--the 31 comes with just about anything a contractor or any other outdoor-oriented entrepreneur needs. It's bright enough for outside, boasts a 13.1-inch touch-enabled screen and 11 hours of battery life. The unit is also dust-sealed, waterproof in everything but standing water and droppable from over your head--heck, it even has a heated hard drive for working in subfreezing temperatures. There are drawbacks: It weighs in at north of 11 pounds, and it's far from the most comfortable PC to work on for hours on end. But show up with this sucker on the next job and everybody gets the message that you mean business.
Best high-end notebook PC
at a less than high-end price
Acer Aspire TimelineX 15.6 Inch
There is no better PowerPC available at a non-PowerPC price than Acer's new TimelineX series. This notebook is less than an inch thick and boasts a whopping eight hours of battery life. The unit sports a crisp 15-inch screen, weighs about 5 pounds and its Intel i7 processor offers top-tier performance. High-end computer modeling for engineers will probably be beyond the TimelineX, but not much else will be. A great value for such a high-end notebook.
Best value ultralight
Lenovo IdeaPad u150
It's nice to see a reasonably priced, reasonably powerful ultraportable for less than a grand. And Lenovo, the laptop line that used to be IBM, has done a great job with the U150.
With its 3-pound form factor, decent 11-inch screen and svelte quarter-inch thickness--all surrounding a Windows 7 64-bit operating system--the U150 can handle real-world spreadsheets, graphics and other jobs. Stay away from lower-end configurations of the U150 with only 3GB of RAM; they cost less, but they won't get the job done. Fully powered, though, this ultraportable is up to the task.
Best off-brand notebook
Remember when most business owners never touched anything besides a Dell, HP or Apple? Those days are gone--and MSI is part of the reason. Made by Taiwanese company Micro-Star International, the MSI CR620 offers tremendous value for a work laptop. For a bit more than the cost of a well-done netbook, you get a 15.9-inch screen, a full-size keyboard and enough processing power for most business software. What you don't get is the high design of the major brands or the handy support. But for a simple, stripped-down work computer, the MSI is unquestionably a good choice.
BONUS: Best looking
Sony Vaio Signature Series, Z12AHX Glossy Premium Carbon
For flat-out fabulous looks, Sony is the leader with its Signature series. But those looks will cost you--and forking over nearly $5K for a basic laptop isn't for everyone. Sony gets credit for trying to make it worth the extra dough with some nice adaptable graphics features and good use of expansion slots, but for such a high price, the performance is strictly average. What you're paying for is style: It's simply gorgeous. You could show up in sweats at your next pitch meeting toting this thing and still close the deal. It's that cool.