The Home Office Laptop Buying Guide

By Features PCmag

You won't catch me joining the dirge for desktops; I think desktop PCs (and sleek all-in-one models, in particular) are still solid choices for any home office where portability isn't an issue. Chances are, however, that sometimes you need a powerful notebook to work on-the-go.

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Maybe you need to work on-site at a client's office, or want to get out of the house for a few hours and work in a coffee shop. Maybe you work at home only part time, shuttling between a home office and headquarters. Or maybe you'd simply like to tuck your PC in a drawer, clearing desk space in the spare bedroom. In other words, you're a prime candidate for a laptop. And today, you've never had so many bargains from which to choose—or so much homework to do before you buy.

I've written about big desktop replacement notebooks—systems with 15.6- or 17.3-inch screens measured diagonally. So this article will briefly recap some of that buying information while also looking at other sizes and types. We'll go over a host of buying factors you should consider when buying a laptop for your home office. But the three key considerations are:

1. Your Budget

2. Tablet Functionality

3. Screen Size

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Workhorse Portables, Detachables, and Convertibles
As far as your budget is concerned, you can divide laptops roughly into classes on either side of the $500 line. Below the $500 line, you'll find workhorse portables, typically with 15.6-inch screens, Intel Pentium or Celeron processors, and adequate memory and storage (say, 4 GB of RAM and a 500GB hard drive). Not as thin and light as more upscale notebooks, they're nonetheless fine for doing school homework, or for workplace productivity and office apps. Above the $500 line, you can get some of the premium features discussed below.

As for tablet functionality, I'm on record stating that a tablet is not essential home office hardware. So I won't dwell too long on so-called 2-in-1s or laptops that can convert into tablets except to note that they fall into two groups: detachables and convertibles. Detachables jettison their keyboards so you can use their touch screens as tablets; they range from inexpensive compacts such as the 10-inch Asus Transformer Book T100HA to deluxe slates such as the 13.5-inch Microsoft Surface Book.

Convertible laptops, by contrast, have pivoting keyboards that allow them to flip and fold between laptop, tablet, and easel-style stand or presentation modes. Pioneered by Lenovo's Yoga series (the Yoga 900 is a high-class favorite), the design's been copied by almost every laptop manufacturer except Apple, usually in screen sizes between 13.3 and 15.6 inches (the latter of which is way too heavy to consider using as a tablet anywhere except on your lap).

That brings us to your third consideration: screen size. Generally speaking, 15.6 inches is the smallest size that you can use without being tempted to allocate desk space for an external monitor (and, at 17.3 inches, you won't miss a plug-in monitor at all).

Smaller sizes start at approximately 10 inches and climb from there. A diagonal measurement of 11.6 inches, made popular by the smaller of Apple's two MacBook Air models, gets you a handy notetaker and traveling companion. Lenovo's ThinkPad X250 and new X260 come from a long line of successful 12.5-inch business ultraportable notebook computers.

At 13.3 and 14 inches, respectively, you're looking at many shoppers' sweet spot: laptops small and light enough for easy travel yet large enough to use without eyestrain for hours at a time (until you can get back to your home office and connect a monitor). Of course, eyestrain is a matter of both screen size and resolution; the 11.6-inch MacBook Air is legible because it stops at 1,366 by 768 pixels, while the Dell XPS 13 gives you a choice of readable 1,920 by 1,080 or slightly-squinty-but-dazzlingly-sharp 3,200 by 1,800 resolution.

For over-$500 laptops, you should do your eyes a favor and look for an in-plane switching (IPS) screen. The technology offers higher contrast and wider viewing angles than ordinary LCD screens.

Don't Sleep on Specs
The fourth item on your shopping checklist is hard to evaluate when buying online rather than in an electronics store: the laptop's keyboard feel and layout. Sure, you can plug in a full-size USB or wireless keyboard when at home, but you also want to be comfortable typing at Starbucks, or a client's or colleague's place.

Look to see whether important keys such as Esc, Backspace, and Right Shift are sufficiently large or relatively tiny. Is the Delete key in the top right-hand corner where you expect to find it? Give out bonus points for desktop-style, inverted-T cursor arrows (I have a grudge against HP laptops for sandwiching half-sized Up and Down arrows between full-size Left and Right), and dedicated Home, End, PgUp, and PgDn keys as opposed to combinations of cursor arrows and an Fn key.

Next comes something you might have thought would rate higher: CPUs. There really aren't many horribly slow CPUs these days. Intel Atom processors are alright for 10-inch detachables; Pentium and Celeron and AMD chips are fine for everyday productivity work, as is Intel's battery-sipping Core M.

Intel's Core i3 and Core i5 processors hold the sweet spot for office apps plus some multimedia work, while the Core i7 appeals to speed-hungry image and video editors (not to mention gamers). Speaking of gaming laptops, the integrated graphics built into a majority of modern CPUs are perfectly adequate for home office apps, but after-5pm, gamers will want to pursue faster dedicated graphics.

As for memory, look for at least 4 GB and preferably 8 GB or 16 GB; Microsoft Windows will thank you. Over-$500 laptops should offer speedy flash or solid-state drive (SSD) storage instead of (or in addition to) a hard drive. Even if it's a smaller amount (say, a 256GB SSD versus a 500GB hard drive), the extra performance will make it worthwhile.

Finally, look for a suitable array of ports including two or three USB 3.0 ones for storage and other peripherals, HDMI and DisplayPort for plugging in a monitor, and an SD card slot. Extra points for a Thunderbolt 3/USB-C port, with its sky-high bandwidth and convenient, reversible mini-connector. Extra points, too, for a feature that's rapidly disappearing: a user-removable or swappable battery that lets you snap in a spare when one runs out of juice on the road.

Today's laptops make more sense and fewer compromises than ever. I hope these shopping tips help you find a notebook that will satisfy your home office computing needs for years to come.

Is your laptop merely a docking station for your desktop monitor, keyboard, and mouse? Have you gone the 2-in-1 route with a flexible convertible laptop? Know any good battery-saving tricks? Let me know in the comments or at homeoffice.eric@gmail.com.

This article originally appeared on PCMag.com.