The top 10 laptops - recommended by and for accountants
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.
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.
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