Are laptops a better choice than desktops? Which specifications really matter? What's the best way to get value for money when purchasing machines for your workforce? Here's everything you need to know.
There was time when buying a laptop computer meant lots of sacrifices. Not only did you lose out on screen and keyboard size but, typically, the amount of storage memory and processor power were compromised.
Today, choosing between a desktop and notebook computer is less about specification and more about fitness for particular purposes.
Laptop Or Desktop: Which One Should You Choose?
The decision between a laptop and desktop is reasonably straightforward. If you only work in one place, then a desktop will most likely suffice. But if you move around, even between rooms or offices, then a laptop is probably a better bet.
With desktops, we've become fans of all-in-one units as they reduce the desktop clutter substantially. While Apple pioneered the all-in-one desktop computer, every major manufacturer now offers desktop computers that pull the screen and "beige box" into a single piece of hardware. No more rat's nest of cables at the back of the desk.
Paired with a wireless keyboard and mouse, an all-in-one looks great and keeps the amount of clutter on your desk at a minimum.
Choosing a laptop is a more complex task.
When choosing a laptop it's important to avoid a "technology first" discussion. Rather than looking for the best balance of performance and cost — which is, frankly, where most IT departments start — look at what the device will be used for.
If the laptop is intended as a second computer for when the user is traveling then something small and light might suffice. In that case, you'll probably be looking at laptops with screens around 11-inches to 13-inches in size. Screen sizes are almost always given in inches and are measured diagonally from corner to corner.
For a laptop that will be the sole computer for the user the equation is more complex. Our starting point is based around three main criteria:
- Screen size
- Keyboard comfort
It's tempting to get bogged down in processor speeds and other technical specifications but the fastest laptop in the world is all but useless if it's difficult to use or carry.
The definition of laptop computer covers a wide gamut of devices. At the smaller end, there are Ultrabooks. Ultrabook is a moniker devised by Intel that is used to define a device that satisfies a number of criteria around size and performance.
Ultrabooks have a maximum screen size of 14-inches and weigh up to 2kg although that can be as low as a kilogram depending on the make and model you choose.
However, if you're considering a smaller laptop, you're not limited to Ultrabooks. Other laptops can share some of the characteristics of the Ultrabook family but not be part of the official Ultrabook program.
If a larger device is more likely to satisfy your user's needs then the market is very wide open. Again, start by asking the user what they actually need. If they are looking for "portable desktop" then a laptop with a 15-inch or larger display will probably suit them well. Although these laptops are larger, heavier and more expensive than many smaller systems, they can deliver plenty of performance, memory and storage capacity.
As far as specifications go, there are a few key things to look out for. Storage in laptops can be delivered either by traditional spinning hard drives or solid state drives (SSDs). Although SSDs cost more per GB than their spinning counterparts, SSDs use less power and offer faster performance. If the laptop is to be the user's only computer, then we'd suggest 256GB of space is the minimum capacity to aim for.
Even though the computer is likely to be a work tool, some personal data such as movies and music will end up on the device. There may as well be some space to accommodate this or you might find corporate applications being sacrificed to make room for the latest episode of The Big Bang Theory.
As far as memory, or RAM, goes — 8GB is a good place to start. If the user will be using the laptop for heavy-duty number crunching, graphics or video editing, then we'd consider going for 16GB. But if the budget doesn’t extend that far, it's worth checking that you can add more memory later.
Processors are the heart of a computer. Intel's mobile processors come in three broad groups: Core i3, Core i5 and Core i7. These processors are now in their fifth iteration with the sixth slated for release either late this year or early next.
Core i3 tends to be offered in entry-level systems with the Core i5 and Core i7 being part of higher end systems.
When you're looking at which CPU best suits your needs there are some minor gotchas to look out for. The Core i3 and Core i5 processors are all dual-core CPUs. That means that the processor chip has two processor cores working together. With the Core i7, some are dual-core and others are quad-core. Depending on your applications, you might find that a Core i5 might offer comparable performance to a dual-core Core i7 at a lower price.
The final factor to consider is battery life. The Ultrabook specification dictates that devices need to support six hours HD video playback and run for nine hours with Windows 8 idle.
These days, laptops ship with Lithium-Ion batteries. Manufacturers like these as they can be moulded in different shapes, allowing for computers to be slimmer and lighter.
