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Business Notebook Categories

Craig Ward, Daniel R Deakin, 09/13/2018

Business notebooks tend to attract less interest than consumer models. The business market is actually quite a large and lucrative one, but the "purchaser pool" is much smaller, with a small handful of people normally responsible for buying dozens or even hundreds of devices for their offices. However, business-class notebooks can be a sensible consumer option too if the features and design match your criteria.

Introduction

The business notebook landscape might not be as varied or as exciting as the consumer categories, and it certainly doesn’t grab as many headlines. But there is actually a surprisingly large number of devices to choose from with different styles depending on the final usage scenario. Whether your business needs a sturdy workhorse, a powerful workstation, a traveling ultraportable, or a secure thin-client, there is an option for you.

The notebooks shown below are examples from our recent reviews that fit into each category for comparison purposes. This isn't a "best of" ranking and brands are listed alphabetically.

Business Lines/Workhorses

This generic category is what the majority of readers will think of when someone mentions business notebooks. These are the models that fit into most manufacturers ‘business’ product lines with a focus on connectivity, docking stations, stability, and durability.

On the connectivity front, it is standard to have three or four USB 3 ports, HDMI and/or VGA for projectors, and often a 10/100/1000 mbps LAN port is present. In the last couple of years, it has become increasingly common for one of the USB 3 ports to now be a USB-C one, and the VGA plug is starting to disappear as fewer legacy projectors remain in circulation.

While almost any laptop can be connected to a third-party docking station using USB 3, USB-C, or Thunderbolt, business models tend to come with a proprietary docking connector on the underside. This slot lines up with guide pins on manufacturer-provided docking stations for rapidly clicking into place or for quick release via a lever. USB-C and Thunderbolt are making these connectors redundant, but in the past they offered higher bandwidth and a more seamless experience than the slower USB docks. Its main advantages today are ergonomic designs that act as a laptop stand and backward compatibility that delays the need to buy dozens or even hundreds of new USB-C/Thunderbolt docks.

Business notebooks tend to utilize sturdy designs that can withstand the abuse of being transported by users who don’t actually own the device and therefore might be a little more careless. We also find these models have chassis that are easy to open up for cleaning or part replacement.

Toshiba Tecra X40
Toshiba Tecra X40

Examples include:

Legend

 
Acer TravelMate 2410-G2-MG-82E6 Intel Core i7-8550U, NVIDIA GeForce MX130, SK Hynix HFS256G39TND-N210A
 
Dell Latitude 5590 Intel Core i5-8250U, Intel UHD Graphics 620, SK hynix SC311 M.2
 
Dell Latitude 7490 Intel Core i7-8650U, Intel UHD Graphics 620, Samsung PM961 MZVLW256HEHP
 
HP EliteBook 850 G5 3JX58EA Intel Core i5-8250U, Intel UHD Graphics 620, Toshiba XG5 KXG50ZNV256G
 
HP ProBook 645 G4 3UP62EA AMD Ryzen 5 PRO 2500U, AMD Radeon RX Vega 8, Toshiba XG5 KXG50ZNV256G
 
Lenovo ThinkPad E580-20KSCTO1WW Intel Core i5-8250U, Intel UHD Graphics 620, Toshiba KBG30ZMT128G
 
Lenovo ThinkPad T580-20L9001AUS Intel Core i7-8650U, Intel UHD Graphics 620, Samsung SSD PM981 MZVLB512HAJQ
 
Toshiba Tecra X40-E-10W Intel Core i5-8250U, Intel UHD Graphics 620, Samsung PM961 MZVLW256HEHP

Workstations

Workstations are the real powerhouses of the business notebook world. For about a decade from the late 1990s into the 2000s, we had this recurring theme of reviewers and consumers declaring successive generations of notebooks as “true desktop replacements.” The idea was that these laptops had the port selection and raw performance needed to be legitimate replacements for most people’s desktop computers, i.e. to the point where you weren’t losing anything that mattered to the general public. Most will agree that we met that point around the mid to late 2000s.

The more intensive workloads that workstations are subjected to require strong multithreaded performance, large quantities of RAM (sometimes ECC), and workstation GPUs designed with a focus on rendering and computational tasks instead of gaming. The last couple of generations have reached the point where a notebook can now be a true replacement for a desktop workstation.

There are some concessions in the CPU department, though. Intel’s 8th generation Xeons plus AMD's Ryzen and Threadripper chips have made 8C/16T and 16C/32T desktop workstations a possibility for professionals, but workstation laptops generally max out at 6C/12T (although you occasionally see 8C/16T Ryzens). While these laptops have noticeably lower thread counts than current gen desktop workstations, they are on par with a standard workstation from the previous generation, such as the 7th gen Kaby Lake.

Thanks to Nvidia’s Pascal architecture, there is less of a difference in performance of the Quadro graphics cards used in desktops versus notebooks. The rule of thumb is to apply an approximate 10% reduction in performance on the mobile cards, similar to what we see in the gaming-orientated GTX series.

Workstation-branded notebooks from most OEMs will have four DIMM slots; therefore, it is normal for them to include options of 32 GB or 64 GB of DDR4 memory, like their desktop brethren.

