Meet the Best Small Business Products of the Year

By SmallBusinessComputing.com Staff
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Intro     Hardware     Software/Services     E-Commerce

Small businesses have never had so many products from which to choose. And we're not talking about more of the same old products. It's now easier than ever for small business owners to find hardware, software and services tailored to their specific needs. No more getting by with less power, sacrificing features for price or trying to adapt big-business products to your smaller, but equally demanding, business.

This year's group of Small Business Computing Excellence in Technology Awards winners features the best in 24 categories — familiar and reliable categories such as black and white printers and accounting software and fresh categories with emerging technologies such as server-based storage and collaboration applications.

So when it comes time to invest in your business technology, we suggest that you start with these 24 winners (picked by your peers), as well as all the finalists. It's a great place to begin your decision-making process.

A lot can change in a year, and that's especially true when you're talking technology. Last year, we asked you to vote on hardware products in six different categories. This year, we expanded that list to ten — and not just because we like awarding plaques. We see it as a sign of two important shifts. More hardware companies are focusing on small businesses as a viable market. At the same time, small businesses are looking for hardware that addresses more specific needs.

We expanded two of last year's categories — Storage and Printers — to acknowledge ongoing change within them. For example, last year color laser prices dropped to the $700-to-$800 dollar range, but it wasn't until this year, when prices fell below the $500 mark, that small business owners felt they could truly afford to integrate color laser printing into their business plans.

Desktop PC
Dell OptiPlex SX280
      IBM ThinkCenter S50
      Gateway E-6300
Notebook PC
IBM ThinkPad T42 (with fingerprint       technology)
      Toshiba Portege R100
      Sharp Actius MM20P
Color Laser Printer
HP Color LaserJet 2550L
      Lexmark C510n
      Xerox Phaser 8400
      Samsung CLP-500
Black & White Laser Printer
Xerox Phaser 3150 Desktop Laser       Printer
      Lexmark E323
      Brother HL-5140
Multifunction Devices
HP OfficeJet 7410
      Epson CX5400 All-In-One
      Xerox WorkCentre PE 120i
Desktop Storage
Maxtor OneTouch II
      Iomega REV SCSI 35GB/90GB Drive
      Microsolutions Lockbox
Server Storage
Dell PowerVault 745N
      IBM TotalStorage DS300
      HP StorageWorks Modular Smart       Array (MSA) 1000 Small Business SAN       Kit
Networking Product
Dell PowerEdge SC420
      HP t5510 Thin Client
      TalkSwitch 48-CVA
Digital Camera
Canon PowerShot S70
      Nikon CoolPix 4200
      Kodak EasyShare DX7590
Handheld, Smartphone or PDA
PalmOneTreo 650
      HP iPAQ h6315
      Dell Axim X50v
      PalmOne Tungsten T5

A similar change occurred with storage. Going from one storage category to two shows that desktop and server storage meet two distinct SMB needs — and that the industry has responded to them.

We also added two new categories — digital cameras and handheld devices or PDAs. Falling prices and increasing performance make it possible for SMBs to incorporate new technologies into their business.

And the Winners Are...
The desktop PC still lies at the heart of any small business, and Dell takes top honors for the second year in a row. The Optiplex SX280 caught our readers' imagination (and a whopping 64 percent their votes) no doubt for its innovative, space-saving design, but also because small business owners have come to rely on Dell's consistent quality and reliability. Available in up to a Pentium 4 processor, the Optiplex SX280 is a self-contained desktop you can pick up and carry with one hand. Coming in second with was the IBM ThinkCenter S50.

As noted in our review, "The OptiPlex SX280 should be a first-class business desktop for years to come. It's not cheap, but it's small, swift, quiet, and it provides flexibility for multiple monitors and USB peripherals if not traditional under-the-hood expandability, and it sure can clear up cubicle room." Read our review.

Security — an issue that impacts every small business — influenced our notebook PC category in a big way. The IBM ThinkPad T42 — the first laptop to offer a model with a built-in biometric fingerprint scanner — struck a nerve with voters and took home top honors. The notebook, priced starting at $1,699, is a prime example of how small businesses will adopt new technologies when they fit a definitive need at an affordable price. The Toshiba Protege R100, the runner-up in this category, cruised into second with slightly over 30 percent of the votes. Read more about the T42 here.

The color laser printer category starts off with an overwhelming winner. The HP Color LaserJet 2550L trampled the competition, capturing two-thirds of the vote. The runner up — Lexmark's C5110n.

Breaking the $500 price barrier, the HP Color LaserJet 2550L prints 20 ppm in black and white and 4 ppm in color at a quality that impressed our printer guru. It's basic — you get the quality you need at a price you can afford. It's not a fast printer. However, the 2550L provides great-quality laser prints and can handle hundreds of copies per month at a price that's budget-friendly. (Read our review).

Lately, it seems that black and white printers have become commodities. They're virtually equal when it comes to quality and performance, and the only determining factor is the price.

