Wednesday 23 October 2019

Five of the best: business laptops that put in the extra hours


Stock image
Stock image
Lenovo Thinkpad X1 Yoga
Dell XPS 13
Apple MacBook Air
Microsoft Surface Pro 6
Apple iPad Pro 11
Adrian Weckler

Adrian Weckler

While much attention is given these days to which flagship phone is best, work laptops are still a critical part of our business lives.

Reliability, speed and ease of use are the hallmarks of a good device.

But should your portable machine prioritise power, weight or battery life? Is a touchscreen relevant? Or a 360 hinge? Do keyboards vary in effectiveness on modern laptops? Is there any real difference between the big brands offering you Windows machines?

And can 'pro' tablets offer a real alternative? Adrian Weckler looks at five main contenders between €1,000 and €2,000 that will vie to help you speed through a daily workload in comfort and style.

1 Lenovo Thinkpad X1 Yoga

Price: from €1,589 

Lenovo Thinkpad X1 Yoga

For a long time, ThinkPad laptops have been a staple for a particular type of business laptop user. It’s not that they have any single technical feature that definitely trumps what’s on offer from rival brands. It’s just that ThinkPads put them all together so compactly and competently. This element has changed very little since the brand was transferred from IBM to Lenovo a decade or so ago.

The keyboard, in particular, has always been a ThinkPad strength. On the X1 Yoga, you can again see why. There’s just the right amount of give on the backlit keyboard. It also retains that small nubbin in the keyboard that gives you an alternative cursor navigation method to the touchpad. It’s not something I use much any more, but some still like it.

In essence, this is a high-end business laptop for people who still want the option of using things they’re used to. So while this year’s ThinkPad X1 Yoga is a lot slimmer and lighter than last year’s, it still has quite a few of the legacy connection ports. This can’t be taken for granted these days – many laptops are now ditching USB-A ports (especially) in favour of two or three USB-C ports.

The battery on the 2019 model is likely to be better than last year’s too. You should comfortably get seven or eight hours from this, up from the five or six I got on the 2018 model.

But the X1 Yoga also has a non-traditional 14-inch touchscreen that flips all the way around, making it a good portable screen for presentations or movies in your off-time.

It rotates right around to on its 360-degree hinge to give you an option either of a long tablet or a screen that stands upright. Both are useful to have: if you’re the type to give presentations or use notes during a meeting, having something tablet-like is far more natural than awkwardly balancing a laptop in your arm.

Similarly, rotating the screen around so that it stands upright is a space-saving method for when you need to jump on video meeting calls or go through a presentation at a table with colleagues. (This physical setup is also useful as a makeshift TV or video player on a plane or in a hotel room.)

As far as connections go, it has two USB-C (Thunderbolt) ports, either of which can be used to power the device. There are also two regular USB ports. There’s no SD card port, which is a bit of a shame, but there is a 3.5mm headphone port.

From a power perspective, there’s 8GB or 16GB of Ram, eighth generation Intel Core processors and up to 2TB of storage.

This isn’t the lightest or slimmest laptop, but it’s pleasingly high-end in both categories. It weighs 1.4kg, still very light for a 14-inch machine.

2 Dell XPS 13

Price: from €1,299

Dell XPS 13

Dell’s XPS range of laptops has, for some time, been a top three business machine contender. It absolutely has to be considered if you’re looking for a slim, light, powerful, well-designed work machine.

Dell was one of the first to slim the bezels down and the latest model 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 a little lighter than Apple’s skinny 13-inch MacBook Air.)

There are two main configurations of this laptop – a touchscreen and non-touchscreen version. There used to be a considerable price difference between the two, although this gap has narrowed considerably.

The model I’ve chosen here (€1,299) is the touchscreen variant and has good power configurations, starting at an Intel i5 chip, 8GB of Ram and 256GB of internal storage memory.

