Choosing the Right Computer System

Choosing the Right Computer System

PC Basics and Beyond

The first step in buying the best business computer is identifying its specific function. If you spend a lot of time outside the office, a laptop will be a better choice than a desktop. When your industry entails frequent traveling and you have employees, you may opt to keep a desktop at home base, with a laptop or tablet for the road. By the same token, business applications that run only on Windows may preclude some Apple products. Consider the following points, as well:

  • Price. Desktops are generally cheaper than comparable laptops, and often come with larger hard drives. The gap is closing though, with laptop drives getting bigger and prices coming down. As a general rule of thumb, desktop prices start at about $300, with some laptops also in that range.
  • Versatility. Laptops offer more flexibility than desktops since they travel virtually anywhere. When office space is tight, a laptop also takes up less room than a desktop and monitor.
  • Upgrade capability. If you plan to add a second hard drive or additional memory to your computer, desktop PCs make this much easier. Laptops are upgradeable, but typically require the skills of a pro.

When you're ready to shop, keep in mind that it's always best to invest in quality products. Because major PC vendors such as Apple, Dell, HP, Lenovo, Sony and Toshiba outsource most of their manufacturing, it's common for similar machines from two vendors to share many components, and even to be produced on the same assembly lines. Individual differences between brands are less important than dealing with a responsible manufacturer who offers solid warranties and support services.

PC Parts and Power

Shopping for business PCs requires some knowledge of what makes a computer work. When you're dealing with a vendor or manufacturer, use the following information to guide your purchase:

  • CPU. The central processing unit is the brains of the computer. For basic business functions, opt for a dual-core processor in the AMD or Intel lines, which handle multi-tasking most effectively. A quad-core CPU is a good choice for intensive users such as statisticians and graphic designers who need plenty of speed.
  • Hard drive. This is the permanent storage location of your programs and files. Many IT experts are now suggesting that business computers actually need less space than models for home use. The reason - business users are less apt to sync iPods or download huge video files to work computers. A range of 160 to 250GB provides plenty of storage at reasonable prices.
  • Memory. Random Access Memory (RAM) is the bucket your computer's processor uses to hold vast amounts of data and program instructions while it works. Look for at least 2 gigabytes of RAM to run several programs and windows simultaneously. Adding more boosts costs, but is the best performance-enhancing move you can make.
  • Optical Drive. A recordable DVD or CD-RW drive is essential for data storage and transfer. Both allow you to back up important documents, share files with colleagues, and create custom audio or video CDs or DVDs. If you need to back up massive amounts of data or entire hard drives, choose the DVD option. Look for a full-size optical drive with a tray that opens.
  • Display. For a streamlined footprint and super-sharp images, LCD (Liquid Crystal Display) monitors are fast replacing their traditional CRT counterparts. A 17-inch LCD model boasts a viewing area equivalent to a 19-inch CRT, has a higher resolution, is easier on your eyes, and takes up less space on your desk. Once quite expensive, LCD prices are becoming more affordable.
  • Keyboard and mouse. A basic keyboard and mouse are usually the best bet. Many vendors tout fancy keyboards with extra buttons for launching applications. Even so, for ergonomic purposes, split keyboards can reduce stress on shoulders, arms and wrists.
  • Modem. Most PCs come with a 56K modem for connecting to the Internet. You'll probably want to get a broadband Internet access. Depending on your location, that could be via a phone company's T1, ATM fiber relay or DSL, or the same cable that brings content to your TV. Modems for these services are usually either free with a rebate or rented for a small fee from the service provider. It's not a bad idea to have the 56K modem as a backup, however.
  • Connectivity. Many computers now offer a pair of USB ports on the front bezel, so you can connect multiple peripherals without having to reach behind the case. If you have lots of gear to plug into the PC, look for systems with up-front FireWire or USB 2.0 ports, or optical audio connectors, depending on your needs.
  • Software. Purchase an operating system, an office suite, and an antivirus/firewall package. Very often these are pre-installed and included in the price of the computer. See Small Business Software.

