If I had to get a no-BS, reliable laptop for everyday work—and an ultrabook just wouldn't cut it—I'd get the Lenovo Thinkpad T440s. It's fast, durable (military-specification certified for ruggedness, among other things), highly configurable, and user-serviceable. And it has ports and features that business people need and ultrabooks generally lack. But if you don't need all the ports, the hot-swappable batteries, or the bulk of the ThinkPad, consider the 13-inch Retina MacBook Pro. If you dig ThinkPads, want something smaller, and our main pick is no longer available, we also like the ThinkPad X240.
How we picked/what is a “business laptop” anyway?
For most people, an ultrabook like the MacBook Air or the Acer Aspire S7-392 is the right laptop. Most people don’t need hot-swappable batteries, upgradable components, a VGA port, a SmartCard reader, or any of the other mainstays of business laptops. Unless they do, in which case our regular ultrabook picks just won’t cut it. They need something else, something we’re calling a “workhorse” or business laptop. (We discuss more on this later in the “What makes a good workhorse laptop?” section.)
Workhorse laptops are for road warriors and business people who need decently equipped laptops they can count on.
Workhorse laptops are for road warriors and business people who need decently equipped laptops they can count on. A good workhorse should have enough battery life to last you an entire cross-country flight. It should be rugged enough that you don’t need to baby it, but portable enough that you don’t feel like you’re weighed down. It should be fast enough to deal with normal office workloads—no gaming and minimal video editing required. This means we’re looking for a current-generation Haswell ULV processor with integrated graphics, 8GB of RAM, and as much solid state storage as we can get.
It needs a high-quality, high-resolution screen—1920×1080 is the sweet spot—and a rock-solid keyboard and trackpad. It should have fast, reliable Wi-Fi. You should be able to plug it into an external monitor, an Ethernet cord, a USB 3.0 flash drive, or a projector without hunting around for an adapter. Basically, it has to be good at everything. Ideally it’d have a 13- or 14-inch screen and weigh less than four pounds.
A workhorse definitely doesn’t need a touchscreen and most don’t need optical drives either, unless your work heavily relies on CDs or DVDs. Discrete graphics cards are optional, and SmartCard readers or fingerprint scanners are only important if your company requires them. A good webcam is a bonus for video conferencing. A spill-proof keyboard and a chassis that can take a few hits mean a coffee shop mishap won’t scuttle your business trip. A removable (and replaceable) battery prolongs a laptop’s lifespan and lets you keep working longer. User-upgradable memory and storage are a big bonus, but not everyone cares about that. We have recommendations for both scenarios.
I spent several days sifting through the field of business laptops—ThinkPads and their HP and Dell equivalents as well as anything ultrabook-class or more powerful. I eliminated everything that didn’t fit our criteria. I then read reviews and roundups from outlets I respect, like CNet, PCMag, PCWorld, Ars Technica, AnandTech, NotebookCheck, and others.
I narrowed it down to a few finalists, then called in the most promising: Lenovo’s ThinkPad T440s, the 13-inch Retina MacBook Pro (pitchforks down, please), and the Acer TravelMate P645, which looked like a potential budget alternative.
Since we called in machines with very similar guts, our testing focused on day-to-day usability: keyboard, trackpad, screen quality, and battery life. I used each laptop as my main computer for several days or weeks both at home and on the road.
The Lenovo ThinkPad T440s is the workhorse laptop I’d get. It has rock-solid build quality, a great keyboard and trackpad, and a long-lasting rear battery that’s hot-swappable so you can change it without having to turn off the laptop. It’s very configurable, so you can get exactly the features you want and skip the ones you don’t, and it’s easy to make a version that meets all of our criteria for a workhorse laptop.
I’d get the version with the 14-inch FHD (1920×1080) IPS non-touch screen, 1.9GHz Core i5-4200U processor, 8GB RAM, a 256GB SSD, 72Whr six-cell rear battery (which doubles battery life from around 7 hours to around 14 hours), and dual-band Intel 802.11ac Wi-Fi radio.1 You can configure a T440s with those specs for just under $1500 on Lenovo’s website.
