The Direct Route

By SmallBusinessComputing Staff | Posted June 01, 2000
by Holly Aguirre

What PC manufacturers have to offerAre your employees still using old upgraded 486s, squinting into the haze of flickering 15-inch monitors? Before they all go mad and blind, it's time to give them the tools they need to be productive. Choosing the right computers is not a decision that should be made in haste, and there are several ways to go about it.

In this Buyer's Guide we discuss the direct option, buying right from PC manufacturers.

There are also several other ways to acquire systems, such as buying from third party solutions providers (VARs), through online services, from retail shops, or via leasing options. See the supplemental guide for other purchasing avenues.

Each method has its pros and cons. Many small mom-and-pop shops, as well as several new dot-com companies, may offer better prices, but what kind of support do they offer? It won't matter how good of a deal you got if the first time a problem arises no one answers the phone, and hours, or more, are lost.

Does your organization have an internal IT staff? If not, then a VAR or other type of technology consultant may be the best way to go. They provide an extra level of hand holding and support that direct vendors simply don't.

The direct road has its advantages as well. Many manufacturers are paying close attention to the small business market these days. The result is package deals that include hardware, software, and services specifically for smaller organizations. Customers may wind up paying a little more for equipment from brand name manufacturers, but it should be money well spent. The security of knowing purchases are supported by knowledgeable folks who are backed by substantial corporations is a feeling that can't be bought.

For this guide we abandoned our method of comparing boxes. At their essence, desktop PCs are all pretty much the same. Every business will most likely want to customize (i.e. pick processor speeds, choose hard drive size, select DVD vs. CD, etc.) the units they purchase anyway.

It is the extras ­ the service offerings, software bundles, and other value adds ­ that make these units truly stand apart.

We suggest taking the time to examine the fancy, high-priced models to see what they have to offer. Study their spec sheets and determine which features are most important to you. For example, a DVD will add a couple hundred dollars to the purchase price of a PC when a CD-ROM drive will more times than not suffice.

Once you've drooled over the high-priced models, check out the "affordable" units: the systems in the $1,000 to $1,500 range.

Naturally their computing power will probably measure 10 or 20 percent less than the latest and greatest models. But, just about any new PC available today has at least twice the power needed to run standard office software and shouldn't hold any company back.

HOW WE TESTED
We chose some of the top-selling vendors in the PC industry to be a part of this Buyer's Guide. Of the seven we invited, five chose to participate: Gateway, Hewlett Packard, IBM, Micron, and newcomer Tiger Direct. Compaq Computer Corp. and Apple Computer did not respond to our repeated requests for information.

We asked the vendors to recommend a system for a small business (with 10 to 100 employees) looking to purchase several (10 to 30) new systems. We also told them that all of the systems had to work across a network.

In essence, we pretended to be you. We pored over endless spec sheets, Web sites, and service plans. We added and took away options, and talked to customers to get their feedback on their overall purchasing process experiences. The following is what we found.

Gateway
Rating 87

Everyone has seen those clever cow boxes, but was the bovine the best of the bunch?

Mike Laury, district marketing manager of the Donegal Insurance Group, located in York, Pa., certainly thinks so. Laury purchased more than 60 units from Gateway in the last year and plans to buy more.

According to Laury, the company was first recommended by a friend who had a positive experience with one of the sales representatives. Since they stopped purchasing clones from a local vendor, Laury claims that Donegal's systems now have a failure rate of less than 1 percent. "We not only receive great customer service from Gateway, but they didn't try to pressure us into buying stuff we wouldn't need," says Laury.

Gateway recommended the GP7 600 for a small business customer. The unit has a 600MHz Pentium processor, a 10GB hard drive, and comes with 64MB of memory. The $1,399 GP7 also comes with a respectable 17-inch monitor, a 10/100 Ethernet Adapter, a 40X CD-ROM drive, and comes bundled with Microsoft Office 2000 and Norton Anti-Virus Software.

We were impressed with Gateway's service program, which includes a three-year, parts-and-labor-limited warranty, one year of on-site service, and limited hardware and software support for the life of the system.

Additionally, Gateway offers eSource, a customizable extranet site for regular customers. It enables users to fine-tune purchasing options, thereby more closely matching products to their specific business needs.

The site also automatically reflects special discounts, product configurations, and shipping instructions. With eSource, businesses can also make purchases on line, access order status that includes tracking features, review and approve employee purchases, generate quotes, and much more.

