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Choosing the Right PC

Choosing the Right PC

For small business owners, deciding on the right type and brand of computer is one of the first purchase decisions they'll have to make. For most businesses, personal computers are crucial tools for creating value, delivering services, storing records and performing a wide range of other mission-critical functions.

With so many brands to choose from, different price ranges, and a fear of making a purchase just before the arrival of better or cheaper technology, selecting the right machine can be a confusing challenge for many business owners.

Getting Started

The first (and most important) consideration in buying the best computer for your business is understanding how you'll use it. If, for instance, you'll be spending a lot of time outside the office, a laptop will be a better choice than a desktop. If you're going to depend heavily on a specific applications that runs only on Windows, that probably eliminates Apple's Macintosh line from consideration.

Once you understand how you're most likely to use the PC, choosing between a desktop and a laptop becomes easier. If you're going to be working primarily in one office, a desktop may be the best choice. Desktops are generally less expensive than comparable laptops, and often come with larger hard drives.

On the other hand, laptops offer more flexibility than desktops. If you're going to be working at a client site, attending a conference, need to do research outside the office, or feel like working outdoors on a nice spring afternoon, a laptop is going to be a more practical option. Many business owners also appreciate the fact that laptops generally take up less room in an office than a desktop and monitor, and often choose laptops to save space or for style reasons.

Another difference is that desktops are easier to upgrade. If you're likely to add a second hard drive or additional memory to your own machine, it's a lot easier to do so in the roomier interior of a desktop tower. You can upgrade the memory in a laptop, but most users are hesitant to do so, and would prefer to enlist help from a local PC repair shop or their technology vendor.

As a general rule of thumb, desktop prices start at about $400, and laptops start around $500. Sometimes cheaper PCs are offered in sales flyers, but business owners should avoid the low capabilities of bargain-basement machines that often have slow processors, small hard drives and limited amounts of memory. You invest too much time and effort in your business to deal with the frustrations offered by cheap computers.

Windows or Mac?

Discussing computer operating systems is often compared to talking about religious differences, and the topic can inspire arguments with similar amounts of passion. Marketing hype aside, Apple's shift to Intel processor chips in 2006 helped to bridge a wide gap in the computing world by eliminating a lot of the software differences that divided the PC and Mac faithful. Word processing documents, spreadsheets, presentations and other files can be shared easily by Windows and Mac users with virtually no formatting glitches. With the arrival of Microsoft's Windows 7 and Apple's Snow Leopard, the latest update to OSX, choosing an operating comes down to, in most instances, personal preference.

Generally speaking, Windows are far more common among business users and consumers, and buying a Windows PC gives business owners the widest array of software applications. Macs remain 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 application will be slower than it would be on a Windows machine, however, so if it's a program you're going to use frequently, you may be better off with a Windows PC.

Get Lots of Memory

As the difference between Windows machines and Macs has become less important, so has the need to keep up with the latest and fastest processor. Today's processors are so efficient that unless you're performing intensive tasks such as financial trading, rendering video files or computer-assisted design, even basic processors will be more than fast enough for Web surfing, email and preparing office documents.

While the processor speed is less relevant, getting as much memory as your machine can support is critically important. Memory is inexpensive, and adding more almost always pays dividends in faster performance. If you're having a computer built-to-order, that's the easiest time to upgrade the memory. If not, it's easy to have more memory added. You'll be glad you did.

Invest in Quality

Choosing an established brand is also an important factor in PC shopping. Because the major PC vendors such as Apple, Dell, HP, Lenovo, Sony or 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. In most instances, individual differences between brands are less important than the need to make sure you're buying from a responsible manufacturer, and that your hardware is backed up by a solid warranty and support services.

So-called white-label or generic desktops make sense in high-volume locations, such as call centers, where price is often a more important consideration than reliability. When you're buying PCs by the truckload and using them to access mainframes and servers, the reliability of an individual machine becomes less critical. For a small business, however, the risk of losing productivity or sales in the wake of a PC failure makes selecting quality hardware a good investment.

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