For many entrepreneurs, every dollar counts. That means flying coach, staying in budget motels and possibly leasing an office that has a terrific view of, well, a dumpster. Even those whose dreams have turned into million-dollar businesses rarely forget that watching their pennies helped get them where they are today.
Yet scrimping and saving can sometimes be taken too far. Particularly, when buying office equipment, many small-business owners choose the cheapest model when spending just a bit more would prove a much better value over time.
To help recognize the difference between cheap and too cheap, we've drawn the price line for seven common office products: digital cameras, notebook and desktop computers, LCD projectors, printers, computer monitors, and copiers.
Last year, digital cameras were the hot new product, complete with price tags to match their cutting-edge status. This year, however, many previously high-end features have appeared on models selling for less than $500. This year's models may cost only a few dollars more than last year's, but they're likely to offer twice the extras.
To start off your search, look for a camera with 1,280 x 960 pixel resolution. This will allow you to capture high-resolution images when necessary--in case you want to enlarge them or print them out--as well as standard 640 x 480 pixel images (which are usually sufficient for on-screen viewing). For enough room to store those shots, make sure your camera comes with at least 4MB of memory. This is enough space to hold six high-resolution images, or about 45 standard images.
Also highly useful are cameras that accommodate removable memory cards. The digital equivalent of a roll of film, a removable memory card makes it much easier to transfer images from the camera to your computer, and if you run out of space, all you need to do is pop another card in. To make sure your replacement "film" doesn't pose too much of an expense, stick with cameras that use CompactFlash or Smart Media cards, which will only cost you approximately $20 to $40 each.
Also look for models equipped with both an optical viewfinder (so you can take pictures comfortably, the way you're used to doing with a standard point-and-shoot camera) and an LCD display. An LCD display allows you to immediately review the pictures you've taken, giving you a chance to retake them if necessary and delete less-desirable images to make room for new ones.
Two models to consider are the Epson PhotoPC 700 and the Konica Q-M100V. What's nice about the Epson model ($499 street) is that it offers continuous shooting and comes with rechargeable batteries, which can be real money-savers. Keep in mind that although the PhotoPC can accept memory cards, they cost extra. However, the model does come equipped with 4MB of internal memory. The Konica model ($365 street) comes with a 4MB memory card as part of the package.
For more on digital cameras, see June's "Buyer's Guide" column.
The two consistent trends among notebook computers are speedier processors and larger, brighter screens. While notebooks can be somewhat pricey compared to desktop models, most are now versatile enough to serve as your only computer when you're working both in the office and on the road. The key to getting the best value is buying a notebook that includes all the features you really need but avoids the costly extras that, while impressive, won't do much for your productivity.
You'll want a laptop that has a Pentium II 266 MHz processor and a minimum 13-inch active matrix screen. With that setup, you're assured a model that's plenty fast for almost any business application and has a bright screen that's large enough for long workdays or an impromptu presentation. Add a 56K modem for Internet access, a PC card slot to easily add peripherals, and a minimum 32MB RAM to make sure that multiple applications can be opened simultaneously. Top this off with a USB port to keep you compatible with the burgeoning USB peripherals market, and you've got the recipe for a solid computer that will stay usable for a long time.
Features you can probably afford to skip include infrared data ports, two or more PC card slots (few users ever fill up more than one), and dual battery slots. While all are nice additions, they're often costly, and most notebooks users can make do without them.
The Fujitsu Lifebook E340 is one model worth considering if you plan to take your show on the road. It combines a 266 MHz Pentium II processor with a bright 13.3-inch active-matrix screen. The Lifebook also has a modular design, allowing you to swap in a floppy drive, DVD drive or extra battery pack if you need the additional capabilities. At a street price of $1,700 for the 4GB hard-drive model, this notebook provides a terrific value.
With the obsolete-by-tomorrow pace of improvement in the computer industry, we've finally reached the point where speed surpasses need. And although this may not be good news for Intel, which recently introduced a high-end Pentium III processor that's faster than anyone needs at this point, it's terrific news for buyers.
