Desktop PC vendors organize their offerings by product lines, which should make it easier to buy, since you can simply (in theory) go directly to the product lines targeting small and medium-size business customers.
In fact, some vendors have several product lines for business buyers, and you’ll find a distinct lack of clarity as to the differences among said product lines, other than that one line tends to cost more or less than another line, but not consistently even in that. Other vendors seem reluctant to state clearly the intentions of each brand name — every single system, it seems, is targeted at buyers who want flexibility, quality, and value. (I am still looking for that other product line — you know, the one aimed at buyers who prefer rigidity, frangibility, and high prices.)
In an attempt to figure out what’s what, we studied the product lines and then, defeated, talked to the product marketing managers of the various brands. But that didn’t always help. So here is our interpretation of what we found out by studying the vendor sites and literature, consulting with our user sources, and shopping the sites ourselves. (Our interpretation may differ slightly from what the vendor marketing people thought they were telling us.)
Introduction: Who’s Who?
The market isn’t the free-for-all it was in the old days, but there are plenty of sellers of desktop computers, even if Dell is the hurricane-force wind in this market and has just over half of our readers’ desktops in thrall.
Dell sells mostly through its online store with its legendary “configurator.” The rest of the vendors sell both online and through national chains in the U.S.: Hewlett-Packard/Compaq , IBM/Lenovo, Gateway, and Sony. And Apple, of course, which sells online as well as through its own branded stores and in special sections in chains like CompUSA.
In addition, chain stores such as Best Buy and Costco, and even Sears and Wal-Mart sell both national brand-name computers and their own bargain-priced private-label systems. Almost every brand also sells through consultants, business partners, systems integrators, IT consultants, and other third parties who serve the business market.
And finally, you can still buy custom-built systems from local PC builders who assemble components to order (called “white boxes,” because they aren’t branded). In fact, Microsoft has a Web site dedicated to promoting a “Buy Local” initiative intended both to support small assemblers and (we suspect) to drive some business to small builders who pay to put Windows on their systems instead of installing Linux for free.
And What’s What
We will cover mainly Windows-Intel PCs here, though we also give an AllBusiness.com tip of the hat to Apple’s Macintosh — 13 percent of our readers own them, so we have to show some respect.
If you’re wondering whether the new Intel inside the Macintosh will change things … well, it will certainly help speed up the Macintosh, and give Apple an excuse to continue lowering the prices closer to the Dell-style commodity boxes. But the real issue for Macintosh enthusiasts has always been — and will continue to be — the basic incompatibility of its operating system with that of the Microsoft hegemony. The two systems look and act a lot alike, but under the hood they are different enough that a given program can’t run on both — there need to be separate versions for the Mac and for Windows. Disparate systems have never been a favorite among IT folks who have to do the maintenance, so that’s still going to be an issue for your business.
But if you (or someone who holds power over you in the company) have your heart set on a Macintosh, it’s not so foreign that it will bring your IT department to its knees. Macs work and play well on PC networks, talk to the Web the same way, use Mac versions of the usual productivity software that PCs do, and even read and write PC floppy disks and understand Word and Excel files from Windows machines. You’ll still pay a smidge more, and there will be a few headaches here and there, but it’s not the end of the world. If you love Macintosh, then go for it. If you don’t care one way or another, then there aren’t many good reasons to start caring.
Linux is a horse of a different color. Most businesses use Linux on the server side, where the operating system is the least of your troubles. Desktop Linux is — I have to be blunt — still not ready for prime time. Or, rather, not ready for Every-Tom-Dick-and-Harriet prime time. By which I mean, while many computer-savvy people in your company will have no problem adapting to a Linux environment, anybody on staff who considers computers a tool or a chore, rather than a toy and a joy, is going to be a potential support problem. On the other hand, if your IT support staff is enthused about Linux on the desktop, they can go ahead and hand them out to other enthusiasts and deal with the issues, as Linux systems integrate well into a business networked environment — as long as your support people are up for it.