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Prices keep dropping--giving you more computer than ever for your money.

The price of a computer setup capable of performing standard office tasks has remained remarkably stable over the years. For close to $2,500, you can get a desktop computer and monitor. Another $400 will get you an adequate printer.

"Wait a minute," you may be thinking, "aren't prices constantly dropping?" True, but at the same time, people's standards for a desktop system have risen dramatically.

Ten years ago, a top-of-the-line system consisted of a 16 MHz, 286-based PC with 256K RAM and a 20MB hard drive. You then added a 16-color graphics monitor and a dot-matrix printer. Such a system was more than adequate to run the DOS-based word processing, spreadsheet and database applications of the time.

Of course, to do anything with these applications, you had to learn complex key sequences. If you wanted a spelling checker or pop-up help program, you had to buy them from a third-party vendor. And you didn't have the option of using different fonts or other sophisticated formatting.

Today's software has become much easier to use and far more sophisticated. Graphical menus and point-and-click and drag-and-drop features have eliminated the need to memorize obscure codes. Word processors come with spell checking, grammar checking, a variety of fonts and other desktop publishing features.

Instead of the daunting DOS "c:" prompt, the Windows 95 environment includes easy-to-use icons and pop-up windows, as well as desktop access to files, networks, the Internet, e-mail and more.

Not surprisingly, the hardware required to run today's standard office applications is far more sophisticated as well. Graphical applications require huge amounts of RAM and hard drive space. As a result, the standard most industry experts now recommend is a 120 to 133 MHz Pentium or equivalent processor.

In addition, the standard machine comes with 16MB RAM, at least a 1GB hard drive, a quad-speed or faster CD-ROM, and a basic multimedia setup including an FM sound card and speakers. These systems often come pre-loaded with Windows 95 and all the software you need for a basic office setup. And you get all this for about the same price as the 286 standard you could get 10 years ago.

There are plenty of solid machines you can purchase near the prices mentioned above to meet your small-business needs. Consider the following:

  • Standard desktop system: If you want a standard setup such as the one described above, a good choice is the Dell Dimension XPS P133s at $2,379. It comes standard with a 133 MHz Pentium processor, 16MB RAM, 4MB of video RAM to speed the graphical display, a 15-inch monitor, a 1.6GB hard drive, a 28.8 bps modem, an eight-speed CD-ROM, a sound adaptor and speakers.

For slightly more ($2,649), you can get the Micron Millennia P166, a 166 MHz Pentium system that comes standard with 32MB RAM, a 64-bit or 128-bit video accelerator with at least 4MB RAM, an eight-speed CD-ROM drive, a sound card, speakers and a 17-inch monitor.

  • Bells and whistles: If space is at a premium, you might consider a system that incorporates some other office equipment as well. For example, the Compaq Presario 6000 Series, priced between $2,399 and $2,999, comes with a phone center that features a speakerphone, an address book with speed dial, as many as 99 voice-mail boxes, and an integrated voice and data message center. A 33.6 bps fax modem allows you to quickly access online services and the Internet as well as send and receive faxes. Videophone capabilities allow you to talk on the phone and see the person on the other end of the line, facilitating long-distance video conferencing.

The Presario 6000 Series offers computers with 120 to 200 MHz Pentium processors, memory ranging from 16 to 32MB RAM, a minimum six-speed CD-ROM, and hard-drive sizes ranging from 1.6 to 3.8GB.

  • Portables: Prices for portable computers have always been higher than those for desktop systems. Still, your money will buy you substantially more today than it could several years ago. For example, in 1988, you could get a top-of-the-line 286 with 1MB RAM, a 20MB hard drive and a black-and-white screen, totaling about 14 pounds with battery pack, for about $3,500.

Today, $3,500 will get you a mid-range, 100 MHz Pentium processor with 16MB RAM, a display that's at least 10.4 inches, an 800MB-plus hard drive and, frequently, a CD-ROM drive. A good example is the Toshiba Satellite Pro 420CDT. For $3,299, it comes with a 100 MHz Pentium processor, 8MB of high-speed RAM, an 11.3-inch active-matrix display, a 1.2GB hard drive and a six-speed CD-ROM, all in a 7-pound package.

Peripheral devices are also an important part of your desktop setup. And prices for these items have fallen dramatically as well.

  • Black-and-white printers: The price performance of printers has markedly improved over the past five years. Ten years ago, anything less than $500 got you a dot-matrix printer. Now, you can get a high-quality laser printer for less than $500.

One major reason for the dramatic improvement in print quality is that the standard resolution for all printers has doubled to 600 dots per inch (dpi). A good example of this type of printer is the Hewlett Packard (HP) LaserJet 5L, which at $479 offers 600 dpi resolution, prints four pages per minute, and offers clear text and halftones (see "Entrepreneur's Complete Guide To Software," starting on page 137, for more on this printer and other hardware items).

  • Color printers: As graphics become an increasingly important part of business documents, more and more people want color printers. Today, the technology of choice for color graphics printing is the inkjet. Consider the HP DeskJet 682C, which for $329 offers high performance and good print quality.
  • High-end laser printing: If you print large numbers of documents and need a high-performance printer, you can pick up a top-of-the-line laser printer for about $1,200. One good example is the $1,839 Okidata OL- 1200/PS, which prints 12 pages per minute with excellent print quality for text and graphics. It also includes software that reports the status of a print job and can be configured to alert you to any printing problems.
  • 17-inch monitors: Years ago, most computers came with 9- or 12-inch monitors. Today, most PCs come standard with 15-inch monitors. For even greater visibility, you can get a 17-inch monitor, which allows for larger windows, more data on screen and higher resolution.

Good 17-inch monitors sell for about $900, but if you're buying a new PC, you can probably upgrade to a 17-inch monitor for less than $300. When making the upgrade, remember that good image quality depends on resolution. Look for a monitor with 1,024 x 768 dpi resolution at 75 Hz or higher to prevent images from flickering on your screen. One to consider is the Samsung Electronics SyncMaster 17GLsi. For $919, you get 80 Hz at 1,280 x 1,024 dpi or 68 Hz at 1,600 x 1,200 dpi for PCs, or 75 Hz at 1,152 x 870 for Macs.

  • Modems: Ten years ago, a 1,200-baud modem cost between $200 and $300. Today, modem technology has changed so much that transmission speed isn't even measured the same way. For about $200, today's standard modem operates at 28,800 bits per second--much, much faster than the older modems. And that price often includes fax, voice mail, paging and caller ID capabilities. In addition, a remote access feature will read you fax headers, e-mail messages, and play back voice-mail messages when you call into your system from an outside phone. A good one is Creative Labs' Phone Blaster 33.6 PnP, which costs $269.

Today's systems and peripherals give you far more power and functionality for your money. There's little doubt the computer technology standards will continue to get higher, but for the same price you paid for your system years ago, you can get a setup powerful enough to handle most sophisticated applications and keep you going for years to come.

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This article was originally published in the November 1996 print edition of Entrepreneur with the headline: Contact Sources.

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