Purchasing a notebook computer requires balancing three distinct parameters, portability, capability, and usability. These three parameters are different for every person and as such, each buyer must adjust the value of these needs accordingly and make a purchasing decision that most closely aligns with their particular requirements.
Portability This is the most obvious parameter to consider when purchasing a notebook: the size, weight, and shape of the computer. How easy is it to carry with you? Does it easily slip into a bag, or does it require it’s own case? The difference between a 3 pound laptop and a 5 pound laptop can be the difference between carrying it with you everywhere and leaving in the office on the desk.
Capability This is usually the second consideration when comparing notebooks; the specifications of the computer itself. How fast is the processor? How big is the hard drive? Historically, the smaller, more portable, notebooks were limited proportionally in capabilities. That is no longer the case. The capabilities of most notebook computers can compete with your average desktop regardless of size.
Usability This is probably the most important of the three parameters and yet, it is typically the most overlooked. How easy is it to use this computer in the manner that you intend to use it? This parameter is often confused with portability, in fact, portability is a subset of usability, but it is useful for our purposes to consider them separately. How does the keyboard feel? Is the screen large enough to use for long periods of time without an external monitor? Can you connect an external monitor? A second external monitor? What connectors are built in? Which type of display connection? USB? Ethernet? Does the notebook have a docking station to connect all of your peripherals in one action, or will you need to manually connect monitors, keyboard, mouse, etc. each time you put your notebook on the desk?
When making a single purchase the right balance is a personal preference. There is no one correct answer for the entire population. If I am checking emails, surfing the web, connecting to a virtual machine via VPN to do most of my work, and traveling 6 months out of the year then portability is going to be my top priority. The heavy lifting of computational ability will be done on my company’s servers somewhere far away, I don’t need to carry a particularly capable device to be able to do my work. If I use my notebook to run virtual servers to showcase my company’s server based product on a stand alone machine, I need to make sure I’ve got a fairly powerful device that is capable of running both client and server side applications. In that case, capability trumps the other two parameters.
If, however, you are purchasing a fleet of notebooks for a large number of professionals, each with different needs, then the balance of the three parameters needs to shift heavily toward usability. Portability and capability are still important, but once a certain minimum level of portability and capability are met, usability should be the top priority. This is the situation faced by law firm IT departments as they choose a firm-provided model notebook computer and this is where the consumerization of IT hits a wall.
Consumer level devices are made for personal use. As I’ve argued above, the needs of an individual may be wildly different than the average needs of the population. If the individual has personally chosen to make due with the limitations of the consumer device, that is an acceptable trade-off. If however, the enterprise purchases consumer level devices and distributes them to their user base, the trade-offs may be entirely unacceptable to a large portion of the user base.
Let me use the Macbook Air as an example. I love this computer. It’s beautiful. It’s elegant. I would love to own one for my personal use. But it’s entirely unacceptable as a fleet notebook in a law firm. It certainly meets and even exceeds the portability and the capability minimums, but it falls woefully short in usability. Here, the culprit is not the screen or the keyboard, but the connectivity of the device. First, there is no docking station. It may seem like a small trade-off for such elegance, but after a year of manually plugging in and unplugging 5 or more peripherals each time you get to the office, you’ll wish you had a docking station. Secondly, there is no VGA or DVI monitor connection. I know, VGA is so last century. I agree. Unfortunately, most projectors in the world still use VGA. If you want to use your shiny new Macbook for presentations, you’ll need to carry around a Thunderbolt/Displayport to VGA dongle. While we’re discussing necessary dongles, the Macbook Air is designed to be used wirelessly, it doesn’t have an Ethernet port. You can’t connect it to a wired network without the USB to Ethernet dongle. Not a big deal, until you are in a hotel room with a broadband connection, but no wi-fi, or if you are at a conference with 500 people trying to get on wi-fi and can’t get an IP address. At that point you’ll need the dongle. Optical drive? There isn’t one. No watching movies on the plane, or loading up the client’s latest software on CD. Unless of course, you have the USB DVD drive. Once you pack all of these peripherals into the bag, the portability of the device is severely diminished and judging by the number of power supplies I’ve seen attorneys go through in the three year lifetime of a single notebook, the firm would have to purchase dongles and peripherals by the truckload.
Now, I don’t mean to pick on the Macbook. I am admittedly an Apple fan boy. I really do love this device. There are plenty of similar Macbook Air wannabes on the market, but I don’t believe any of them are currently appropriate enterprise devices. When wi-fi is ubiquitous, no one uses optical storage anymore, Displayport projectors are the norm, and all peripherals are wireless, then maybe we can roll out consumer level notebooks. Until then, as much as it pains me to say, we should probably stick the boring, ugly, corporate notebooks with acceptable portability and capability, and extreme usability.