Computer Systems

If you only need a business computer to handle basic tasks such as word processing, accounting, and e-mail/Internet access, you can pretty much walk into your local electronics outlet and pick any model. You'll need to be more careful about your choice, however, if you need to handle large graphic, spreadsheet, or database files.

Your best approach is to first assess your needs, both current and future. If you're not handling graphic design now, for example, but you've identified it as a potential business line a year or so down the road, you'll want to buy a computer that can handle memory-hungry graphic software and files or that can be upgraded to handle them. The extra cost to build in the capacity will be much smaller than buying a brand new system next year because the existing computer can't handle it (or can't be upgraded effectively).

Research the kinds of computer systems that will meet your needs. Become familiar with the terminology and the minimum and optimum requirements that you'll need. The Internet and electronics store flyers often provide good background information and pricing examples. Then you'll be ready for the stores or Internet outlets themselves. If you choose one that has noncommissioned salespeople, you're less likely to find a hard-sell approach.

The PC World family of magazines and Internet site (www.pcworld.com) provides well-researched and trustworthy background information on electronics purchases of all kinds, but especially computer systems. Their ratings for popular models can be particularly helpful, since they're often categorized for home- or small-office users.

Desktops and Laptops

Today's laptops have the capability of most desktops (albeit at a slightly higher price), but provide portability as well — and can serve as desktops if they're attached to a desktop “docking” station. If you expect to be out of the office on sales calls most days or if you're going to be traveling frequently, pick a laptop. If portability isn't an issue, go with the cheaper desktop (you can always buy a more basic and less expensive laptop as a backup in case of desktop failure or for the occasional road trip).

Your system requirements will be determined by what you'll be using the computer to do — effectively, the kind of software programs that you'll be using on it. For a good guide, check the software boxes or their manufacturer's Web sites to determine the system requirements for each program.

The computer's processor (CPU) determines how quickly the computer runs — the faster the processor, the more expensive it is, but you don't want to skimp here. Look for Pentium 4s and up, or their equivalent. Installed memory is a good indicator of how well your computer will perform and how many things you'll be able to do at once on it — look for at least 512MB, but buy more memory if you can. The hard drive stores your data, so size is again important — for the flexibility to work with digital photo files, for example, you should be looking at 40GB and up.

When it comes to graphics, most mid-priced computers will come with a perfectly adequate graphics card for average users; if you have specific graphics needs, however, ensure that your card, memory, and processor can all handle your needs.

Removable file storage devices include recordable CD and DVD drives (having both gives you the greatest flexibility). The popularity of “keychain” type USB file storage devices means that the best computer designs have USB ports on the front of the unit for easy plug-in.

Monitors

Gone are the days of bulky monitors taking up acres of desk space. Prices are now so low for the digital flat-panel LCD monitors that the minimum you should be shopping for is a seventeen-inch model, especially if you'll be working at the computer a lot. For those working on screen with large spreadsheet, graphics, or database files, a nineteen- or twenty-one-inch screen will be invaluable.

To reduce glare and reflection on your computer screen, place your monitor so that it's not facing or directly opposite the windows in your office. You can also buy inexpensive glare shields that fit over the monitor to help reduce the strain on your eyes.

Printers

You basically have a choice between inkjet and laser printers in either less expensive monochrome (black), and more expensive color models. They all have their pros and cons, centered on three major features: speed, resolution, and cost.

Inkjet printers are the least expensive models, often thrown in for free with a computer because the manufacturers really make their money on the ink cartridges that you'll be buying over the life of the printer. Overall, their print quality isn't as high as laser printers, but if you buy a better inkjet printer, it will handle photos and graphics well, although probably slower than a laser (some inkjets that are dedicated photo printers rate particularly high on quality).

Laser printers are faster and generally produce better quality printing than inkjets, and monochromes in particular have dropped in price to the point where they're giving inkjets a run for their money — especially since toner cartridges for laser printers can be less expensive than the print cartridges for inkjets over the life of the printer. Color laser printers are the top of the print quality and price scales, but they will be worth the investment if your business relies on producing high-quality color documents.

Other Computer Hardware

There's plenty of other equipment that links into a computer system, including scanners, digital cameras, and digital camcorders. If you'll be using two or more computers in your home-based business, you should also look into networking capabilities so that you have one main “server” that lets all of the other computers share the system including its files and peripherals such as printers. Again, start with your needs, and then look at model features.

Wireless technology that connects computer system components without cabling is becoming increasingly available. Be aware, however, that wireless Internet connections may not be secure. Research your system as well to find out if it's compatible with the wireless component.

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