Although Gateway has a reputation of being pricier than most vendors, we think businesses will feel confident and secure outfitting their office with its products. Gateway stands behind its units and offers good customer support on the Web. Just be careful to read the fine print when going over the service agreements.

Hewlett Packard
Rating 84

Hewlett Packard recommends the $499 Brio BA200 for small business needs. Built around a 500MHz Celeron processor, the Brio sports 64MB of RAM, a 4.2GB hard disk drive, and a 40X CD-ROM drive, but no monitor.

Access to the Brio Internet Center is free of charge for users lacking a Web presence, and provides a jump-start to get them using and selling via the Internet.

Units from the Brio line come with free limited Internet access as well. HP has even created a specialized portal for small and medium business information that we found quite useful.

Teaming up with HotOffice, HP is the only PC vendor that offers a suite of hosted collaboration and communication tools designed to help small companies.

Through HotOffice, users have access to a host of services, including Web-based e-mail, that enable traveling employees to securely connect to company e-mail while on the road. Additionally, the Trellix Web software package, which is integrated into the HP Brio Internet Center, takes users through a simple, step-by-step process to create, publish, and enhance a customized company Web site.

HP customer Sylvia Thomason presides over Strategic Management Technologies Inc., a Virginia-based consulting firm. With a consulting staff of 20-plus, the firm provides solutions for Web design, remote connectivity, mass storage, and other computing-related projects, primarily to clients in the federal government.

Thomason had an HP computer for only four months when she encountered a mysterious, intermittent problem that had everyone stumped. So she called HP's toll-free tech support number. Using software that comes preinstalled on the PC, she had HP's remote support staff dial in and fix the problem. The problem returned, so HP rebuilt it again. And unfortunately, it returned again.

"I had a Pentium failure, which is very rare," says Thomason. "But as soon as HP figured out what it was, they replaced the system within 48 hours. Then they called back to make sure everything was functioning. They called again six weeks later just to confirm that it was still okay . . . that just doesn't happen in this industry."

Jim Nutter of the United Summit Center, a mental health facility located in West Virginia, also had a good experience with HP. "Everything from getting a quote to purchasing systems from HP went very well," Nutter says.

"The representative that we spoke with was able to answer all of our questions efficiently and completely, "Nutter further explains.

After receiving the 57 systems he ordered, Nutter was quite surprised that the only problem he found was with a monitor that had a mostly red display. "I have always had good experiences with HP equipment and would not hesitate to purchase from HP in the future," says Nutter.

Overall we were not as impressed with HP's offering as we were with other vendors. However, we still think they have a well-rounded suite of offerings that will more than suffice for many small businesses. The satisfied customer testimonials provide additional evidence of a solid company.

IBM
Rating 87

We get the distinct impression that IBM wants its customers for life. Once you commit to an IBM PC, the company offers loads of options and service plans (for a fee) that can be updated throughout the contract period.

For example, the Owner Privileges program includes preferred call handling, toll-free access to IBM for support and upgrade advice, and a 25-percent discount on upgrades, software, and accessories.

For our needs, IBM suggested the 300GL Small Business Series line. Since they did not point us to a specific unit, we had to customize a unit ourselves. Therefore, be warned in advance: Be prepared to get out the old calculator and do your own math if IBM is the way you decide to go.

The unit we configured was built around a 500MHz Intel processor. It included Norton Anti-Virus software and the Microsoft Office 2000 Small Business Edition, as well as an Ethernet adapter. Lotus SmartSuite and a 40X CD-ROM come standard with all 300GL models. Warranty options include a three-year parts-and-labor contract. Preinstalled software, however, has a limited warranty of 30 days.

Once we added a 17-inch monitor, the whole unit cost us $1,510. IBM's noteworthy service and support back all 300GL Small Business Series systems. Gregg Manning, vice president of operations for Pennsylvania-based ASCOR Inc., a 30-employee assembly equipment manufacturer says, "The best thing about IBM is the friendly customer support, fast response times, and good follow-up."

Those customers that purchase the IBM series will also enjoy Small Business WebConnections. This is a subscription-based Internet offering that provides all of the hardware, software, and services a company needs to access the Internet through a single connection.

Prices start at $99 per month (startup fee, telephone, and other charges not included). All solutions include IBM Whistle InterJet hardware, which provides shared Internet access for up to 100 mixed-platform computers.

