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The top 10 laptops - recommended by and for accountants

Which laptop?During December, we compiled a list of laptop PCs recommended by members of AccountingWEB and UK Business Forums and asked for further suggestions. This article cuts the suggestions down to a final shortlist of 10.


Our pre-Christmas laptop article was heavily influenced by the rapid growth of so-called "netbook" PCs that followed the trail carved out by the Asus Eee PC. These included sub-10inch models from the likes of Acer, Dell and Toshiba. So popular are these machines becoming that we could compile a top 10 of recommended models in their own right - and may well do so in the coming months.

Such is the nature of the mobile accountant's workload, however, that this article will focus more on machines equipped to deal with the demands of management reporting, tax and accounts work and audit visits. Our 10 choices prioritise laptops boasting Windows compatibility, powerful processors, screens large enough to accommodate Excel spreadsheets and even numeric keypads.

Several members also asked for more information about the ingredients that determine whether a laptop is the right one for the job. So before the Top 10 is unveiled, we offer some background about the technical specifications that influenced our selection.

Microprocessor types & performance

The central processor unit (CPU) is the engine that drives your laptop and is a fabulously complex and ingenious device that cannot be assessed purely on the basis of a simple equivalent to cubic centimetres. Many magazines and salespeople like to quote microprocessor clock speeds - typically around 2 gighertz (GHz) as indicators of performance. That's as pointless as rating a company on the size of its cashflow alone rather than composition and balances of the component cash streams.

Yes, a faster clock speed on the same microprocessor will generally mean better performance, but an old, inefficient CPU pumped up to 3GHz is not going to perform better than a more efficient one turning over at 2.26GHz. And within the tight confines of a laptop case, super-fast clock speeds can also be a source of overheating problems.

Multiple processing "cores" are now a feature of PC chipsets and the various Intel Core 2 Duo configurations are the most common choice for mid-range laptops. The popularity of AMD processors is waning, but those wanting the maximum bang for their money should also consider machines running AMD Turion 64 processors. Intel Pentium Dual-Core (beware of the similarity in branding) and AMD Athlon and Atom CPUs are best left for budget machines and netbooks. Intel's website and Notebookcheck.com are worth visiting if you want to research processor performance in more detail. As this article concentrates on business application performance, little attention has been paid to graphics subsystems, which will be more important for those who want to work with complex graphics, multimedia and CAD files - not to mention interactive games.

You can (almost) never have too much RAM

As Andrew Bradbury correctly pointed out in a comment on our introductory guide, the amount of internal random access memory (RAM) on a PC is crucial to its performance. With application software and file sizes swelling all the time, Andrew urged users to plug in new memory modules as a low cost way of improving performance. He also suggested 2GB as a minimum RAM benchmark for laptops that will be used for CPU-intensive number crunching. The models selected and prices quoted below reflect this advice. However, if you are running older, 32-bit versions of Microsoft Windows such as XP, it's worth ignoring the advice in our heading, as pre-Vista versions of Windows can only access up to 4GB* of RAM (*corrected from original text: see comment from Stuart Lunn below).

Keyboard and numeric keypads

"Yonder Dave" raised another important feature - good-size, useable keyboards that more importantly for accountants incorporate numeric keypads. Laptops are designed to be small and lightweight and the keypad is often sacrificed to meet these objectives. While USB external keypads are available and can be easily attached to your laptop, integral keypads are easier to use, and much more difficult to lose. The Asus M-series and HP Compaq 6830 (or 6820) models listed below were both recommended for this feature.

Hard disks, optical drives, Wi-Fi and data ports

The technical small print is where you get into the nitty-gritty of nerdhood. To make an informed laptop choice, it is worth getting your head around what some of the options mean.

Disk storage For bulk storage, the smaller netbook generation are now using internal, solid state drives (SSD) - these are built-in memory chips rather than spinning magnetic disks. SSDs are faster at retrieving data, but more expensive. Ultra portable PCs also tend to use SD cards as external storage media - the kind used in digital cameras. The current "average" laptop, meanwhile, will probably have a 160-320GB mechanical disk drive, but if you're prepared to open up the casing, you can always buy a cheaper machine with a smaller disk, and upgrade in a year or two's time when the capacities will be even bigger.

