Desktop or laptop? Consumer or business model? Buy from reseller, online or retail? What is the best way to choose and buy a computer for your business?
When you buy a car, you want to get a good price but you also think about the long term. How much will it depreciate? How much will it cost to service? What about fuel economy and CO2 emissions? The purchase price, however attractive, doesn’t tell you the whole story about the lifetime cost of owning a car.
It’s the same with IT. PCs look similar but differences in design, durability and features can make a dramatic difference to how much you end up paying in the long run.
Desktop or notebook?
- Desktop. Generally, desktop PCs are cheaper than notebooks with similar features. They are also easier to expand – they usually have space for additional hard disk drives or plug-in upgrades, such as enhanced video cards. Desktop PCs come in different sizes, shapes and prices: from ultra-compact models that take very little desk space up to massively powerful personal workstations.
- Notebook. If you plan to work in different places or you need to take your computer with you, then a notebook PC is the way to go. Like desktop PCs, you can buy notebooks in different sizes and shapes. Some people choose ultra-portable laptops if size and weight is important, even if the computer costs a little more. Others prefer more capable and powerful machines, even if they weigh a little more. Then there are tablet PCs. They are regular notebooks that flip into A4-sized tablets with handwriting recognition. A recent innovation is the ‘netbook’. This is a very compact, low-cost laptop. They are fine for running simple programs or browsing the web but usually don’t have the power or storage for more demanding applications.
- Notebooks as desktops. You can turn a notebook into a desktop computer with a docking station. This will let you dock your notebook while you are at your desk. The keyboard, mouse and screen on your desk stay connected to the docking station so that it works like a desktop PC. Then, when you’re ready to go, you undock your notebook and you can take it away with you. This is perhaps the best of all worlds – the portability of a notebook and the expandability of a desktop – but, of course, you have to buy the docking station.
Consumer or business model?
It could be tempting to go to a shop and buy a consumer PC for your business. In practice, spending a little more to buy a business-class PC would be a smarter, more economical decision in the end. Outwardly, all PCs resemble one another, so what’s the difference?
- Reliability. Business-class PCs are built using stronger materials and tested more thoroughly to ensure that they are more reliable over the long term. For example, some business notebooks use a strong magnesium alloy chassis (the same material that is used in F1 cars) and feature spill-resistant keyboards and shock-protected disk drives.
- Business features. Consumer PCs have all kinds of features, such as TV tuners, that make them great for home use. But for business, you need different things. For example, some business PCs come with professional operating systems and software that protects your data against theft and loss.
- Security. Business PCs often include features such as fingerprint readers and TPM security chips that protect your computer and data against theft and inappropriate access. Easy to use, built-in security features mean you can focus on your work without losing sleep over security problems. Business-class notebooks are often available with additional services that help you deal with business problems and emergencies; for example on-site support while travelling, tracking services for lost and stolen laptops and insurance against accidental damage.
There are many factors that you should consider when choosing a PC. For the same price, you can buy different systems with many different permutations of a handful of basic variables. It’s just the same as buying a car: for the same money, you could buy a sporty convertible, a family estate car, an off-roader or van. It pays to think about what you want before you start shopping. Here are the main factors:
- Screen. Desktop monitors come in a range of sizes (like TVs) starting at 17 inches, measured diagonally across the screen. The most common screens are 19 and 22-inch and they work well for business applications. There is some evidence that larger screens increase productivity by letting you display more documents at the same time. On notebooks, the screen size relates closely to the size and weight of the computer itself. The trade-off is simple: a bigger screen tends to mean a bigger, heavier notebook.
- Processor. Unless price is very important, it pays to choose a multi-core processor. A dual- or quad-core processor will allow you to run applications such as Microsoft Word while, at the same time, running routine operating system tasks such as virus scans on a separate processor. The result is smoother operations.
- Memory. Main memory or RAM (Random Access Memory) is an important factor in computer performance. In fact, it can be more cost-effective to buy extra memory rather than a faster processor if you want your PC to run faster. The reason is that if your computer runs out of RAM, it uses the much slower hard disk as a temporary store. This is why computers sometimes run very slowly and the disk light seems to be on constantly when you run many applications at the same time. For Microsoft Windows, two gigabytes (GB) of main memory is sensible. Don’t buy a system with less than 1GB. It’s best to buy the memory you need when you buy your computer. Although it is possible to buy extra memory later, you may need technical help to install it and this can cost more than the memory itself.
- Hard disk. The hard disk in your computer provides long-term data storage. Typical PC hard disks store between 160GB and 750GB. Photos, graphics files, audio and video content use up a lot of disk space but for most business applications, 160GB-250GB should be fine. You can put additional disk drives into most desktop PCs and you can add an external disk drive to any computer using a USB cable. Solid state drives (SSD), which use computer memory chips to replace magnetic disks, are becoming increasing popular. They are more expensive than conventional storage but faster and, with no moving parts, more reliable.
- Network. The latest business notebooks and desktop PCs should have a built-in Ethernet socket to connect to a wired network. In addition, business notebooks should have a wireless (also known as Wi-Fi or 802.11) network capability. This comes in three main versions: b, g and n. Each version is faster than the previous one, and the latest 802.11n version is the best. Luckily, the latest technology is backwardly compatible with earlier versions, so it makes sense to buy the latest version if possible. Wireless networking capabilities can be added to a desktop PC with an adaptor.
- Battery life. Some notebooks will run up to 24 hours on a single charge, but 3 to 5 hours is more typical. Some laptops will only run for about an hour without recharging and should be avoided for serious business use. If you plan to use your notebook away from a desk regularly, you need a notebook with a longer life. A bit like car performance, manufacturers tend to quote maximum battery life; in normal use, you will get 50-75 percent of the quoted figure, depending on usage.
- Environment. Green issues are increasingly important for many people. Some vendors are more environmentally conscious than others. Within each manufacturer’s product range, some machines will be greener than others. Choosing energy-efficient PCs is good business because it will reduce your energy bill. For more information, see: How to choose green IT.
So many vendors, all offering the same screen size, the same processor speed and the same disk space at similar prices. How do you know what to choose? The truth is that specifications only tell part of the story. The things you don’t find on a specs list are differentiators like quality and security. Therefore, when it comes to shopping for your new, growing business, it also pays to look beyond specifications and consider the reputation of the manufacturer.
How to buy
- Online. Buying online is efficient, although it can be difficult to evaluate things like size, weight and construction quality over the internet.
- Retail. Buying from a shop, especially an IT specialist outlet, lets you choose between different models and evaluate their physical characteristics. There is also the reassurance of having a local place to go to for support if something goes wrong. Keep in mind that many shops focus on consumer PCs, which may not be ideal for business use.
- IT specialist. IT experts, such as a network of Preferred Resellers, can help you choose the right system, install it and then provide technical support and business advice. A relationship with a good IT specialist is helpful for business growth.
The right accessories can increase the productivity and value of your PCs:
- Extended life batteries for notebooks.
- Notebook docking stations.
- Spare power supplies so you don’t have to carry one home with your notebook, for example.
- Security locks to protect PCs from theft.
- Carry cases for notebooks.
- Extra memory to increase performance.
- Extended warranties to extend a standard warranty to three or four years and add on-site support.
- Large, high-definition or multiple monitors.
- Wireless network adaptors for PCs.
- Washable keyboards, which are ideal for environments which require keyboards to be immersed and cleaned in water with bleach, disinfectant, soap or other cleaning materials