If you're shopping for a desktop computer, look for a model with at least a 333 MHz Celeron or an AMD K6-2 processor, 64MB RAM, and a 4GB hard drive. If you have dial-up access to the Internet, make sure the computer comes with a 56K modem. And if sound and video are important for multimedia applications you use, look for a model with a 24X CD-ROM drive, a video card with 8MB of memory, and a sound card.
What to forgo? You can probably do without a 32X or 40X CD-ROM drive. Few users will be able to tell the difference between these drives and cheaper 24X models. If you want to move up to a Pentium II chip, commit to a 400 or 450 MHz version. Most users will otherwise be unable to notice much difference between a 350 MHz Pentium II and the less expensive 333 MHz Celeron.
Found at prices as low as $1,100, IBM's PC 300GL is a terrific option for straightforward computing needs. Equipped with a 366 MHz Celeron chip, 64MB RAM and a whopping 8.4GB hard drive, this model has enough power for most business applications. The software package is also quite appealing: It comes bundled with both Microsoft Office and Lotus SmartSuite.
As LCD projectors have dropped in weight and price, they've quickly become the businessperson's technology of choice for making presentations to more than a few people.
When choosing an LCD projector, start by making sure it's compatible with the type of computer you have (especially important for Mac users) and the size of the images you'll be projecting. Look for a projector than can handle a full range of resolutions, from 640 x 480 VGA to 1,024 x 768 XGA.
Hold out for a model that is truly portable. Newer models weigh less than 10 pounds--significantly less than older designs. Projectors are also brighter than they were in the past, allowing you to use them even in well-lit rooms. Look for a projector that puts out at least 600 ANSI lumens for reasonable visibility.
One of the best choices on the market is NEC Technologies' Multisync LT81. For less than $4,300, you get a very bright (800 ANSI lumens) projector that can project at VGA, SVGA and XGA resolutions and can connect to both Macs and PCs. The NEC comes with a remote control and has zoom capability, which is unusual for a projector in this price range. And good news for travelers: The NEC is very transportable, weighing about 9 pounds.
If you want to go a little cheaper, the Proxima Ultralight LS1 is a good alternate. It weighs only 8.4 pounds and sells for about $3,900; it has capabilities similar to the NEC, including remote control and zoom. The only drawback is that it produces a dimmer image (600 ANSI lumens), which may make it less than ideal for presenting to larger groups.
Although ink-jet printers are cheap and even print in color, many small businesses still rely on laser printers for day-to-day print workloads. To make sure a laser printer can handle your printing needs, start by choosing one with at least an eight-page-per-minute (ppm) print engine. The printer should also be able to support 600 dpi print resolution, which means it should be compatible with PCL5e-, PCL6- or PostScript. PCL5e or PCL6 are less expensive options that can be used in PC-only offices, while PostScript is more versatile, able to work with Macs, PCs and most UNIX workstations.
Also make sure not to overlook the low-tech capabilities that can make a printer more convenient. First, paper trays should hold at least 250 sheets. In addition, look for a printer equipped with two paper trays, or at least one storage tray and a bypass tray, to allow you to print on envelopes or letterhead without reloading the storage tray.
Finally, consider how you expect to connect the printer to your computers. If your system operates through a local area network, make sure the proper connector, which will typically be an Ethernet jack, is built in to the printer. If a network interface isn't built in, find out how much buying one will add to the cost of the model.
One solid buy on the market is GCC Technologies' Elite 12/600. This $900 model is PostScript-compatible for use with PCs and Macs, and comes with a built-in network interface. This model prints at 12 ppm and is equipped with 8MB RAM to process even complex pages quickly. The Elite 12/600 comes with an 80-sheet multipurpose tray to back up its 250-page paper tray; GCC also offers an optional 500-sheet tray ($129 street).
Another choice is the $600 Okidata Okipage 12i. This model prints 12 ppm and offers 4MB memory, which is up-gradable to 36MB. You can supplement its 250-sheet paper tray with one that holds 500 sheets ($289 street) or with a multipurpose tray ($149 street). The Okipage 12i is PostScript-compatible and offers up to 1,200 x 600 dpi resolution.
