How To Buy The Right Desktop Computer System

When shopping for a desktop computer for your small or medium-size business, resist the temptation to buy cheap. Instead, invest in a desktop that will help your office run smoothly for years to come.

Business PCs may not be the sexiest players in the PC market, but where the actual number of units the big PC makers ship each year is concerned, they do represent a significant segment. Think about it: You can still write a novel on a typewriter, shoot photographs with film, or play music live and record it with a DAT deck, but very few businesses can get their work done without a PC. Even a mom-and-pop shop that caters to a non-technological audience needs a PC to communicate with suppliers, customers, and potential customers. E-mail, Twitter, the Web: All of these technologies help make today’s business happen.

While it may be tempting to buy a simple consumer PC from a big-box store like Best Buy or Wal-Mart, you’ll probably be doing yourself and your users a disservice if you do. Specialized business PCs have extra features that make them better suited to the office than the $350 sales-circular special. For one, business PCs are built to last longer, and are usually easier to service, than consumer PCs. After all, the longer a business PC is down, the more money it costs you in lost productivity. Business PC makers may have specialized tech-support lines to help you troubleshoot your MS Office or Quickbooks problem. At the very least, you can add a service contract to your business PC so that on-site tech-support calls are handled by techs who respond in hours or minutes rather than in days or weeks, like the ones who handle consumer tech support. You’ll also have a better chance of reaching an US based, thus English speaking, support person.

The Heart of the Matter: How Much Power?
Dual-core processors, particularly AMD Athlon X2 or Intel Core 2 Duo models, are the norm in business PCs, though single-core processors such as the AMD Athlon 64 or Intel Celeron can still show up in really cheap models. Most Pentium Dual Core processors are based on the same architecture as the Intel Core 2 Duo processors, with a little less L2 cache, clock speed, or FSB speed. For example, the Pentium Dual Core E5000 series processors are similar to the ones in the Core 2 Duo E7000 series. I recommend a dual-core processor, preferably Intel based, because it’s a must for today’s attention-challenged, multitasking PC users. Quad-core is an option for the users like graphic artists, hard-core number crunchers, and geeks who stress over the speed of their PCs, but dual-core should be enough for non-technical and non-graphics-based users.

Look for at least 2 GB of RAM and the more memory the better, but don’t go overboard. 32bit operating systems can only utilize up to 4GB of ram and anything above that is just a waste of money unless you are planning to upgrade to a 64bit OS in the near future.

More memory allows you to do two things: open up more programs and windows at once and perform multimedia processes (like editing photos) faster. It you’re the type who keeps 15 tabs open in Firefox or Internet Explorer, you’ll need to have more than 1GB of memory. Windows Vista is a resource hog, particularly with the integrated graphics commonly found in business PCs, so 2GB is a minimum (and I still recommend 4GB even if you run Windows XP).

Storage: It’s Okay to Go Light
Business PCs require less storage than consumer PCs, since you’re less likely to sync your iPod or download lots of video to your work PC. A storage capacity of 160 to 250GB is a good balance between economy and space. Frankly, 40GB of available storage should be enough for just about all the PowerPoint, Word, and Excel documents you use on a day-to-day basis. Anything beyond that should be stored on an external hard drive or your server.

Optical drives are less critical for consumer PCs these days, what with being able to stream multimedia content from the Internet or downloading content directly to hard drives. But a DVD burner is still a must for a business PC. You may need it to burn copies of projects for your clients, and you’ll still need to read the occasional CD or DVD sent to you by a supplier or customer. Look for a full-size optical drive with a tray that opens—it will help for the occasional business-card-size CD that comes your way. (Mini CDs, survivors of a fad dating to the early 2000s, tend to get stuck in a slot-loading drive because of their odd size, and if that happens, you have to open up the drive to extract them.)

