Why Buy a Business Laptop?
The top performers in our review are Dell XPS 15, the Gold Award winner; HP Zbook 15u G3, the Silver Award winner; and Lenovo ThinkPad X1 Carbon, the Bronze Award winner. Here’s more on choosing a system to meet your needs, along with detail on how we arrived at our ranking of these 10 products.
Work doesn’t stay in the office these days, so why should your business laptop? As our world becomes ever more connected, you need a professional laptop that gets the job done whether you’re in a meeting, on a business trip or even just working from the comfort of home. Smartphones and tablets can help you stay in touch and get simple tasks done, but when you need to really get things done, you need a more powerful tool. Businesses used to rely on desktop computers for this level of capability, but laptops have become the dominant PC workhorses in offices around the world in the last several years.
The best laptop for work is more than just a laptop in a business suit, there are functional differences between consumer and business-class systems that can spell the difference between getting things done and just getting frustrated. The basics are more essential than ever, so powerful processing, a healthy allotment of RAM and capable graphics are a must. But you also want something with long battery life and durable construction to keep you productive on the go. Ports and connections are necessities, and security features like fingerprint-based logins and support for authentication badges take on increased importance. The best business laptops do more than help you do your work, they prevent problems and eliminate downtime.
Our top three picks – the Dell XPS 15, HP Zbook 15u G3 and Lenovo ThinkPad X1 Carbon – each deliver a blend of performance, portability and versatility to keep you working wherever you happen to be. For more information on business technology, check out our articles about business laptops and software.
Types of Business Laptops
While the term “business laptops” broadly covers all the various laptop models that can be purchased for your office or company, there are a few fine distinctions that can be made within that category. Standard business laptops take the traditional mainstream laptop design and simply apply it to business use, but that’s not the only thing on the market.
For the most powerful kind of system around, you may want to look for a mobile workstation, such as the HP Zbook 15u G3, which boasts high-end processing and graphics capability and can be customized for seriously demanding computing. These sorts of systems are used in a variety of industries, including financial analysis and computer animation, and generally have more computing power than most business users need. The mobile work station unit included in our review was selected in part because it sits at the low end of this higher tier, making it more comparable to standard systems.
Ultrabooks slim down the traditional laptop with ultraportable designs and feature energy efficient components for extended battery life. Systems like the Lenovo ThinkPad X1 Carbon measure 0.7-inch thick or less and weigh significantly less than their normal laptop counterparts. That thin and light design means that your laptop can easily slip into a bag for a commute or business trip.
Finally, a few models on the market are more than just laptops, with two-in-one designs that combine laptop and tablet functionality. These convertible laptops, like the Lenovo ThinkPad X1 Yoga, are not only thin and light, but they are also easy to use on the go, making them extremely useful for travelers and commuters who need to go places and get work done along the way.
Business Laptops: How We Tested, What We Found
For our evaluations, we pulled together a list of the dozens of business-class laptops on the market, narrowing it down to our selection of the 10 best. While the business laptop category straddles several different subcategories, we limited our selection a bit to ensure that all of the systems could be adequately compared against each other. We focused on popular business systems that measure between 13 and 15 inches and are equipped with midrange processors and graphics, putting an emphasis on models designed for general business use.
To gauge quality and capability for each system, we use a series of standardized benchmark tests, performed in-house and by our sister site Laptop Mag. These tests measure several facets of laptop performance and are used to evaluate general productivity, graphics capability, display quality and battery life.
We obtained some of the units in our comparison on loan from the manufacturers and others through retail purchase. The manufacturers had no input or influence over our test methodology, nor was the methodology provided to any of them in more detail than is available through reading our reviews. Results of our evaluations were not provided to the companies in advance of publication.
When it comes to getting work done, everything starts with processor performance. Processing power and graphics capability take top priority, since slower performance means lowered productivity and more wasted time. Our performance ratings are based on two primary benchmark tests, Geekbench 3 and Laptop Mag’s Spreadsheet Macro Test.
Geekbench 3, developed by Primate Labs, is an industry standard test suite which measures multi-core processing performance and simulates real-world scenarios. The second test, Laptop Mag’s Spreadsheet Macro Test, is designed to stress the processor with an automated test that pairs 20,000 names with their corresponding addresses in an OpenOffice spreadsheet. The shorter the time it takes to complete this task, the faster the overall performance of the laptop. While the results of these individual tests can be seen in our product reviews, we combine the scores into an overall performance rating, presented above as a letter grade.
