A Small Business Guide to Buying Desktop Computers

by Gerry Blackwell

Laptops may be a hot ticket item, but the desktop PC remains a reliable, affordable workhorse. From size and shape to processors and video, our guide looks at all the specs you need to know to buy the right desktop PCs for your small business.

HP Compaq 500B Microtower
HP Compaq 500B Microtower
(Click for larger image)

Desktop PCs may not be as sexy as laptops and netbooks, but for employees who only ever work at a computer in the office, desktops are still the best choice. Why? Despite plummeting prices for laptops, prices on desktop models range between $200 and $800 and offer the best value for the money.

They also typically offer more USB ports and other input and output connections. And inside desktop chassis, extra slots for circuit boards make it easier to expand functionality and upgrade components.

Many vendors offer greater flexibility when configuring desktops too, allowing buyers to specify precisely the options they want. Note, however, that many vendors don’t include monitor in their base list prices. The monitor will add another $150 to $350.

Desktops are not all created equal, of course. So how do you choose? Selection criteria include factors such as office layout and available real estate, the type of computing demands the employees have and your budget.

HP Compaq 500B Microtower
HP Compaq 500B Microtower
(Click for larger image)

Consider the Form Factor

Desktop computers do not all sit on a desktop. More in fact use a tower or mini-tower chassis that stands upright on the floor or a shelf beside or underneath a desk. A full-size tower (about 30- x 18- seven-inches) offers the most internal space for installing add-in drives and circuit boards. Choose this option when floor or shelf-space is abundant and the employee requires a lot computing power.

Mini-towers (12- to 18-inches high) provide more limited expandability but also easily fit out of the way under a standard-height desk. True desktop models have a chassis smaller than a mini-tower and lie flat on a table, usually with the monitor perched on top. Newer slim-line models may be as thin as a pizza box and significantly smaller.

PCs that sit on the desk, especially the slim-line models, typically offer limited expandability and connectivity – sometimes less than laptops. They also take up more desk space than towers.

All-in-one desktops are a relatively new category. Core components are housed in a cavity behind the flat-screen monitor. Only the monitor stand, keyboard and mouse take up desk space. And some models come with a wireless keyboard and mouse.

Dell, Lenovo, Hewlett-Packard and others offer all-in-ones, most priced below $700. They tend to be under-powered, though, so they mainly make sense for light computer use. Since makers usually pay special attention to styling, an all-in-one may be a good choice for public-facing employees.  

ZT PC, Reliant 861Mi-40
The ZT PC Reliant 861Mi-40
(Click for larger image)

Windows Operating Systems

Most desktop PCs will ship with Windows 7, Microsoft’s new operating system, launched in October. This is generally a good thing. Windows 7 is a more efficient and stable operating system than its predecessor, Windows Vista, with a better user interface than either Vista or its predecessor, Windows XP.

You may have to choose between computer models shipping with the 32-bit or the 64-bit version of Windows 7. If you plan to use older hardware and programs with the computer, there is little advantage to moving to 64-bit computing — and it may create compatibility problems. If you use mostly modern gear and programs optimized for 64-bit, especially resource-hungry applications, a 64-bit Windows 7 machine will deliver better performance.

What if all your other computers run XP or Vista? You may want to delay moving to Windows 7 to minimize support and training headaches and tp keep a uniform computing environment. Some vendors will allow you to downgrade by substituting Vista or (more often) XP for Win7, usually at additional cost.

You may also still find models, usually older stock, that come with XP or Vista. Avoid Vista unless you already use it and are happy with it. And keep in mind with XP that you will have to migrate to Windows 7 within a couple of years, at some expense.

Picking a Processor

Dell Vostro 220 Mini Tower
The Dell Vostro 220 Mini Tower

The microprocessor, sometimes referred to as the CPU (central processing unit), is the computer’s brain, and its most important component. Two companies make PC microprocessors, Intel and AMD. Except at the very leading-edge of computing performance, where the two companies engage in a see-saw battle for supremacy, there is little difference between them.

More important are broader differences among families of processors. Both vendors have multiple product families, and within each, many models. One key difference to consider: single-core versus multi-core.

Multi-core processors — Intel’s Core 2, Core i7 and Xeon products, AMD’s Athlon X2 and Phenom X4 — include multiple processing engines, or cores, that allow the computer to work faster and more efficiently multi-task when using modern applications designed to “multi-thread.”

Single-core processors, including Intel’s older Pentium and low-end Celeron models and its compact, low-power Atom products (designed for portable devices but sometimes used in desktops), will be slower, especially when you ask them to do multiple tasks simultaneously — check e-mail, run a database search and download a file from the Internet, for example.