High-Powered Graphics Not Necessary
Most business PCs come with integrated graphics, whether from Intel, ATI, or Nvidia. Integrated graphics are fine for a business PC, since you won’t be playing 3D games on the system. (Installing games is the easiest way to make a system unstable, and you don’t want your money-earning system to go down unnecessarily.) Tower PCs and most small-form-factor (SFF) PCs will have PCIe x16 card slots for discrete graphics cards, in case you need one. Most businesspeople who require discrete graphics will use them for specialized tasks like GPU acceleration in Photoshop CS4 or 3D graphics visualization for architectural drawings. Ultra-small or ultra-slim form factors will likely have only integrated graphics and no card slots. These systems are best suited to general PC tasks (the majority of business tasks)

Expansion Room: Space to Grow
Most minitower and some SFF value desktops will have a measure of expansion space. You’ll find space for at least one extra internal hard drive, PCIe x16 graphics card slot, PCI or PCIe expansion slots, and maybe space for another optical drive. You may find extra DIMM slots, which will let you upgrade your system memory later. Eventual upgrades in a business PC are likely to be modest: the 125W to 350W power supply in these budget systems won’t be able to power more than a midlevel graphics card or more than two internal hard drives anyway.

Where Do Nettops Fit In?
Nettops belong to a desktop category that comes in below the value desktops, both in price (for the most part) and capabilities. Nettops run on the same basic components as netbooks, their laptop counterparts (low-powered processors, non-upgradable integrated graphics, 512MB or 1GB of RAM, smaller hard drives, no optical drives, Windows XP or Linux). They’re built to surf the Web, run Office apps, and perform other very light computing duties. Unlike full-fledged PCs, nettops have no capacity for internal expansion. One possible benefit, depending on the model, is an included built-in screen for under $600. I wouldn’t run a business on a nettop, unless all you want to use a PC for is communication. The extra speed of a “real” desktop PC will pay off if you ever have to recalculate a spreadsheet in the 10 minutes before the client arrives, or if you need to quickly retouch a photo or document layout.

Management Details: It’s All Small Stuff
The more corporate a PC, the more likely it will have security features built in and easy-to-access, IT-friendly components; and remote desktop management tools. You’ll need these features only if you’re a rapidly growing business or already have more than a dozen employees. Once a business grows beyond half a dozen employees it will need a dedicated IT staffer or subcontractor, and corporate IT features will help that individual. If you run a sole proprietorship or small partnership with just a few employees, then buying more of a budget business PC is fine—just be prepared to face longer waits on tech-support phone lines when things do go wrong. With a small-business-oriented PC, there are usually dedicated sales and technical support personnel who can help you tailor your purchase and support to your business’s needs.

Beware Crapware
A downside to cheaper PCs is the avalanche of crapware the manufacturer so kindly pre-installs for you. Often one of the reasons a PC is inexpensive is that, as with broadcast TV and “free” cell phones, some other entity is subsidizing the discounted price. Crapware consists of all of those “trial” and extra software that’s designed to tempt you into buying stuff that didn’t come with your PC. It can be hard to remove completely from your system and in many cases, even compromise performance. Although many desktops come with some crapware, manufacturers tend to put more of it into lower-end models.

Fortunately, business PCs, by and large, have minimal crapware. There’s almost always an Office 2007 60-day trial on the hard drive, but in a business system that can be a good thing. When the trial period runs out you upgrade to a full version for unlimited use simply by clicking the link to Microsoft’s site and entering your credit card number. There’s usually an antivirus suite as well, but be wary of packages that stop updating after 60–90 days. You don’t want to get a virus on a system you depend on to earn your money. Again, this is one case where if you don’t already have an office solution installed from your server, I’d consider upgrading to the full version over the Internet.

Final Thoughts
These days, it may be tempting to grab the cheapest system out of a sales circular and call it your “business PC,” but don’t do it. Keep in mind that this system has to last at least as long as it takes for you to amortize the capital investment (usually three to five years; but the exact length depends on your business’s accounting practices). Paying a little extra for more power or capabilities now will save you headaches down the road. The added value of a longer warranty, specialized tech support, and/or the elimination of crapware are among the extra benefits you may get. At the very least, the system you buy from the business division of your favorite PC maker will be more suitable to your company’s needs than a flashy pink desktop with a TV tuner and Blu-ray player.

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