The first rule for any purchasing situation is, of course, plan. Desktop and laptop purchasing is no different. A good plan is the first step to good spending when it comes to your small business’ personal computer needs. This plan should, quite obviously, be made in conjunction with your IT department or manager who will have valuable input not only to features that may be needed but also important information as to the IT staff’s readiness to support specific models and features.
The first piece of advice that I generally give to small businesses looking to purchase new computers is to not become religious about which vendor to choose. There are many good vendors. I, like all IT professionals, tend to be pretty biased towards one vendor over all others and have a few vendors which I specifically dislike. I won’t mention any of them by name here. But most anyone to whom you will speak looking for purchasing advice will be almost religiously zealous about one brand over another. In reality, all of the serious players make very good equipment and you can get your needs met very well by any one of them. Your key players in the desktop and laptop space include Lenovo, Dell, Acer, Toshiba, Hewlett-Packard and Fujitsu. Apple, of course, is also an important vendor but is rarely, if ever, purchased in competition with other vendors. Apple hardware is purchased to run Mac OSX. There is rarely a buying decision made involving Apple that is not made simply through operating system support necessity so there is no point in including them here.
All of these vendors make great products so don’t worry if your pet vendor does not get picked in the end. There are other, more important, considerations that demand your attention. Picking the vendor to supply your needs will most likely be determined by factors that are often overlooked. Here are a few factors which you should consider when picking your vendor:
- Which vendor can provide a “holistic” supply of all of your desktop, laptop, netbook and server needs? Working with a single vendor is often preferable to working with serveral when it can be avoided. This leaves Dell and Hewlett-Packard as your true “stand outs” simply because of their broad and impressive portfolios.
- Which vendor’s products are most able to be supported by your IT department or your IT service vendor? If your IT provider has great expertise with certain makes and models then these may present an advantage not to be overlooked because your IT staff will already be prepared for hidden “gotchas”, common failures, repair tactics, documentation, driver issues, etc.
- Which models support operating systems that you are using today and any that you expect that you may use during the lifespan of the product?
- Which models have features which, on their own, are important to your business such as type of processor, power consumption, network options or management features such as Intel ATM?
- Which products provide the warranty that makes you most comfortable? I generally recommend getting units that come with a standard three-year warranty as this covers, by default, most of the life of the hardware.
The second piece of advice that I give to small businesses at the beginning of their purchasing process is to be sure to only deal with commercial products. That means to avoid consumer-grade products at any cost. There are many reasons why commercial-grade equipment is important to your business and I will just touch on some of the highlights. I should point out that I also give this advice to individuals looking to purchase computers for home use for the exact same reasons. In general, computer manufactures make consumer grade equipment for a less discerning audience and you never want to run your business on anything designed around a lower degree of discernment when you have the option.
- Companies stake their reputations on their commercial products, not their consumer ones. The bulk of sales go to businesses and this is where the real money is. Large companies do not turn down large orders because of home-user complaints and so only issues with commercial products impact corporate buying decisions.
- Commercial products are often purchased in large quantities to single purchasing managers with a great deal of control over the success of that particular model. Vendors have a lot at stake with each order and work hard to make sure that the equipment is reliable and consistent. Consumer gear is sold on an individual basis and so vendors have no reason to pursue consistency and rather than making systems reliable it is easier for them to replace them quickly when their fail. So consumer parts are cheaper and have less testing.
- Commercial products are produced in fewer, more useful, configurations in larger quantity. This means that each model gets a high degree of scrutiny and testing both by the vendor and by highly skilled IT departments. Consumer goods get a lesser degree of internal diligence and are purchased mostly by average home users who do not provide a great degree of detailed technical feedback to the vendor and to the community.
- Corporate buyers demand that their systems be field repairable and modifiable using standard parts. This causes commercial systems to be, almost always, extremely easy to repair and upgrade. Consumer gear is often highly proprietary and made using non-standard parts making repair and upgrade processes less reliable. This has decreased in recent years but is still prevalent.
- Software vendors, like Microsoft or Red Hat, have a much larger interest in making sure that corporate machines are well tested and supported from a driver perspective. Supporting hardware that may only exist in a relatively few consumer machines is of lesser importance.
- Commercial hardware is almost always manufactured directly by the vendor directly or under contract to that vendor with heavy supervision. Consumer systems are often manufactured by third parties, sometimes with no vendor interaction, and then simply labeled with the vendor’s brand name and sold as if the vendor had manufactured it themselves. Often this results in system documentation and drivers available only from websites hosted in Taiwan with little or no support in English (which is important to my readers who only get SMB IT Journal in English.)
