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How to buy the right business desktop computer

Business PCs may not be the sexiest players in the PC market, but as far as the actual number of units the big PC makers ship each year is concerned, they represent a significant segment. Think about it: You can still write a novel on a typewriter, shoot photographs with film, or play music live and record it with a DAT deck, but very few businesses can get their work done without a PC. Even a family-run shop that caters to a non-technological audience needs a PC to communicate with suppliers, customers, and potential customers. Email, Twitter, the web: All of these technologies make today's business happen.

While it may be tempting to buy a simple and cheap consumer PC, you'll probably be doing yourself and your customers a disservice if you do so. Specialised business PCs have extra features that make them better suited to the office than that £250 bargain basement special.

For one thing, business desktops are built to last longer, and are usually easier to service than consumer PCs. After all, the longer a business PC is down, the more money it costs you in lost earning time. Business PC makers may have specialised tech-support lines to help you troubleshoot your QuickBooks problem. At the very least, you can add a service contract to your business PC so that on-site tech support calls are handled by techs who respond in hours or minutes rather than in days or weeks, like the ones who handle consumer tech support.

How powerful a PC do you need?

Dual-core processors, particularly AMD A4 or Intel Core i3 models, are the norm in business PCs, though lower powered netbook/nettop-class processors such as the AMD e-350 or Intel Atom can still show up in really cheap models. Pentium dual-core processors are now the lower priced desktop CPUs, and use technology from older Intel Core processors. For example, so called low-end Pentium processors are based on the same Sandy Bridge and Ivy Bridge technology that is found in older Core i3 processors.

I recommend at least a dual-core processor, whether AMD or Intel, because it's a must for today's attention challenged, multitasking PC users. Quad-core is an option for users like graphic artists, hard-core number crunchers, and other gearheads who stress over the speed of their PCs, but dual-core should be enough for non-technical and non-graphics-based users.

Look for at least 4GB of RAM, and the more memory the better. More memory allows you to do two things: Open up more programs and windows at once, and perform multimedia processes (like editing photos) faster.

If you're the sort of person who keeps 15 tabs open in Firefox or Internet Explorer, you'll need to have more than 2GB of memory. Windows is a resource hog, particularly with the integrated graphics commonly found in business PCs, so 4GB is a minimum (and is recommended even if you're still running Windows XP).

Storage: It’s okay to go light

Business PCs require less storage than consumer PCs, since you're less likely to sync your iPod or download lots of video to your work PC. Since storage is so inexpensive these days, a storage capacity of 250GB to 500GB is a good balance between economy and space. Frankly, 40 to 60GB of available storage should be enough for just about all the PowerPoint, Word, and Excel documents you use on a day-to-day basis. Anything beyond that should be stored on an external hard drive or server.

Optical drives are less critical for consumer PCs these days, what with being able to stream multimedia content from the Internet or download content directly to hard drives. But a DVD burner is still a must for a small business PC. You may need it to burn copies of projects for your clients, and you'll still need to read the occasional CD or DVD sent to you by a supplier or customer.

Look for a full-size optical drive with a tray that opens – it will help for the occasional business-card-size CD that comes your way. (Mini CDs, survivors of a fad dating to the early 2000s, tend to get stuck in a slot-loading drive because of their odd size, and if that happens you have to open up the drive to extract them.) High speed Internet basically replaced the need to ship large files on optical discs, so Blu-ray is only necessary if you work for a movie company.

High-powered graphics aren’t necessary

Most business PCs come with integrated graphics, whether from Intel, AMD/ATI, or Nvidia. Integrated graphics are fine for a business PC, since you won't be playing 3D games on the system. (Installing games is the easiest way to make a system unstable, and you don't want your money earning system to go down unnecessarily).

Tower PCs and most small-form-factor (SFF) PCs will have PCIe x16 card slots for discrete graphics cards, in case you need one. Most businesspeople who require discrete graphics will use them for specialised tasks like GPU acceleration in Photoshop CS6 or 3D graphics visualisation for architectural drawings. Ultra-small or ultra-slim form factors will likely just have integrated graphics and no card slots. These systems are best suited to general PC tasks (the majority of business tasks).

Expansion room

Most minitower and some SFF value desktops will have a measure of expansion space. You'll find space for at least one extra internal hard drive, PCIe x16 graphics card slot, PCI or PCIe expansion slots, and maybe space for another optical drive. You may find extra DIMM slots, which will let you upgrade your system memory later. Eventual upgrades in a business PC are likely to be modest: The 125 Watt to 350 Watt power supplies in these budget systems won't be able to power more than a midlevel graphics card or more than two internal hard drives.

