Review: 4 mid-priced laptops that mean business

You don't need to bust the budget to get your work done. We evaluate four Windows laptops that cost about $600 or less.

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Every day an army of business people heads out to offices, meetings and coffee shops, equipped with little more than a smartphone and a laptop. To get the job done, that laptop has to be secure enough to protect sensitive data, rugged enough to bounce around in a backpack, and with enough battery power and performance strength to get through a day of presentations, emails and online chats. All without busting the company budget.

Welcome to the world of mid-priced Windows laptops. According to Linn Huang, research director for devices & displays at IDC, today's typical business systems are far from the high-end, high-cost ultraportables and 2-in-1s that usually get media attention.

More basic and functional than typical consumer systems, business notebooks tend to do the basics well and have few amenities, such as HD screens or solid-state storage, Huang explains. The typical business laptop is powered by an Intel Core i3 or i5 processor and has 4GB of RAM, a 500GB hard drive and a 15.6-in. display, at an average cost of $614.

To see what about $600 buys today, I gathered together four of the latest business laptops:

They are generally a rugged bunch, although some go an extra step with military-level endurance and others add spill-resistant keyboards. Plus, because security is key in the enterprise, some of these mobile machines have a Trusted Platform Module (TPM) chip that can make remote access more secure.

Finally, because there are still a number of businesses out there that have not yet moved to Windows 10, these systems still offer a choice of Windows 7, 8.1 or 10. They were all loaded with Windows 10 when reviewed.

At the end of the article, you can also read my conclusions, find out the specifics of how I tested, and see comparative tables of the features and test results for these four laptops.

AsusPro Essential P2520LA XB31

If you need lots of connections and reasonable battery life on a tight budget, the AsusPro P2520LA should be in your bag.

The AsusPro, $530 (starting retail price), measures 14.9 x 10.0 x 1.0, with a rather large battery that causes the back of the system to go to 1.4 in. thick. At 4.9 lbs., the AsusPro is an ounce lighter than the Toshiba and HP systems. When you add the three-prong AC adapter, however, this increases to a travel weight of 5.5 lbs.

Asus

AsusPro Essential P2520LA XB31

The AsusPro has a straightforward all-black look with a striated plastic case. Its keys measure a generous 18.9mm, but their depth is shallow at only 1mm, and they didn't have enough travel and feedback for my tastes.

Like the Toshiba and HP systems, the AsusPro includes an optical drive and both VGA and HDMI ports for video. It adds three USB 3.0 ports that those who use high-speed peripherals like external hard drives will appreciate. There's also a single USB 2.0 port.

Its 15.6-in. 1366 x 768 display matches the others in resolution, but it was the dimmest of the four, with a brightness reading of 182 candelas per square meter. The screen looked visibly duller than the HP's in side-by-side viewing. In addition, I wasn't that taken with its audio, which sounded muted because the speakers are underneath the system, directed down.

As far as security goes, the AsusPro doesn't have two features that many business systems offer: a TPM chip for making secure remote access easier, and the ability to run only BIOS software that is approved by the manufacturer.

Performance

Equipped with a fifth-generation Core i3 processor, the AsusPro is step behind the Dell and HP laptops, which sport gen-six Core i3 and Core i5 processors, respectively. Like the others, it has 4GB of RAM and 500GB of storage, but rather than a 7,200rpm hard drive, it uses a slower 5,400rpm hard drive, which cuts into its performance.

Its Cinebench scores reflected these specs, with the ability to display 23.19 frames per second (fps) and a processor rating of 208, putting it on a par with the Toshiba (which has the same processor). The AsusPro did a bit better on the PCMark 8 test, scoring 2,426, which put it between the faster HP and the slower Toshiba.

Its 2,560mAh removable battery scored a runtime of 4 hours and 24 minutes when being constantly used, an acceptable result for this class of system.

The AsusPro came with the Asus Business Manager, an application that provides links to the various Asus tools -- nothing that any knowledgeable user couldn't do, but it's a quick and convenient way to access features like recovery, performance schemes, and various security apps.

Bottom line

While the AsusPro is a nice example of an inexpensive system, in the end, the performance hit and lack of security features means that, unless you're really on a budget, you may want to invest in a slightly more up-to-the-mark laptop.

Dell Latitude 15 3570 

A competent system that excels at performance, the Dell Latitude 15 3570 uses the latest Intel processor. However, its battery life may leave road warriors searching for an AC outlet to charge up.