- Warranty support for commercial systems is generally far superior to warranty support for consumer systems. Vendors will often overnight parts and allow field repairs at the end-user’s request. Consumer systems often have to be shipped back to the vendor and will be shipped back weeks later having been wiped clean while out for repairs.
- Phone support for consumer gear usually involves off-shore call centers using staff that does not work for the vendor in question. Commercial phone support, while still often off-shored, is usually handled by internal vendor staff with direct access to internal resources when necessary.
- Most vendors have local partner firms who are available to help your business work with, modify and acquire their commercial gear. Consumer gear is often available only via the web or from large consumer electronics chains. One channel is designed for business users and one is clearly not. Access to local partners can be a big advantage when you need warranty repairs but dare not ship your equipment away or when you need any number of custom services.
- Commercial hardware generally ships with OEM (original equipment manufacturer) licensed copies of Microsoft Windows in “business” configurations (i.e. Windows Vista Business or Windows XP Pro) which are appropriate for businesses to use while consumer hardware almost always comes with “home” editions of the same operating systems which are not appropriate for business use. I have known many businesses to mistakenly purchase consumer gear and then have to pay full price for an appropriate Windows license after having thought that they were saving money.
- Commercial hardware is seldom more expensive than consumer gear by more than fifteen percent and often is comparable in price and sometimes less expensive. Price is a rather nominal factor when other features are compared side by side.
- Commercial hardware is generally built on far superior chipsets and with more reliable technologies while consumer gear often comes with “flashy” features designed to entice users looking to use this hardware for entertainment puroses. In speed tests, commercial gear from major vendors tends to outperform consumer gear from the same vendors when all other specifications are the same. There are many facets to computer system building that are not mentioned “on the box” and this is one place where consumer-grade equipment can skimp because the purchasing process does not take these things into consideration.
- Commercial products generally have excellent online documentation while consumer gear often lacks in this area quite dramatically.
- Commercial hardware is often warranties for much longer periods of time than is consumer gear and generally lasts for many times longer than its warranty period without incident. It is not uncommon for commercial desktops to be in use after more than ten years.
- Commercial hardware is often less noisy than consumer gear. Good commercial computers are often nearly silent.
- Commercial products look professional and uniform when outsiders, or even employees, come into your offices. Consumer gear gives the impression that people have been bringing in computers from home to use at work and can give a bad impression to your clients and even to your own employees.
When purchasing your new computers keep in mind the importance of uniformity. Your IT staff, especially if it is just one or two people, but even if you have a large staff, will appreciate the opportunity to get to know the hardware which they support. This can do much to reduce support issues and downtime. It is very comforting to know that when a desktop technician arrives at your desk to fix your computer that they know every screw, port, cable and part of that computer inside and out and that they can take it apart and put it back together without thinking twice.
This hardware familiarity means that upgrades are handles much better as well. If each machine is unique in your environment and you decide to upgrade all machines to double their memory (RAM) then you may be in for one surprise after another as your desktop technicians open up the machines to discover that they have differing types of memory, different configurations and different limits from each other. Each machine will be a new surprise on its own. If all of the machines were the same then the technicians would already know that the current configuration was two sticks of one gigabyte each and that there were two open slots which could accomodate a total of four more gigabytes but that the existing sticks had to be moved to the empty slots before putting in the new memory in the currently used slots. Simple upgrades that are almost a no-brainer in a uniform environment can become a maintenance nightmare when equipment varies dramatically.
Another important consideration for desktop and laptop purchasing is that of the operating system. Small businesses, unlike large enterprises who get their operating systems through bulk volume licenses with Microsoft, generally get their software licenses through the OEM copies that are included with their purchases. Small businesses may opt to work with a volume licensing program as well but this generally adds extra cost which only makes sense in the large scale of big enterprises. Because of this small businesses need to be very aware of the included software license of the desktop and buy accordingly. The cost of changing the operating system on a newly purchased computer should the wrong operating system be purchased with the system can easily be fifty-percent again the cost of the original computer. A rather significant mistake to make.