Changeophobes may rail about the “new” chiclet-style ThinkPad keyboard, but it’s the best keyboard I’ve used on a modern laptop and I’ve used a lot.
The best praise I can give the ThinkPad T440s is this: I opened it up and turned it on and got to work and nothing got in my way. There were no little annoying quirks, no rough edges, just a good screen, a great keyboard and touchpad, and the work I needed to get done (including writing this guide: meta!).
The T440s is a ThinkPad. Some people love the look, others hate it, but there’s no mistaking a ThinkPad for anything else. Changeophobes may rail about the “new” chiclet-style ThinkPad keyboard, but it’s the best keyboard I’ve used on a modern laptop and I’ve used a lot. It’s satisfyingly clicky, with deep key travel. The clickpad takes some getting used to and will probably inspire fits in old-school users, since Lenovo’s killed the dedicated trackpoint mouse buttons entirely. I like the clickpad’s deep thunk. The trackpad is good enough that I barely used the red trackpoint that’s the ThinkPad line’s signature. The screen is bright and viewing angles are great. I think 1920×1080 is the perfect resolution for a 14-inch screen. The lower-resolution options are not worth getting.
It’s no Panasonic Toughbook, but the ThinkPad is solid enough to take a few hits. Lenovo says it is MIL-SPEC certified: “Military-specification testing validates the ruggedness, durability, and quality of ThinkPad products by testing against eight parameters: high pressure, humidity, vibration, high temperature, temperature shock, low pressure (15,000 ft.), low temperature, and dust.” It’s not clear who conducted the tests or how, but the T440s does have a roll cage and a spill-resistant keyboard.
The T440s is packed with ports that are useful to business people. There’s VGA (for connecting to projectors or older monitors), Ethernet, and DisplayPort, as well as USB 3.0, an SD slot, and a slot for a 4G LTE SIM if you need a constant data connection. Business users can opt for a SmartCard slot or fingerprint reader, and my review unit even had discrete Nvidia graphics, though that doesn’t seem to be an option in Lenovo’s store at the moment.
A feature unique to some recent ThinkPads is a hot-swappable rear battery.The ThinkPad T440s comes with two batteries: an internal three-cell front battery and a swappable rear battery. The rear battery drains first, so as long as you have power in the front battery you can swap rear batteries without turning off the computer. The default rear battery is a three-cell that sits flush with the rest of the chassis, and with that battery you’ll get six or seven hours of use out of the T440s—enough for a long flight, but not class-leading anymore. However, switch to the 72Whr six-cell rear battery for an extra $5 and you’ll double your battery life, getting close to 14 hours at the cost of portability—the six-cell battery is .4 pounds and adds height to the back of your laptop. Laptop Mag got seven hours and one minute with the two three-cell batteries and 14:36 with the six-cell in their tests. NotebookCheck noted 12.5 hours of runtime with the internal three-cell and the external six-cell, which it said was more than double the runtime with the two three-cell batteries..
Who else likes It
Laptop Mag’s Avram Piltch gave the T440s four stars and an Editors’ Choice award. He tested a very similar configuration to the one I recommend, and like me, he suggested upgrading to the 1920×1080 screen and six-cell rear battery. He said, “Lenovo ThinkPads have long set the gold standard for typing comfort, and the T440s more than lives up to this tradition. The notebook offers a backlit keyboard with very strong tactile feedback, great key spacing and a slightly curved key shape that makes it easy to avoid adjacent letter errors.”
“The Lenovo ThinkPad T440s offers solid performance and a design that will look good in the board room while still surviving the occasional cross-country business trip.”
