Computer buyer’s guide for small business: laptops v desktops v tablets v phablets and more!

This guide explains the various terms used to describe computers.

I will cover smartphone, phablet, tablet, netbook, hybrid, “2 in 1″, ultraportable, Ultrabook, laptop, notebook, desktop replacement, portable workstation, workstation, desktop, server, and network attached storage (NAS)!

This guide is useful if you are in the market for a new computer and want to cut through the terms and understand what they really mean.

The below chart illustrates the differences in the various types of computer when considering relative portability versus capability. Combined with price, these are the primary considerations for most people when selecting a computer.

computing device types4

In general, for a given portability, as capability increases, price increases. In turn, for a given capability, as portability increases, price increases. These trade-offs are illustrated in the above diagram.

The following sections will describe each type of computer including the typical type of small business user.

Smartphone

Smartphones are ubiquitous in daily life, thus I’ll be brief on the description.

You can still buy a mobile phone for about $20/£15 (for example the Nokia 105). A mobile phone becomes “smart” as soon as the screen and processor are capable of running useful applications.

Any phone running Apple iOS, Google Android, or Windows Phone can be considered a smartphone. These operating systems dictate a minimum processor, and provide access to application stores.

smartphone and powerpoint

Pros: Enables access to email, documents, and a virtually unlimited range of services via mobile application stores.

Cons: Small screen and lower power processors limit the business functions you can practically do. While you can edit an Excel spreadsheet on a 5” screen, you will quickly decide to never try it again.

Price: Start from $100/ £80, or less through promotions.

Suitable for: Smartphones are suitable for users who need basic access to email and information without the inconvenience of carrying a larger computer.

Phablet

A phablet is a small tablet that also includes smartphone capabilities. Really, it is just a hybrid of a phone and a tablet, thus the blending of both words to form “phablet”.

In general phablet devices will have screen size of between 5″ and 8″ (diagonal length of the screen).

Asus-phablet

Pros: The benefits of a smartphone, but with a bigger screen for using the web or applications.

Cons: Some users will find a phablet too big to use as a phone, in particular keeping in a pocket or holding with one hand. Phablets do not have full operating systems and thus do not run full versions of programs such as Microsoft Word, Excel, and PowerPoint.

Price: $200 – $900/ £150 – £600

Suitable for: Phablets are suitable for users who want the benefits of a phone, and who will appreciate the benefit of a larger screen, but will not notice the size drawbacks.

Tablet

Thanks to the iPad, tablets are common place in daily life.

Tablets generally have screens 8″ to 12″ in size, and as such provide a superior viewing experience compared to their smaller smartphone and phablet counterparts.

Tablets use touch interface as their primary input, with physical keyboards sometimes available as optional extras.

Tablets do not have phone functions as their size makes it impractical.

ipad and Excel
Pros: A screen that makes for comfortable viewing of content, and a device size/ weight that is very portable (less than 1.5lbs/1kg). Availability of Microsoft Office for Android and Apple tablets provides great functionality (Microsoft Office for smartphones and phablets is also available, however the practicality of using it on their smaller screens is questionable).

Cons: Not all tablets support full versions of desktop productivity software, i.e. word processing, email or spreadsheets. Apple iPads for example use a mobile operating system, called iOS, that does not support the desktop based applications available on the Apple laptop and computers. For more information, see our guide on operating systems at debaffle.net/guides.

Price: $100-$900/ £100-£700

Suitable for: Due to their portable nature, and larger screens, tablets are well suited to reading emails and documents, where editing and typing is not the primary focus.

Tablets are also suited to being used when standing or walking, for example in retail and hospitality environments. The size of a tablet suits sharing information with people face to face, in the same manner as a document or magazine.

Netbook

Netbooks are characterized by being small and cheap, in turn this makes them very accessible. Screens are usually just 10″ in diameter, and to keep costs down, lower end processors are used.

Pros: Cheap, small, and usually sufficient operating systems so that applications such as Microsoft Office can be used without feature limitations.
Cons: Lower processing power means performance will be sluggish if multiple applications are used concurrently, or if working on large spreadsheets, for example.

Price: Around $200/ £200

Suitable for: Netbooks are focused on consumer use with low processing demands, such as web browsing or using one or two applications concurrently.

