At first glance, choosing a small business laptop can look like an impossible task; do you get the netbook, the Chromebook, PC, Mac, and on and on. With so many choices, how do you choose?
It’s not perfect, but here is my method for choosing the right small business laptop for the task at hand:
- Choose the application
- Choose the budget
- Choose the timeline
- Selecting the laptop
- Pulling the trigger
As a quick disclaimer, I’m very familiar with PCs and not with Macs so the information you read below is coming from that frame of reference. Macs are great and there are a ton of people that use Macs, just not me at the present time.
Choose the application
In order to have the right tool for the job, you need to know what the job is at hand. Before you consider buying a computer, you need to define how the computer will be used.
Will it be a general use computer, surfing the web, answering email, doing word processing?
Will it be used to create websites and graphic designs?
Are you going to create videos or animation?
Will it run an online store?
Each task will require a minimum level of performance from certain parts. For example, if you are going to create professional video, you need a more powerful video card than someone who will be answering email. You will also need more storage; high quality digital video takes a lot of hard drive space. The more specific your task is, the more care you will need to take in defining your minimum requirements.
Unless you have a specific use in mind or a lot of money, I would lean towards a general use laptop. Don’t be put off by the term general use; most computers in the budget range we will talk about will do quite a bit. I use a general purpose laptop for graphic design and to produce short, HD videos for my laser engraving series Can You Etch It.
Choose the Budget
You can spend just about any amount of money on a computer you want. When I ask the question about budget, the typical answer is “as little as possible…” While this sounds like a good answer, it really doesn’t tell us anything. Most of the computers I am involved in purchasing are for general use and most inexpensive computers work well for that purpose.
With computer technology changing so fast, there is no reason to spend too much money. Sure, you end up with a great computer but often, you don’t take full advantage of all the bells and whistles. It’s like buying an iPhone and not having data access; sure it is a great device but if you can’t download your emails or check the weather, it is just a very expensive toy.
For a general use computer, I typically set my budget for around $400 – $450. That number will change over time; my first laptop purchased over 10 years cost over $1200. It was a nice middle of the road computer. It is amazing how prices have changed.
Once you get further along in your research, you may realize that the features you want are not available on computers in your budget. That’s OK, just adjust your budget. You have to start narrowing down the possible options and budget is a great way to get started.
Choose the timeline
Prices for any technology fluctuates pretty rapidly. $1,000 may buy a computer today that $600 may buy in 10 months. There are sales, discounts, rebates, etc. If you wait a week, you could get a better deal but you continue to wait week after week, you never get anything accomplished.
If you are looking for a small business computer, chances are your timeline is fairly short, especially for new purchases. Unless you are near the end of the year, specifically the day after Thanksgiving, prices won’t fluctuate that much in a week or two. Decide if you need the computer in the next few weeks. If so, go to the next step. If not, no worries; don’t go any further. Put your plans on hold for now and pick back up when you are ready.
Selecting the laptop
Selecting the right laptop is not as complex as it looks at first. In next week’s post, I’ll walk you through specific details of the features I look for in a small business laptop but for now, here is the simple 3 step procedure I follow:
1. Select a few stores to compare price and models
Typically, I look at 3-4 stores with my favorites being Amazon.com, BestBuy.com, and NewEgg.com. DealNews.com is also a great place to see great deals on just about anything, although most of the great laptop deals are more than my typical budget. Look for weekly sales by going to the company websites or in the advertisements included in your local paper. DealNews.com often tracks the good deals at various stores. Once you do this a few times, you will get an idea of the best places to shop.
2. Using your budget as a filter, identify possible computers
Understand that your budget is a ballpark figure not a hard line; you don’t want to miss out on a great computer over $25 but you don’t want to keep adding features until you are spending $900 either.
3. Compare the hardware
Knowing a little about computer hardware helps but there are only a few key features in my opinion that really matter. All computers are not made the same but they are all very similar under the hood. If you want to brush up on your buzz words, check out last week’s post on computer terminology.
When looking at the key features in a computer, here is what I look for:
How much RAM (Random Access Memory) does it have?
Typically, for this price range (about $400-$450) and this time (early part of 2013), you can expect 4GB, or 4 Gigabytes of RAM. If you don’t have a good grasp of what RAM means to a computer, check out this post. Most computers of the same price range will have same amount of RAM.
What kind of processor or CPU does it have?
AMD or Intel? Both are good. Most people have strong opinions about one or the other. Personally, I prefer AMD because they often offer the best value for the money. We could debate one over the other until the cows come home; performance is the bottom line. Luckily, there are many people around the internet that love to benchmark or compare one processor to another. Jot down 3-4 different processors of the computers in your price range.
Once you have an idea the processor models within your budget, head over to Google and do a little research. Here are a few specific links to benchmarking sites if you want to cut to the chase.
Look at the various processor models (if you can’t find the exact model, something close will often do) and compare it to the rest of the processors on your list. In next week’s post, I’ll look at a variety of specific processor models and how I choose between them but for now, get an idea of how they rank against one another.
What size screen does it have?
In a previous post on small business IT, I recommended buying the largest monitor you could find for about $150 (which is my typical budget for a PC monitor). With laptops, there are very few choices. You will find 11″ laptops, 15.6″ laptops, 17″ laptops, and a few more odd sizes. For a general use small business laptop, stick with a 15.6″ screen [infographic comparing the different sizes of screens and the benefits of a 15.6″]: it offers a good combination of size, power consumption, and portability. If you want a bigger screen, buy an extra monitor for $150 and enter the Nirvana that is dual monitors
How many USB ports (and of what version) does it have?
One of the best ways to connect external devices to a computer is through a USB (Universal Serial Bus) port. Most computers come with several and more recently, they are coming with USB 3.0 ports. There are a lot of specifications to all the USB versions but to me, the important thing is USB 3.0 is somewhere more than 4 times faster than USB 2.0 if you have a device that uses USB 3.0. That means you can transfer data quicker, more than 4 times quicker, over USB 3.0 compared to USB 2.0. Don’t worry about this too much but if you can find a computer in your budget that has USB 3.0, it is a nice thing to have for the future.
The rest of the specifications have little impact for a general use small business laptop. Sure, it matters what BIOS it uses, how fast the hard drive is, how big the hard drive is, etc but those details should not vary too much within a specific price range.
Pull the trigger
By this point, you should have a very short list of 3-4 possible small business laptops to purchase. It’s a judgement call which one you pick but if you did the work leading up to this point, all of the options are good choices. Most of the laptops on your list are going to be very similar if not identical so don’t let this decision drive you crazy, pick the one you want the most. Maybe you want the blue one instead of the black one that is $20 cheaper; don’t stress, go ahead and get the one you want. Chances are you will have this laptop for 4+ years so you might as well be happy with it.
A quick note: Although there are refurbished and used laptops around, I would not personally go that route unless I was buying from the company. Too many things can go wrong with computers and if that computer is a laptop, there is no good way to swap most of the parts.
Desktops are different; you can replace DVD drives, power supplies, etc. The exception to that is Apple; I would be comfortable buying a refurbished laptop directly from Apple due to the stories I have heard from people I trust. When in doubt, strongly consider buying new.
Choosing a small business laptop is not as hard as it looks. If you know what it will be used for, know how much you want to pay, have an idea of how quickly you need it, you can go through a list of many laptops to select the best few for your needs and purchase the one that fits the best. Next week, I’ll walk you through the process of selecting a small business laptop using real examples. Until then, good luck with all of your small business IT needs.