HP Zbook 15 G4
HP Zbook 15 G4

Examples include:

Legend

 
Dell Precision 3530 Intel Xeon E-2176M, NVIDIA Quadro P600, SK hynix PC400 512 GB
 
Dell Precision 5530 Xeon E-2176M Intel Xeon E-2176M, NVIDIA Quadro P2000, SK hynix PC400 512 GB
 
HP ZBook 17 G4-Y3J82AV Intel Xeon E3-1535M v6, NVIDIA Quadro P5000, Samsung SSD SM961 1TB M.2 MZVKW1T0HMLH
 
HP ZBook 15 G4-Y4E80AV Intel Xeon E3-1535M v6, NVIDIA Quadro M2200, Samsung SSD SM961 1TB M.2 MZVKW1T0HMLH
 
Lenovo ThinkPad P52 20MAS03N00 Intel Core i7-8750H, NVIDIA Quadro P1000, Samsung SSD PM981 MZVLB512HAJQ

Road Warriors/Ultraportable

A disproportionately large portion of reader interest is directed towards our reviews of devices that are considered “thin and light” within each of their respective categories. This enthusiasm for compact computers is possibly at its strongest within the ultraportable category of 10 to 13-inch lightweight ultrabooks.

It’s easy to see why people are so drawn to this category. The sleek lines and svelte form-factor are pleasing to the eye, while the weight and dimensions fit with our expectations of portability in modern computing. Ultra-low voltage (ULV) Intel chips dominate this segment, although AMD’s ULV variants of its Ryzen architecture compete strongly in processing power and video capabilities. Ultraportables have enough processing power and RAM for everyday business tasks (email, CRM software), but they fall behind the larger devices found in other categories when it comes to anything more resource intensive.

We can actually split this category into two subcategories. The first category contains the more modern (in relative terms) 13.3-inch ultrabooks, which have increasingly become the de facto standard for traveling business people or mobile IT staff. The other category features the more traditional 12.5-inch ultraportable that was prevalent through the early to late 2000s. Companies such as Lenovo are keeping this category alive thanks to their popularity among frequent air and train travelers, who appreciate the smaller footprint that better fits on tray tables and the reduced vertical height for tucking in behind seat backs.

Asus Pro B9440UA
Asus Pro B9440UA

Examples in the 13.3-inch category include:

Legend

 
Apple MacBook Pro 13 2018 Touchbar i5 Intel Core i5-8259U, Intel Iris Plus Graphics 655,
 
Asus ASUSPRO B9440UA-GV0101T Intel Core i7-7500U, Intel HD Graphics 620, Micron SSD 1100 SED 512GB, M.2 (MTFDDAV512TBN)
 
Dell Latitude 7390 Intel Core i7-8650U, Intel UHD Graphics 620, Samsung PM961 MZVLW256HEHP
 
HP EliteBook 830 G5-3JX74EA Intel Core i7-8550U, Intel UHD Graphics 620, Samsung SSD PM961 1TB M.2 PCIe 3.0 x4 NVMe (MZVLW1T0)
 
Lenovo ThinkPad X1 Tablet Gen 2 Intel Core i5-7Y54, Intel HD Graphics 615, Samsung PM961 MZVLW256HEHP
 
Lenovo ThinkPad X380 Yoga-20LH000LUS Intel Core i5-8250U, Intel UHD Graphics 620, Samsung SSD PM981 MZVLB512HAJQ

There are two models above that we need to specifically address. First, we gave some thought to whether the MacBook Pro 13 2018 should be included in this list or not since it sits more to the consumer side of the product spectrum. In the end, we decided that Apple lacks any real consumer/business differentiation within its 'Pro' line-up and the MacBook Pro 13 is used commonly enough in businesses to be added here. The second is the addition of Asus's business notebook. It actually has a 14-inch screen, but the footprint is closer to a traditional 13.3-inch notebook and it comes in at barely over one kg (1.05 kg / 2.31 pounds), so it made the cut.

Lenovo X280
Lenovo X280

Examples in the sub 13.3-inch category include:

Legend

 
Dell Latitude 5290 Intel Core i5-8250U, Intel UHD Graphics 620, Micron 1100 MTFDDAV256TBN
 
Dell Latitude 5290 2-in-1 Intel Core i5-8350U, Intel UHD Graphics 620, Toshiba XG5 KXG50ZNV256G
 
HP Pro X2 612 G1 Intel Core i3-4012Y, Intel HD Graphics 4200,
 
Lenovo ThinkPad X280-20KES01S00 Intel Core i5-8250U, Intel UHD Graphics 620, Samsung SSD PM981 MZVLB512HAJQ
 
Microsoft Surface Pro (2017) i5 Intel Core i5-7300U, Intel HD Graphics 620, Samsung PM971 KUS030202M

Conclusion

Business notebook categories might not garner the same level of excitement as consumer models, but hopefully we have shown that there is still a respectable amount of variation. Businesses can choose sturdy workhorses, powerful workstations, or compact travel companions, depending on what the company's needs are.

It will be interesting to see where the growth within the business category will be in the future. Will mobile workstations become increasingly common? Will ultraportables continue their rapid growth? Or will something like small tablets become the business norm?

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Craig Ward, 2018-09-13 (Update: 2018-10-15)