The model 3570 (which is part of its Latitude 15 3000 line of laptops) retails for $553 (Amazon price).

It's approximately the same size and weight of the others in this group of four business laptops with dimensions of 14.9 x 10.1 x 1.0 in. The battery raises the thickness in the back to 1.2 in.

Dell

Dell Latitude 15 3570

The system weighs in at 4.9 lbs., an ounce lighter than the Toshiba or HP. With its small three-prong AC adapter, the Dell has a travel weight of 5.2 lbs., tying with the Toshiba as the easiest to travel with.

The Dell sports a smooth black plastic case, which makes it a bit more difficult to grip than the HP ProBook. Unlike the other three, it lacks an optical drive.

The Dell's keyboard has 18.6mm keys with a generous 1.8mm depth, making them quite comfortable to type with.

The system doesn't support the ability to run only approved BIOS software and lacks a Trusted Platform Module. Dell does provide a year of its Protected Workspace service that provides encrypted connections; it requires software on the server side as well.

There's a VGA and an HDMI port as well as two USB 2.0 and two USB 3.0 ports.

Although the display lid squeaked annoyingly when flexed, the system's 15.6-in. display was perfectly adequate -- fine for reading text in a document but lacking the vividness of the HP's screen. At 184 candelas per square meter, it was middle of the pack in terms of brightness.

Unfortunately, as was the case with the Asus system, the Dell has its speakers placed under the system, resulting in muffled audio.

Performance

Inside the Dell Latitude is a sixth-generation 6100U Core i3 processor that runs at 2.3GHz. That puts it between the higher-performance Core i5 CPU on the HP and the slower and older Core i3 CPUs on the Asus and Toshiba systems. The Dell comes with 4GB of RAM and a 500GB 7,200rpm hard drive.

It was no surprise that the Dell came in second place in our range of benchmarks, behind the Core i5-powered HP ProBook, with a PCMark 8 score of 2,658 and Cinebench scores of 29.55 fps and 245 for graphics and processor tasks.

With a 2,700mAh removable battery pack, the Dell was able to run for just 3 hours and 23 minutes on a charge. This is about two-thirds the time that the Toshiba lasted; not something you'd want to take on a long flight.

The Dell is augmented with the company's Dell Data Protection heuristic technology that monitors the system's behavior looking for the telltale signs of an attack.

I really liked Dell's Power Manager app, which squeezes every last electron out of the battery pack and checks on its health.

Bottom line

All told, the Latitude 15 3000 is a competent performer. Too bad it lacks the battery life and security that business buyers look for.

HP ProBook 450 G3

While the other three business laptops concentrate on keeping things simple to get to an ideal price, HP's ProBook 450 G3 adds security options and a rugged design, and it offers an excellent balance between performance and battery life.

The ProBook, $674 (starting Amazon price - What's this?) , measures 14.8 x 10.4 x 1.1 in. and weighs 5 lbs. on its own; with its three-prong AC adapter, the system weighs 5.4 lbs.

This system has been designed to stand up to abuse at work and on the road -- it's got internal reinforcements and a heavy-duty screen hinge. According to HP, it has passed nine of the U.S. military's Mil-Std 810 tests for surviving drops, shock, vibration, dust and high/low temperatures.

In addition, the ProBook includes a spill-resistant keyboard that can survive being doused with several ounces of liquid. It has 18.8mm keys with a generous 1.8mm of depth that provide good feedback.

While the other three business laptops here have plain black plastic cases, the ProBook sports a black and silver design with a soft rubber coating that's generally reserved for more expensive laptops. This gives it a grippy feel that makes it easier to carry.

HP

HP ProBook 450 G3

As is the case with the Toshiba device, the HP ProBook has an optical drive, one VGA and one HDMI video connection, two USB 2.0 ports and two USB 3.0 ports.

Its 15.6-in. display matches the others in resolution, but was the brightest at 193 candelas per square meter; to my eyes, it looked bold and bright. The system's speakers are directly under the screen, point at the user and sounded rich, with good volume.

Most secure of the four, the ProBook can foil a hacker by running only approved BIOS start-up software and also comes with a Trusted Platform Module that makes remote log-ins and authentication safer and more reliable.

Performance

HP outfits the ProBook with a sixth-generation Core i5 6200U CPU that adjusts its speed between 2.3GHz and 2.8GHz as the computing load requires. That's backed up with 4GB RAM and a 7,200rpm 500GB hard drive.