The monitor is probably the most underrated component of any computer system. Not only can cheap monitors be hard on the eyes, but smaller-sized screens can also reduce productivity by forcing you to constantly open, close, and shuffle windows on the screen.
For this reason, it makes sense to get a monitor that's well-suited to your workload. For most users, that means starting with a 17-inch screen. This size screen provides substantially better visibility than a 14- or 15-inch screen but is much less expensive (and takes up much less desk space) than the 19- or 21-inch monsters that are better-suited to graphics professionals.
A 17-inch monitor will typically operate at a 1,024 x 768 resolution (as with projectors, this resolution is often referred to as XGA). Make sure the monitor offers this resolution at a refresh rate of at least 72 Hz, or you'll feel as though you're watching a strobe light. Resolutions higher than XGA are nice in theory, but most users will find that 17-inch monitors aren't large enough for extended viewing of 1,600 x 1,200 pixel images. For fine on-screen detail, look for a dot pitch of 0.28 or less. Smaller dot pitches translate to a finer image, particularly when working with smaller fonts or fine lines.
One monitor that definitely deserves a look is the Philips Brilliance 107. With outstanding 0.22 dot pitch for detailed images, it comes with built-in speakers, and can be used with PCs or, using the included adaptor, with Macs. The monitor sells for less than $400 and offers resolutions of up to 1,600 x 1,200. Or try the Sony CPD-201VS. For about $50 more than the Philips model, you'll get better speakers.
For more on computer monitors, see May's "Bytes" column.
While personal copiers are the least expensive, offices that do even a moderate amount of copying will appreciate the features a better machine can provide.
To start, look for a model with a paper supply of at least 250 sheets. A 500-sheet supply is even better and typically isn't much more expensive. If you expect to copy multipage documents, nothing is more important than an automatic document feeder that will enable you to start a job and then leave the copier to do other tasks.
In terms of performance, look for a copier that can produce the first copy in under 10 seconds. You should also get a model that doesn't require any warm-up time, particularly if you expect usage to be in fits and starts.
One great value on the market is the Xerox WorkCentre XD 105f digital copier. It includes an automatic document feeder, as well as full reduction and enlargement capabilities on its small 20.4" x 19.3" x 14.9" frame. The Xerox is also pretty quick for the price, offering 10 ppm for less than $800.
A second choice is the Canon PC745 Personal Desktop Copier (19.1" x 17.3" x 11.3"). It costs about $100 more than the Xerox model but also offers a bypass tray for making transparencies or copying onto thick sheets of paper.
- LCD display
- Optical viewfinder
- Removable memory
- Higher than 1,280 x 960 resolution
- SCSI connection
- 13-inch screen
- Minimum 266 MHz processor
- 32MB RAM
- USB port
- 56K modem
- Infrared data ports
- 2 or more PC card slots
- Dual battery slots
- 333 MHz processor
- 64MB RAM
- 4GB hard drive
- 56K modem
- Greater than 24X CD-ROM drive
- Higher than 8MB video card
- Minimum 600 ANSI lumens
- Zoom capability
- Resolution that matches your PC
- Multiple supported resolutions
- Higher resolution than your computer offers
- Ceiling mount, PC card reader
- 8 pages per minute printing capability
- 250-sheet minimum paper tray capacity
- 600 dpi resolution
- Multiple paper trays
- Greater than 2MB memory
- Host-based printing
- 17-inch screen
- Minimum 72 Hz refresh rate
- Dot pitch of .28 or less
- 19-inch screen or larger
- Greater than 1,024 x 768 resolution
- Minimum 250-sheet paper capacity
- Automatic document feeder
- No warm-up time
- Printer networking
- Duplex capability, edge erase, transparency interleaving
Mie-Yun Lee is the editorial director and co-founder of BuyersZone, an Internet buying service that features expert purchasing advice and tools for small businesses. You can use its tools to research the best products for your needs at http://www.buyerszone.com/noscrimp.html