Revealed: the best four laptops on the market which will do a top job for any business user
What are your options for your next business laptop? Do you go with raw power, pure portability or something in between? Are touchscreens and styluses becoming important? Should it be Windows or Mac? With so many to choose from, our tech editor looks at the latest offerings
Microsoft Surface Laptop
Price: from €1,169 (4GB, 128GB, Core i5)
Pros: Great design, good power, light, slim, decent battery
Cons: No USB-C port, no SD memory card slot, Windows 10 S is limiting
It's hard to think about Microsoft as a high-end computer hardware company, but that's what it is gradually proving itself to be.
First it came up with the Surface Pro, a tablet-laptop hybrids that drove many competitors to copy the form factor. Now, it has come out with a pretty impressive touchscreen laptop called the Surface Laptop.
I've sometimes been critical of Microsoft's efforts (especially in mobile), but fair is fair: this is arguably the laptop of the year. It is absolutely the Windows equivalent of Apple's MacBook Air.
It has one drawback: a new restricted operating system called 'Windows 10 S' that's pre-loaded onto the device. But given that Microsoft is offering a free upgrade to Windows 10 Pro until the end of this year, it's no more than a minor irritation.
Aesthetically, Microsoft has got it spot on. The Surface Laptop is a slim, light machine that you can fairly easily bring around in a bag. Its most noticeable design feature is its 'alcantra' velvety skin around the keyboard. This feels a little like the brushed finish on the back of the Surface screen protector. I was a little worried that it might be difficult to keep from attracting smudges or stains, but it wipes clean relatively easily.
I also like that the Surface Laptop comes in different colours (silver, gold, blue and burgundy).
The physical handling of the Surface Laptop is excellent. Its keyboard is far better than that of its Surface Pro sibling, although this is to be expected given that it's non-detachable and firmer.
There is a modest number of physical connector ports (including a traditional USB port), but no USB-C variant or SD memory card slot. For me, this is a small irritant as I transfer photos a lot. It probably won't bother most. On balance, I like having a touchscreen on a laptop. Windows isn't a natural operating system for touchscreens, which severely limits touch functionality in getting between programs. However, with individual apps (such as Netflix) it's intuitive and efficient.
Aside from its tactility, the quality of the screen display is toward the best you can get on the market. It's bright, vivid and performs extremely well.
Because it's a touchscreen laptop, Microsoft also sells a Surface Pen (€110, separately) that works with it. For those who find this format useful, the pen is more accurate and responsive than previous versions. I'm not a frequent user of styluses on screens so I can't say this did much for me. The biggest quibble anyone will have with the Surface Laptop is its 'Windows 10 S' operating system. This is a restricted version of Windows 10 that doesn't let you download apps other than those available in the official Windows Store. Many people will run into annoying limitations very quickly. For example, you're stuck with Microsoft's Edge operating system because neither Chrome nor Firefox is available in the Windows Store. (Edge is actually quite good, but I personally prefer Firefox.)
The reason for Windows 10 S was to maximise power and security of the participating device, as well as creating a 'safe' computing environment. As such, it's aimed at boosting the Surface Laptop among school users.
But for grown-up professionals, it's overly restrictive. The good news is that Microsoft knows this. It is allowing a free upgrade to Windows 10 Pro until the end of this 2017.
My review model was the basic version, with an Intel i5 processor, 4GB of Ram and 128GB of storage. This is enough for the majority of tasks, including virtually any online operations. However, if you think you're likely to throw a bit more at this machine (photo and video editing especially), it's worth spending a bit more to get the next level up, which has 8GB of Ram and 256GB of storage.
Microsoft's Surface Laptop doesn't break any moulds. It's just a very well made portable computer, that's fun to use and has an absolute premium feel to it.
It's not cheap. But you get what you pay for. And this is worth the money.
Hey, big contender: 3 rivals to Microsoft Surface
Apple iPad Pro 10.5 (from €749)
Pros: Powerful, ultra-compact, improved multi-tasking
Cons: Keyboard not as good as 'fixed' keyboards
Apple's latest generation of iPad Pro tablets are getting a lot closer to the workflow capabilities of regular laptops. The brand new 10.5-inch version is arguably the best of the lot. Its larger screen makes a difference to multitasking: splitting the screen into two panels (a word processor on side and, say, email or Safari on the other) can now be a default setting.