Brian Westover at PCMag gave a more measured 3.5 stars, noting that the SSD on his review unit was only 128GB and the T440s lacks an HDMI port. “The Lenovo ThinkPad T440s offers solid performance and a design that will look good in the board room while still surviving the occasional cross-country business trip. While the performance is a bit average, it’s a testament to the progress made in the Ultrabook category that such impressive performance has become standard. And though the battery life (with the standard battery) is on on par with the competition, the addition of an extended life battery and the hot-swap capability definitely adds an element of flexibility not offered by other systems.”
Notebookcheck tested both a base model with a 1600×900 screen and mechanical hard drive and a version similar to our review unit with a 1920×1080 screen, SSD, and six-cell rear battery. They gave the base model an 88 percent, while the upgraded version got a 90 percent score. “After the ThinkPad T440s’ basic model did so well in our tests, and now that Lenovo made improvements in several of the areas we previously critiqued, we are not surprised that an indisputably first-class device now sits before us. The most important item here is the Full HD IPS display. A higher resolution, improved brightness and contrast, and more accurate color representation all speak in favor of the new panel. Additionally, if you are able to calibrate the display, you will be rewarded with outstanding color accuracy.”
Flaws but not dealbreakers
Because the ThinkPad T440s is so highly configurable, it’s important to make sure you get good options: Don’t get stuck with the crappier 1600×900 screen, and definitely spring for the 802.11ac Wi-Fi for faster Internet whenever possible. Lenovo’s low-end (and not-so-low-end) laptops tend to come with crappy single-band wireless-n cards, but $30 will get you the dual-band Intel 7260AC, which will give you access to the newer 802.11ac standard and prevent the connection errors that many laptop owners complain about with the single-band n cards.
Depending on the configuration, if you order from Lenovo’s web store you may have to wait several weeks or months for your ThinkPad to ship. Lenovo’s forums have athread dedicated to ThinkPad shipping experiences, and some people have reported up to six weeks’ wait depending on the configuration. You can get preconfigured T440s faster from places like CDW, but if you want our recommended configuration you’ll have to get it from Lenovo.
If you’re used to the trackpad and dedicated mouse buttons of previous ThinkPads, you may not like the buttonless clickpad used in the T440s. Unfortunately for you, it looks like all ThinkPads going forward will use the new buttonless clickpads. If that’s a dealbreaker for you, you may have a bad time.
At 13 inches by 8.9 inches by .8 inches and 3.5 pounds (3.9 with the six-cell battery), the T440s is slim and light for a T-series—the T430 we recommended last year is 4.8 pounds—but still bulkier than our ultrabook picks. I think it’s an acceptable trade-off for the upgradability and serviceability of the ThinkPad T440s, but if that doesn’t make sense to you, we have another suggestion.
Long-term test notes
Many ThinkPad users, including me, found that their laptop would periodically disconnect them from the router–I even found that the computer was causing problems for *other* devices on the network–even my wired desktop would lose connection as soon as I turned on the Wi-Fi for the T440s. This would be a dealbreaker if it wasn’t so easy to fix. The solution, found here, is to immediately uninstall the LenovoEMC Storage Coordinator program on your computer.
If you dig ThinkPads but aren’t sold on the T440s for some reason, the best alternative is the ultraportable ThinkPad X240, which is smaller and lighter than the T440s and has many of the same options but is more expensive. An X240 with a Core i5-4200U, 8GB RAM, 256GB SSD, dual-band 802.11ac Wi-Fi, six-cell rear battery, and a 12-inch 1920×1080 touchscreen will run you $1740, $250 more than the ThinkPad. At 12 by 8.2 by 0.8 inches and under three pounds, it’s the one to get if you need all the portability you can muster.
Laptop Mag gave the X240 four stars and an Editors’ Choice award, calling it “the business ultraportable to beat,” and praising the more than 20 hours it got with the six-cell rear battery, but they preferred the keyboard on the T440s. PCMag gave it an Editors’ Choice award too, but said it was pricy and complained about the 1366×768 screen on their review unit. PCWorld gave it 3.5 stars, saying the keyboard isn’t as good as other ThinkPads’.
The X240 is tempting, and if you don’t mind paying a few hundred extra dollars for a lighter, more portable machine with a slightly worse keyboard, it could be a great alternative to the T440s.
