Smaller, Faster, Better

By SmallBusinessComputing Staff | Posted July 01, 2001
by Dan Littman

Just like their larger counter parts, small businesses need to watch the bottom-line. Controlling capital expenditures and not replacing your computers every time Microsoft or Intel distributes a new press release can keep you in the black.

But what do you do when your computers get too slow to handle the latest accounting, CAD, or graphics applications, or when your files get too big for hard drives and Zip disks to back up? Eventually, you'll have to upgrade your systems to both stay ahead of the curve and save yourself some money in the long run.

The key is to find the right system for your business. At one time, we would have recommended the fastest processor. Now, virtually any processor on the market is capable of meeting your needs. The only exception is the Intel Celeron, which is somewhat less capable when it comes to graphics. Make sure your PCs come with enough memory -- no less than 128MB of RAM. And while you may never have enough memory, you will certainly get enough storage space -- today's PCs come with 20 to 40GB hard drives.

In this guide, we reviewed PCs from four top vendors: the HP e-pc s10, a highly-manageable and secure system; the Compaq Presario 7000Z, a multimedia powerhouse; the IBM NetVista A60, and the Dell Dimension 4100, both straightforward machines for handling everyday accounting, word processing, and Web surfing

How We Tested
Today's systems rip through computing tasks so fast that differences in performance are, frankly, not important for most applications. So rather than focus on speed tests, we went hands-on and looked at how well each system is designed and integrated, and how comprehensively it satisfies the needs of users. We paid special attention to setup and maintenance on the assumption that small organizations probably can't provide the same level of in-house support that Fortune 500 employees take for granted.

We also popped open the systems to see how much room they offered for expansion. We know some users will be able to compute for a decade without changing a thing, but others may need to start adding components, purchasing updated software, and expanding features as soon as the purchase order clears.

Compaq Presario 7000Z and MV940 19-inch display
Rating 93

Though the Presario 7000Z has the trappings of a consumer's amusement center, it can fulfill nearly every business demand. The $2301 Presario 7000Z we tested included a massive 70GB hard drive, 256MB of memory, AMD's 1.2GHz Athlon processor, and Windows Me.

We can't decide if the Presario's Nvidia's GeForce2 GTS video controller with 32MB of memory is better for work or play. The card provides plenty of breathing room for 3D games and serious 3D applications. The 19-inch MV940 display also lends itself to graphic-intensive tasks, including CAD projects and video editing. The display's bright, saturated colors and solid, crisp detail won't tire your eyes or distort the final appearance of your creations. The display came configured for 1024 by 768 but we increased it to 1152 by 864 and 1280 by 960 with no loss of clarity.

Compaq throws in a set of JBL Platinum Series stereo speakers, which can attach to the sides of the monitor or rest on metal stands. The speakers draw power from the display, which cuts down on wires and demand for electrical outlets. They lack some oomph in the bass registers but sound good enough for videoconferencing with colleagues. The keyboard continues the multimedia theme; it has buttons for controlling volume, choosing tracks on a CD, and opening favorite Web pages.

The Presario's 12x CD-RW drive allowed us to back up our data and duplicate CDs quickly. A 16X DVD drive is present as well but you probably won't find much use for it in the office. Two USB ports and a single FireWire port are located on the front of the unit. On the back are two PS/2 ports and two additional USB ports.

The PCI bus has five slots ­ four of them populated with an Ethernet port, a V.90 modem, a five-port sound card with joystick connector, and a card with two more six-pin FireWire ports -- enough connectivity to set up a basic post-production system.

Inside the big steel case (9 inches wide by 18 deep by 18 high), there's plenty of room for working on drives or cards in the PCI bus. The Presario has empty 5.25-inch and 3.5-inch bays to accommodate Zip or tape drives. The front face pops off for easy access.

The Presario 7000Z is a dream machine, but the price, numerous consumer touches, and standard one-year warranty make it more appropriate for your den than the office.

If the machine's ease of use and graphics power appeal to you, consider upgrading the warranty with one of Compaq's CarePaq Packaged Services. Also look into one of Compaq's business lines, such as Prosignia, DeskPro, or iPAQ, which offer increased manageability and different service and support options.

