The Right PCs to Power Your Business
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 PCs. 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 keep today’s businesses running.
While it may be tempting to buy a simple consumer PC from a big-box store like Best Buy or Walmart, 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 those who handle consumer tech support.
Processors and Memory
Dual- and quad-core processors, particularly in the Intel Core i3 and Core i5 lines, are the norm in business PCs. Celeron and Pentium dual-core CPUs are found in lower-priced desktop PCs, and use technology from the higher-end Intel Core processor line. Consider buying a slightly more powerful processor if you’re concerned about keeping your system for a lengthy useful life. Faster CPUs are a must for today’s attention-challenged, multitasking PC users. Quad-core Core i5 or Core i7 CPUs are prime options for the users, like graphic artists, hard-core number crunchers, and other gearheads, who stress over the speed of their PCs.
Look for no less than 4GB of RAM. In general, though, the more memory you can get the better, especially for people who work in graphic design and Web development—they will need no less than 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 10 is a resource hog, particularly with the integrated graphics solutions commonly found in business PCs, so 4GB is a minimum.
Business PCs require less storage than consumer PCs, since you’re less likely to use them to sync your iPod or house your personal video collection. Since storage is so inexpensive these days, a hard drive with 500GB of space strikes 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, especially if your office uses a network to house (and thus back up) files.
Compared with traditional hard drives, solid-state drives (SSDs) are usually smaller in capacity and higher in cost. But an SSD-only system will boot and launch programs almost as quickly as a tablet. A 128 to 256GB SSD should be sufficient for office workers’ needs, today and for the near future, but it may cost you more than a machine with a traditional hard drive. Larger SSDs, 512GB or 1TB in capacity, are speedy options for power users, but be forewarned that these upgrades could increase your per-unit purchase price by hundreds of dollars.
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 useful addition to a small business PC. You may need it to burn copies of projects for your clients, or to read the occasional CD or DVD that’s either sent to you by a supplier or customer or that contains important records or files from several years ago. 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.
Most business PCs come with integrated graphics—that is, video capabilities that are built into the computers’ AMD or Intel processors. Most of the time, integrated graphics will be just fine, since you won’t be playing 3D games on your work desktop. Most workers who require discrete graphics will use them for specialized tasks, such as GPU acceleration in Adobe Photoshop or 3D graphics visualization for architectural drawings. Computers that use 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 (a category into which the majority of business tasks fall).
Room to Grow
Most minitower and some small-form-factor (SFF) budget desktops will have a measure of expansion. You’ll find space for at least one extra internal hard drive, a PCI Express (PCIe) x16 video card slot, a selection of PCI or PCIe expansion slots, and maybe space for another optical drive. You may also find extra DIMM slots, which will let you upgrade your memory later. Eventual upgrades in a business PC are likely to be modest: the 125- to 350-watt power supply in these budget PCs won’t be able to power more than a midlevel graphics card or more than two internal hard drives, though, of course, in most cases they won’t need to.
Don’t need multiple hard drives and/or multiple graphics cards for your users? Consider deploying all-in-ones 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 every day. While many come with high-end performance processors (such as Intel Core i5 or Core i7) for your demanding users, there are also models that 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 continue to 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. Touch is not yet as essential on desktop PCs as it is on tablets (and is becoming on laptops), but if you’re launching touch apps on Windows, you’ll probably want to go with an all-in-one desktop PC.
Mini PCs (also known as ultra-small-form-factor, or USFF, desktops) belong to a desktop category that comes in below budget desktops, in terms of price (for the most part), size, and capabilities. These run on the same basic components as their laptop counterparts (low-power processors, non-upgradable integrated graphics, 2GB to 6GB of RAM, smaller hard drives or flash storage, no optical drives, and Windows 10 or Linux—assuming there’s an operating system at all). They’re built to surf the Web, run Office apps, and perform other light computing duties. Unlike larger systems, mini PCs have no capacity for internal expansion. This means they are best suited for applications where they can sit unattended in a locked cabinet or behind a screen, such as POS 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.
The most portable type of computer that still technically counts as a desktop is also the newest type out there. The stick PC is exactly what it sounds like: a computer in a tiny, long-and-thin form factor that’s easy to carry with you anywhere. These work by taking advantage of the HDMI input ports that are now built in to almost every monitor and television by turning that screen into your display. Just plug the stick PC into one of those ports, connect the power cable, add a keyboard and mouse, and you’re good to go. You are extremely limited in terms of your output ports (there’s only so much room on that stick, after all), and you don’t get a lot of storage (usually only about 32GB to 64GB). But if you’re a frequent business traveler, especially one who makes a lot of presentations, a stick PC is ideal and in most cases more convenient than even a laptop.
The more corporate-oriented a PC, the more likely it will have security features (like Kensington or Noble lock ports, TPM, and 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.
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 applications that are 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 a trial version of Microsoft Office, but in a business context that can be a good thing. You can upgrade to a fully functional 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 to 90 days. You don’t want to get a virus on the computer you depend on to earn your money. Again, this is one case where I’d consider upgrading to the full version over the Internet (assuming your company doesn’t have its own antivirus strategy, of course).
Consider Springing for an 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 eight-hour response, two-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 all comes at an added cost, but like any insurance, whether it is worth it to you depends on what you need to protect.
Choose Wisely and Futureproof Your PCs
These days, it may be tempting to grab the cheapest system you can find and call it your “business PC,” but don’t do it. Keep in mind that what you buy must 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 bloatware are among the extra benefits you may get.
Need to add peripherals to your work space? We’ve rounded up the best business monitors, along with our favorite keyboards, mice, and printers. If your employees need portability, also check out our top picks for business laptops.
We refresh this list often to include the newest products, but because of the large number of desktops we review every year, not every top-rated product makes the cut. For now, our top picks are below.