Still, commodity or not, black and white printers are a staple of small businesses, and our readers voted the Xerox Phaser 3150 Desktop Laser Printer as their top pick — by a narrow margin. This laser printers sells for $349 and features 22 ppm at 600 optical dpi, 32MB RAM and a 166Mhz processor. The Lexmark E323 won second-place winner and makes an excellent alternative. (Read more about the Xerox Phaser 3150.)

Last year, when our small business readers wanted everything in one package, they looked to HP, and this year is no different. Multifunction devices, one machine that prints, scans, faxes and copies, still holds appeal for penny-wise SMBs, and HP took top honors a second year in a row with its OfficeJet 7410. Now, that might surprise some folks who view the 7410's $499 sticker price as something of a shock, but this does-it-all machine does it far better than most. Voters who took the product to a resounding victory seem to agree. The closest contender was second-place winner, the Epson CX5400 All-in-One, with 25 percent of the vote.

Perhaps voters were swayed by the HP's automatic double-sided printing, the standard USB, Ethernet and 802.11g wireless connectivity, or maybe it's the borderless photo printer with flash-card slots, six-color ink support and 2.5-inch color LCD. Of course it could be the excellent output or the industrial-strength print speed. (Review our review.)

It was the desktop storage category that had us thinking we'd need a Supreme Court ruling to determine an outcome in what turned out to be the closest race in these awards. Fortunately, close as it was, one winner prevailed. The Maxtor OneTouch II squeaked past Iomega's REV SCSI 35GB-90GB Drive.

Maxtor's OneTouch II offers massive storage capacity combined with excellent backup software (Dantz Retrospect Express HD) that lets you schedule automatic data backups (normally a frustrating, time-consuming task) easily in a matter of mouse clicks.

Of course, some small business owners prefer to keep their data backups off site. Now, you can unplug the OneTouch and take it home with you, but that's a bit awkward on a daily basis. That's where Iomega's more expensive REV drive shines. It copies data onto tape cartridges that you can easily store off site.

Both desktop products give SMBs lots of affordable capacity and the capability of backing up business data— one of the most crucial elements of keeping any business secure — without the cost and complexity typical of most networked storage solutions. (Read our review of the Maxtor OneTouch II .)

We added the server-based storage category to address the storage challenges facing SMBs that require vast amounts of storage. Many SMBs, particularly in the financial, medical or other data-intensive industries are big in the sense that they handle terabytes of data, but still small in the sense that they lack the budgets and IT support of large corporations.

This race turned out to be a fairly close competition, a sign that the companies involved have listened and responded well to the needs of their SMB customers. The Dell PowerVault 745N won the top spot, with 41 percent of the votes. Runner up IBM's Total Storage DS300 earned 30 percent of the ballots.

The PowerVault 745N network-attached storage server includes four terabytes of external SCSI -attached storage and a host of features that make it easy to install (in as little as 15 minutes) and manage for SMBs with little or no in-house IT staff. Price is another factor: the server's base price starts at $1,799. (Read about the 745N.)

When it comes to network products, the server is still king. No other piece of hardware can better integrate a company's business applications, databases and communication systems than a networked server — at least that's the consensus of our readers as they voted Dell's PowerEdge SC420 their top networking product with 34 percent of the votes. The HP t5510 Thin Client came in second with 23 percent of the votes.

Dell servers must feel at home in our winner's circle, as the PowerEdge 400SCs took top honors in this category last year. Of course, Dell has long been a favorite SMB vendor, known for its reliability, good support and low pricing.

This year's winner, the SC420, is priced and configured for SMBs looking for a first server. It accommodates from five-to-ten people for sharing files and printing tasks, but its design is flexible enough so that it can also handle e-mail and Internet responsibilities. The bare-bones hardware pricing starts at $499, and the price increases as you configure hardware features and add software. Fully configured servers range from $1,500 to $8,500. (Read more about the PowerEdge SC420 .)

A new category to our awards this year, digital cameras make great tools for many SMBs. Obvious industries that benefit include real estate, insurance and e-commerce, but digital cameras are also useful to have on hand for taking a visual inventory, making employee ID tags or for taking before-and-after shots to promote a service.

Today's cameras offer a wide range of features, image quality and price, but our readers didn't have a hard time picking the Canon PowerShot S70 as their top choice by a decisive margin. The closest runner up — Nikon's CoolPix 4200.

At $600, the PowerShot S70 isn't cheap, but its seven megapixel resolution, 3.6X zoom lens, separate controls for zooming and menu selection and outstanding sharpness and clarity — plus a 32MB CompactFlash card, make it a worthy investment. (Read more about the PowerShot S70 .)

An increasingly mobile work force caused us to add the handheld or PDA category. The capability to access information in the field, on a plane or at home can provide an SMB with a competitive edge. And talk about competitive — the PalmOne Treo 650 just edged out second-place winner HP's iPAQ h631.

PalmOne's Treo 650 was the first handheld to offer on-board flash memory so that you won't lose your data should your battery run down. That fact alone should be enough to claim winner-circle bragging rights, but the device also includes Bluetooth wireless technology, a built-in digital camera and MP3 capability. (Read more about the Treo 650 ).

Page 1: Hardware Winners | Page 2: Software/Services Winners | Page 3: E-Commerce Winners

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This article was originally published on January 28, 2005
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