Dell Dimension 4100 and M781s display
Rating 83

Dell's Dimension 4100 is the most unpretentious system in our roundup. There's no DVD player, no swiveling LCD display, and no racy industrial design -- just fast hardware and useful software.

Dell outfits the Dimension 4100 with a powerful 1GHz Pentium III processor, 256MB of memory, and a 40GB hard drive. Our test unit came with Windows 2000 and Microsoft Office Small Business Edition installed, so it was ready to go to work. Some users we interviewed said Dell helps businesses get to work in other ways as well. Three-year-old Sportvision is one of them.

Sportvision enhances television broadcasts of sports events -- delivering analysis of football matches superimposed on the action in real time, for example. According to CFO Ed Tepper, most of Sportvision's graphics data crunching happens on high-end workstations, but Dell systems power the rest of the company's 60-employees' activities. "We've gotten good service from Dell. They've been helpful to the company from an early stage," says Tepper. When Sportvision was starting up, "[Dell] understood how to work with a company like ours and made it easy to do business with them."

Likewise, our test system's 48X CD drive and an 8X/4X/32X CD-RW dive made it easy for us to back up the hard drive's contents and duplicate CDs. We were also impressed by the Dimension's connectivity options. The back of the unit has two PS/2, two USB, and parallel and serial ports, along with an Ethernet card, and a five-port sound card with joystick hook-up. The system lacks a dial-up modem.

The Dimension also boasts an ATI Radeon video card with 32MB of DDR (double-data rate) memory. The card is ready to tackle photo editing and other graphics-heavy tasks. Hooked up to the Dell M781s monitor, it produced bright colors in subtle shades and crisp detail. The monitor's default setting is 1024 by 768, but we cranked it up to 1152 by 864 and it looked fine.

The case (8 inches wide, by 17 inches high, by 17 deep) opens without tools, but it does not have a place to attach a lock. Inside, the case is roomy, and reconfiguring components is easy. There's room to add components to two empty 3.5-inch bays and three empty PCI slots. The system's 256MB of memory fills only one of the two memory slots. Dell's Solutions Guide provides excellent guidance on upgrading and troubleshooting.

Although the Dimension 4100 doesn't play DVDs, music lovers will dig the Altec Lansing ACS340 sound system, with two satellite tweeters and a thumping bass speaker that fits under your desk. With the speakers turned off, the Dimension 4100 runs whisper quiet.

Dell includes a three-year warranty with a year of on-site service. The Dimension 4100 is right on target for a knowledge worker who needs to focus on productivity. And at $1887 for the entire package, it's within the reach of start-ups and established businesses alike.

HP e-pc s10 and L1510 LCD display
Rating 80

When we first pulled the e-pc s10 out of the carton, we thought it was a notebook computer. It's only 3.5 inches thick, by 10.5 inches deep, by 9.5 inches tall. However, this little box is a desktop designed for your network.

The e-pc is perfect for companies that demand a high level of security. While the box has two free USB ports, it also ships with a plastic shield that locks onto the back and blocks access to all ports, with and without cables inserted. For ultimate data protection, the side slips off so the hard drive can be popped out and stored separately. To keep the CPU from walking, the e-pc may be fixed to a wall or the bottom of a desk with an optional bracket ($67).

The e-pc's size leaves plenty of elbowroom on the desktop, especially when coupled with the slim HP L1510 LCD display. The small size is one reason Walter Cortado at Broadway Trading likes the e-pc. Cortado, systems administrator and engineer, says floor space is at such a premium at his company's Manhattan office that they designed custom desks with a slot for the e-pc.

Cortado also enjoys the e-pc's manageability. Broadway Trading's 30 staffers support 300 independent day traders who come to the office and sit at e-pc-equipped desks. Cortado's e-pcs automatically check his servers for updates of Broadway's custom securities-trading software, then download and install them. Cortado no longer has to go desk to desk with software patches, and the traders don't have to waste their time on maintenance.