This helps productivity a lot. New features in iOS 11 also mean you can now drag and drop files from one location to another. Apple's new Files system also lets you change the way you set up your workflow.
You can store and work with documents and images that are stored either locally on the machine or in commonly used cloud services such as Dropbox, Box or iCloud Drive.
There's also a new customisable Dock that provides quick access to frequently used apps and documents from any screen.
The new tablet has a screen that's bigger by almost 20pc compared to its 9.7-inch predecessor. Despite this, the overall size of the unit has only increased by 7pc. There's a newly-released (resized) Smart Keyboard to go with this iPad Pro. It's slightly bigger than the last one (for the 9.7-inch model) but I remain a fan. The only disadvantage is that it's not, for obvious reasons, backlit. That puts you at a disadvantage if using it in dark locations.
Apple has added a more power to the engine under the hood. This comes in the form of an A10x processor, which Apple says delivers over 30pc faster performance than the previous iPad Pro machines. It's faster than most laptops. Like other iPads, you can get this one with or without a 4G service option. It starts at 64GB (€749 wifi only) and goes up to 512GB of storage memory.
New MacBook Pro 13 Retina with Touch Bar (€1,979)
Pros: Touch ID to unlock, great design
Cons: Only Thunderbolt (USB-C) ports
Apple's latest flagship MacBook Pro has a new attraction in the form of its 'Touch Bar'. In a nutshell, this is a touch-sensitive strip at the top of the computer's keyboard that has a number of shortcuts depending on what program you're using. When using the computer in a general way, it has useful controls such as screen brightness, volume and a shortcut to Siri. When you're using specific applications, such as Safari, it lets you change window or immediately conduct a new search.
The idea is that the Touch Bar can be programmable for bespoke applications. One unfettered touch-based gain that the new MacBook Pro model has is its Touch ID security. Like an iPhone or iPad, this uses your fingerprint to unlock the machine. It speeds up access to the computer considerably.
From a workflow perspective, there are some noticeable variations between this machine and earlier MacBook Pro models. The main differences are the ports and the keyboard. The 2017 top-end model has four Thunderbolt 3 (USB C) ports.
The advantage is that these help the laptop charge astonishingly quickly. The disadvantage is that some legacy external devices I have, including storage drives, now need an adapter to connect to it. It also doesn't have a memory card port. The keyboard on the new machine is a little different, too. Its keys are a little shallower without quite as much feedback. It's not an advantage over the old keyboard, but I didn't notice much difference in using it.
One definite advantage is that the new MacBook Pro is slimmer and slightly lighter than my existing model. This matters a great deal, especially in an era when (even lighter) 'pro' tablets are starting to be formidable rivals to laptops for portable working.
Other motivations to upgrade include an excellent, expanded touchpad, improved speakers and a superb HD screen.
HP Elitebook X360 (€2,099)
Pros: Powerful, slim, screen flips right round
Cons: Pricey for a Windows laptop
This is a very well made, high-end device with excellent performance levels, though it might be overkill for those who don't need to bother with screen styluses.
Aside from being a powerful. Slim laptop, the X360's 13-inch screen flips right over to the back of the keyboard so it can be used as a tablet or a video screen. Its solid hinge lets you stand it up as a multimedia device, too - probably its most useful application for Netflix or Sky Go subscribers.
It comes with a battery-powered stylus pen. Personally, I don't know many who use laptops (or tablets) as screens to physically scribble or draw on. But computer and tablet manufacturers think they're out there, as successive models from Microsoft (Surface), Samsung (Tab S Pro) and Apple (iPad Pro) attest.
The X360's physical metallic design is very nice, if conventional. It bears more than a passing resemblance to a MacBook Pro. This is hardly a bad thing, however.
It's reasonably light at 1.3kg. The backlit keyboard is nicely ergonomic, with large keys spaced out. For the user, there's a satisfying muted click to each key.
The HD screen quality is excellent: a 4K option is also available. A pair of Bang & Olufsen branded speakers sit below the laptop. They're pretty decent and are designed to use whatever hard surface lying underneath the machine as a complement. This generally works well, although it can get muffled on a lap.
There's a 3.5mm audio headphone jack, two regular USB ports, a USB-C port, HDMI port and microSD card port. For business users and those generally concerned with privacy, there is a useful optional feature called Sure View that blacks out side angle viewing of the screen. For added security, there's a fingerprint reader placed on the lower right hand side of the laptop.