In addition to considering the operating system that ships with the computer we should also consider if we will be changing operating systems during the life of the computer. If this is the case then we need to be sure that the computer is able to accomodate the changes in the future. Often this is a guessing game and cannot be determined up front but this is not always so. Currently it is very common to purchase computers to run Windows XP with the intent of eventually, or at least potentially, moving to Windows Vista. Many commercial machines today ship with both operating systems as options. It is very easy for a business today to purchase a machine that is certified to run either operating system so that the business can upgrade when they are ready without needing to purchase new hardware in order to support the new operating system. Even better is cases where the computer comes dual-licensed and the older operating system can be used until such time as the migration process is ready and then the newer operating system can be installed without any additional licensing costs.
Of course with any computer purchasing plan we also need to consider basic features. For most businesses there are very few important features for a desktop model. Almost any desktop unit will suffice from a raw feature perspective. Occassionally special features like Intel AMT are required but this is rather uncommon and less common in smaller offices. Laptops often have a few additional features of interest such as wireless connection technologies, availability of docking stations and port extenders, size, weight, etc.
Careful planning for these features can have a big impact on an office environment. For example, purchasing ten laptops with expensive 802.11n wireless technology might be a great way to improve wireless productivity but it could all be worthless if you accidentally buy one cheap laptop that only has 802.11b causing your wireless system to degrade itself to support the lowest common denominator in your environment. Or buying all of your gear with GigE connections just to discover there is no budget for a GigE switch or cabling.
Another important factor to consider when planning your buying decisions that applies exclusively to desktops is form factor. Most major vendors provide commercial products in one of three basic sizes. The largest size is the “mini-tower” which is the form factor with which most of us are most familiar today. This form factor looks best when standing “upright” and is, as it sounds, a small tower. It is able to accept full-sized expansion cards which may be an important consideration depending on what your users will be doing with their desktop computers. Often mini towers can accomodate two or more hard drives.
The medium form factor is generally known as “small form factor”, SFF or “desktop form factor”. This is the more traditional desktop style computers that we see mostly in office environments and less often at home. This form factor is roughly the same size as the mini tower but is “thinner” making it work best when laying on the desk. This makes it very stable and often it works very well as a stand on which to place your monitor. This size also fits well under desks especially when mounted to the under side of the desk. Many SFF models are also designed to be easy to stack so that they can be stacked on a desk when need be. I often use then this way myself as I use several desktops at a time and have them stacked behind my monitor array. Small form factor desktops generally can only accept “half height” expansion cards which limits their options significantly although it is not very common for businesses to need to expand their desktops in this way. Small form factor desktops can often accomodate up to two hard drives although only being able to fit a single drive is quite common as well. Many vendors provide stands that allow SFF desktops to stand on their sides. Special stands are needed because they generally vent from their sides and cannot be sat directly on them.
The least common and smallest is the Ultra Small desktop. Most commercial vendors only make a few special high volume models in this smallest form factor due to its increased cost and lack of popularity. Often to keep the size small on these units they have only a single expansion slot, lack many standard ports and can only handle slower than standard processors because of heat dissipation issues. It is not uncommon for them to have less memory growth options than their larger siblings. These machines are very commonly mounted under desks as they are so small. They are very easy to manage for companies that regularly need to move their computers around. IT staff can easily carry them from desk to desk and transporting several by car is no problem.
Display output is another important consideration when choosing desktops and laptops. It is becoming increasingly common for office workers to have multiple monitors and not all computers are prepared to handle this. Many commercial machines support dual monitors out of the box but many require special expansion cards to handle this. Planning to buy computers that provide this capability natively or planning to add on expansions should be considered from the onset of the purchasing project. Laptops often have the ability to add a monitor built in either to the laptop itself or, at least, to a docking station. This can make laptop users far more productive when they are sitting at their desks. Many businesses opt to simply add high-end graphics cards to their desktop units that support multiple monitors in addition to providing increased GPU power to their users. This can be a good option but can easily add as much as twenty-five percent to the cost of the hardware so should be considered carefully. Common configurations appropriate for business machines will often be around ten percent of the initial hardware cost.
As you can see, there are many factors that should be considered when making a desktop or laptop purchase and in this discussion we have not even begun to discuss those factors that everyone discusses under normal circumstances such as cost, availability, performance, etc. The point here is that cafeful planning should be employed and should not be a purely emotional or financial decision but should involve the staff who will be supporting and managing these devices as they will have a great deal of important insight into this process in your environment. Be sure to have your IT strategist, whether this is an IT manager or your desktop support technician, play the key role in this process.