Enterprise considerations when purchasing laptops

In this era of remote work, or hybrid work, or whatever it might be called—and for however long it lasts—provisioning users with laptops has become increasingly important for large and mid-sized enterprises. Whether it’s purchasing and setting up dozens, hundreds or thousands of laptops, there are a number of issues you should consider before you get started. Let’s look briefly at two of these issues.

Is there a built-in LAN port?

Some laptop makes and models no longer include a built-in LAN port or connector where you can plug in an RJ-45 jack from an Ethernet network cable. The reason for this ranges from the ubiquitous availability of WiFi nowadays to purely cosmetic decisions e.g. a stylish laptop that is too thin to have that kind of connector on it. Either way, the lack of a built-in LAN port can cause problems for your deployment plans and also sometimes for the end user.

For example if your organization needs to reimage newly bought laptops so they have your corporate Windows image installed on them, the lack of a LAN port can be problematic since PXE booting over WiFi isn’t possible. The workaround of using a USB-based Ethernet adapter can also pose difficulties as during deployment the USB device can get paired to the laptop via the MAC address if you’re using ConfigMgr. Of course you can always boot the laptop using boot media instead of PXE, but if you have a large number of laptops to deploy then not being able to automate batch deployment makes this tedious. And deploying images over WiFi is a poor idea anyway because of the limited bandwidth compared to wired Ethernet.

Another issue that I’ve heard being reported is when laptops that have been imaged using USB Ethernet dongles are then used by employees in an office environment that has only WiFi connectivity. When these laptops are managed by Active Directory and the day arrives when the password for their computer account expires in Active Directory, the password doesn’t renew properly and the laptop must be rejoined to the domain—which requires intervention by a help desk or the administrator.

USB LAN adapters may work better if the drivers for the adapter are in-box in Windows. For example, the USB LAN adapter for the Microsoft Surface range of hybrid tablet/laptops is built-in, so it’s basically plug it in and go when it comes to establishing wired network connectivity for the machine. The need to hunt for the right driver (which may or may not exist) over a WiFi connection is thus eliminated, which makes deployment faster and less problematic. But there’s still the potential issue of renewal of computer accounts in Active Directory which may need to be worked out if it should arise.

The end user can also face difficulties sometimes if their corporate laptop has no RJ-45 connector. One situation where this frequently arises is when the user on the road and staying at a hotel where the WiFi environment is constrained or has a high amount of interference due to building materials and construction. Many older hotels also have wired Ethernet connections in their rooms in addition to WiFi stations in hallways, and generally the wired connection provides much better Internet bandwidth than the WiFi does.

Is there a good docking station available?

The second issue I’ve sometimes heard about from colleagues when they’re in the process of planning for the procurement and provisioning of laptops in their enterprise environments has to do with the quality—and availability—of docking stations for the machines. If the users at your organization will be sitting at their desks for most of the time they will be using their laptops then a good docking station makes it easier to connect monitors, keyboards, mice, speakers and other devices plus network connections to their laptops. By using a docking station the user gains the benefits of a desktop PC without having to sacrifice the portability of a laptop.

One issue to observe carefully when choosing a docking station is which kind of dock connector they provide for the laptop mated for them. Dock connectors can vary in type from USB 3.0 to USB-C—even to Thunderbolt, or be proprietary such as the Dell E/Port connector. Colleagues who work in enterprise IT environments have confided in me that not every dock connector type performs as well as others, so it’s wise before purchasing corporate laptops to verify which kinds of docks are available for them and then check forums like SpiceWorks to learn about any issues that are being reported with them. Even reading a selection of reviews on Amazon in this regard can help you identify any probable issues before you purchase docking stations for your laptops.

Purchasing a compatible docking station together with the laptops your organization is buying can also help simplify the matter of PXE-based batch deployment of corporate Windows images on your new laptops. By using the Ethernet LAN port on the docking station, you can more easily automate your deployment job without the hassles and tedium of trying to image systems over WiFi when the laptops you buy have no LAN port on them. Automating complex IT tasks must always be a high priority for those of us who manage IT in enterprise environments.

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