There's a lot of conjecture about how to be look after a Li-Ion battery. Some say it should never be run all the way flat while others suggest using your power supply whenever possible. Our experience has been to use mains power when it's convenient and the battery when that's a better option. We routinely get over five hours of use from our 13-inch laptop.
Hardware: Should You Lease Or Buy?
There are times when the IT department needs to work closely with the finance team. Deciding on whether to buy your computers, servers and network gear outright or lease can be a complex decision . Before making a decision as to the best financing model, we think the entire life of the hardware needs to be considered. This starts at the procurement process and ends when the asset needs to be disposed.
Buying equipment is relatively easy. Assuming you've listened to the business and have purchased equipment that meets their requirements it's simply a matter of following your company's purchasing processes and waiting for delivery.
However, disposal can be much more complex.
The disposal discussion needs to start with consideration given to how long an asset will remain in the organisation. In our experience most companies keep desktop and laptop computers for about three years, servers for three to five years and networking gear for at least five years. Your finance department will need to know this. If you're purchasing equipment outright they'll use this to apply a depreciation schedule.
Once the asset is fully depreciated and no longer usable you need a plan for disposing of the asset. Leaving out all the mechanical processes such as wiping corporate data — where will your old computers and other IT equipment go?
If you purchase the gear outright, that's your problem to solve. There may be a charity that will accept the equipment or a reseller that will buy it from you (this is a great way to top up the office Christmas party fund.)
Leasing offers a different path. Rather than paying for the equipment up-front, a finance company makes the payment and you pay them a monthly fee that covers the capital cost plus some interest. This means that the business doesn’t have to spend lots of money in a lump. This can free up cash for investment in the business rather than physical assets that lose value over time.
One of the ways we've used leasing in the past was with the annual refresh of computers we did with a school. At the end of each year, about 300 computers — a mix of laptops, desktops and tablets — reached the end of their life. Our finance company would collect them, thus taking away the hassle of disposal for us. We would refresh those units with new devices that were chosen in consultation with our internal clients.
The interest rate on the lease was quite low as we were using a global supplier who had access to low interest finance from the US. Effectively, as the interest rate was lower that the inflation and CPI rates, we were borrowing discounted money.
Which Peripherals Does Your Computer Need?
Having purchased your desktop or laptop computer, it's time to do some accessorising. Although the working part of your computer is done inside the box by the storage, memory and processor, it's the monitor, mouse and keyboard that you'll spend the most time touching and looking at.
With monitors, most now come with glossy screens as manufacturers feel that these bring out colours more vividly. But if you work near a window or under a light that's in just the wrong spot, you might find looking at your screen is a real pain. There are still matte displays on the market and there are third-party filters that you can use to reduce glare.
When it comes to screen size, bigger is better in our view. Just watch for cheaper displays that skimp on resolution. For example, a lower-priced 27-inch display might have a resolution of 1920 x 1080 whereas a more expensive one might boast 2560 by 1440. This will make a significant difference to the amount of information you can see.
If the budget and desk space can stretch far enough, we're big fans of multi-screen set-ups. There's a bunch of research that suggests running a two-screen system makes you 10-15% more productive.
With keyboards, it's tempting for the IT department to just buy the same inexpensive models for everyone. However, it's worth trying a few out to find the one that best suits your preferences. Some people prefer a more "clicky" feel while others like a quieter model. Try a few before settling on one that you'll be stuck with.
The same goes with mice. While some people prefer a mouse, we prefer to use a trackpad when at the desk as it takes up less space. Again, we're advocates of trying a few options before you commit.
There are lots of other peripherals you might consider. Speakers, USB hubs, external drives , scanners and printers are all on your potential shopping list when decking out your new computer set up.
Checklist: Buying Laptops
- Think about the purpose of the device before deciding on a model. Small and light might look great but if this is your main computer, it might not suit your long-term needs.
- Look a few different models and evaluate the screen, keyboard and general "feel".
- Carry the device in a bag with its power supply to ensure that you'll be comfortable carrying it around.
- If you're planning to use it in the office, budget for an external monitor, mouse and keyboard.
- Don’t skimp on storage or memory - you'll most likely be constrained by these before the processor causes you grief.
- Consider specific models that are part of a product family such as Ultrabooks as they dictate some minimum capabilities such as size and battery life.
You should now have a pretty solid understanding of the ins-and-outs of laptops and desktops. Check in at the same time and place next Monday for an overview of management software.