I get asked quite often which computer a company should get. Frankly, many of my clients pay us to get the right computer for them. Why? Because picking a computer that suits your business is a challenge that can spell problems if the solution does not fit properly. To make the task more daunting is the arcane language of computers, which is chock full of acronyms that require a degree (or a 15-year-old) to understand. The purpose of this article is to address these challenges by providing you a framework to find the right system for your business, or at least filter the field down.
Here's the challenge I face every time I have to choose a computer for a client: Out of almost 2,000 different computers, servers and notebooks, I must pick out a PC that is right for your business. Yes, I said 2,000 - it's my daily starting point.
In order to determine the system I need, I address three different issues: What is the computer's purpose?
What is it supposed to be capable of? Where can I get it?
PurposePurpose is defined by several things such as who will use the computer, what applications will run on it, where it will be used and how it fits into the entire solution. The easiest way to answer these questions is to look at the end results. A computer will either be used as a server, for individual use or as a laptop for mobile users. Let's look into each of these three a little more.
A server is like a boss for the computers. As a business grows, you have to create order and structure to maintain a coherent environment. The server does this on the computing level. After you hook up more than five computers together on a network, you need a boss. The boss handles all the data, applications if needed and shares resources so there are no fights among the staff (technically called clients).
A server is like a computer on steroids. It has been designed to handle increased workloads, be up 24/7 and have immense amounts of expansion capability. A few of the obvious differences are the number of processors it contains and its memory capability. Some servers can handle up to eight processors on one computer and upwards of 8 GB of memory, whereas a PC has one processor and maybe a 1GB memory limit. The end users of these systems are your network administrators.
The difference between the need for a laptop vs. standard PC is the issue of mobility. If the end user is
going to be out of the office for extended durations (salespeople and management are normal users in this
category), then a laptop is a must. The ability to be productive by working on company files while away
from the office increases the employee's performance and the profit margin of the company. Recent
studies have shown the typical executive or salesperson will recoup the cost of a laptop within one year
due to increased productivity.
CapabilityCapability is getting harder and harder to define and gauge as technology continues to accelerate. Only two years ago, a 333 MHz system cost $3,000, whereas today you can get a 1 GHz (1,000 MHz) system for about $2,500. One week before writing this article, AMD announced it would be shipping the first 1 GHz chip. How do you plan your business around these massive performance gains? Honestly, you don't. Let me explain.
The 1 GHz system is called a "bleeding edge" PC. These systems are being shipped in low quantities. Prices are high, and return on investment (ROI) is questionable. It is the issue of ROI that you have to look at and gauge accordingly. First, you do this by looking at what normal functions the PC will be tasked to do. If the PC was going to be used by me, I could use a 1 GHz system because I manipulate massive databases and image files. That computing power would make me more productive by further minimizing my wait time.
However for the typical office user, this is sheer overkill. Microsoft Word 2000 works just as speedy on a 233 MHz or 1 GHz processor, because the limitation is not the level of computing being done, but how fast the user can type.
The second primary gauge is software recommendations. Software manufacturers will provide the end user parameters for purchasing hardware to use with their software. A fair warning here: Go by the recommended level as the true minimum vs. what the manufacturer may say the minimum requirements are. For example, Windows 98 will work on a 486 PC (this is within the minimum levels), however, you had better be prepared to wait and wait while it loads.
Finally, when trying to determine processor speed, I suggest using the 70 percent rule. This means that the average user needs only 70 percent of the bleeding edge processor power to meet his computing needs for the next three years. With the 1 GHz processor out, that would equate to a 700 MHz system. At the time of this writing, I believe the 70 percent rule needs to be lowered between 55 percent and 60 percent when purchasing new systems. Again, the application of this rule is influenced by the end use of the system.
The last challenge for the typical purchase of a computer is where do we get it? This question is best broken down into two components: Who has the best price? How available is the system for purchase?
In addressing this issue and evaluating the sources for computers, we find there are three generic sources - retailers, online stores or local resellers. Let's look into the pros and cons of each.
I do not recommend buying a PC from a retail store. The local retail store is in business to sell systems, but when it comes to long-term support, they are not going to cut it. The normal retail store has an off-site center that handles all of its troubleshooting. This means you leave your system there and pick it up two to three weeks later. In short, your system is down for an extended amount of time, and you have further wasted your time by carting it to them.
The second reason why I do not recommend PCs from retailers is that the PCs they sell are made for home users. This means there is junk software on your system that bogs its performance down, takes up resources and distracts your employees. Because these systems are made for home users, they are made to be a "trap" system, which means in order to expand their capabilities, you have to replace them. The benefit of buying from a retailer is the low price and the overall sufficient initial capabilities. Again, going back to the ROI issue, they are not worth it in the long run, because your technical support and downtime costs are higher.
The sales of computers via the Internet have skyrocketed thanks to companies like Dell. To be honest, the online stores are my competition since they sell computers that have been designed for businesses. These systems come with only the operating system and common off-the-shelf software you request (i.e., Microsoft Office). I do recommend these vendors for people who have a standard solution, whose primary solution involves standard software available through retailers or catalog companies. But once you start to wander off the beaten path, their value drops as they are less and less able to support your specialized solution. The other double-edged sword is the tech support. While it may be available 24/7 with a 24-hour response to having a technician on site, they will first waste your time with you or your staff on the phone being their remote technician. Again, during this timeframe you are nonproductive.
The best solution I believe lies with a local reseller of computers. As my previous article on consultants shared, there are plenty of computer shops that are just as guilty of being a retailer. Again, it pays to shop around. Odds are if you have found a good consultant, they have links with a hardware/software reseller they will recommend, or they can provide the needed materials themselves. The biggest benefit of this solution is the face-to-face relationship that is able to develop into a doctor/patient relationship with your computers and you. It may be a screwy analogy, but it really does fit.
Because of my relationship with my clients and their computers, I am better able to service them. I know their needs, how they work and their expectations. The drawback to the local reseller lies in growth. Getting and keeping qualified technicians is expensive and a daily challenge as higher pay is always luring the technicians away. This can lead to high employee turnover rates for the reseller, and thus, degradation of the relationship the reseller has with you.
The one element I haven't mentioned that runs through the entire project of buying a new computer is research. Buying a computer, especially when you are not depending upon a consultant who stays current in all of these areas, is paramount to making a solid decision. I suggest reading computer magazines for a few months before buying your PC. You will notice trends, learn the lingo, read about what is being offered, and see what companies have the best solutions.
Next time I will be digging into the peripherals you may be looking for as you buy your system. In doing so, I'll look into technologies like USB2 and Firewire. Until then, safe computing.