Optical drives These days most mid-size laptops come with read-write DVD drives and more expensive models have progressed on to Blu-Ray and High Definition (HD) grade systems. If you want a machine with a CD drive but don't need full DVD compatibility, you may be able to get a cheaper CD R/W - look for a model with an 8x or higher speed categorisation.

Built-in Wi-Fi Wireless connections are one of the main reasons for getting a laptop, as they can keep you connected almost anywhere (especially if you take up the ever-present wireless USB 3G dongles being offered by mobile service providers). Most wireless laptops will comply with the IEEE 802.11 security standard (aka WPA2); and the presence of Intel's Pro/Wireless and Centrino configuration should mean you get dependable wireless as part of your laptop package. Apple's AirPort system also works well. Bluetooth compatibility will mean your laptop can connect to local devices such as printers and mice without the need for wires.

Other connections USB has emerged as the de facto standard for almost any PC data connection - keyboards, memory sticks, printers, monitors and even a bizarre range of novelty gadgets. Keep an eye out for USB 2.0 compatibility or Apple's Firewire standard, which will give you connection speeds of 400-480 megabits per second (Mbps), compared to the original USB 1.0 speed of 12Mbps. Also check for the size and number of USB ports in any machine - they come in different shapes and if you are going to attach a keyboard/numeric pad and mouse to your laptop, you may not have room for anything else without buying an external USB connector.

Battery life

A glitzy, powerful laptop is not much use if it does not also have a robust power source that can keep you working for 2+ hours. Battery life is even harder to discern than microprocessor performance, and will often depend on the energy needs of the CPU and disk drives. A search among various sources identified Lenovo, Samsung, Sony and HP Compaq models as good performers for battery life. Larger (and heavier) battery packs are available for many laptops and you can increase a battery's working range by choosing energy-saving options when you configure the machine.

Brand values

As will become evident from the product listing, laptop models and specifications change almost on a weekly basis. It's advisable to try for the newest, biggest spec machine you can afford on your budget, because it will be more efficient than an older model. But new models come with premium prices attached. Sometimes you can get good deals on good spec, older laptops that are being pensioned off and upgrade them with better spec sub-systems.

Faced with the swirl of ever-changing processor, memory, hard disk and graphics configurations, regular computer-buyers frequently retreat to the reassurance of familiar brands and their perceived values. If enough experienced computer users tell you, "Dells are reliable", "Samsungs are good value" or "Apples are cool", this can be a good indicator that you are making a choice that matches your expectations.

There will always exceptions that disprove these views, but corporate buyers who handle a lot of computers are remarkably loyal in their choices - often because they have grown to trust the service and support they get from their preferred suppliers. Most commonly in larger firms, your laptop will be selected and bought for you. If you are planning to get one for personal use, ask your internal IT expert for their advice about laptop models - and enquire discreetly if they can source one for you.

AccountingWEB.co.uk's Top 10 laptops

 

NETBOOKS

Asus Eee PC S101Asus Eee PC S101 Rated by our executive peripherals editor as "way ahead of the competition", the S101 has a 10-inch screen and is powered by a 1.6GHz Intel Atom processor. The standard storage options are a bit paltry, though, with either 16Gb (Windows XP) or 32Gb (Linux) of solid state storage capacity and 1GB of RAM. 802.11N and Bluetooth wireless, video camera, microphone and 3 USB 2.0 slots are all built in. Price: c£400.

Samsung NC10Samsung NC10 Strongly recommended by AccountingWEB member Jez for providing "all the basic must-haves of netbooks in one package for the first time with a 7hr battery life". Like the S101 above, the NC10 has a 10-inch screen, 1.6GHz Intel Atom CPU, 1GB of RAM and comes with Windows XP installed, but a traditional 160GB hard drive instead of solid state storage. Includes camera, microphone and 802.11 wireless connectivity. Price: c£300.

