Getting Started: Selecting a PC for Your Small Business

Today more than ever, selecting the right desktop PC for your small business takes a bit of crystal-ball gazing. You need to weigh your current needs and budget with what you might need down the road. With the transition from Windows XP to Windows Vista clouding the picture, even the once-easy decisions are less clear.

But there is good news. Thanks to the ongoing price wars between AMD and Intel, you now get more power for less money than ever before. If you opt for Vista, some of that savings will be eaten up by the more-powerful hardware you’ll need for that operating system, but you can still expect to get a reasonably powerful computer with plenty of storage and a 19-inch LCD for right about $1,000.

If you opt for Windows XP (with its less-stringent hardware requirements) and can live with a smaller screen, you can equip your office for about $600 per PC. Yes, you’ll see ads for machines priced as ridiculously low as $350, but those won’t have the horsepower or longevity that most business buyers will want.

Dell Dimension E521
Dell Dimension E521

Operating System: Vista Yes or Vista No?
Windows Vista Business Edition is the shiny new operating system (OS) on the block, and it does indeed have some neat features for small businesses. First and foremost (as with all versions of Vista), the OS is more secure than Windows XP thanks to built-in spyware blocking (called Windows Defender) and the repair of known XP security vulnerabilities. That’s not to say you won’t still need a third-party anti-virus/firewall security suite (you will), but the improvements in Windows give you an added layer of defense.

Vista Business also includes the handy Windows Backup and Restore Center. The wizard-driven interface lets you easily back up your entire hard drive or just select folders to the destination (an optical disc, external drive or network drive) you choose and to restore files should the need arise.

The OS also features Shadow Copy, a utility that automatically archives previous versions of your files. You can also set the OS to automatically encrypt files to prevent them from being opened without the proper password.

But there is a downside to jumping on the Vista bandwagon. For example, while the vast majority of Windows XP-compatible (and even older) apps install and work perfectly under Vista, some may not. (You can run the free Vista Upgrade Advisor utility on your current PC to see if any programs you run have known compatibility issues.) Similarly, the drivers for some printers, scanners, and other peripherals you use may not yet be Vista-ready.

Apple iMac  2.0GHz
Apple iMac 2.0GHz

Those hurdles, plus the learning curve involved in figuring out a new OS, mean that tried-and-true Windows XP might be the right choice for many businesses. Indeed, leading PC makers are generally offering both operating systems side-by-side, especially on their business lines. If you won’t use any of Vista Business’ new features and you’ve been happy with XP, you have little motivation to switch.

The Mac Wildcard
If you are thinking of making a switch, consider the Apple platform. Now that Apple machines employ Intel CPUs, you can run both Mac and Windows software on the same machine. In fact, Apple has a handy little utility called Boot Camp (technically a “public beta,” but it’s been widely used) that lets you choose at bootup which OS to run, and the capability will be folded into the next major release of Mac OS X (referred to as Leopard) due in the fall of 2007.

Gateway DX430X

So if you like the elegant simplicity of the Mac OS and its built-in software extras, but have Windows apps you need to run, a Mac is a viable alternative. The downside: Macs tend to be pricier than their Windows competitors with similar specs, and you’ll have the added expense of having to buy a full copy (not an “upgrade” edition) of Windows XP or Vista to load alongside Mac OS X.

Processor: Opt for Dual-Core
AMD and Intel each have excellent processors on the market that can easily handle business chores. Intel has a slight speed advantage in benchmark testing, but in real-world apps you would be hard pressed to tell the difference between machines running one brand or the other.

Be sure to look past the ultra-inexpensive machines you see in sales circulars and insist on a PC with a dual-core processor, such as the AMD Athlon 64 X2 Dual-Core, Intel Pentium D or Intel Core 2 Duo. These are single CPUs with two processor cores (not two distinct processors, as can be found in high-end workstations), and they deliver a performance advantage. Not only will the newer dual-core chips run at faster speeds than their older, single-core counterparts, they can handle multiple tasks at once.

For instance, anti-virus utilities often set the default weekly scan for off-peak hours because it slows a single-core CPU system to a crawl. But on a dual-core machine, one part of the CPU runs the scan in the background while the second core handles other tasks without affecting performance.

You’ll also see a speed improvement when running applications (such as Adobe Photoshop) designed to take advantage of multi-core CPUs. More importantly, opting for a dual-core machine future-proofs your purchase. You’ll want to use a business desktop for at least three years and ideally five years. In that time, you can expect to see more apps written to take advantage of a dual-core CPU, so you’ll be ready.

HP Compaq dc5750
HP Compaq dc5750

RAM: Think Amount, Not Speed
When it comes to RAM, you don’t need to vet all the different types and speeds; your PC maker has done that for you. In a new business PC, you will almost certainly get DDR2 SDRAM, in a speed ranging from 533MHz to 800MHz. Here again, the speed of the RAM won’t make a noticeable difference in real-world use with typical productivity apps.

What is of crucial importance, though, is the amount of RAM in a system, as that will impact how quickly the OS and applications perform. If you’ve opted for Windows XP or Mac OS X, you should get at least 1GB of RAM. Lower-priced machines will come with 512MB, which is just barely enough and could cause unacceptably slow performance. For Windows Vista, you’ll want at least 2GB of RAM and preferably more.

