A mobile workforce is expected to perform job-related tasks regardless of location. The business laptop that makes this work possible has evolved since 2010, but that evolution is not complete.
Ever since the introduction of the barely luggable Osborne 1 and TRS-80 computers in the early 1980s, the modern workforce has been a mobile workforce. Whether they operate at the C-level or the entry-level, road warriors are expected to perform work-related tasks regardless of their location. More often than not, the tool used to perform their work while out on the road is the computer laptop.
Since 2010, the role of the business computer laptop has evolved, and the technical specifications required by an ever-increasing mobile workforce have become more varied and more specialized. In some cases, the best laptops available at the beginning of the decade may not even qualify as marginally useful when compared with the best smartphones of 2020. While it may be a cliché, it is also still true: Change is the only constant in technology.
SEE: Checklist: The ultimate PC and Mac migration checklist (TechRepublic Premium)
Best business laptops in 2010
The best business laptops in the year 2010 maintained the traditional standard started during the decade before—bulky, rugged, reliable, and practical. The specifications for these laptop computers generally stuck to the proven, tried, and true:
Size: 13- to 17-inch monitors
RAM: 4 GB
Hard drive: 250 GB to 500 GB, mechanical only
CPU: Current generation Intel i5 or i7
GPU: On board Intel, no discreet graphics chip
Interface: Keyboard, trackpad, and/or point stick (Lenovo)
OS: Windows 7
The workhorse business laptop in 2010 was undoubtedly the Lenovo ThinkPad. Just about every company of any size deployed a fleet of ThinkPads for their mobile workforce at some time or another. The ThinkPad was reliable, rugged, and familiar—why fix what isn't broken?
However, there were some upstart business laptops on the market with a bit more style and new innovative features. These tradition-challenging laptops from the likes of Dell, Toshiba, Hewlett-Packard, and others gave users a glimpse of what would be possible in the future.
For example, the Alienware M11x, which won several awards at the January 2010 CES, showed that the combination of a powerful CPU and GPU could fit inside a small laptop frame, if the right engineering were applied. An indication that the days of making do with a wimpy laptop on the road while waiting to do the "real" work once you got to the office workstation were numbered.
Best business laptops in 2011-2013
With the wow factor established by the Apple MacBook Air, the marketing catchphrases of sleek, slim, and "ultrabook" became the mantra for all business laptop computers during the early years of the decade. The bulky, yet reliable, tradition of the ThinkPad started to give way to powerful computers housed in lighter, more portable form factors.
In 2011, CNET named the Asus Zenbook UX21 its number one business laptop computer. Sporting a silver aluminum case with a maximum thickness of only 17mm, the UX21 was stylish, light, and more powerful than it looked. The base specifications included an Intel i7 CPU, 128 GB SSD, 4 GB RAM, and an 11.6-inch display.
Laptops falling into the ultrabook category continued to dominate the landscape well into the middle of the decade. In 2012, CNET gushed about the capabilities of the Acer Timeline U M5-481TG ultrabook, which combined an Nvidia GeForce GT 640 M LE graphics chip, with a 500 GB hard drive, 4 GB of RAM, Intel i5 CPU, a backlit keyboard, and even a DVD drive. All of that portable power came in a 14-inch display form factor weighing only 4.2 pounds.
Not willing to lose its standing in the marketplace, in 2013, Lenovo upped the ante in the ultrabook category with the ThinkPad X1 Carbon. This 14-inch laptop was not only thin, it was also extremely durable with its carbon fiber case. The technical specifications were the average 4 GB RAM, Intel i5 CPU, on-board graphics, and 128 GB SSD. The X1 Carbon was also running Windows 8 and came with a touch screen so users could take advantage of the live tile interface, which not that many did.
SEE: More from our Decade in Review series (TechRepublic on Flipboard)
Best business laptops in 2014-2016
Innovation once again changed the market for business laptops with the normalization of the touchscreen display (despite the lack of Windows 8 success), better and higher capacity SSD storage, and the newfound affordability of OLED technology.
Once considered to be a laptop for artists and other creative individuals, by the middle of 2016 the Apple MacBook Pro was practically the de facto standard for ultrabook laptops. In fact, it would have been difficult to walk through any office cubicle farm and not see at least a few MacBook Pros in action. The 13-inch frame had base specifications of an Intel i5 CPU, 128 GB SSD drive, and 2560X1600 retina display.
The other major trend to take hold during the middle part of the 2010s was the 2-in-1 hybrid laptop, best exemplified by the Lenovo ThinkPad X1 Yoga, particularly when coupled with the OLED display. With specially engineered hinges connecting the display to the base, the X1 Yoga could transform from a standard laptop configuration to a tent configuration to a tablet, without having to detach or unlock the display. This allowed access to tools and interfaces better controlled by a stylus, while still having access to a traditional keyboard and touchpad.
SEE: How to buy a high-performance computer from a boutique builder (TechRepublic)
Best business laptops in 2017-2019
As we get closer to closing out the decade with the end of 2019, laptops have evolved from bulky IBM-style computers to sleek ultrabooks, 2-in-1s, and detachable 2-in-1s. Included in the evolution of the business laptop over the decade are the technical specifications. Base business laptops in 2019 have these specifications, despite still being enclosed in razor thin cases:
Size: 13- to 17-inch monitors
RAM: 8 GB, but 16 GB is common and preferred
Hard drive: 250 GB to 1 TB, SSD drives, no mechanical, DVD or CD-ROM drives
CPU: Current generation Intel i5 or i7 or i9, or AMDs latest mobile chips
GPU: On board Intel when on a budget, otherwise graphics chips from Nvidia or AMD
Interface: Keyboard, trackpad, and/or pen or stylus
OS: Windows 10
One of the more interesting developments in this decade has been the introduction of a couple of laptop computer lines from companies that were once strictly software companies.
During the latter half of the decade, for example, Microsoft has been perfecting its line of Surface Pro detachable 2-in-1s. In 2019, the latest iteration is the Microsoft Surface Pro 6, and it's good enough to earn a "best of" award from CNET. The better models of the Surface Pro 6 include an Intel i7 CPU, 512 GB SSD, 16 GB RAM, and a 13-inch display—running Windows 10, of course.
On the other extreme is the Google Chromebook. In general, Chromebooks are less expensive, less powerful, and run a limited operating system called Chrome OS, which essentially limits all activity to web browser-only applications. CNET considers the Asus Chromebook Flip C434 to be the best Chromebook of 2019. If you run your business using Google's Productivity Suite and only that suite, an inexpensive Chromebook could be your best laptop choice.
Best business laptops in 2020
The importance of data-intensive activity for business operations both large and small will accelerate in 2020, and the computing power required to process that data will have to increase to meet demand. The best business laptops in 2020 will still be slim, light, and ultraportable, but they will also include more powerful technical specifications.
By the end of the year, business laptops with Intel i7 or i9 CPUs, 32 GB RAM, 2 TB SSDs, high resolution 144 Hz displays, and wireless adapters capable of a 5G connection will be the new high-level standard. The data processing required by some members of the mobile workforce will mean they have no choice but to carry that much computing power with them at all times.
How to become a software engineer: A cheat sheet (TechRepublic)
10 free alternatives to Microsoft Word and Excel (TechRepublic download)
Choosing your Windows 7 exit strategy: Four options (TechRepublic Premium)
The 10 most important iPhone apps of all time (Download.com)
Must-read coverage: Programming languages and developer career resources (TechRepublic on Flipboard)