Business Laptops: How We Tested, What We Found
For our evaluations, we pulled together a list of the dozens of business-class laptops on the market, narrowing it down to our selection of the 10 best. While the business laptop category straddles several different subcategories, we limited our selection a bit to ensure that all of the systems could be adequately compared against each other. We focused on popular business systems that measure between 13 and 15 inches and are equipped with midrange processors and graphics, putting an emphasis on models designed for general business use.
To gauge quality and capability for each system, we use a series of standardized benchmark tests, performed in-house and by our sister site Laptop Mag. These tests measure several facets of laptop performance and are used to evaluate general productivity, graphics capability, display quality and battery life.
We obtained some of the units in our comparison on loan from the manufacturers and others through retail purchase. The manufacturers had no input or influence over our test methodology, nor was the methodology provided to any of them in more detail than is available through reading our reviews. Results of our evaluations were not provided to the companies in advance of publication.
When it comes to getting work done, everything starts with processor performance. Processing power and graphics capability take top priority, since slower performance means lowered productivity and more wasted time. Our performance ratings are based on two primary benchmark tests, Geekbench 3 and Laptop Mag’s Spreadsheet Macro Test.
Geekbench 3, developed by Primate Labs, is an industry standard test suite which measures multi-core processing performance and simulates real-world scenarios. The second test, Laptop Mag’s Spreadsheet Macro Test, is designed to stress the processor with an automated test that pairs 20,000 names with their corresponding addresses in an OpenOffice spreadsheet. The shorter the time it takes to complete this task, the faster the overall performance of the laptop. While the results of these individual tests can be seen in our product reviews, we combine the scores into an overall performance rating, presented above as a letter grade.
These scores are based on two key components, the central processing unit (CPU) and the system memory. The systems we reviewed rely on Intel’s Core i5 and i7 processors for computing muscle and offer multitasking performance and clock speeds of 2.2GHz to 2.7GHz. Generally speaking, faster clock speeds are better, and Core i7 processors outperform Core i5 processors.
For optimal performance, look for models that not only have speedy processors but also pair the processor with lots of memory. Random-access memory (RAM) is where your laptop stores temporary data for quick access. Memory impacts how many data-intensive programs you can run and how fast you can run them, either by aiding peak performance or serving as a bottleneck that slows performance if too little memory is installed.
Graphics performance is also key, especially for any work that requires complex visuals, whether it’s editing photos and video or rendering graphs and digital models. Most basic work machines come with Intel’s integrated graphics solution, which handles all graphics rendering through a dedicated portion of the processor. This is enough to handle basic video playback, presentations and even some photo editing. Others, however, use a discrete graphics card from NVIDIA or AMD, which has its own processing hardware just for rendering visuals.
In testing the graphics capability of each system, we use two tests from the FutureMark 3DMark Professional test suite. The first, Ice Storm Unlimited, measures performance in a variety of graphics-related tasks, including physics rendering, real-time lighting and heavy particle effects, and is geared toward entry-level machines with integrated graphics chips. The second, Fire Strike Ultra, tests the most powerful dedicated GPUs and pushes the limits of their abilities with high resolutions up to 4K. As with performance, we combine these two scores into a single grade for overall graphics performance, but individual scores can be found in each product review. Higher scores indicate better graphics capability.
Design & Construction
Battery life is related to the overall performance, as it lets you stay productive on the go, away from a power outlet. In our testing, we strive to provide as close an approximation to real world use as possible, while also removing major variables. To do so, we use a test script that replicates web surfing over Wi-Fi with screen brightness set to 100 nits and other power settings set to a standard configuration. Times are measured from the start of the test to the moment the laptop powers down from a drained battery. A longer-lasting battery is better, giving you more time to work between charges.
Portability is also a major point of distinction. Some systems, like the Lenovo ThinkPad X1 Carbon, are slim and light – weighing under 3 pounds, they are designed to offer unparalleled portability. Others, like the HP Zbook 15u G3 and Apple MacBook Pro 15, emphasize stationary performance over the ability to pick up and go, tipping the scales at up to 4.5 pounds. While there’s no clear cut winner between the lighter and heavier systems, lighter-weight laptops are easier for professionals on the move to pack and carry.
You may not think it immediately, but the display on a business laptop directly impacts your productivity. Higher resolution displays fit more pixels per inch than their lower-resolution counterparts, letting you fit more on the screen. In our evaluation, a higher resolution is better because it displays better detail in images and sharper, more readable text.
Higher quality displays also prevent eyestrain, a real concern when working for hours at a time. We tested both brightness and color quality, and we also referenced Laptop Mag's test results for some systems. Brightness is measured in nits, a measure equivalent to a square meter of light produced by a single candle. With display brightness dialed up to the highest level, readings were taken in the center and four corners of the display and averaged together to find maximum display brightness. Business laptops generally have screen that are 200 to 400 nits bright, but in our hands-on testing, displays below 250 nits were noticeably dim.
Color accuracy is another part of display quality. This is measured in DeltaE, which is the deviation between the true color and the representation of that color on the display, as measured with a colorimeter. Color accuracy tests display a sequence of 70 different colors, measuring the accuracy of each and then averaging the accuracy overall (Average DeltaE). Closer to zero is better, while anything higher than 1 indicates color variance that can be seen by the unaided eye.