Graphics Engine
The other component that impacts your day-to-day computing experience is the graphics engine, or GPU (graphics processing unit). Most business desktops come with integrated graphics (that is, the GPU is part of the motherboard chipset) as opposed to an add-in graphics card.

For most businesses, integrated graphics will be fine, since so few business apps need the 3D horsepower of add-in cards. If you do a lot of work with video or photos (or if you sneak in the occasionally round of Call of Duty after hours), you’ll want to trade up to a graphics card based on a GPU from ATI or nVidia with at least 128MB (and preferably 256MB) of its own on-board memory.

HP Pavilion a6000y
HP Pavilion a6000y

The other wrinkle here again is Vista. Its slick Aero interface, with transparent window effects and other eye candy, needs a decent graphics engine, especially if you tend to work with multiple windows open at once. You can get away with integrated graphics, but a dedicated video card will speed up and smooth out your Vista experience.

Storage: Photos and Videos or Just Data?
When it comes to hard drive storage, it used to be that more was always better. But with today’s large-capacity hard drives, you could wind up paying for disk space you will never use.

The minimum you’ll want for a business desktop that sees only light-duty office work is 80GB, and you can bump up to 120GB just to be on the safe side. For a machine that will see action with space-hungry photos and videos (for marketing materials, your Web site and the like), get a minimum of 150GB, and preferably closer to 250GB.

But only a machine destined for use as a video workstation will need one of the monster 500GB-plus hard drives, or a dual-drive setup. Remember, you can always add an external hard drive down the road to augment the internal drive.

As for the optical drive, insist on a DVD burner, preferably one that writes to both DVD+RW and DVD-RW media and has dual-layer capabilities. This will let you use the drive to store up to 9GB of data per disc for off-site backup and the like.

Lenovo 3000 J115
Lenovo 3000 J115

Input/Output: Standard Fare
Most business desktops have a pretty standard selection of I/O connectivity, since much of the I/O is controlled by the motherboard chipsets. You’ll generally find several high-speed USB 2.0 ports and FireWire for peripherals; Gigabit Ethernet for wired network connectivity; and (still hanging on) serial, parallel and PS/2 mouse and keyboard ports for legacy devices.

You will want to be sure the PC case has USB ports on the front, for easy access when plugging in flash-memory drives. If you often shuttle photos from your digital camera to your work PC, then look for an integrated memory card reader that supports the type of card used by your camera.

Other Considerations
With these specs in hand, you can pretty much go to any PC store or Web site and come away with the right business desktop. Be sure to consider the vendor’s warranty policies and service and support track record.

You’ll want at least a one-year warranty with toll-free tech support covering standard business hours for your time zone. Even better is 24/7 tech support, and a built-in remote-diagnostic utility so a technician can take control of your PC remotely to troubleshoot issues. If a machine is critical to your business, consider opting for a next-day on-site service program.

Small Business Desktops: Sample Configs and Pricing
Vendor Model Recommended
Recommended Memory Recommended Hard Drive Other Base price/As-configured price
Apple iMac 17-inch 2.0GHz Intel Core 2 Duo E4400 (2.0GHz) 2GB 667MHz DDR2 SDRAM 160GB 17-inch LCD, 8x dual-layer DVD SuperDrive, iSight Webcam, Apple iLife ’06 suite $1,199 / $1,374
Dell Dimension E521 Intel AMD Athlon 64 X2 4000+ (2.1GHz) 2GB 667MHz DDR2 SDRAM 160GB Windows Vista Business Edition, 16x dual-layer DVD+/-RW drive, 19-inch LCD, stereo speakers $309 / $858
Gateway DX430X Intel Core 2 Duo E4400 (2.0GHz) 2GB 667MHz DDR2 SDRAM 250GB Windows Vista Business, 16x dual-layer DVD+/-RW drive, 19-inch LCD, stereo speakers $799 / $1,079
HP Pavilion a6000y Intel Pentium D 925 (3.2GHz) 2GB 533MHz DDR2 SDRAM 160GB Windows Vista Business, 16x dual-layer DVD+/-RW drive, 19-inch LCD, stereo speakers $329 / $919
HP Compaq dc5750 AMD Athlon 64 X2 3800+ processor (2.0 GHz) 1GB 667MHz DDR2 SDRAM 80GB Windows XP Pro, 16x dual-layer DVD+/-RW drive, 19-inch LCD, stereo speakers $579 / $1,212
Lenovo 3000 J115 AMD Athlon 64 X2 4000+ (2.1GHz) 1GB 667MHz DDR2 SDRAM 160GB Windows Vista Business, 16x dual-layer DVD+/-RW drive, 19-inch LCD $1,199
Velocity Micro Vision GX Custom Home & Office PC AMD Athlon 64 X2 3600+ (2.0GHz) 2GB 667MHz DDR2 SDRAM 250GB Windows Vista Business, 20x dual-layer DVD+/-RW drive, 19-inch LCD, stereo speakers $769 / $1,262

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