All in One

Don't need multiple hard drives and/or multiple graphics cards for your users? Consider deploying all-in-one systems instead of tower PCs. All-in-one PCs have the benefit of a built-in screen without the theft and travel breakage risks that business laptops face every day. All-in-one PCs are available with high-end performance processors like the Intel Core i7 for your demanding users, but are also available with energy saving processors for everyone else.

If you choose all-in-one PCs with DisplayPort or HDMI inputs, the screen will be usable, even after the internal CPU and storage become obsolete. Touchscreens are useful for certain applications (Kiosk, POS or Point of Sale, and information retrieval come to mind), and the all-in-one form factor lends itself to touchscreen computing. It remains to be seen if touch will be as essential on the PC as it is on tablets, but if you're launching touch apps on Windows, you'll probably want to develop for all-in-one desktop PCs.

Where do nettops and other mini PCs fit in?

Nettops and mini PCs belong to a desktop category that comes in below the value of desktops in terms of price (for the most part), size, and capabilities. These systems run on the same basic components as netbooks, their laptop counterparts (low powered processors, non-upgradable integrated graphics, 1GB to 4GB of RAM, smaller hard drives or flash storage, no optical drives, Windows 7 or Linux). They're built to surf the web, run Office apps, and perform other very light computing duties.

Unlike fully-fledged PCs, these systems have no capacity for internal expansion. Nettops and mini PCs are best suited to situations where they can sit unattended in a locked cabinet or behind a screen. Examples would include POS terminals in a retail environment, digital signage, or kiosk use.

I wouldn't run a business on a nettop or mini PC, unless all you need a PC for is communication. The extra speed of a "real" desktop PC will pay off if you ever have to recalculate a spreadsheet in the 10 minutes before a client arrives, or if you need to quickly retouch a photo or document layout. Besides, tablets like the iPad, Microsoft Surface, and Galaxy Tab are replacing the nettop and netbook as the "low cost computer" even in the business world.

Management details: It's all small stuff

The more corporate a PC, the more likely it will have security features (Kensington lock points, TPM, vPro) – not to mention having easy-to-access, IT-friendly components, and remote desktop management tools. You'll only need these features if you're a rapidly growing business or already have more than a dozen employees. Once a business grows beyond half a dozen employees it will need a dedicated IT staffer or subcontractor, and corporate IT features will help that person. If you run a small partnership with just a few employees, then buying more of a budget business PC is fine – just be prepared to face longer waits on tech support phone lines when things go wrong. With a small business-oriented PC, there are usually dedicated sales and technical support personnel who can help you tailor your purchase and support to your business needs.

Beware crapware

A downside to cheaper consumer PCs is the spectre of crapware. Often one of the reasons a PC is inexpensive is because some other entity is subsidising the price. Crapware consists of all of those pieces of "trial" and extra software that's designed to tempt you into buying stuff that didn't come with your PC. It can be hard to remove completely from your system and can even compromise performance. Although many desktops come with some crapware, manufacturers tend to put more of it into lower end models.

Fortunately, business PCs, by and large, have minimal crapware. There's almost always an ad for Microsoft Office Starter Edition on the hard drive with a downloadable version of Word and Excel, but in a business system that can be a good thing. You can upgrade to a full version with all the Office programs including Outlook, Access, and PowerPoint simply by clicking the link to Microsoft's site and entering your credit card number. There's usually an antivirus suite as well, but be wary of packages that stop updating after 60 to 90 days. You don't want to get a virus on the system you depend on to earn your money. Again, this is one case where I'd consider upgrading to the full version over the Internet.

Extended warranty

For consumer electronics, most experts recommend avoiding the extended warranty, but for a business PC, the extended warranty can mean the difference between getting your work done today or closing up shop. Most business PCs come with a one, three, or five year standard warranty. This generally means that you tell the PC manufacturer what's wrong, and they'll either ship you a replacement part or send over a repair tech in a timely manner (say 24 to 36 hours during the working week).

If you need a faster response, you can buy warranties boasting an 8 hour response, 2 hour response, or even on-site on-call help depending on your needs. Other options include "keep-your-drive" so your data never leaves your premises, accidental damage protection, data recovery, and even end-of-life data destruction services. All this comes at an added cost, but like any insurance, whether it’s worth the money depends on what you need to protect.

Final thoughts

These days, it may be tempting to grab the cheapest system going and call it your "business PC," but that’s a mistake. Keep in mind that this system has to last at least as long as it takes for you to amortise the capital investment (usually three to five years – but the exact length depends on your business's accounting practices). Paying a little extra for more power or capabilities now will save you headaches down the road. The added value of a longer warranty, specialised tech support, and/or the elimination of crapware are among the extra benefits you may get. At the very least, the system you buy from the business division of your favourite PC maker will be more suitable to your company's needs than a flashy silver desktop with a TV tuner and Blu-ray.