Arguably the best bang for your buck in this line is the Core i7, 512GB storage model with 16GB of Ram, available for €1,499. This model also has a higher-resolution display (3K) than the standard ‘full HD’ screen.

It’s important to note that you can get a low-powered version of this (Intel Core i3, 4GB of Ram and 128GB of storage) for €1,089, but I really wouldn’t recommend that configuration for a business laptop unless you’re just looking for something aimed at light use such as email or web browsing.

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

The backlit keyboard is decent but there are limited connection ports, with one USB-C, one Thunderbolt and a 3.5mm headphone port. A MicroSD memory card port also comes with the non-touchscreen variants.

In terms of design and aesthetics, the XPS 13 is fine if not outstanding. 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 laptop you can buy for under €1,500.

3 Apple MacBook Air 13

Price: from €1,379

Apple MacBook Air

Apple’s MacBook Pro is usually the model chosen by Mac users as a business laptop, but the company’s new MacBook Air is arguably now as good at a lower price.

The upgraded 2019 laptop’s main design difference is that the ‘bezels’ are far thinner, meaning that the new MacBook Air is 17pc smaller, despite having the same size screen. It is also marginally lighter (1.25kg) than the previous model.

The next biggest upgrade is the display itself, which has been updated to a high resolution ‘retina’ screen, similar to the ones seen on MacBook Pros.

Apple, almost alone among laptop manufacturers still resists making touchscreens for its MacBook lines. This is because the company doesn’t think that non-tablet operating systems work very well with touch. I happen to think that’s true for things like menus and navigation, although for non-work activities (such as Netflix or games), a touchscreen can be useful.

The new laptop also has a Touch ID fingerprint sensor and Apple’s ‘butterfly’ keyboard. The latter feature has not always proven to be popular with Mac owners – there is a litany of issues that people have had with the butterfly keyboard on the MacBook Pro. It remains to be seen whether Apple has ironed out those issues with the new machine.

There are only two connection ports, both of which are USB-C (or ‘Thunderbolt’ as Apple refers to them). Two or three years ago, this might have caused disquiet. However, most people accept that physical connection ports for computers aren’t as critical as they once were unless they’re heavy-lifting productivity devices. Nevertheless, it looks like the older USB connection format, used among other things for charging cables, may not be long for this world.

There’s a considerable amount of power available under the hood of the new MacBook Air, with up to 16GB of Ram and up to 1.5 terabytes of storage.

The laptop comes with an Intel Core i5 processor – it’s not configurable with a Core i7. For the (vast) majority of regular business users, this won’t be an issue. But if your laptop use demands intensive multi-application use, you might want to consider a MacBook Pro instead.

From a weight perspective, this is among the lighter 13-inch laptops you can buy.

However, the entry-level price for the 8GB (128GB storage) version of the MacBook Air is €1,329, a premium price in some respects.

4 Microsoft Surface Pro 6

Price: from €1,064

Microsoft Surface Pro 6

A few years ago, one might have considered Microsoft’s Surface Pro range as ‘tablets’. But they’re much more aptly considered business laptops, albeit very portable ones that have a heavy emphasis on touchscreen activities.

The core appeal of the Surface Pro 6 is basically the same as the first model: a premium designed, high-spec touchscreen device with full Windows and a detachable keyboard that is as easy to take to bed to watch Netflix as to prepare work presentations or office projects on a plane.

Its 12.3-inch high-definition LCD display (2736x1824) is superb. I hope that future Surface machines will thin out the bezels even more, as this would make it that bit more portable. But it’s still very, very elegantly designed.

The kickstand on the back of the device is one of the best on the market, too, as it adds unrivalled flexibility in positioning the machine on your lap or on a table.

And if you’re watching movies or presentations, the speakers on this are more than adequate.

Like its predecessors, the Surface Pro is a touchscreen Windows 10 laptop that comes without a keyboard. For work stuff, you’ll clearly need the latter piece of kit, which costs €155. The good news is that this keyboard is great, with a trackpad that’s perfectly positioned to help rather than cause mistakes.

