Friday 9 December 2016

Laptops: 5 best in the business

Published 28/07/2016 | 02:30

Dell XPS
Dell XPS
HP Spectre
Toshiba Portege 730
Macbook Pro 13
Lenovo Thinkpad X1

Is there a perfect work laptop? If so, should it prioritise power, weight or battery life? And is there any real difference between the big brands offering you Windows machines? Our Tehcnology Editor looks at the five main contenders to make your life easier

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Dell XPS 13 (€1,189)

It's a long time since Dell was a byword for 'dull'. The company's XPS 13 laptop is arguably the best overall Windows work machines you can buy if you want to keep within touching distance €1,000. The machine's best feature is the way that Dell has all but eliminated the screen's bezel to a hair's breadth. This means that what is supposed to be a 13-inch laptop takes up no more space than a 12-inch or 11-inch laptop, with consequent transportation advantages.

The loss of the bezel also means that the XPS 13 is incredibly light. (At 1.2kg, it's over 10pc lighter than Apple's skinny 13-inch MacBook Air.) It has excellent power configurations, starting at an Intel i5 chip, 8GB of Ram and 256GB of internal storage memory. The 2k 'full HD' screen is also impressive: Dell will upgrade it to a touchscreen for an additional €300, an option most are unlikely to look for.

Battery life is good to excellent, at well over seven hours' use.

The backlit keyboard is decent and there's plenty of connections of offer, with USB 3, Thunderbolt and a memory card port. In terms of design and aesthetics, the XPS 13 is fine if not outstanding.

Toshiba Portege Z30-C (€1,470)

If 'light' laptops have an Achilles heel, it's in the compromises they make to aesthetic sensibilities - they have to be a little more plasticky than one would ultimately prefer. This is probably the only fault I could with Toshiba's otherwise excellent Z30-C. And even calling it a fault is probably debatable. Although I would personally give up 100 grams or more of weight for a more pleasing surface material, frequent travellers may not. And so the Z30-C keeps its weight down to 1.2kg and stays very slim. This is a pricey machine, partly because it is aimed squarely at work-oriented users, or at least those with IT departments that require them to use things like ethernet cables.

So one of the first things you'll notice about it is its nubbin-like track point in the middle of the keyboard. This is retained mainly for the over 45s, a considerably large laptop-using business demographic.

The laptop's keyboard is effective, comfortable and practical. As well as being backlit, it's spill-resistant. This is mainly useful for planes, now that Aer Lingus has switched over to exploding milk sachets.

My review model had lots and lots of power, thanks to an i7 processor and 8GB of Ram. It also came with a 256GB solid hard drive.

The glare-resistant screen is decent, but not the best on the market for things like movies. The same goes for the speakers. Its battery is excellent, though, with over eight hours of word processing, video and web stuff achieved in one sitting. This isn't really the kind of laptop you'll be mulling as a photo-editing or Netflix provider. But it you're a road warrior, it'll do the job very nicely.

Apple MacBook Pro (from €1,499)

If you don't need to use a Windows machine for work and your laptop is likely to be used at least partly for non-work purposes, an Apple device is a very strong option.

I own both the MacBook Air and the current MacBook Pro. While there is a good case to made for the (cheaper, slimmer, lighter) MacBook Air in work life, I think the Pro remains the flagship Apple laptop for robust work-related use. The main reason is still its future-proof speed and power. Even if Apple updates the Pro later this year, this model will still be a completely competent workhorse for at least the next three years. It has a superb 'retina' high resolution screen, a 2.7Ghz Intel i5 processor and 8GB of Ram. And while it is slightly bulkier than its MacBook Air sibling, the Air is actually only 10pc lighter. You can carry and use this almost anywhere you can use a MacBook Air. Otherwise, the MacBook Pro's design still ranks as an industry highpoint. From the metallic casing material to the cohesion of the hinges and the beautiful backlit keyboard, this is generally a pleasure to use. The trackpad also has 'Force Touch' functionality, compared to the Air's regular trackpad.

While much of my work is straightforward word processing, some of it requires graphics, preparation of presentations or large image processing. The MacBook Pro speeds through these tasks without a moment's lag.

It's possible that if you work for a large company, your IT department may specify a preference for a Windows-based laptop for the purposes of managing software. But for everyone else, this is a super work machine.

Lenovo ThinkPad X1 Carbon 4th Gen (from €1,589)

ThinkPads have a decent reputation as long-life, robust, work-friendly laptops. And the fourth generation X1 Carbon appears to be no exception. It packs an unfeasibly generous amount of utility into a very light, very slim 14-inch laptop. Its 1.2kg frame makes it lighter than a (smaller) MacBook Air, meaning you can slip it and out of bags that normally only take 12-inch machines. But there's no slacking on features, with a 2K, high resolution (anti-glare) screen, comfy backlit keyboard and very quick Intel i7 processors. The laptop's battery life come in at around eight hours, which is middle of the road. File this one under laptops to get work done on the road.

HP Spectre X360 13 (€1,300)

It's taken a while, but 'convertible' laptops are starting to bring some real extra functionality to portable PCs.

Take HP's 13-inch Spectre X360, which I've been playing with for a couple of weeks. Other than some high-end technical specifications, which I'll get to in a second, its main appeal is the screen flexibility that its hinge affords.

Basically, you can flip the screen right around until it backs onto the keyboard.

But all points in between make it functional too - you can stand it up as a single screen if you want to for presentations or simply to watch movies on.

Obviously, HP's intent is that this also makes it useful as a 'tablet', although I still have reservations about Windows-based tablets - Windows was and remains an awkward operating system for touchscreen operations.

It's simply not optimised for this form of input: try to toggle quickly through applications using just the touchscreen features and you'll see what I mean.

To be fair, if you never used any of the Spectre X360's tablet touchscreen features, you'd still have a pretty powerful, slick laptop.

The super-slim form factor is gorgeous, with a silver metallic body making it feel like a cross between a MacBook Air and a MacBook Pro.

The trackpad on it is huge - almost seven inches across. The backlit keyboard is very comfortable to type on, too.

If you like your physical connections, this laptop has them all with three USB ports, a HDMi port and a memory card reader.

There's also a volume button on the side of the laptop as well as a shortcut key to the home screen. The bright 1080p screen is excellent (it's configurable up to 4K), with very decent speakers built in.

My test laptop had 128GB of storage memory, an Intel i5 chip and 4GB of Ram (although the specs HP gives out appear to stipulate 8GB of Ram as standard).

If I was to pick any holes in it, it might be its weight. At 1.5kg this is a little heavier than some other similarly sized skinny laptops out there.

But otherwise, if you need to stick with Windows and are looking for some flexibility, this is an excellent buy.

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