 

LAPTOP WORKHORSES

Dell Vostro 1510Dell Vostro 1510 - A "bog standard" 15-inch laptop selected on the strength of Dell's reputation for reliability. If you're looking for a particular bargain, or some extra frills, this would be a good reference machine to check against. A 2.0GHz Intel Core 2 Duo Windows Vista Home model with 2GB of RAM, 250GB hard disk and integral 8x DVD R/W drive is on offer for £369 direct from Dell. Includes web cam, 4 USB 2.0 ports and 802.11 wireless support, but no Bluetooth.

Lenovo 3000 N500Lenovo 3000 N500 - A close contender with Dell in the 15-inch laptop stakes, with a fractionally faster 2.16GHz Intel Core 2 Duo model with 2GB of RAM, 160GB hard drive and a DVD read/writer costing just over £400. The laptop's construction and elegant keyboard (sadly, no numberpad) are a solid reminder of its origins within IBM's ThinkPad laptop family. Like the Vostro, this Lenovo has 4 USB 2.0 ports, and while there's no webcam, it does support Bluetooth.

 Toshiba Satellite A300Toshiba Satellite A300 - A range of classy, business-oriented 15-inch laptops with a wide choice of specifications. Intel Core 2 Duo models with 2GB of RAM and 250GB hard disks can be found starting from around £420 . The the companion P300 range offers similar specs with 17-inch screens. Both ranges include microphones and webcams that can be used to secure the laptop using face-recognition software.

HPCompaq 6830HPCompaq 6830 gets the nod from Michael Kinson for its "smashing keyboard" with integral numeric keypad. This 17-inch, 2.4GHz Intel Core 2 Duo model with 2GB RAM, a 250GB disk, all the usual wireless options and 4 USB 2.0 ports, plus Windows Vista Business pre-installed, came up at £662 from HP's online shop.

 

THIS WEEK'S SUPERMARKET BARGAINS!

Akoya 80Medion Akoya S2210 Mark Gauden advises keeping an eye on the sites of Lidl, Aldi and Tesco for laptop bargains. Aldi's machines also come with a free 36-month warranty, which is more than you usually get from PC suppliers. This 12-in, diamante-adorned Medion laptop has been kicking around since before Christmas. If you can stomach the small screen size, cheesy decor and slightly underwhelming 2.0GHz Intel Pentium "Dual-Core" (NOT Core 2 Duo) CPU, you can get laptop with 3GB of RAM, a 320GB hard disk, Windows Vista Home Premium, microphone, FireWire, memory card reader and 3 USB 2.0 slots all for £487. Or if you're being sensible, Tesco is currently offering a 16-inch Sony Vaio FW21E P8400 with 4GB RAM and 320GB hard drive for £781.

 

HIGH SPEC LAPTOPS

Asus MV50Asus MV50-AS001C - Having stumped rivals last year with its dinky netbooks, Asus is now taking them on with very competitively priced high performance machines. Mike Whittaker recommends this 15-inch Intel 2.26GHz Core 2 Duo model with 4GB of RAM, 320GB hard drive, WiFi, Bluetooth, webcam, USB slots, FireWire and memory card slots, plus two-years' return to base warranty. "Quite a package for £700," he notes correctly. The M51 range costs slightly less and comes with the Windows Vista Business edition rather than Home installed. Both ranges squeeze in a set of numeric keys just to the right of the return button.

Sony Vaio VGN-FW11ESony Vaio VGN-FW11E This is the point in proceedings when your normally level-headed guide (ignore the fake diamonds) starts getting wobbly at the knees. The sky is the limit for functionality and price when you start looking at Vaios and MacBooks, but this entry model in Sony's FW range promises a 16-inch wide screen with Blu-Ray-compatible optical drive - making it an obvious choice for watching self-improving media. The roomy, "isolated" keyboard gets high marks - but sadly has no integrated numeric keypad. A 2.26GHz Core 2 Duo with 3GB RAM, 250GB hard drive and webcam packed into a 3kg case comes in at £699.