Analog, ISDN, and DSL connections are available, and there are three levels of service offerings. All include business-class e-mail capabilities, Internet access, domain name selection and registration, firewall security, technical support from IBM, and the ability to create and host an intranet site. Additionally, options for installation and Web design services are also available. Pricing for this new solution requires a payment of a one-time activation fee of $299, and monthly payments over a 12- or 24-month subscription period.

Leasing options are also available through Fidelity Leasing Inc. Customers can request financing for purchases up to $50,000 and expect a credit decision within 15 minutes or less for most transactions.

IBM also offers a small business program designed to give customers a single point of entry (via their Web site) into IBM so they can find information on only those products, services, and solutions relevant to them.

In our opinion, IBM provides the most well-rounded offering of all the units that we looked at.

As its customers will attest, we think a small business can count on IBM for original solutions that grow and change with a business' needs.

Micron Electronics
Rating 92

The Micron Millennia 533 was the best-looking unit on paper. A mere $1,300 will go a long way at Micron.

The Millennia packs a Pentium III 533MHz processor, a whopping 128MB of RAM, a huge 10GB hard drive, a 40X CD-ROM, a 10/100 Network Interface Card, and a Micron 19-inch monitor. It was the only unit in the roundup that came with speakers, and good ones ­ a pair of Altec Lansings. The software package was nothing to scoff at either: Windows 98 SE (Windows 2000 is $100 more), MS Office 2000, and Norton AntiVirus 2000 come included.

It gets better. Free Internet access is also available for a 45-day trial period. All Micron small business customers are assigned a dedicated sales representative who handles their account personally, as well as a Microsoft-certified technician to assist them in planning their network implementation.

Micron also hosts instructor-led classes on their Web site. Called Micron U, classes are taught by industry experts and professional trainers.

Computer consultant to North Carolina-based Augusta Homes, Anthony Navarro purchased three Micron systems because he needed workhorses.

"The Micron system was the beefiest and the most powerful system out there," says Navarro. "Then my CPU died; luckily I had purchased the service subscription and someone came out and fixed it on site."

Volume discounts are also available depending on configurations and quantities.

The standard warranty is five years parts-and-labor on main memory and processor, and three years parts-and-labor on other components. Lifetime technical support is free and available 24/7. Web-based support includes drivers, bug fixes, and a trouble-shooting wizard, but no online documentation.

A generous warranty combined with a solid hardware offering (not to mention satisfied customers) make the Micron the most attractive unit in the roundup.

Tiger Direct
Rating 85

While Tiger Direct is a relative newbie to the PC manufacturing industry, they can save customers some real money in many cases.

Tiger Direct hung its shingle out back in 1990, and it sees most of its business through direct mail circulars. However, it is now claiming a large slice of the action on the Web. Also, custom systems may be customized and built over the phone.

We were directed to the SOHO Line of TigerSystems, which is designed to serve the needs of the Small Office/ Home Office environment. These Systems range in price from $460 to $850, sans monitor. Tiger Direct does not include any software with its desktop models. It currently does not have any agreements with anyone to bundle software that we were made aware of.

Over the phone we configured a system with an Intel Celeron 500MHz CPU, 96MB of RAM, and a 44X CD-ROM Drive, all with a one year warranty. The grand total was $860 without the monitor.

We found the salesperson to be both knowledgeable and patient, as well.

Since Tiger does not as of yet have an established track record for serving the small business market, we can not, yet, consider it a top contender. In addition, its systems do not include monitors. Tiger Direct does, however, provide a solid product that may save buyers a few bucks. Customer service is more than adequate, and customers seem pleased, all pluses.

WHAT WE THINK
We were truly impressed with Micron's offering, both with the system and with the trimmings. The price is right and its service and training tools are top notch. We think the other vendors will have to run to play catch up with Micron. IBM, however, ran a close second with its wide range of offerings specifically for small businesses.

The systems recommended to us for this roundup packed an average 500MHz processor, which is more than sufficient. From our personal experiences, we'd say that most business applications, such as Word documents and spreadsheets can be handled by slower processors. Some, such as Celeron and AMD models, are cheaper and will get the job done just as well. P>Our advice is to shop around. Remember when buying a PC, everything is negotiable. And don't forget to check out the vendor's return policies and tech support offerings.

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