If you’d rather have a sleeker, more solid machine with a little more power than the MacBook Air or Acer Aspire S7-392, consider the 13-inch Macbook Pro with Retina. For the same $1500 as our recommended T440s configuration, you get a 13-inch 2560×1600 IPS screen, 2.4GHz Core i5 processor with Intel Iris graphics, 8GB of DDR3 RAM, a 256GB PCIe SSD, and a build quality that’s second to none. You can’t upgrade the components or swap out the battery, and you won’t get the absurd run times of the T440s with the six-cell battery, but it’s one of the best laptops on the market.
Of course, the 13-inch MacBook Pro with Retina comes with some trade-offs. It doesn’t have an option for discrete graphics. It lacks security features, like SmartCard or fingerprint readers, that your company may require. VGA and Ethernet ports are only available via adapters, and there’s no SIM slot for LTE data, but if you don’t need those things then you won’t miss them.
The 13-inch Retina MacBook Pro is one of the most highly praised laptops on the market, with Editors’ Choice awards from PCMag and Laptop, four stars from CNet, an 8.9 from The Verge, 89 percent from Notebookcheck, and four…mice? from MacWorld.DigitalTrends called it “the best computing product of 2013.”
Laptop’s Michael Prospero summed up the 13-inch Pro’s appeal (and challenges): “While the Intel Iris Graphics GPU offers a mild boost over other Intel-integrated GPUs, consumers looking to perform heavier video edits would do better with the 15-inch MacBook Pro’s discrete Nvidia graphics. And if portability is your top priority, the 13-inch MacBook Air is half a pound lighter, and lasts 3 hours longer on a charge. But if you’re looking for the best combination of power, display quality and endurance for a reasonable price, the 13-inch MacBook Pro with Retina Display represents a pretty sweet middle ground.”
If you’re on a tight budget but still want a ThinkPad, there’s always the T440. It’s thicker and heavier than the T440s and its highest-resolution screen is only 1600×900, but it’s a couple hundred dollars cheaper than a T440s with the same specs. That’s still more than $1,300, though, and you’ve really got to love ThinkPads specifically to opt for the T440 over a similarly priced ultrabook.
Same goes for Lenovo’s ultrabookiest ThinkPad, the X1 Carbon. We really liked the previous generation Carbon and chose it as our step-up ultrabook last year, but this year’s model has some polarizing keyboard changes and not-great battery life, so it’s not as easy to recommend. The only screen choices are 1600×900 or 2450×1440, neither of which is ideal for a laptop of this size, and the battery isn’t removable.
Going from the keyboard and trackpad of the ThinkPad T440s or the Retina Macbook Pro to the Travelmate caused me to physically recoil.
The Acer Travelmate P645 seemed like a promising budget alternative to the T440s. It’s not ruggedized, but it has incredible specs for the money: Core i5-4200U, AMD Radeon HD 8750M discrete GPU, 256GB SSD, long battery life, and a great 1920×1080 screen, all for $1200. Laptop gave it four stars, saying, “The TravelMate’s processing performance is right on par (and sometimes better than) the Lenovo ThinkPad T440s ($1019 starting, $1,749 as reviewed), which has less RAM and storage than TravelMate but can be outfitted with a touch screen. Throw in the TravelMate P645′s Radeon GPU, which blows the competition out of the water, and you’ve got a thin-and-light powerhouse.” But I would never buy this laptop, because its keyboard and trackpad are terrible. The keys barely protrude above the backplane and they’re very shallow, while the trackpad lacks a clickpad and is very insensitive near its two unpleasantly deep buttons. Going from the keyboard and trackpad of the ThinkPad T440s or the Retina Macbook Pro to the Travelmate caused me to physically recoil. It’s not like Acer doesn’t know how to make a decent keyboard, they just didn’t put one here.