2 Hybrid/ 2 in 1

Hybrid computers, or “2 in 1s″ can be used as either a laptop or a tablet. They offer the promise of the benefits of both types of computers.
These computers are light, less than 3.5lbs/1.5kg, and screen sizes are usually 12″ to 14″.

Microsoft Surface Pro 3

Pros: Hybrid computers provide the benefits of both a laptop and a tablet.

Cons: Hybrid computers weigh more than a tablet, and are relatively more expensive than a laptop with equivalent performance. Some hybrid computers use a hinge to covert between laptop/tablet, and this can be a point of weakness.

Price: $850 – $2k/ £500-£1.5k

Suitable for: Hybrid computer are suitable for users who frequently travel, who will benefit from tablet mode, and who want to avoid the cost and inconvenience of having two separate devices.

Ultraportable/ subnotebook/ Ultrabook

Ultraportable computers (also called subnotebook or Ultrabook – with “Ultrabook” being an Intel trademark) provide equivalent capability to a laptop/ notebook, but are significantly lighter (2 – 3.5 lbs/1 – 1.5kg), and, so, more portable.

Macbook Air

 

Pros: A very portable laptop without compromise on performance. These computers also have a focus on long battery life of, usually 10 or more hours.

Cons: You pay for the benefit. For the equivalent capability in a laptop/ notebook you will pay significantly less.

Price: $1k-$2k/ £850-£1.5k

Suitable for: Ultraportable computers are suitable for travelling workers who need laptop performance, and long battery life, without the additional weight.

Laptop/ notebook

Laptops provide a good balance between capability, portability and price. None of these areas are brilliant, but all are catered for. Laptops usually weigh between 3.5-7lbs/1.5-3kgs, with screen dimensions of 13″ – 17″.

Pros: Fully featured computer hardware and software. Portable. Physical keyboard.

Cons: If comparing to a desktop computer, laptops are more expensive for the same level of performance.

Price: $500-$2k/ £300-£1,300.

Suitable for: Laptops are suitable for occasional travelling workers who need a portable computer.

Desktop replacement/ Portable workstation

Desktop replacements provide processing power equivalent to a desktop computer, thus the name. The extra power comes at the expense of size and weight, but if you need the power, this trade-off is minimal.

Pros: High performance processors, more storage and longer battery life compared to all other laptop classes.

Cons: Larger and heavier.

Price: $1,000 – $5,000/ £700 – £3,500

Suitable for: Desktop replacement computers are suitable for users who need a portable computer that can handle intensive applications such as engineering programs and very large databases.

Desktop/ workstation

Desktops are computers that are not portable. As such, manufacturers can use extra space/ weight for better performance, or charge a lower price for equivalent performance.

Desktops computers are sometimes integrated with a monitor, but mostly they are not.

Keyboard and mouse are externally connected.

Pros: Better performance for a given price when compared to laptop alternatives.

Cons: Not portable!

Price: From $200/ £200

Suitable for: Desktop computers are suitable for users who do not need a portable computer, or users who can meet their portable computing needs via a smartphone or tablet.

Server/ Network Attached Storage (NAS)

Servers and network attached storage (NAS) are computers that provide computing resources to be shared by more than 1 user, they “serve” capabilities such as processing power or storage.

Importantly, users still need their own computer to access the resources of a server/ NAS.
Typical functions that are shared with multiple users include: centralizing file storage, backup of computer data, or hosting an accounting program.
Due to their often critical nature, servers can be built with highly available components.

Network Attached Storage
Pros: Centralizing storage or applications can reduce overall costs when compared to having storage and applications on the computers of each user. There are additional advantages such as centrally managing user permissions to access resources, such as documents.

Cons: Servers need specialist advice to setup and maintain, although NAS devices can be very user friendly for those with the time to read the instruction manual! Servers (ones with Microsoft software) can also incur additional licence costs for each computer accessing resources.

Price: $100-$10,000/ £100 -£7,000

Suitable for: A server or NAS is suitable for any business with more than one user that needs to share documents or computer applications, or even a business with one user who needs a data backup location.

What else?

To complete an overview of computer types there are a few others to be aware of:

Thin Clients

Thin clients use a relatively low capability endpoint, the “thin client”, to access high capability central processing resources.

The form factor of the thin client can vary tremendously depending on the requirement, and indeed a normal laptop can be used as a thin client, with central resources providing capability beyond that of the laptop.