While its specifications go all the way up to 16GB of Ram, a Core i7 processor and 1,000GB of storage, the model I had was a lower-to-mid-tier configuration, with a Core i5 processor, 8GB of Ram and 256GB of storage. Microsoft currently has this configuration at €1,318, including the keyboard (€155). But the 128GB model, for some reason, is considerably cheaper at €1,064.

(It’s quite unbelievable how manufacturers charge so much for such a modest additional chunk of storage memory.)

Because it’s a Windows laptop, it includes a USB-A port in case you have things such as memory keys that you still need to draw on or save things to. It also features a mini-display port. Sensibly, there’s also a 3.5mm microphone port.

While it doesn’t have an SD card slot, there is a microSD card slot. This

could be handy for anyone who needs to take footage from a camera, a drone or even a phone. There’s also a 5-megapixel selfie camera and an 8-megapixel rear camera.

It’s hard to believe that Microsoft hasn’t included a USB-C port on this. Instead, you still need to use Microsoft’s bespoke power adaptor to charge it. That’s a bit of a pain, especially for everyone who has a decent Samsung or Huawei (or any new Android) smartphone and wants to cut their weight a little when travelling.

5 Apple iPad Pro 11

From €1,108 including Smart Keyboard Folio

Apple iPad Pro 11

Increasingly, Apple’s iPad Pro range of tablets is a useful alternative as a business laptop. I can vouch for this as I use it now more than I do other Windows or Mac laptops for work.

This is partly because of its extreme portability and speed. The iPad Pro starts up immediately and can fit in places that most laptops simply can’t. It also has a better battery life than most laptops and can be charged using an ordinary mobile charging cable and plug (or portable power pack). There has also been just about enough evolution in iOS (split screen multitasking, drag-and-drop functionality) to make it fast when dealing with work applications.

The iPad Pro comes in two sizes – 11 inches and 12.9 inches.

The main upgrades from the last model are USB-C instead of Lightning (as a power and data connector) and Face ID instead of a Touch ID home button.

There’s also a new Smart Keyboard Folio case, which is a bit sturdier and faster than the last iPad Pro Smart Keyboard.

Unique among its peers, storage is now on par with almost any laptop: my test model had a whopping one terabyte (1,000GB), making up somewhat for the lack of USB storage file transfers that you normally have with other laptops. (Although the switch to USB-C from Lightning may open up more productivity and compatibility functions on the device.)

Under the hood, the iPad Pro has substantially upped its game with graphics and processor speed, mostly down to its own A12X chip system.

That new ‘liquid retina’ display (which is roughly the same design as the new iPhone Xr) serves it well, too — videos and photos are rendered pretty spectacularly on it.

So it’s a worthy upgrade to the iPad Pro 10.5 and brings Apple’s pro tablet ever closer to a genuine laptop replacement for more people.

In terms of Face ID (using your Face instead of a fingerprint to unlock the iPad), it works pretty flawlessly. Unlike the iPhone X and Xs, it also works from any orientation.

The real payoff to removing the Touch ID button is that you get extra screen real estate for free. This iPad Pro display is about 10pc bigger than the last 10.5-inch one, purely because the bezels and have been thinned out and the Touch ID home button getting dropped.

Where this benefit really comes into its own is with multi-tasking. The split-screen windows you pull up are now that little bit bigger, making emails and word documents slightly fuller-looking.

The new USB-C connection lets the iPad Pro connect to monitors at up to 5K resolution and directly into cameras. But it also means that it can be used as a battery itself for an iPhone.

The redesigned Smart Keyboard Folio case is stiffer than the last version and has two angles for the iPad (as opposed to one on the last Smart Keyboard). It’s now a proper case, covering the rear of the machine as well as the display.

There’s also a newly designed Apple Pencil (sold separately at €135).

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