Windows vs. Mac

Apple's shift to Intel processor chips in 2006 bridged a wide gap in the computing world by eliminating a lot of the software differences between PC and Mac. Now, Windows and Mac users can easily share word processing documents, spreadsheets, presentations and other files with virtually no formatting glitches. With the arrival of Microsoft's Windows 7 and Apple's Snow Leopard, choosing an operating system comes down to, in most instances, personal preference.

Generally speaking, Windows products are far more common among business users and consumers. For the small business owner, Windows offers the widest array of accounting, bookkeeping, customer relationship and office management applications. On the other hand, Macs remain the gold standard in creative industries such as graphics, video editing and photography, and also have a large share of the education market.

If you're a Mac owner who needs to run a Windows application occasionally, you can run a copy of Windows on your Mac using virtualization software that makes the application "think" it's running on a Windows PC. The software can run slower than it would be on a Windows machine, however.

Laptop vs. Tablet

Tablets are quickly outpacing netbooks as the go-to portable device to access online information. But unlike netbooks - or laptops - a tablet uses a touchscreen for input, although some, such as various Android models, do utilize fold-out keyboards. Tablet computers are also small and extremely lightweight, definite benefits in airports and on the road.

Is a tablet right for you, or would you be better off with a traditional laptop? Like many technology questions, the answer depends on your business needs and your personal preferences.

Most experts maintain that tablets function more effectively as accessories to a laptop or desktop model. When you’re out of the office and must access email, the Internet or documents stored online, a tablet provides a compact, convenient, vehicle to get online or accomplish basic tasks.

On the other hand, if you're going to be entering text or numbers for extended periods or designing presentations, the larger keyboard and screen of a laptop is probably going to make it a better choice as a primary computer. Other considerations include:

  • Boot-up Time. Generally speaking, a tablet computer can boot up and perform far more quickly than can a laptop. This makes checking email, sending messages and doing online research a simple matter.
  • Ease of use. Tablets offer portability and convenience, but also have very small keyboards. For some users, this makes prolonged typing tasks difficult.
  • Display. Most tablets on today's market have 5 to 10 inch screens, which can make reading for extended periods rather tiring. In contrast, laptop screens start at 13 inches, and many models offer screens ranging between 14 and 18 inches. In addition, since many tablets feature pop-up keyboards, it doesn’t take long for the screen to become smudged and grimy.
  • Weight. Tablets are lighter than laptops, with most weighing from 1 to 2 pounds. Laptops run from 5 to 8 pounds, although smaller notebooks can weigh in around 3 pounds.
  • Data storage. Most tablets provide a storage capacity of 64 gigabytes, as opposed to laptops which boast at least 250 GB of hard drive space, with capacities up to 500 GBs. Still, integrated cloud storage offer endless storage alternatives if you opt for a tablet - no USB sticks or external hard drives needed.
  • Battery life. Many tablets hold batteries that last more than 10 hours, a duration capacity that beats most laptop batteries hands down. This comes in handy when long trips with few stops make it difficult to recharge batteries. Larger laptops can function between three and five hours without charging, though recent improvements in better models can extend the battery life to between seven hours and more.
  • Graphics capabilities. For the most part, tablets lack sufficient power to process complex graphics, while laptops' more powerful CPUs and additional graphics processors can provide higher screen resolutions and enhanced video processing functions.
  • Optical drives. Tablets reduce their size and weight by eliminating DVD or CD drives. Even so, some tablets have USB ports, and most offer Bluetooth, so in these cases you can use just about any keyboard or mouse. On the other hand, many tablets rely exclusively on Bluetooth for peripheral connections. This can make it difficult for business users to install applications, unless they choose to download programs via the Internet. To watch DVDs, manage multimedia files, download applications or listen to CDs while traveling, a laptop is a better choice.
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