If your employee is or might turn into a computing multi-tasker, choose a machine with a multi-core processor. Even for light computing tasks, if you can afford it, choose a multi-core product to ensure you have enough computing power to cover future needs.

The next most important microprocessor specification to consider: clock speed, measured in megahertz (MHz) or gigahertz (GHz). It’s a rough measure of raw processing capacity. The higher the number, the better the performance.

Keep in mind that with a multi-core processor, the clock speed given is for one processor core. While dual-core architecture may not always double performance, a 2GHz dual-core processor will certainly be faster than a 2GHz single-core model.

Other processor specs? Cache is a temporary storage area for frequently or recently accessed data. The larger the capacity – measured in megabytes (MB) or kilobytes (KB) – the better the performance, all other things being equal.

eMachines ET1331-02
The eMachines ET1331-02

Front Side Bus speed tells you the speed (in GHz or MHz) at which data passes between the processor and other components such as the memory controller. The higher the number, the faster the performance – again, all other specs being equal.

A dual-core product with a clock speed in the 1.8 GHz-and-up range, while far from state of the art, will be adequate for all but power users. For very light computer use (e-mail, word processing, Web browsing), single-core products will probably suffice – shoot for a clock speed well above 1.5 GHz, the minimum requirement for Windows 7.

For demanding computer use, consider a PC with a quad-core processor (four processing cores). Expect to pay $500 and up, with most products priced closer to $1,000.

Don’t Forget Memory

The second most important component in terms of computing performance is the amount and type of random access memory (RAM).

Quantity of memory is the more important spec. Most new computers today come with DDR2 SDRAM (double data rate synchronous dynamic random access memory), which moves data to and from memory faster than earlier types such as DDR SDRAM and single data rate SDRAM. The latest business-class models use even faster DDR3.

So how much RAM is enough? It depends on the operating system and the types of applications the employee will use.

Windows Vista requires more memory — 2GB at least — than Windows 7, which Microsoft says will run efficiently with 1GB. Add an extra gigabyte to ensure optimal minimum performance — memory is cheap right now: $25 to $30 per gigabyte.

Beyond the minimum required for the operating system to run efficiently, additional memory will help the computer run faster in situations where it’s moving large amounts of data into and out of memory — when multi-tasking, or editing large media files or working with big database or spreadsheet files. 

Hefty Hard Drives

Hard drive capacities in new desktop computers range from 160GB to 1 terabyte (TB equals 1,000 gigabytes). The cost of hard disk storage has come down so far — to less than 10 cents per gigabyte — that most desktop PCs come with at least 250GB. This is sufficient for the vast majority of small business employees. Exceptions? Employees who work with large media and database files.

Video Viewing

Another key component in any computer is the video subsystem, which controls the monitor and determines how and how well it displays data and images. Its speed, partly determined by onboard processing capacity, partly by the amount of separate video memory it includes, along with the functional bells and whistles can be critical differentiators in systems designed for gaming or high-end media functions. But it’s a less important consideration in an office PC.

Small Business Desktops: Sample Configs and Pricing
Vendor ModelOperating SystemProcessorMemoryHard DriveMonitorPrice
ZT PC Reliant 861Mi-40 Win7 Pro 64 Intel Core2 Quad Q8300 (2.5GHz)4GB DDR2500GB No$599.99
Dell Vostro 220 Mini TowerWin7 Pro 32Intel Pentium Dual-Core E5300 (2.60GHz)4GB DDR2500GBYes (18.5 in.)$754.00
Lenovo ThinkStation S20 Win7 Pro 64Intel Xeon W3503 (dual-core - 2.4Ghz)2GB DDR3250GBNo$939.00
HP Compaq 500B Microtower Win7 Pro 32 Intel Pentium Dual-Core E5300 (2.60 GHz)1GB DDR3160GBNo$429.00
eMachines ET1331-02Win7 Home 64AMD Athlon II X2 215 (2.7GHz)4GB DDR2320GBYes (20 in.)$499.99

Ensure that the video system can deliver the highest screen resolution of which the computer’s monitor is capable (check specs for the monitor). In general, though, don’t pay extra for an upgraded video system unless your employee is involved in image- or video-intensive computing.

Bottom Line

Shopping for a desktop PC is not rocket science. If you spend $500 or more on a name-brand — HP, Lenovo, ZTPC, Acer — you can be reasonably sure of getting a product that will deliver the performance and capabilities for even fairly advanced computing need. And for light use, a $300 to $400 investment should be sufficient.

Gerry Blackwell is a freelance technology writer based in London, Canada. Read his blog at http://afterbyte.blogspot.com/.

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This article was originally published on Monday Nov 23rd 2009
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