The difficulty in buying a PC is that it is a general purpose machine - it can do a whole range of things for you, unlike a cash register or a set of tradesman's tools. So it's the uses to which you're going to put the computer that dictate what type you'll need.
Not only that, but you'll need to be making an investment that will last for at least three or four years. You'll soon discover, if you start to track the PC industry, that the rapid rate of innovation can turn a state-of-the-art machine into a pitiful also-ran within a few years, so don't skimp too much on it; and don't rely too much on the "I'll upgrade it later" option unless you're entirely confident you know how to go down that path.
Here are some basic questions to ask yourself before even considering a machine. Once you've thought these through, you'll be in a better position to scour the mags or head for the shops.
1. What applications are you going to use?
Write out a wish list of all the things you'd like to do with the machine, then buy a PC mag and flick through it to get an idea of how much those applications will cost. (Remember, this can all add up to a hidden additional cost that first time buyers can fail to spot).
Many machines come with an Office suite (including word processor, spreadsheet, database and some publishing software) and these can mean a great saving and allow you to get up and going as soon as the machine is out of the box. Don't even think of buying a machine that doesn't have an operating system installed. Windows 98SE or 2000 are the best to opt for right now.
The applications you want to use can affect your hardware purchasing as well. A small business that is going to use a PC for staff payroll, accounts, tax returns and maybe some email and web browsing, will need a less well specified machine than one which is going to be used for creative purposes (if you put together your own marketing material, or publications or websites, for example). Graphically intensive packages such as the latter need far more processing power and better resolution monitors than basic accounts packages.
2. Will you be networking the machine?
You may not want to network the machine immediately, but do you envision a time in the next few years when you might want to network the machine to other ones you may buy? This will help you share resources like printers - a great long-term cost saving - and swap files between users more easily. If you think it might be a possibility, a system with a networking port is something to think about. Many business PCs these days have a 10/100 ethernet card installed, which is not a bad thing to have if you think you might want to add on a cheap network starter kit, such as those available from 3Com and Compaq.
3. How mission critical is your information?
If you're using your machine to store staff details, payroll information, customer lists and business plans, you're entrusting the essence of your business to it. If anything goes wrong with the machine - a hard drive suddenly failing, for example - then you're in trouble unless you've got a copy of that information somewhere else.
Make sure you have some mechanism for backing up the data on your machine. We suggest high-capacity removable storage, such as an Iomega Jaz drive, that can store 2Gb of data on a disk, or if you're budget conscious, go for a Zip drive, which backs up onto 3.5in cartridges that generally store 100Mb - a lot more than a standard floppy. Once you've got the machine get in the habit of backing up on a regular basis, keep the Jaz drive somewhere secure away from your business.
4. How secure is the place where your PC will be kept?
Think about security right from the start. You'll have to do so for insurance purposes, but it will have a serious impact on the type of system you buy. A small lightweight desktop machine is likely to be more of an easy target than a great big floor-standing machine with a heavy monitor. But not even these will detract burglars. IT equipment is often stolen to order, so if they know it's there, it's vulnerable.
5. What sort of internet link will you want?
Don't believe that an internet link is an optional extra - it's the main reason for businesses to buy a PC these days. With a hook-up to the internet you can be directly in touch with customers via email, go online for internet-based business services and get business-to-business links with your suppliers.
So ask yourself whether you want a standard internal 56Kb modem (which will make your phone unavailable when you're online unless you get a second line installed), or whether you want to move up market to the new ADSL lines. In this case your ADSL supplier will give you a modem as part of the installation, and you can split your voice line off the one connection, giving you simultaneous web access and voice calls. Many small businesses will be happy to eschew the cutting edge new technology and opt for a standard modem link and an unmetered business connection package.
6. Will you be on the move?
Does your business involve lots of travel and/or movement between sites? Will you want to take your machine home with you after work? If that's the case you might need to consider a notebook or laptop machine that will allow you to keep your PC and data close at hand wherever you are. Remember that you're more likely to lose your machine in transit, and that data could be accidentally wiped at home by other users. This means an even a greater need for back-up and security procedures.
Another alternative is to use a small 'palmtop' or sub-notebook machine, like the Palm or Handspring personal digital assistants, which are great for gathering information and keeping you on schedule and which can be synchronised to download that information to a PC back at base.
7. Do you have space restrictions?
Is your business office no bigger than a cupboard? Barely enough room to swing a cat? Then consider this before you buy a PC - you may not want a huge clanking cathode ray tube monitor, and may prefer to pay the extra price for a thin TFT screen. Do you want a desktop box or an under the desk tower configuration. Remember that while your tower may be out of the way, you will nevertheless need to access the CD and floppy disk drives, not to mention your back-up drive. Ask yourself where the machine will sit and how long the cables will need to be. Do you have enough electricity sockets or will you need four-way extension plugs?
8. What are you prepared to pay?
Take a long hard look at your budget. How much have you got to spend, and how much are you prepared to pay? A good basic machine without bells and whistles will probably cost between £700 and £1000, but if you want a more powerful machine with the right drives, internal components and essential peripherals like a printer, you may be paying more in the £1500 to £2000 region. It's a lot of money! Which leads us to another option.
9. Have you considered rental?
Why pay for a machine when you could rent one? You get the latest technology and spread the cost according to use, and if you stop using it you haven't got capital tied up in obsolete equipment. Above all, there's no big up front payment. And if things break down within warranty terms, they will fix it (i.e. you won't need to take out some hugely expensive warranty deal if you buy retail).
10. Have you got a long-term plan of action?
Be in no doubt that what you're buying today will be vastly overshadowed by what's on offer for the same amount of money three years hence. But try to buy with a plan of action in mind. If it's your first PC, think about whether you'll be networking in a few years time. Your first PC could get a lot of extra years' use from junior staff if it's networked to other machines as the years go on. Or do you think you might be able to upgrade it later? Adding extra memory, if there's space on the motherboard, can extend the life of a PC considerably. Ask what the future upgrade potential is in your target model.
In Part 2, we'll talk you through the essential components of a basic standalone system.
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