As expected, the higher-end processor gave it a performance advantage over the other three, scoring 2,899 on the PCMark 8 series of business tasks. This advantage was mirrored on the Cinebench group of tests, where the ProBook scored 38.82 fps on the graphics tests and 291 on the processor tasks.

The ProBook's removable battery is rated at 2,970mAh and lasted for 4 hours and 31 minutes on PCMark 8's battery test, almost 45 minutes behind the Toshiba.

The ProBook includes a slew of helpful IT software, like a TouchPoint Manager that can help manage a slew of notebooks from the cloud. My favorite was the Software Set Up Utility, a one-stop software utility for installing included programs and getting updates.

Bottom line

HP's ProBook 450 G3 is the value champ of the group with a rugged design, the best performance and the tightest security of the four. In other words, it should fit in well into the IT landscape of companies.

Toshiba Tecra C50-C1500

Toshiba's Tecra C50-C1500 is the long-distance runner of the group, with more than five hours of battery life (working constantly) at its disposal.

At 14.9 x 10.2 x 1.0 in., the Toshiba, $525 (vendor price), weighs 5 lb., the same weight as the HP. However, with its two-prong AC adapter, it has a travel weight of 5.2 lbs., tying with the Dell for lightest travel companion.

Toshiba

Toshiba Tecra C50-C1500

Its plain black case has a striated pattern. While it lacks the rugged design of the HP, it does have a spill-resistant keyboard to help it survive clumsy users. The 19.0mm keys were responsive and had a satisfactory 1.5mm of depth.

Like the Dell and HP systems, the Toshiba offers one VGA and one HDMI connector, two USB 2.0 ports and two 3.0 ports. Like the Asus and HP, it has an optical drive.

The Toshiba's 15.6-in. display rated a brightness of 186 candelas per square meter; to my eyes, it was adequate, but a bit washed out. Its speakers are optimally placed below the screen and aimed right at the user, but to my ears, they had a tinny sound.

In terms of security, the Toshiba offers a TPM 1.2 module for making remote access secure.

Performance

Inside, the Toshiba comes with a fifth-generation Core i3 5005U that runs at 2GHz -- the same used by the Asus system. It has 4GB of RAM and a 7,200rpm 500GB hard drive.

The system's older and slower processor showed up prominently during benchmark testing, where the C50 took last place with a 2,324 on the PCMark 8 series of business tasks. It also lagged on the Cinebench testing in terms of graphics with the ability to display 23.11 fps. It was marginally faster than the AsusPro on the CPU tests, with a 210 score versus 208.

The Toshiba's 2,800mAh removable battery pack powered the system for 5 hours and 13 minutes on a charge, the best of the four.

In addition to a trial version McAfee's Live Safe, the Toshiba comes with a useful tool called Systems Settings Utilities that consolidates all the major hardware choices.

Bottom line

The Toshiba system retails for $525. While you can order it through Toshiba's site, the purchasing link will take you to CDW.

Overall, the size, travel weight and good battery life of the Tecra C50-C1500 is impressive, but you also have to take into consideration its less-than-ideal performance.

Conclusions

Business buyers are the toughest customers around. When it comes to entry-level laptops, all four of the systems I looked at can cut it in the work-a-day world, but they each had their pros and cons.

To start, the AsusPro P2520LA comes with three USB 3.0 ports along with its USB 2.0 port, giving it the best connection potential of the four. But it lacked peak performance and didn't include a TPM security chip.

Dell's Latitude 15 3000 was more satisfactory in terms of performance -- but at the expense of battery life; during our tests, it only ran about three and a half hours. It also lacks a TPM module.

Toshiba's Tecra C50-C1500 is a fine system that comes with a secure TPM chip and a handy two-prong power cord. Its battery delivered the goods with five hours and 13 minutes of runtime, but its performance wasn't as impressive.

Only one system here combines security (with a TPM module), performance (with a Core i5 processor) and a rugged design with a spill-proof keyboard. The HP ProBook 450 G3 offers the most business bang for the buck, and with its rugged exterior, should survive the worst that clumsy workers mete out.

