A Small Business Guide to Buying Desktop Computers - Page 2

By Gerry Blackwell
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Picking a Processor

Dell Vostro 220 Mini Tower
The Dell Vostro 220 Mini Tower

The microprocessor, sometimes referred to as the CPU (central processing unit), is the computer’s brain, and its most important component. Two companies make PC microprocessors, Intel and AMD. Except at the very leading-edge of computing performance, where the two companies engage in a see-saw battle for supremacy, there is little difference between them.

More important are broader differences among families of processors. Both vendors have multiple product families, and within each, many models. One key difference to consider: single-core versus multi-core.

Multi-core processors — Intel’s Core 2, Core i7 and Xeon products, AMD’s Athlon X2 and Phenom X4 — include multiple processing engines, or cores, that allow the computer to work faster and more efficiently multi-task when using modern applications designed to “multi-thread.”

Single-core processors, including Intel’s older Pentium and low-end Celeron models and its compact, low-power Atom products (designed for portable devices but sometimes used in desktops), will be slower, especially when you ask them to do multiple tasks simultaneously — check e-mail, run a database search and download a file from the Internet, for example.

If your employee is or might turn into a computing multi-tasker, choose a machine with a multi-core processor. Even for light computing tasks, if you can afford it, choose a multi-core product to ensure you have enough computing power to cover future needs.

The next most important microprocessor specification to consider: clock speed, measured in megahertz (MHz) or gigahertz (GHz). It’s a rough measure of raw processing capacity. The higher the number, the better the performance.

Keep in mind that with a multi-core processor, the clock speed given is for one processor core. While dual-core architecture may not always double performance, a 2GHz dual-core processor will certainly be faster than a 2GHz single-core model.

Other processor specs? Cache is a temporary storage area for frequently or recently accessed data. The larger the capacity – measured in megabytes (MB) or kilobytes (KB) – the better the performance, all other things being equal.

eMachines ET1331-02
The eMachines ET1331-02

Front Side Bus speed tells you the speed (in GHz or MHz) at which data passes between the processor and other components such as the memory controller. The higher the number, the faster the performance – again, all other specs being equal.

A dual-core product with a clock speed in the 1.8 GHz-and-up range, while far from state of the art, will be adequate for all but power users. For very light computer use (e-mail, word processing, Web browsing), single-core products will probably suffice – shoot for a clock speed well above 1.5 GHz, the minimum requirement for Windows 7.

For demanding computer use, consider a PC with a quad-core processor (four processing cores). Expect to pay $500 and up, with most products priced closer to $1,000.

Don’t Forget Memory

The second most important component in terms of computing performance is the amount and type of random access memory (RAM).

Quantity of memory is the more important spec. Most new computers today come with DDR2 SDRAM (double data rate synchronous dynamic random access memory), which moves data to and from memory faster than earlier types such as DDR SDRAM and single data rate SDRAM. The latest business-class models use even faster DDR3.

So how much RAM is enough? It depends on the operating system and the types of applications the employee will use.

Windows Vista requires more memory — 2GB at least — than Windows 7, which Microsoft says will run efficiently with 1GB. Add an extra gigabyte to ensure optimal minimum performance — memory is cheap right now: $25 to $30 per gigabyte.

Beyond the minimum required for the operating system to run efficiently, additional memory will help the computer run faster in situations where it’s moving large amounts of data into and out of memory — when multi-tasking, or editing large media files or working with big database or spreadsheet files. 

Hefty Hard Drives

Hard drive capacities in new desktop computers range from 160GB to 1 terabyte (TB equals 1,000 gigabytes). The cost of hard disk storage has come down so far — to less than 10 cents per gigabyte — that most desktop PCs come with at least 250GB. This is sufficient for the vast majority of small business employees. Exceptions? Employees who work with large media and database files.

Video Viewing

Another key component in any computer is the video subsystem, which controls the monitor and determines how and how well it displays data and images. Its speed, partly determined by onboard processing capacity, partly by the amount of separate video memory it includes, along with the functional bells and whistles can be critical differentiators in systems designed for gaming or high-end media functions. But it’s a less important consideration in an office PC.

Small Business Desktops: Sample Configs and Pricing
Vendor Model Operating System Processor Memory Hard Drive Monitor Price
ZT PC Reliant 861Mi-40 Win7 Pro 64 Intel Core2 Quad Q8300 (2.5GHz) 4GB DDR2 500GB No $599.99
Dell Vostro 220 Mini Tower Win7 Pro 32 Intel Pentium Dual-Core E5300 (2.60GHz) 4GB DDR2 500GB Yes (18.5 in.) $754.00
Lenovo ThinkStation S20 Win7 Pro 64 Intel Xeon W3503 (dual-core - 2.4Ghz) 2GB DDR3 250GB No $939.00
HP Compaq 500B Microtower Win7 Pro 32 Intel Pentium Dual-Core E5300 (2.60 GHz) 1GB DDR3 160GB No $429.00
eMachines ET1331-02 Win7 Home 64 AMD Athlon II X2 215 (2.7GHz) 4GB DDR2 320GB Yes (20 in.) $499.99

Ensure that the video system can deliver the highest screen resolution of which the computer’s monitor is capable (check specs for the monitor). In general, though, don’t pay extra for an upgraded video system unless your employee is involved in image- or video-intensive computing.

Bottom Line

Shopping for a desktop PC is not rocket science. If you spend $500 or more on a name-brand — HP, Lenovo, ZTPC, Acer — you can be reasonably sure of getting a product that will deliver the performance and capabilities for even fairly advanced computing need. And for light use, a $300 to $400 investment should be sufficient.

Gerry Blackwell is a freelance technology writer based in London, Canada. Read his blog at http://afterbyte.blogspot.com/.

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This article was originally published on November 23, 2009
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