Our test unit provided similar satisfaction. While you can order several different flavors from HP, our configuration came with a 700MHz Celeron processor, a 20GB hard drive, 128MB of RAM, and Windows 2000. It also included an external V.90 modem, a 3Com Fast Etherlink 10/100 Base-TX LAN solution, and an external CompactFlash card-reader that could take the place of the missing floppy drive. Both peripherals connect via USB, which cuts down on cable mess and demand for electrical outlets. However, inside the e-pc's case there are no extra bays, no PCI bus, and no AGP slot for extras. A 24X CD-ROM drive is the only built-in drive. Optional floppy and CD-RW drives are available.

We tested the system with a 15-inch L1510 LCD monitor. The e-pc uses Intel's integrated 82810E video controller with 4MB of memory. The controller offers only the basics -- no real 3D support and no room for extra memory. The combination of resolution, color depth, and refresh rates that the controller supports limit you to 1024 by 768. However, the L1510 displays a bright, clear picture. The display's six-inch-deep base clips snugly to the e-pc's footrest and the display pivots 90 degrees.

HP supports the e-pc s10 with an admirable three-year warranty and three years of free phone support. With its low cost, high-security design, and remote management and support options, the e-pc is a good fit for companies that want to maximize manageability and control clutter.

IBM NetVista A60 and T54H LCD displayBRating 83

IBM put the NetVista A60 in a squat steel box only 7 inches wide by 15 inches high by 14.5 inches deep and painted its big blue signature "stealth" black. But just because it's small and spooky doesn't mean it's slow. IBM equips the A60 with Intel's superfast 1.3GHz Pentium 4 processor and 256MB of memory running on the new 400MHz bus.

The NetVista also includes a graphics-lover's video card plugged into a 4X AGP slot. The Nvidia TNT2 Model64 video card has 32MB of memory and can support a 1600 by 1200 resolution at 85Hz with full color depth, though the T54H LCD only displays 1024 by 768.

The T54H LCD is stealth black like the system. The display is a hybrid design, meaning it supports digital and analog video streams, and comes with cables for hooking up to either kind of video card. It can tilt back from the full vertical position to a 45-degree angle. The T54H presented gorgeous, rich colors, but letters, borders, and other shapes had rough edges and looked slightly out of focus.

The NetVista also includes a CD-RW drive for backing up the 36GB of hard disk space. The front face has two USB ports, a floppy drive, and an empty 5.25-inch drive bay. In back, you'll find two more USB ports and two PS/2 ports, along with a parallel printer port, a serial port, and sound ports. Of the system's three PCI slots, one is populated with an Ethernet card. Opening the box requires a screwdriver, and once inside, the smallish form factor can make installing or removing components somewhat difficult. The PCI slots are easily accessible, but you'll need to remove the power supply to add memory. The NetVista supports a whopping 1.5GB of memory -- three times as much as the other systems.

IBM pre-installs Windows 2000 and bundles its own Lotus SmartSuite Millennium along with Microsoft's Microsoft Office SBE. The whole package costs $2627, which includes a respectable three-year warranty and support policy. Hot basics and no-frills extras make the NetVista A60 ideal for heavy-duty data-crunching tasks and everyday computing.QUESTIONS TO ASK
What are your key requirements? Before plunking down good money on computer equipment, you need to determine what your office requirements are. If price is your main concern, you'll need a different system than someone who requires cutting-edge performance. Find out which applications are important to each department before making a decision on configuration. Keep in mind that you can upgrade individual components and systems later.

How little can you get away with? Just as it doesn't make sense to buy an underpowered system, going overboard is also a mistake. If your employees are paging through spreadsheets they probably don't need a high-end 3-D graphics card. If they write memos and reports, they don't need a 21-inch monitor displaying 1600 by 1200 pixel images. Don't waste cash on capital equipment that no one will take advantage of.<

How much support is needed? Supporting computers takes training and experience. You don't have to rely on the vendor's support, though sometimes it's the best choice. Does your organization have the expertise to manage the new systems? If not, can you hire reliable outside contractors? Forgoing the vendor's optional plans and extended warranties can save money, but if your organization can't take up the slack, you could get stranded with dysfunctional equipment and idled workers.

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