How To: Select the Best Small Business Computer
by: Larry Bills | ChooseWhat.com
Buying a computer is an important business decision that could potentially affect your business operations for several years.
Starting a small business without a computer is practically unheard of these days, as it would make any type of standard transaction or business function either impossible or unnecessarily difficult.
The small business owner will need a computer to perform all sorts of basic business activities, including setting up and maintaining your financial books, processing payments, paying bills, generating invoices, maintaining a database of your customers, and digitally scanning and storing documents to reduce paper clutter.
The question is what type of computer do you need for your business and what's the best way to get it? At the outset, the two best options we recommend for one who's starting a business are:
- Laptop with a Windows Operating System
- Desktop Personal Computer (PC) with a Windows Operating System
Note: This article will guide you through purchasing a PC with Windows. If you're considering buying a Mac, please see How To Select a Mac Computer for Your Business.
Before you purchase a computer, you should:
Tip: Buying a computer and getting basic business software are steps that should occur simultaneously. You will need to determine your software needs so that you purchase a computer that is compatible with your software choices, and vice versa.
Decide how many computers you need.
Tip: Once collaboration between multiple office computers becomes a hassle to do through "the cloud," you will need a server. This could be the case for 2 computers or 12 computers, depending on the interdependence of your employees’ work. Read our Tips section below for more on setting up an office server.
The primary option we recommend for the small business owner is a laptop computer that runs on a Windows Operating System. It's extremely convenient for the new small business owner to have mobile capabilities that make it easy to meet clients or conduct other business transactions on the go. The ability to take your computer with you on the road is preferable to being stuck without a computer or depending solely on secondary mobile devices, such as smartphones or tablet computers. Laptops are especially useful for business owners who haven't yet leased office space or are using a virtual office setup.
As we recommend in our Basic Business Software section and our STARTicle on Operating Systems (OS), you will most likely want a computer that runs Microsoft Windows. Quite simply, it's the most widely used OS in the world. Most software is available for Windows (and there are many programs that run only on Windows), making it your most flexible option.
A good laptop will typically cost anywhere from $600 to $900 and will last about two to five years. When it comes to technical specifications, the standard user will need the following features:
- Range of RAM: 1 GB - 4 GB
- Range of Hard Drive Space: 250 GB - 500 GB
- Range of Processor Speed: 2.2 GHz - 2.66 GHz (Dual-Core)
There are a couple of downsides to a laptop computer, though. First, a laptop can be easily lost or stolen, especially when you're working in a public place or low security office space. You can mitigate this problem by purchasing LoJack for Laptops, a software product that tracks and helps recover stolen laptops. We also recommend regularly backing up your files so that you can still access important business documents in case of disaster. (For more information, read our guide on How To: Back Up Your Files.)
Second, a laptop has a smaller keyboard and monitor than a traditional desktop computer. This issue can be mitigated, though, by purchasing a docking station -- a device you attach to your laptop, which allows you to use a regular monitor and keyboard (basically turning your laptop into the equivalent of a desktop PC tower).
The other best option for the new entrepreneur is a desktop PC that runs on a Windows Operation System. If you meet few or no clients in the course of your day-to-day work, and therefore are not too concerned with mobility, a desktop would serve you well. The advantages of a desktop over a laptop include extreme durability, fast processing speeds, and the ability to store a large amount of data. The life cycle of the desktop is a little longer than a laptop, three to five years, mainly due to the fact that there is less wear and tear since it remains in one place.
When it comes to price and technical specifications, a desktop and laptop are fairly comparable, which makes mobility the driving factor in your decision. A desktop PC will cost anywhere from $600 to $1,200. The ideal technical options include:
- Range of RAM: 1 GB - 4 GB
- Range of Hard Drive Space: 160 GB - 500 GB
- Range of Processor Speed: 1.86 GHz - 2.8 GHz (Dual-Core)
A disadvantage of a desktop is that it can be large, cumbersome, and take up space, which might be an issue for anyone working out of a small rented office or home office. A desktop also generates a lot more heat than a laptop.
Tip: We recommend buying an additional monitor with your desktop computer. Hooking one computer up to two screens is extremely efficient and reduces the need to print out documents when you are comparing data sets such as two spreadsheets.
Where to Buy Your Computer(s)
Once you've decided what type of computer to purchase, the decision of where to buy it can be just as important to ensure you have the best experience possible. For the small business owner, buying directly from the manufacturer will provide you with the most options. The pros and cons for that choice, as well as for the other two main sales avenues (retail stores and online stores) include:
- Typically of better quality
- Highly customizable
- Prices are usually negotiable
- Very experienced customer service and sales representatives
- Cost is higher with customization
- Shipping and handling costs
- Longer wait times for arrival
- Harder to return
- Physical testing of machines
- Face-to-face customer service
- You will walk out with your machine the same day
- Typically more expensive
- You typically can't customize the machine and will have to buy whatever is available on the floor
- Sales associates can be pushy or not very knowledgeable
- Cost is typically low
- Computers are usually customizable
- Longer wait times for arrival, especially if the computer is being customized
- No face-to-face customer service
- Shipping and handling costs
- Harder to return
- Buy monitors that have an HDMI hookup, which will allow you to get a digital signal. A 17-inch monitor is good enough for most people.
- Buy a battery backup with a surge protector for your computer. It will save your machine if you get a power surge and give you time to save what you’re working on if the power goes out. Also, if the power just goes out for a few minutes, you won’t miss a beat.
- If you're networking 10 or fewer computers together, you can apply for Microsoft BizSpark's free business server program. Read more about how to get a Business Server OS.
- If you’re networking fewer than 20 computers together, you can use a PC as a server. You can set up a designated machine that operates on Windows 7 as a shared hard drive. Read our STARTicle on Buying a File Server for more information.
- Although typically more expensive than PCs, Macs (both laptops and desktop versions) may be better for people in specialized businesses such as graphic design, web development, music, and film.
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