These scores are based on two key components, the central processing unit (CPU) and the system memory. The systems we reviewed rely on Intel’s Core i5 and i7 processors for computing muscle and offer multitasking performance and clock speeds of 2.2GHz to 2.7GHz. Generally speaking, faster clock speeds are better, and Core i7 processors outperform Core i5 processors.
For optimal performance, look for models that not only have speedy processors but also pair the processor with lots of memory. Random-access memory (RAM) is where your laptop stores temporary data for quick access. Memory impacts how many data-intensive programs you can run and how fast you can run them, either by aiding peak performance or serving as a bottleneck that slows performance if too little memory is installed.
Graphics performance is also key, especially for any work that requires complex visuals, whether it’s editing photos and video or rendering graphs and digital models. Most basic work machines come with Intel’s integrated graphics solution, which handles all graphics rendering through a dedicated portion of the processor. This is enough to handle basic video playback, presentations and even some photo editing. Others, however, use a discrete graphics card from NVIDIA or AMD, which has its own processing hardware just for rendering visuals.
In testing the graphics capability of each system, we use two tests from the FutureMark 3DMark Professional test suite. The first, Ice Storm Unlimited, measures performance in a variety of graphics-related tasks, including physics rendering, real-time lighting and heavy particle effects, and is geared toward entry-level machines with integrated graphics chips. The second, Fire Strike Ultra, tests the most powerful dedicated GPUs and pushes the limits of their abilities with high resolutions up to 4K. As with performance, we combine these two scores into a single grade for overall graphics performance, but individual scores can be found in each product review. Higher scores indicate better graphics capability.
Design & Construction
Battery life is related to the overall performance, as it lets you stay productive on the go, away from a power outlet. In our testing, we strive to provide as close an approximation to real world use as possible, while also removing major variables. To do so, we use a test script that replicates web surfing over Wi-Fi with screen brightness set to 100 nits and other power settings set to a standard configuration. Times are measured from the start of the test to the moment the laptop powers down from a drained battery. A longer-lasting battery is better, giving you more time to work between charges.
Portability is also a major point of distinction. Some systems, like the Lenovo ThinkPad X1 Carbon, are slim and light – weighing under 3 pounds, they are designed to offer unparalleled portability. Others, like the HP Zbook 15u G3 and Apple MacBook Pro 15, emphasize stationary performance over the ability to pick up and go, tipping the scales at up to 4.5 pounds. While there’s no clear cut winner between the lighter and heavier systems, lighter-weight laptops are easier for professionals on the move to pack and carry.
You may not think it immediately, but the display on a business laptop directly impacts your productivity. Higher resolution displays fit more pixels per inch than their lower-resolution counterparts, letting you fit more on the screen. In our evaluation, a higher resolution is better because it displays better detail in images and sharper, more readable text.
Higher quality displays also prevent eyestrain, a real concern when working for hours at a time. We tested both brightness and color quality, and we also referenced Laptop Mag's test results for some systems. Brightness is measured in nits, a measure equivalent to a square meter of light produced by a single candle. With display brightness dialed up to the highest level, readings were taken in the center and four corners of the display and averaged together to find maximum display brightness. Business laptops generally have screen that are 200 to 400 nits bright, but in our hands-on testing, displays below 250 nits were noticeably dim.
Color accuracy is another part of display quality. This is measured in DeltaE, which is the deviation between the true color and the representation of that color on the display, as measured with a colorimeter. Color accuracy tests display a sequence of 70 different colors, measuring the accuracy of each and then averaging the accuracy overall (Average DeltaE). Closer to zero is better, while anything higher than 1 indicates color variance that can be seen by the unaided eye.
What Else Is Important in a Business Laptop?
While those three core factors have the largest impact on your laptop’s overall performance, there are several other specifications and features to think about.
Storage is an important element to consider, as it determines how many programs and documents your computer can hold, and limitations here can inhibit your ability to do your job. The style of drive is of some importance; traditional hard drives (HDD) have higher storage capacities, but solid-state drives (SSD) have faster overall performance and are better suited to mobile use. All else being equal, an SSD is preferred for its superior performance, but a need for affordable capacity may trump that recommendation.
The drives included in our review start at 128GB of space, which is enough to support your operating system – Windows 10 Pro uses a full 30GB of space on its own – and leaves nearly 100GB free for software and storage. That may be enough for your day-to-day work, but if you routinely deal with large files, you may want to step up to a 500GB or 1TB drive.