The rest of the field
PCMag came out with a “best business ultrabooks” article in February 2014. We eliminated everything with a last-gen processor (a Dell Latitude, the ThinkPad Helix, and last year’s X1 Carbon Touch) and anything that was too expensive (HP Zbook 14, Dell Latitude E7240 Touch).
The ThinkPad Yoga is not as good as a ThinkPad or a Yoga (I’ve tested it), the Toshiba Satellite E45T-A4300 has a low-res screen and slow hybrid storage, and the HP Spectre 13t is interesting but more of a competitor for our Best Ultrabook category. That leaves the ThinkPad X240 and T440s.
The direct competitors to Lenovo’s ThinkPad series are Dell’s Latitudes and HP’s Elitebooks. There aren’t a lot of reviews of current-gen models that meet our criteria. Dell’s website seems designed to make it very difficult for consumers to configure or buy a Latitude, and of HP’s Elitebooks, the nearest competition is either too big (EliteBook 850 G1) or too expensive (ZBook 14).
What makes a good workhorse laptop? Are workhorses still a thing?
I asked The Wirecutter’s followers what they look for in a workhorse machine. More than 150 people responded to our survey. The top five most important features were, in order: battery life, screen quality and resolution, build quality, a fast SSD, and portability. Many of the things we used to consider important in a workhorse laptop—an optical drive, removable battery, user serviceability, a security platform—were barely mentioned at all or were dismissed by readers as not important.
As laptop specs start to converge, categories become less obvious—nearly every laptop we recommend can now be considered an “ultrabook.”
As laptop specs start to converge, categories become less obvious—nearly every laptop we recommend can now be considered an “ultrabook.” The workhorse category (often called “business notebooks”) is starting to disappear in favor of ultrabooks, and we’re comfortable recommending ultrabooks like the MacBook Air and the Acer Aspire S7-392 to many of the same people to whom we would previously have recommended a workhorse.
So in order for us to recommend a workhorse laptop it has to be a good computer, flat out, and offer some compelling reason for business people to buy it over a standard ultrabook with the same specs. In the case of the ThinkPad T440s, it’s the ThinkPad repairability and upgradability and the hot-swappable, absurdly long-lasting six-cell battery. In the case of the MacBook Pro, it’s the Retina screen and build quality.
Care and maintenance
If you’re looking for a workhorse laptop, chances are you don’t have time to ship it back to the manufacturer if something goes wrong. In that case, consider an extended warranty from the manufacturer.
The ThinkPad T440s includes a one-year warranty, but you’ll have to ship your laptop back to Lenovo for service. If you can’t manage without your laptop for that long, you can add up to four years of onsite service (Lenovo sends a tech to you) and accidental damage protection. It adds up, though; one year of onsite and damage protection is $80, while four years is a whopping $480.
The MacBook Pro, of course, is eligible for AppleCare at $250 for three years. With AppleCare you get mail-in hardware support, plus you can take your Mac to an Apple Store’s Genius Bar (if there’s one near you) for on-the-spot service—although an appointment is recommended.
Wrapping it up
A good workhorse laptop is a no-nonsense machine that lasts all day; does whatever you need it to; has a great screen, keyboard, and trackpad; and has all the features you need and few you don’t. If you need what the ThinkPad T440s has—the combination of power, portability, crazy battery life, solid build quality, and user serviceability—it’s a great choice. Same for the Macbook Pro. If you need something lighter with a little less juice, get an ultrabook. If you need more power, get a 15-inch Retina Macbook Pro. But a good workhorse is a Goldilocks machine, and for a lot of people these will be just right.
May 8th Update: Many ThinkPad users, including me, found that their laptop would periodically disconnect them from the router--I even found that the computer was causing problems for *other* devices on the network--even my wired desktop would lose connection as soon as I turned on the Wi-Fi for the T440s. This would be a dealbreaker if it wasn't so easy to fix. The solution, found here, is to immediately uninstall the LenovoEMC Storage Coordinator program on your computer.
This guide originally appeared on The Wirecutter on 4/22/14 and is republished here with permission.