Business desktops may not be the hottest players in the PC market, but in terms of the actual number of units the big manufacturers ship each year, 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 mom-and-pop outfit 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 consumer PC from a big-box store like Best Buy or Wal-Mart, you’ll probably be doing yourself and your customers a disservice if you do. Specialized business PCs have extra features that make them better suited to the office than the $250 sales-circular special. For one, business desktops are built to last longer, and are 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 specialized 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.
The Heart of the Matter: How Much Power?
Dual-core processors, particularly AMD A4 or Intel Core i3 models, are the norm in business PCs. Celeron and Pentium dual-core CPUs are found in lower-priced desktop PCs, and use technology from Intel Core processors. For example, so called low-end Celeron and Pentium processors are based on the same Haswell oe Broadwell technology that is found in fourth-generation and fifth-generation Core i3 chips. 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 the users, like graphic artists, hard-core number crunchers, and other gearheads who stress over the speed of their PCs.
Look for at least 4 gigabytes of RAM, and the more memory the better. People who work in graphic design and Web development are better off with 8GB to 16GB. More memory allows you to do two things: Open up more programs and windows at once and perform multimedia processes (like editing photos) faster. Windows is a resource hog, particularly with the integrated graphics commonly found in business PCs, so 4GB is a minimum.
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 them. Since storage is so inexpensive these days, a hard drive with 300GB to 500GB of space is a good balance between economy and space. Frankly, 40GB to 60GB of available storage could be enough for just about all the PowerPoint, Word, and Excel documents you use on a day-to-day basis.
Compared with traditional hard drives, solid-state drives (SSDs) are usually smaller in capacity, due to their high cost. However, an SSD-only system will boot and launch programs almost as quick as a tablet. A 120GB to 128GB SSD should be sufficient for office workers’ needs, today and for the near future, but it’ll cost you more than a system with a traditional hard drive.
Optical drives are less critical for consumer PCs these days, since you can stream multimedia 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 an 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 Not Necessary
Most business PCs come with integrated graphics, whether from AMD or Intel. Integrated graphics are fine, since you won’t be playing 3D games on the system. Most workers who require discrete graphics will use them for specialized tasks, like GPU acceleration in Adobe Photoshop or 3D graphics visualization for architectural drawings. Ultra-small or ultra-slim form factors will likely have only integrated graphics and no card slots. These systems are best suited to general PC tasks (the majority of business tasks).
Expansion Room: Space to Grow
Most minitower and some SFF budget desktops will have a measure of expansion. 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 125W to 350W power supply unit (PSU) in these budget PC won’t be able to power more than a midlevel graphics card or more than two internal hard drives.
All in One, All is 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 desktops have the benefit of a built-in screen without the theft and travel breakage risks that business laptops face everyday. While many come with high-end performance processors like the Intel Core i5 or Core i7 for your demanding users, there are also models are available with energy-saving processors for everyone else. Intel’s power saving Core M processor is built for fanless systems like portable all-in-one PCs. 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. Touch screens are useful for certain applications (Kiosk, POS, and information retrieval come to mind), and the all-in-one form factor lends itself to touch-screen computing. It remains to be seen if touch on the PC will be as essential 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 Mini PCs Fit In?
Mini PCs (also known as Ultra Small Form Factor USFF desktops) belong to a desktop category that comes in below the budget desktops, in terms of price (for the most part), size, and capabilities. These systems run on the same basic components as their laptop counterparts (low-powered processors, non-upgradable integrated graphics, 2 to 6 gigabytes 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 larger PCs, these systems have no capacity for internal expansion. Mini PC are best suited for applications where they can sit unattended in a locked cabinet or behind a screen. Examples would include POS (sales) terminals in a retail environment, digital signage, or kiosk use. I wouldn’t run a business on a mini PC, unless all you want to use 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 the client arrives, or quickly retouch a photo or document layout.
Management Details: It’s All Small Stuff
The more corporate-oriented a PC, the more likely it will have security features (like Kensington or Noble lock points, TPM, vPro); easy-to-access, IT-friendly components; and remote desktop management tools. You’ll need these features only if you’re a rapidly growing business or already have more than a dozen employees. Once a business expands beyond a half-dozen employees with PCs, it will need a dedicated IT staffer or subcontractor, and they will need PCs with corporate IT features to make deployment and troubleshooting easier. If you run a proprietorship or small partnership with just a few staff members, then buying a budget business PC is fine—just be prepared to face longer waits on tech-support phone lines when things do go wrong. With a small-business-oriented desktop, there are usually dedicated sales and technical support personnel who can help you tailor your purchase and support to your business’s needs.
A downside to cheaper consumer PCs is the specter of bloatware. Often one of the reasons a PC is inexpensive is that, as with broadcast TV and “free” cell phones, some other entity is subsidizing the price. Bloatware consists of all of those “trial” and extra software that’s designed to tempt you into buying stuff that didn’t come with your PC. (It’s worth noting that Macs do not have this issue). It can be hard to remove completely from your system and can even compromise performance. Although many desktops come with some bloatware, manufacturers tend to put more of it into lower-end models.
Fortunately, business PCs for the most part have minimal bloatware. On Windows desktops, 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 60–90 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.
Maybe I Should Have Bought the 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 or being forced to close shop early. Most business PCs come with a one-, three-, or five-year standard warranty. Usually this 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 work week). If you need a faster response, you can buy warranties from some manufacturers for 8-hour response, 2-hour response, or even on-site on-call help depending on your needs. Other options include “keep-your-drive” plans, so your data never leaves your premises, accidental damage protection, data recovery, and even end-of-life data destruction services. It’s all at an added cost, but like any insurance, whether it is worth it to you depends on what you need to protect.
These days, it may be tempting to grab the cheapest system out of a sales circular and call it your “business PC,” but don’t do it. Keep in mind that this system has to last at least as long as it takes for you to amortize 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, specialized 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 favorite PC maker will be more suitable to your company’s needs than a flashy silver desktop with a wireless smartphone charger and Blu-ray.
By Joel Santo Domingo