Lenovo Thinkpad X1 2017

This will be a great year to buy a premium business laptop. Manufacturers are showing off lovely new and upgraded high-end laptops that will go on sale in the next few months.

In this article, I’ll tell you about the characteristics that make this year’s laptops stand out, and I’ll give you some general shopping tips that will help you choose any laptop.

In the next article, I’ll give you some specific new laptops that look like the best choices in 2017.

Last week manufacturers flooded into Las Vegas for the massive CES electronics show. It’s traditionally a showcase for useless gadgets but this year the PC manufacturers showed up in force with new computers, especially premium business laptops. (The useless gadgets were there too. You must need a Bluetooth-enabled umbrella that alerts you when it’s going to rain. No? A smart toothbrush, then. Still nothing? Wi-fi blocking underwear? Oh, never mind.)

The computers shown off at CES are a reflection of broader changes in the PC industry. There are no profits in the market for cheap Windows laptops. Although the manufacturers had some new cheap Chromebooks to show off (we’ll talk much more about them before long), they are mostly focused on the much richer profit margins in the market for high-end Windows laptops.

You will have to come to grips with the prices. Prices for premium laptops start at $1,000, and most are $1,200 or more – in some cases much more. The best laptops have been in that price range for a few years now so perhaps you’re not shocked. You will give up important things if you buy cheaper laptops. Remember, you’re smart, you’re successful, and people like you. You deserve a good laptop.


New features

This year’s premium business laptops share several characteristics that set them apart from previous models.

Solid state drives  Finally SSDs are starting to be standard – at least on high end laptops. Installing an SSD instead of a conventional spinning hard drive makes more of a difference in performance than any other single component in the history of computing. Manufacturers ought to have standardized on SSDs in every computer at every price point by this time. They still include slow conventional drives in too many cheap PCs but all of the premium laptops feature SSDs.

Extended battery life  Windows 10 and Intel’s latest processors combine for impressive gains in power saving and battery life. Most of the new high-end laptops will feature Intel’s latest 7th-generation processors, code-named “Kaby Lake.”

USB-C ports  This will be the year that USB-C ports become the standard connector for many devices, from phones to computers to peripherals and docks. Apple took the shift to its logical extreme and put only USB-C ports on its new MacBook Pro models. In the Windows world you can expect to see a combination of new USB-C ports and traditional USB-A ports on the new laptops, at least for another year or so until the older ports are dropped. Here’s an introduction to the new USB-C and Thunderbolt ports.

Smaller bezels  Dell reduced the size of the XPS 13 laptop last year by shrinking the bezel around the screen, giving it a striking edge-to-edge appearance and letting Dell fit a 13” screen into a case that previously might have held an 11” display. This year several models from Dell, Lenovo and HP are built the same way, making the new laptops smaller, lighter and better looking than previous models with similar size screens.

Windows Hello  Windows 10 supports cameras and fingerprint readers to log you into your laptop securely without typing in a password. The technology is named “Windows Hello” and it’s starting to work very reliably. Most of the business laptops support one of the Windows Hello options. Once it’s set up, you will be able to use your laptop instantly when you open it up. When you put the lid up on a new Windows 10 laptop, it wakes up immediately and displays the login screen. If you have a Windows Hello camera, it immediately begins looking for your face and unlocks when it finds it, frequently so quickly that you barely have time to register that it went through that process. Fingerprint readers log you into Windows 10 just as quickly and reliably as the readers on recent iPhones or the best Android phones.


Shopping tips for new laptops

Regardless of the price range, these are the checklist items for new Windows 10 laptops.

Processor  Any of the Intel Core i5 or Core i7 processors are good enough for business professionals. Each new generation brings improvements in performance and battery life but the changes have been incremental for the last few years so it’s not necessary to obsess about the processor.

A Core i3 processor is too slow. There are AMD processors that might be just fine but good lord, who can keep up with that stuff? Not me.

RAM  Most people will be perfectly happy with 8Gb of memory. Adding more memory doesn’t improve performance for day-to-day business computing. You might need more if you are a power user with hundreds of open browser tabs and two dozen running programs, or a creative professional doing photo, art, or video editing, or a gamer. (Gamers still live in a completely different computing world with its own equipment and specs.)

Solid state drive  Look, I understand why you might give this up in order to get a cheaper laptop. It’s hard to come by in laptops under a thousand dollars. You just have to know that if you buy a computer without an SSD in 2017, you will be sad and lonely and I’ll feel sorry for you but I’ll smile bravely when we talk.

Display  Almost all the laptops on the market are at least 1920×1080 resolution. (You’re really at the bottom of the barrel if they’re less than that.) It’s the best choice for aging baby boomer eyes. Higher numbers, like the ultra-high resolutions on premium laptops, make things very crisp but smaller onscreen. Good news: Windows 10 handles scaling better all the time, so most programs will still be usable when scaling is set to 200% or more. Bad news: some programs don’t understand scaling and will still be small even when everything else is large.

Touchscreen  This one is a personal choice but I encourage you to get a touchscreen, even if you’re not sure if you’ll use it. The laptop will have a touchpad even if you plan to attach a mouse, right? Same principle – if it’s there, you have it as an option even if you don’t use it. And almost everyone eventually discovers that scrolling on a web page is far easier with a flick of the finger than mousing for a scroll bar. I used a MacBook Air yesterday and kept reaching out to hit buttons onscreen and being annoyed when nothing happened. Apple has historical reasons that have kept them from adopting touchscreens but it’s starting to look pretty stupid, frankly.

Keyboard  Not all keyboards are alike. If you type a lot, the quality of the keyboard should be an important consideration for your next laptop. There is a big difference between the traditional, perfect Thinkpad keyboards; the cruddy chiclet keyboards in inexpensive laptops; and the odd feel of Microsoft’s detachable Surface keyboards, for example. A lot of the resistance to Apple’s new MacBook Pros is coming from journalists who hate the new keyboards: Apple reworked them in order to make the MacBook Pro a bit thinner, even though no one was asking for it to be thinner.

Keyboards are usually full-size or close to it on laptops with screens that are 13” or larger. Take a close look at any laptop with a smaller screen; the keyboard might be shrunken and uncomfortable.

Next article: lots of new business laptops coming out in 2017. Happy shopping!

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