When it comes to buying PCs for your business desktop, the configuration of the basic business computer is pretty straightforward.
It’s true that parts of your business may have specialty needs: Your programmers; the servers holding your giga-database of customer records; your CAD-enabled design staff; your art department. That takes more careful shopping, though your specialty staff usually has a pretty good idea of what they need. (For the art department, just buy them Macintoshes with large screens and they’ll leave you alone.)
But for the vast majority of your knowledge workers, the systems we’re looking at in this report will be more than adequate. (Isn’t that a relief?)
Let’s say you have 37 employees, 25 of whom work in offices at desks. (The rest are in manufacturing, let’s say, or in the warehouse or at the front counter, or in the field, or otherwise need no desktop computer, or need a laptop or a specialty computing system we’re not covering here.)
Let’s further say your computers are on a network and hooked into the Internet so your workers can e-mail each other and the world at large. They do e-mail, word processing, spreadsheet jockeying, some customer tracking, a bit too much PowerPointing, and various other tasks in that vein. Your sales team has sales tracking software, and some of your tasks are Web-based. You may have some vertical-market or custom-built software on your servers, but you access these through client applications running on your ordinary desktop computers.
The basic business computer for the typical knowledge worker in this environment consists of the following components.
Basic Business Computer
- Processor: Intel Pentium 3.0 gigahertz (GHz) or thereabouts, or an equivalent AMD processor — that would be an Athlon 3000+ or above. (Intel Celeron and AMD Semprons are budget-priced CPUs that are slower–though the price is indeed lower, so if you’re really tight on budget, that’s a trade-off you can consider.)
- Memory: 512MB (megabytes) of RAM (256MB is not enough).
- Hard drive: 80GB capacity. Some people prefer a faster 7200rpm rather than the slower and cheaper 5400rpm drive, but frankly I find it hard to tell the difference in ordinary desktop work. (Warning: Don’t accept the 40-gig drives common to “priced starting at….” come-on offers from practically every vendor. Windows XP alone will eat up most of that space.)
- A CD drive; most software comes on CDs these days.
- A monitor of some kind. A flat-panel LCD is good and saves room and is only moderately expensive. Tube (CRT) monitors are going out of fashion–and thus are really (really!) cheap–though the bigger ones really! take up a lot of desk space.
- Keyboard, mouse, and some way of connecting to the network, usually a standard 10Mb (megabit) Ethernet connector, all of which are usually included in business systems anyway.
- Microsoft Windows XP Professional — rather than the XP Home edition usually offered on starter systems. Professional has networking wizard features, remote desktop capability, works and plays better with a more sophisticated network, and encrypts the file system for security.
- An “office suite,” which is a combination of word processor, spreadsheet, presentation program, e-mail program, and some other knicknacks, sold as one package. We recommend Microsoft Office, which costs more than, say, the Corel or any of the open-source suites, but is the most commonly used one on the market. Office Standard contains Word, Excel, PowerPoint, and Outlook for e-mail. Office Small Business Edition adds a Business Contact Manager feature to Outlook but costs extra–we’ve used is in our recommended configuration, but if you don’t need the extras you can save a few bucks with Office Standard. Still more expensive versions add Access, a desktop database, which most people won’t use, so don’t bother with that version except for that person in your office whose eyes light up at the notion of setting up and fooling around with a database.
Almost as important as knowing what’s important is knowing what you can safely ignore. Same with buying: We just told you what you should be aiming for. Now here is a list of features and components you can safely skip, and save your money and decision-making brain cells for more important stuff.
So, unless it comes literally free, don’t bow to tech enthusiasm of staff or salesperson for the following sometimes expensive extras; they won’t be worth it for a standard business desktop situation:
Don’t Pay Extra for These
- An Intel Pentium processor faster than 3.2GHz.
- A 64-bit processor. Exception: AMD pushes its 64-bit “extensions” chips so hard, you can sometimes get one for not much more. It’s not much help for most business users, but if it’s free….
- Dual-core or dual-processor systems. Some day soon, dual-core will be on every system at no extra cost. Until then, don’t pay extra unless you’re a power user. (More in Jargon Watch.)
- More than two gigabytes of RAM. You’re unlikely to make use of it.
- More than 120MB of hard drive. If you’re carrying more than that on your business desktop computer, you probably have stuff you shouldn’t have on your business desktop computer. If you run into unusual circumstances, you can always add an inexpensive ($200) 250-gig external USB hard drive later.
- A monitor larger than 19 inches. You won’t have desk space for a tube monitor that big, and the price curve for LCD monitors turns sharply upward above 19 inches (for now, anyway).
- A media card reader, for downloading happy snaps from your digital camera–this is a work system, remember.
- Don’t worry about how fast the Ethernet is. Take whatever comes with the system; faster is not usually worth paying extra for.
- More than 64 megs of video RAM. Unless you edit video.
DVD drives and optical burners are a trickier decision. You need a CD drive because most software comes on CDs. A DVD-ROM doesn’t usually cost much, if anything, extra and can be handy. It’s “burners” that are the head-scratcher. A CD-RW lets you copy files to (cheap!) CD blanks, great for little backup jobs or for sending large files to colleagues or clients, so that might be useful, though whether you need 20 business desktops all with CD burners is another question. (There can be security issues with optical burners, too.)
DVD burners are harder to justify. They are usually a significant extra cost. The conventional uses for this kind of capacity are for video files and very larger database files, neither of which shows up on office desktops much. If you can’t decide, put a DVD burner on your Power User’s desktop and skip it on all the rest of them.
What to do when you don’t know what to buy because they keep upgrading desktop computer parts!
Components change so fast and so frequently in this business that any recommendation we make will erode almost before we can post it on our Web site. So here’s the handy Scott’s Rule of Thumb, courtesy of Scott Pankonin, AllBusiness.com’s Director of Technology — i.e., the guy who has to buy our stuff:
Let’s say you’ve come to the Processor/CPU portion of the Web site configurator of your favorite vendor. You want to buy a 2.2GHz Intel processor. There isn’t one anymore. There’s only 2.4, 2.8, 3.0, 3.2, and 3.4.
Easy decision: Pick the one in the middle — in this case, the 3.0GHz chip.
Components improve at the same price on an ongoing basis. The market shifts accordingly. Intel and AMD, for example, lower the prices on their processors as they crank up production on each model. So when they had a 1.8, 2.0, and 2.2GHz lineup, the 2.2GHz is soon priced at where the 1.8GHz was last year, and the 2.4 is at the old 2.2 price point, and so on. The choice in the middle is ideal because it’s a faster processor, but the fastest processor shown is usually more expensive than it is faster — in other words, it may be 8 percent faster but it costs 20 percent more — the curve bends up towards the right side of the graph.
This rule of thumb applies to the cost/performance ratios for most of the components in your business system: Monitors, especially LCD flat-panel monitors; RAM; hard drive capacities; wireless cards. So if the entire industry has shifted one notch to the right by the time you or your buyer have gotten to the store, don’t worry — just shift right with it, and Buy the One in the Middle.