How to buy a small business computer in 2003

Question: Which computer should I buy for my small business? –C.S.

Answer: My rule of thumb is to ask the sales person what the fastest computer on the market is, and then buy 75% of the processing power. There’s more to it, of course, so let’s look at some of the decisions you’ll need to make.

At the time of this writing (summer 2003), the fastest machine on the market was an Intel Pentium 4 or AMD Athlon XP PC. Both have a 3 GHz (gigahertz) processor (that’s 3,000 megahertz). Given that, I’d aim for a 2.4 GHz chip. This will give you plenty of processing power, a decent buffer against obsolescence, and a price that excludes the premium you pay for cutting-edge technology. Into 2004, expect 4 and 5 GHz processors.

If you have an extremely limited budget, aim at either Intel Celeron processor or AMD Duron. You’ll still get GHz speeds, but at budget prices.

When shopping for a computer, look at the GHz rating of the chip on the computer. The bigger the number, the faster the chip.

Buy as much RAM (random access memory) as you can afford, since you’ll need it to keep up with newer software as the computer ages.

Low-end computers come with 128 MB these days, which is sufficient for word processing and web surfing. If you want a kick-butt low-end machine, jam it full of RAM. Get 512 MB if you can. It won’t cost you more than a couple of hundred dollars extra.

If you need to do graphics editing for presentations or web pages, you will need a lot of processing power, so aim for the fastest machine you can afford — but again, budget for RAM first. Aim for a minimum of 256 MB (megabytes) but go up to 1 GB if the computer and your budget can handle it (512 MB is a reasonable compromise), then look at how much you have left to spend on a processor.

You’ll also want a sizable hard drive for graphics work, since graphics and multimedia files take up a lot of storage space. Aim for a 80-GB (gigabyte) drive or better. Top-end hard drives these days are at 250 GB. Hard drive technology is cheap in relation to other components, so it won’t be expensive to buy a large-capacity drive. If it’s just documents you are saving, you can survive with a small drive. If you’re editing video, go as big as possible.

You’ll want to connect to the Internet at high speeds on any computer you’ll buy. If you have a company network, the computer will need a 10/100-megabit per second network interface card to connect. You’ll need one of these if you are connecting directly to a high speed Internet modem from your cable or phone company. Most computers come with these built in. They can also be bought afterward and installed separately for about $35 Canadian.

You’ll also want a 17″ monitor with a dot pitch rating of .25 for fine resolution, although anything lower than .27 is acceptable. Choose a graphics accelerator with 32 MB or more of video memory. Top-end video cards come with 128 MB of video memory (VRAM). Get one of these if you’re going to do CAD design or video editing. A 64 MB video card is fine for middle of the road graphics applications.

Flat panel monitors are also incredibly affordable these days. They are very easy on the eyes and cost below $500 Canadian. One note, a 15″ flat panel has the same screen area as a 17″. Same rule applies for a 17″ flat panel – it has the screen area of a 19″ CRT. That’s because a CRT has a bezel around the edge of the monitor that hides the edge of the tube.

Finally, for external storage, a CD burner – sometimes called a CD+RW in geek-speak – is a must. Even DVD burners are affordable these days. Don’t think of DVD discs only as movie discs. They can store 4.7 GB of data compared to about 650 MB on a CD.

And today the floppy disk is obsolete. If you want a floppy drive, it’s an upgrade. If you’re going to move files between non-networked computers, you can opt for a USB key, a thumb-sized storage device that plugs into the USB connector on your computer. Take a look at [link removed]’s impressive selection.