 

MULTIMEDIA LAPTOPS

Apple MacBook Apple MacBook If you feel the time has come to shake off the mental pinstripes and join the 24-bit colour multimedia revolution, maybe it's time to consider Apple's stylish MacBook range. Windows has done a lot of catching up on the interface front, and while MacBooks have some idiosyncratic quirks such as very minimal, low profile keyboards, converts still insist they spend a lot less time fretting about what's going on beneath the bonnet. The price for an entry-level, 13-inch 2.4GHz Intel Core 2 Duo MacBook with 2GB RAM, 120GB hard disk and read/write DVD/CD optical drive starts at £712, rising to nearly £2,000 for a 17-inch 2.66GHz MacBook Pro with 4GB RAM and a 360GB hard disk. As they say in California, Enjoy!

 

Comments

Yer gets what yers pays for

dogsbreath | | Permalink

Pay £400 and you get a shiny, plastic, heavy, short battery life machine with lacklustre performance. Fine for browsing the intarwebs and writing the odd letter, but not much cop for anything else. Vista will kill any modern hardware; the best "upgrade" is to install Windows XP.

In fact I'd put it this way: avoid Windows Vista. Wait for Windows 7 or install Windows XP. But this is hardly news as virtually every corporate is doing this.

For £700 you get a slightly less plasticy box with better specifications such as separate graphics card, a battery that lasts much longer, and is a bit lighter. The screen will probably have a higher resolution.

For £1200 you'll start getting nice machines. Much lighter, prettier and top-spec components with full memory and disc and with performance to match.

You'll start getting the lovely executive toys such as the smaller Sony Vaios. For a bit more you get to the exceedingly desirable machines such as a MacBook Air (BTW you should compare one of these with a Sony Vaio -- one's cheap and nasty, the other's gorgeous).

Then you can buy a Mac. Lovely machines that work really well, don't continually badger you for permission like some electronic Private Pike. They're fast and reliable.

You'll save a fortune in anti-virus/malware/spyware and all the other grot that plagues Windows machines. Also Apple don't fill up their builds with "crapware", the trial programs that Dell et al earn advertising money for installing on your machine and which are virtually impossible to remove without a full re-install.

The Mac experience is one of quietly getting on with things. It's like the difference between a house built and decorated with taste and a house decorated by a chav called Vista who has a fetish for green.

If you *must* use Windows for some application or other, then you can install Windows in a Virtual Machine on your Mac (think of it as Windows in a window). Works really well, and you can turn it off when you don't need it. You can also create different virtual machines for different clients; keeping everything totally separate.

Whilst you're at it, buy a separate 24" monitor and keyboard. Then you've a desktop machine that works as a portable.

_____
Whilst XP can handle 4Gb, the hardware in lower-end laptops can only handle 3.2 Gb, so some memory is wasted. The system memory is also often plundered by in-built graphics.

lunnster's picture

Couple of Points

lunnster | | Permalink

Correction on RAM.

Windows XP can address up to 4 Gigabytes of RAM.
http://support.microsoft.com/kb/555223

Graphics Cards

Avoid integrated graphics cards as exists by default for instance on the recommended DELL Vostro 1510 laptop as these will "steal" system memory (RAM) in order to display the graphics which in particular on a Vista system may lead to reducing quality of the visual display options or poor overall performance and on other systems will at least result in reducing the overall performance of the laptop.

Office 2007
The drain of Office 2007 is substantially greater for a power user of office than previous versions. Suggest on that basis to go with a minimum of 2 Gigabytes of dedicated RAM on XP or earlier, or minimum of 3 Gigabytes of dedicated RAM on Vista.

Hope this helps.

S.Lunn
Chief Technology Officer

HDMI output

mikewhit | | Permalink

Anyone doing presentations to come up on a big flatscreen TV will also find laptops with an HDMI socket useful.

It seems to me that you can't just get what you want?

RKemsley | | Permalink

Looking for a new laptop for data entry - bookkeeping and accounts. It needs intergral numeric keypad and memory speed. A DVD /CD facility is good but otherwise not interested in graphics - It needs to earns its money and have a battery life with wireless options otherwise I might as well work in an office with a computer.  The HP Compaq 6830 has made my short list due to numeric keypad and I like Dells. I currently have an ACER.  Other ideas for my short list would be appreciated. Regarding budget, not really an issue as I will cost it out across my clients to pay for .