Larger files can take up a lot of space; a single DVD’s worth of data is in the 4GB to 8GB range, depending on the format, while a full Blu-ray disc holds 25GB and ultra HD movies can hit 100GB for a single film. A 1TB hard drive holds roughly 1,000GB worth of data. When in doubt, opt for more storage space.
Connectivity is another must-have for any business laptop. Wi-Fi, or wireless networking, is standard on all current PCs, but some offices require a wired Ethernet connection for accessing a secure network. Business travelers may also want to look for built-in Ethernet, since some hotels don’t offer Wi-Fi or have slower speeds for wireless users. Another consideration for travelers is mobile broadband. Much like a smartphone, using a SIM card and a data contract, you can access an internet connection anywhere your phone gets a signal. It’s a separate expense, but it’s nice to have if you’re regularly out in the field.
You also want to pay attention to port selection. Standard ports include USB 3.0 and HDMI, though other video outputs like Mini DisplayPorts and VGA are also common. USB can be used to connect a keyboard, mouse and other specialized peripherals, while the various video outputs can be used to connect to monitors, TVs and projectors.
Some of the laptops we reviewed include newer advanced connections like USB-C, Thunderbolt 2 and Thunderbolt 3. These high-speed connections do much more, with data and display connectivity in one and enough bandwidth to support multiple peripherals through a single port. Accessories that use these ports are less common but will become more widely available in the next few years.
Other features of interest to business users are security minded. A built-in fingerprint reader provides unique biometric security for logins, and SmartCard readers work with security badges for authorized computer access.
Help & Support
Finally, take a look at the help and support options for each laptop. Many business laptops have a standard warranty that extends beyond the basic one-year coverage you get on a consumer system, and warranty extensions are always available for longer and more comprehensive coverage.
Watch for things like on-site support, in which a support person comes to you to get things back up and running, or remote access, which lets an authorized support person access a troubled system directly and fix things right away. Accidental damage protection gives you some peace of mind by offering extra protection for things like spills and drops, which aren’t included in the basic warranty. And because your data is especially valuable to your business, some coverage plans even include asset recovery services to restore damaged or corrupted drives.
Best Business Laptops: Our Verdict & Recommendations
Of the many business laptops we reviewed, three stand out as the best of the bunch. The Dell XPS 15 is our Gold Award winner. It’s just as popular in the office as it is the home thanks to powerful processing and graphics hardware, category-leading performance, and an impressive 4K touchscreen. With an array of useful features and premium construction, it’s an easy pick for our top business-class laptop.
The Silver Award winner is the HP Zbook 15u G3, a mobile workstation that combines potent performance and a wide array of features with a durable design and generous warranty. The 15-inch laptop boasts an Intel Core i7 processor; AMD FirePro graphics; and features like built-in docking, a SmartCard reader and a speedy USB-C port to have you working as soon as you power it up. This blend of work-ready capability and warranty-backed durability will keep you working for years.
The Bronze Award winner is the svelte Lenovo ThinkPad X1 Carbon, the latest in a long line of laptops made to deliver superior business performance in an extremely portable ultrabook design. With lightweight carbon fiber construction, all-day battery life and a healthy feature set, it’s not only one of the best business laptops in our review, it’s also the best for the road warrior that needs to stay productive outside of the office. Whether you use it on a plane across the country or just to work through the day’s meetings, it’s a great choice.
Other top picks include the versatile Lenovo ThinkPad X1 Yoga, which combines the slim stylings of the Bronze Award winner with a two-in-one design that lets you use it as a tablet as well as a laptop. It has all the perks of the X1 Carbon with the addition of longer battery life, a touchscreen and the convertible design that is the hallmark of Lenovo’s Yoga models.
If long lasting battery is the primary concern, take a look at the Apple MacBook Pro 13-inch with Retina Display, the smaller sibling to the popular MacBook Pro 15. The smaller 13-inch system offers the best battery life of the bunch, lasting more than 12 hours. While all of the systems in our review can take you through a full work day, this one is the only one that can be used from sun up to sundown.
Finally, if you need the most budget-friendly laptop for business use, the Lenovo ThinkPad 13 carries the smallest price tag in our review. It may not be the leading performer or have the lightest design, but it delivers good enough performance for general business use without costing as much as those top performers.
Choosing the right business laptop can be the difference between successful work and unprofitable frustration. No matter what your business needs, there is a laptop out there that offers the right combination of performance and features, letting you work quickly and use whatever accessories and security you need.