How to Choose the Right Laptop for 501c3 Nonprofits

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Laptops. There are swarms of them on the market these days, not to mention all the foreign technical features to consider when you compare one machine to the next. How do you even begin the selection process?
 
After serving the technology needs of DC’s nonprofit community for over two decades, we’ve lost count of how many times we’ve been asked for our recommendation on what laptop makes the most sense for an organization. It’s an important question to ask—after all, it’s difficult for an organization to be productive and serve its mission when its staff is struggling to get their machines to work properly.
 
Below we’ll walk through each key element you’ll need to consider during your selection process, and offer our recommendation for what specifically you should look for in your machine. We’ll also take some time to consider refurbished machines and how they might (or might not) be a good fit for your organization.
 

What to look for in laptops for your 501c3 nonprofit

Platform

There are three main options out there as far as platforms go:

  • Microsoft Windows. Microsoft has been around the longest, and is the mainstay in the market by a longshot (we’re talking upwards of 80% of the market share for use in business).
  • Mac OSX. Macs are perceived to be the “high end” of the three, and are generally used in highly graphics-oriented fields like photography or graphic design. These machines are attractive for their user-friendly interface, battery life, and low number of issues with viruses and malware.
  • Chrome. These machines run on Google’s Chrome OS, and are designed to be used with an Internet connection at all times. Most applications and documents are accessed from the cloud rather than locally (think Google Drive).

For nonprofits, we tend to stick almost exclusively to Windows in our recommendations. While it’s not unheard of to see a nonprofit with some Mac machines, the high price point doesn’t make much sense unless some members of your organization really need the graphics capabilities for things like video production or highly-designed pamphlets.
 
While there’s a chance your donor management software is web-based, we don’t recommend Chromes for your organization. This is a new technology platform that is (intentionally) limited in its overall capabilities, and the cost savings you might see are not enough given the risks.
 

Screen Size & Resolution

What is the laptop for? Will it be a desktop replacement that will occasionally go home with the staff member? Will it be for giving presentations at conferences? Will it be for a busy, traveling executive?
 
Your answer to this question will dictate what screen size you’ll want to select; while this is a feature that is largely up to personal preference, going much higher than the 15” range is going to negatively impact your laptop’s portability. The larger your screen, the heavier your machine is going to be.
 
Resolution can be a little more complicated. There are three main categories here:

  • 1366 x 786 / 1440 x 900. These two are in the same general class, and are the baseline for good quality displays. 1440 x 900 tends to be our recommendation across the board.
  • 1600 x 900. This is “HD plus.” It’s not necessary, but will give you cleaner display if that is important to you.
  • 1920 x 1080 and higher. Unless your work is heavy in Illustrator or Photoshop, you don’t need this “full HD” resolution.

 

Processor & RAM

This piece is important, as it will determine the overall speed of your machine, its ability to perform complex tasks efficiently (such as working in multiple applications at the same time), and how quickly your applications will open.
 
We always (yes, always) recommend the Intel series of processors, which comes in three flavors: i3, i5, and i7. The higher the number, the higher the computing power. If your nonprofit relies on donor management software, accounting software, and other more demanding applications, you should focus on machines with an i5 processor or higher.
 
Where Random Access Memory (RAM) is concerned, you should never go below 4GB—2GB is simply not sufficient with the way applications and the web will pull on your machine.
 

Storage Capacity

There are three choices where storage in concerned:

  • Spinning hard disk (HDD). This is the cheapest route, with the drawback being that they make noise and break down more quickly than the other options (since it is literally a moving part that is prone to overheating).
  • Solid state hybrid (SSHD). This is our typical recommendation. It is less expensive than a solid state drive, but still has the benefit of increased speed and ample capacity.
  • Solid state drive (SSD). You won’t need a fan with this advanced storage, but you will pay the price for it. This is much lighter and faster than the other options, and makes a lot of sense when the laptop is used heavily for travel.

If your nonprofit handles any sensitive information (PII or otherwise), this is where you’ll also need to consider a drive that is inherently encrypted.
 

Optical Drive

Unless your organization has some specific use for CDs or DVDs, you don’t need an optical drive. Plain and simple. (Especially since you can always buy a $19 external optical drive that connects via USB if you find out that you actually do need one.)
 

Connectivity

Make sure that your machine has wireless connectivity. Dual band is our standard recommendation here, with wireless AC compatibility being ideal if possible (this kind of connectivity is the “future of wireless,” if you will).
 
USB ports are also critical in most cases, as is an HDMI port if you’re going to connect your laptop to a monitor or TV.
 

Battery Consumption

This is another that will be more up to personal preference than any industry-specific needs. The biggest consideration here is that there’s an inverse correlation between battery life and portability; the longer your battery will keep you powered, the heavier it’s going to be.
 
The options are:

  • 4-cell. You’ll stay charged for 4-6 hours unplugged with this type.
  • 6-cell. This will give you 6-8 hours average.
  • 9-cell. We’re talking all-day power here, with 9-12 hours of battery life.

 

What to keep in mind if you’re considering refurbished machines

Quite a few of our 501c3 nonprofit clients prefer to purchase refurbished machines over brand new devices, since they are generally at a lower price point. While we don’t necessarily recommend against this, we do very strongly suggest that you only pursue this route if you can secure a long-term warranty that will give you a refund or a replacement in the event that your machine dies.
 
The lifespan on these machines is incredibly unpredictable (don’t expect to get 3-4 years out of them), so unless you get both an attractive deal and an attractive guarantee, the short-term savings will unfortunately not be worth the long-term costs.
 
Beyond that, don’t feel that you have to go it alone when it comes to making your selection; especially if you’re looking to outfit a large portion of your organization with new machines, it’s important to get some expert guidance so that you can make sure your people will be able to stay productive and efficient.
 
After all, the most important criterion of all is that your nonprofit is able to perform one very specific task: advance your mission.

Is your nonprofit in need of new laptops? Looking for some guidance to make  your selection? Let us know--we can help.