How to choose a business laptop

If you’re setting up a new business, either working from home or for a storefront, then you’ll almost certainly need to buy a new computer. It’s also likely that you’ll want to get something light and portable instead of buying a desktop, most new businesses in my experience will go with either a laptop or a small box pre-built machine that works very much like a laptop. In this article, we’ll run through some of the things to look out for when buying this new computer, and what the various specifications mean.

Specifications, CPU, Graphics Card, etc..

CPU, graphics card, Wifi, what does it mean? Usually, it doesn’t really matter unless you have some kind of high intensity use intended for it and you need a powerful machine. Things like game development, 3D modelling or AI research will need dedicated machines with specialized specifications, but if you’re doing that odds are likely you’re already building your own machine anyway. In general, specifications don’t really matter for word processing and other normal business activities outside of two things.

Firstly, you must absolutely insure that your new machine has a Solid State Drive (SSD) in it. This part can get a bit confusing, since things like eMMC are technically solid state but not really SSDs (and are worse), and things like M.2 devices are not usually considered SSD drives but are actually much better. The one thing you don’t want is a standard rotating drive, all modern operating systems like OSX and Windows 10 are build with SSDs in mind and will run incredibly slowly on non-SSD drives, they’ll run at full speed until you perform any action, then halt for a few seconds, then run at full speed for a second or two, then halt again. It will rapidly get incredibly frustrating, so save yourself the hassle and get an SSD. If it’s not immediately obvious what kind of drive a laptop has, look at the storage on the box, if it’s listed in Terabytes (TB), it’s almost certain to be a rotating drive, if it’s listed in GB (128, 256, 512), then it’s almost certain to be either an SSD or an eMMC drive, although eMMC only usually show up in the very cheapest machines, if you’re buying a new laptop for $300 and it has 64GB of storage, it’s almost guaranteed to be an eMMC device.

Secondly, above anything else you will want to insure that it has as much RAM as possible. The type (DDR3, DDR4, DDR5) is not as critical unless you’re planning to upgrade it later, but it is useful to get a higher DDR standard if possible as the chip layout is easier to upgrade. For reference the RAM is almost always mounted underneath the laptop and is accessible when the bottom panel is unscrewed. Each step up in the DDR standard supports chips with twice as much memory capacity per slot as the one before it, DDR1 has 2GB per slot, DDR2 has 4GB per slot, DDR3 has 8GB and so on. The DDR3 standard has at most 8GB per slot, so on a standard laptop the normal 2 slots will give you a maximum of 16GB on your machine, if you buy a DDR4 machine with 8GB, it means that machine will likely be able to take 32GB later, and when DDR5 is released it’s likely that this pattern will continue to 64GB per laptop. Note that one slot laptops exist, and they do report 2 slots in the Windows resource viewer so be aware of this. It’s also worth noting that in Mac machines the memory is often built into the board and can’t be changed and in some models of Acer laptop, the memory is mounted under the keyboard and can’t be accessed without dismantling the machine, so if you’re planning to upgrade a cheap machine, it’s worth confirming beforehand.

The memory on a laptop (RAM) is used to hold the running programs, the operating system, file data to speed up drive operations and can hold graphics data to make up for an under powered graphics card. It’s absolutely critical to your PC. You may be told that the SSD has something called swap that makes up for low levels of RAM, they are completely different and even the fastest SSD cannot make up for not having enough RAM. This is partly because some software absolutely needs in-memory references to work and won’t run at all if any swap is involved (like the Java runtime or Parallels) and because for software that is being actively used, any swap usage beyond 2GB makes it behave in very strange ways and it will crash randomly. You absolutely need enough RAM to hold everything and even web browsers are now incredibly memory intensive. You will want at least 8GB on any machine that you buy but more is always better.

For basic use, just get a Apple MacBook

The MacBook is the default choice if you’re not running business software that absolutely has to run on Windows. They run Firefox and Chrome, come with fast WiFi adapters and almost all of them have really good SSD drives. Some non-SSD MacMinis are still being made and you must avoid those as they are awful. The failure rate on Macs is much lower than all other computer manufacturers and their screens are also excellent quality. They also don’t get viruses.

As someone working in the IT sector, I often recommend MacBooks as they very rarely have any issues after being first set up.

I need to do something more complicated

If you think you’ll need Windows for some reason, or you have an opportunity to buy a cheap second hand machine and want to get started with that. Then it just depends on what’s available and what’s cheap. Brands change in quality very often, Packard-Bell used to be good, and now they’ve fallen off the market and Lenovo used to be perfect while now they’re just ok.

One thing you absolutely should never do is to get a Surface. The failure rate is very high on them, including driver issues with Windows, something that’s twice as annoying as they’re made by Microsoft, who also makes Windows, though apparently the two teams never talk. They’re also very expensive for their components and will be a hassle if you later need to reformat them.

First things first

The first thing you should do as a new business is to decide what your point of sale system is going to be and buy a computer that matches that. There are web only systems that work with anything that takes a USB slot for the scanner, while older systems that need a serial port and have to run DOS will limit your options to an old desktop-PC that has the serial port and is old enough to take DOS software comfortably. Assuming that there are no special requirements, you'll have much more latitude in choosing your system. Though even if you need a specialized system for your point of sale, if that system is DOS based you may need a second machine for your book-keeping if you're doing it electronically.

If you've set up your own small business and disagree with our assessment, please feel free to contact us and let us know. We'll be happy to amend the article with your observations and we'll reference you with a link.