4 mid-price business laptops: Features and specs

 AsusPro Essential P2520LA-XB31Dell Latitude 15 3570HP ProBook 450 G3Toshiba Tecra C50-C1500
Thickness, Front/Rear 1.0/1.4 in. 1.0/1.2 in. 1.1/1.1 in. 1.0/1.0 in.
Size 14.9 x 10.0 in. 14.9 x 10.1 in. 14.8 x 10.4 in. 14.9 x 10.2 in.
Weight 4.9 lbs. 4.9 lbs. 5.0 lbs. 5.0 lbs.
Processor 2.0GHz Intel Core i3 5005U 2.3GHz Intel Core i3 6100U 2.3GHz Intel Core i5 6200U 2.0GHz Intel Core i3 5005U
RAM 4GB 4GB 4GB 4GB
Hard drive capacity/speed 500GB/5,400rpm 500GB/7,200rpm 500GB/7,200rpm 500GB/7,200rpm
Screen size 15.6 in. 15.6 in. 15.6 in. 15.6 in.
Resolution 1366 x 768 1366 x 768 1366 x 768 1366 x 768
Graphics Intel HD Graphics 5500 Intel HD 520 Intel HD 520 Intel HD Graphics 5500
Ports 3 USB 3.0, 1 USB 2.0, 1 HDMI, 1 VGA, 1 audio, 1 Ethernet 2 USB 3.0, 2 USB 2.0, 1 HDMI, 1 VGA, 1 audio, 1 Ethernet 2 USB 3.0, 2 USB 2.0, 1 HDMI, 1 VGA, 1 audio, 1 Ethernet 2 USB 3.0, 2 USB 2.0, 1 HDMI, 1 VGA, 1 audio, 1 Ethernet
Battery 2,560mAh 2,700mAh 2,970mAh 2,800mAh
Flash card reader Yes Yes Yes Yes
Optical drive DVD Multi None DVD Multi DVD Multi
TPM No No Yes Yes
Wireless 802.11ac/Bluetooth 4.0 802.11ac/Bluetooth 4.0 802.11ac/Bluetooth 4.0 802.11n/Bluetooth 4.0

How I tested

To see how these four mainstream business laptops compare, I used each of them for at least a week in my office, at home and on the road.

I started by measuring, weighing and trying out each system. I noted which had replaceable batteries, DVD drives and slippery or grippy surfaces. I measured the size and depth of the keys as well as how big the touchpad was.

Next, I counted the ports and made sure that they worked. Then, I set each system up with an HDMI cable to Vivitek's Qumi Q6 projector and ran a brief slideshow with sound.

After that I measured each system's screen brightness with a Minolta LM-1 luminance meter. I set each system to display a pure white image and took illumination readings in nine equal rectangles evenly spaced throughout the viewing area. I converted the meter's foot-Lamberts readings to candelas per square meter, averaged the readings and rounded to the closest whole number. While I was measuring the system's brightness, I looked for hot spots and dull areas of the screen.

To compare their performance, I benchmarked each system using Futuremark's PCMark 8, using the Work-Conventional settings. This benchmark runs typical tasks that a business employee would encounter during a work day, including Web work, video conferences, word processing and spreadsheet manipulation. The software stresses every major system component, from the processor, memory and hard drive to the graphics and puts together a single score that represents its performance potential.

I ran the software twice and averaged the results if the two results were off by 5% or less. If the difference was more than 5% I ran the test a third time and averaged the three.

After that, I ran Maxon Cinebench R15, which gives the system a good processor and graphics workout by rendering complex video. Its processor test employs roughly 280,000 polygons, uses a variety of algorithms and can take advantage of multicore processors. The software's OpenGL rendering tests use a photo-realistic car chase scene that contains approximately 1 million polygons, high-resolution textures and a variety of special effects. It runs for 30 seconds and measures the frame rate the system is capable of delivering.

Finally, I set PCMark 8 up to run down the system's battery while going through its benchmarking routine. By running its tasks over and over again, it simulates actual real-world usage.

While I ran the tests, I felt around the system's case for places where the case heated up and recorded them using a Flir One infrared thermography camera attached to a Samsung Galaxy S6 phone to record each laptop's hot spots. I followed up by using a Fluke 62 Mini IR thermometer to gauge how hot it got. Happily, all kept their cool.

4 mid-price business laptops: Test results

 AsusPro Essential P2520LA-XB31Dell Latitude 15 3570HP ProBook 450 G3Toshiba Tecra C50-C1500
PCMark 8 2,426 2,658 2,899 2,324
Cinebench R15 CPU 23.19 fps 29.55 fps 38.82 fps 23.11 fps
Cinebench R15 OpenGL 208 245 291 210
Screen brightness 182 cd/m2 184cd/m2 193 cd/m2 186 cd/m2
Battery Life (hours: minutes) 4:24 3:23 4:31 5:13