Compared with laptops, desktop PCs boast lower prices, fewer incidents of loss and theft, and more power. Still, corporations are buying laptops in droves-often as desktop replacements-as the portability of these systems has allowed employees to be productive on the road and at home, providing the kind of flexibility and convenience that standard desktop PCs simply cannot.
With no slowdown in sight, it has never been more important for IT managers to develop a sound strategy for purchasing laptop computers. That strategy must determine solid base-line requirements that will stretch hardware investments over the next few years, identify special needs within organizations and allow you to get the best buys from vendors. Important considerations include security, durability and usability.
Plan for the future
Most companies need their laptops to last for three to five years, so care must be taken to ensure that not only the laptop itself but also the components within will have a shelf life that long.
When configuring your company laptops, don’t go below 2GB of RAM. This is especially important for companies that have standardized, or plan to standardize, on Microsoft’s Windows Vista, which requires 2GB of RAM to run effectively.
You should also look for machines that can be scaled to as much as 4GB of RAM with memory slots, further ensuring the laptops’ useful life span.
In terms of storage, buy machines with a dual-core processor and at least a 120GB hard drive that spins at 5,400 rpm. However, a 200GB hard drive that spins at 7,200 rpm is often a better fit for the enterprise, where the power of workstation applications needs to translate into a mobile platform.
Shoot for laptop PCs that can promise at least 4 hours of battery power per charge, so road warriors can squeeze more power out of their units for those long flights and hectic conferences, where finding plug-in power can be next to impossible.
Laptops also should be selected with long-term durability in mind. For example, a common sight that undoubtedly makes IT managers grimace is employees trotting down the hall carrying laptops by their corners with the lids wide open. What these users don’t realize is how much stress they are putting on the notebooks’ frames, chassis and electrical components.
Unless you can ensure that your users will never mishandle their laptops in this way and in so many other ways (and you know how unlikely that is) consider laptops that are equipped with case frames to prevent distortion and other complications. Lenovo’s T61 ThinkPads, for example, are now built with a roll cage frame that allows them to be held by any corner and still be as rigid as if your hand were placed directly beneath the laptop’s body.
Of course, the major drawbacks of having a device that’s so portable are theft and loss, putting your company at risk of having sensitive information fall into the wrong hands and creating the potential for a public relations nightmare.
Warranties and special needs
Hard drive disk encryption should be used to protect all company notebooks, but your laptop should also have a fingerprint reader to simplify authentication to the encryption key.
“I think disk encryption and fingerprint readers are like soup and sandwich-they go together,” said Kevin Wilson, who manages desktop and laptop systems for a large corporation. “Even if you don’t use it for network authentication, at least the fingerprint reader gets past system booting.”
A recent Ziff Davis Enterprise Editorial Research study conducted for eWEEK showed that 66 percent of respondents at companies with 1,000 or more employees encrypts data on work-issued laptops, but only 16 percent use any kind of biometrics. Meanwhile, 38 percent of respondents at companies with between 10 and 999 employees reported encrypting data on laptops, with only 21 percent using biometrics. Of respondents at companies with 500 or more employees, 60 percent reported encrypting notebooks, but only 16 percent reported using biometrics.
Don’t forget the warranty
The survey also found that the most important considerations for large companies buying laptop PCs include the warranty and support offered with the purchase.
Basic laptop warranties typically last for one year, covering hardware defects and offering seven-day-a-week access to technical support via telephone or e-mail, mail-in repair service, and replacement of any laptop that is flat-out nonfunctioning.
But with most companies requiring their laptops to have a useful life span of five years, an extended warranty is a must. In fact, it’s a good idea to purchase support plans that go beyond the basics, including coverage for such things as laptops damaged by a steep drop or coffee spills. And if your employees travel outside the United States, be sure that your vendor’s support plan will accommodate them.
It’s also a good idea to see what your vendor provides in terms of on-site support for your notebook’s wireless capabilities.
“Wireless is the most likely thing to have serious problems on a laptop, and when it goes wrong, you want to be able to get what we call -the paratroopers’ in,” Wilson said. “I select my wireless on the ability to get the paratroopers in.”
IT managers also need to think inside the box. That is, it makes their job much easier when vendors ship the laptop, monitor and docking station in a single box.
“If people commonly order laptop monitors and docking stations, the fact that your provider can put [them all] in one box and ship it is a good thing,” Wilson said.
“Otherwise, you get box one of three, two of three, three of three, and you have to get the right monitor with the right laptop.”
Some laptop features are good for just about any user, but, from the beginning, you need to identify the special needs of employees and departments in your organization.
For example, do you have road warriors who will need to hook up to a projector? If so, don’t underestimate the value of an S-Video port, which makes it easy to connect the machine to a television as an external display and is something that many high-priced notebooks don’t offer.
Usability and legacy concerns
What about users who require workstation-level graphics, such as three-dimensional graphics and special effects? If that’s the case, you will need to make sure the laptop you select includes an advanced video graphics card.
On that note, smaller machines usually aren’t outfitted with a plethora of ports, and that’s why you want to make sure you get a port replicator, which will add USB 2.0 ports; offer a pass-through connection for Gigabit Ethernet; and outputs for an external mouse, a keyboard and a display.
In addition, which employees will rely on ultraportable machines for travel? The higher cost and potentially lower performance won’t make these systems right for everybody, but if a user travels a lot, a lightweight machine is vital. It’s almost always a good idea to complement ultraportables with docking stations, though, for added expansion when needed.
The ability for a laptop to be used comfortably by a variety of users is a critical buying decision, but it’s one that often gets overlooked.
It may be true that the right-handed people of the world far outnumber lefties, but both groups need to be able to easily open their laptops, so look for lid releases that accommodate both left- and right-handed people.
Then there’s the issue of the mouse. Laptop PCs can always be equipped with an external mouse, but your company’s road warriors are more often than not going to rely on a pointer device embedded in the body of the notebook.
The two main laptop pointing choices are tracking devices and touch-pads, with some systems having both.
Touch-pads are becoming the more popular option for manufacturers to build into their machines, but they might not be the most efficient choice for your employees.
“It may sound crazy, but every time I go into a big-box store to look at laptops, the first thing I look at is which ones have a tracking device; the consumers out there are being denied tracking devices,” Wilson said. “People use touch-pads so ineffectively-it’s rub, rub, rub, rub, rub.”
If you are locked into a touch-pad, set up tap points and scroll zones, so when users move their fingers from edge to edge, the movement is equated edge to edge on the screen.
It’s natural to think about what’s new when choosing a laptop for your organization, but it’s important to also think about what’s old.
For example, does your company still require a native serial port?
“You won’t believe how many people still need the native serial port,” Wilson said. “That extends from the telecommunications industry with telephone switches to networking, where you’ve got to go into the wireless closet and hook up a serial port to a router.”
Wilson also advised that large companies be sure that new system-level features can be disabled at the BIOS level and that notebooks can run a dual-core processor as single core.
“Lately, we’ve had a lot of old applications that have been around for years that aren’t running on the new technology,” Wilson said.
“These are applications [whose vendor may not] be around anymore,” he said. “They’re running in the company, the business is dependent on them, but they have no support. As we put new hardware under those applications, sometimes they quit running. We can shake our finger at the application, but the reality is that application has got to run.” ??