Thin clients require specialist setup and maintenance, and are relatively unusually for small businesses. An example is the Google Chromebook described next.

Chromebooks

In 2011 Google released an operating system called Chrome OS which would be available on computers called Chromebooks.

Computers running Chrome OS were designed to use applications that ran from Google data centres rather than locally on the computer itself. This design enabled Chromebooks to have less storage, less processing power, and thus a lower price tag.

As mentioned above, Chromebooks are an excellent example of a Thin Client. Chromebooks are very popular with consumers, but less so with business due to limitations when working without an Internet connection.

Operating systems

This guide has a hardware focus, and has touched lightly on operating systems.

If it was not clear, smartphones, phablets and tablets mostly use reduced operating systems that are optimized for their lower power processors. In turn, this results in applications that have less functionality when compared to those found on computers with full operating systems.

The considerations when buying a computer need to extend equally to the operating system. Please see our guide on this topic at debaffle.net/guides.

Docking stations

A docking station enables you to take a portable computer, dock it, and then have access to an external keyboard, mouse and monitor/s.

Depending on your choice, you can effectively make a laptop provide a desktop experience when back at your office.

Not all portable computers support docking stations. For further information please see our docking stations guide at debaffle.net/guides.

Summary and buying recommendation

Computer type Suitable for
Smartphone Users who need basic access to email and information without the inconvenience of accessing a larger computer.
Phablet Users who want the benefits of a smartphone, and will appreciate the benefit of a larger screen, but not notice the size drawbacks.
Tablet Users who want to view webpages and read emails and documents, but not do much editing and typing. They are also suited to being used when standing or walking, for example in retail and hospitality environments. The size of a tablet suits sharing information with people face to face in the same manner as a document or magazine.
Netbook Consumers with low processing demands, such as web browsing or using one or two applications concurrently.
Hybrid/ 2 in 1 Users who are frequently travelling, who benefit from tablet mode, and want to avoid the cost and inconvenience of having separate devices.
Ultraportable/ subnotebook/ Ultrabook Frequently travelling workers who need laptop performance, and long battery life, without the additional weight.
Laptop/ notebook Occasional travelling workers who need a portable computer.
Desktop replacement/ Portable workstation Users who need a portable computer that can handle intensive applications such as video editing, engineering programs, and databases.
Desktop/ workstation Users who do not need a portable computer, or can meet their portable computing needs via a smartphone or tablet.
Server/ Network Attached Storage (NAS) Any business with more than one user that needs to share documents or computer applications, or even a business with one user who needs a data backup location. Remember, each user still needs their own computer to access the resources on a server/ NAS.

 

This guide covered the most relevant examples of the many devices that qualify as a “computer”.

In general, for a given portability, as capability increases, price increases. In turn, for a given capability, as portability increases, price increases. These trade-offs are illustrated in the below diagram, repeated from the opening of this guide.When selecting the type/s of computer best suited for your small business, I recommend:

  • Understand your portability and capability needs – This will directly determine the type of computer/s suited to your business needs. See the above figure for a graphical summary of available options.
  • Ignore the netbook class of computers – These are consumer devices, with lower quality components, and designed for the casual user only. I included these for completeness only.
  • Ignore server/Network Attached Storage – These are important as part of the storage strategy for your business, but should be considered separately to choosing a computer. See our guide on this topic at debaffle.net/guides for details on storage considerations, including servers and Network Attached Storage.
  • Certain users will require more than one type of computer – For example, a smartphone and an ultraportable.
    Consider letting employees use their own computers – Most people have a personal smartphone. Allowing staff to use their own smartphone for basic email and other business access may assist in reducing computer costs. Beware that user provided computers make support and data security more complex to manage though.
  • Do not ignore the humble desktop computer – There are significant advantages of using desktop computers, so do not automatically assume laptops are the best choice for all workers. Desktop computers are about half the price (once display, keyboard, mouse included) than an equivalent capability laptop. When considering portability needs, a smartphone / phablet/ tablet may provide sufficient capability for when out of the office.
  • Consider turning your laptop into a desktop – If planning to use a laptop, ultraportable, or hybrid computer at a fixed desk location, consider if you will require a larger external display, larger keyboard, and external mouse, and docking station. This will be important to include from a cost perspective.