Sometimes the worst of times are the best of times.
Case in point: Small businesses can nab some great technological values this year for a minimal investment.
Take PCs, where competition for the small-business dollar has vendors cutting prices and improving features on even basic business laptops. Better displays and powerful new mobile networks are blurring the line between working at your desk and working on the road. Meanwhile, new alliances between once-disparate players--such as cell phone companies and business process firms--are producing new types of pricing bundles and changing how you buy web hosting and other services. The robust market for add-on peripherals is turning once strictly-for-consumer items such as the iPod into legitimate business tools. Even the way you carry your devices and enter information is changing for the better.
All that adds up to plenty of opportunities to upgrade your technology portfolio this year without spending a lot of money. Here are eight top small-business tools to make your shop more innovative and efficient.
1. More laptops for less money
HP ProBook 4520s (starting at $549)
It seems as if Dell has ruled the entry-level, for-business market forever with its low-cost, customizable Vostro line. But, no more. Now Hewlett-Packard is gunning for the market in cheap business laptops with its ProBook series.
HP's entry-level model--the 15.6-inch 4520s--is particularly impressive. The unit can be equipped with a business-worthy Intel Core i3 processor, enough memory and storage to manage most small-business tasks and plenty of features for handling bells and whistles such as projectors.
But shop around before buying. HP has been aggressively pricing this system on HP.com with bundled discounts. Another tip: HP is upselling the living daylights out of this package, pushing pricey processors and options you probably don't need. Keep your ProBook simple and you'll have yourself a nice, new work computer for the new year.
2. Look to the Nook for mobile productivity
Nook Color ($249)
While the techno-hipster lusts after the iPad, Barnes & Noble's Nook Color wins the value-for-money sweepstakes among business-worthy e-readers. For about $250, you get a surprisingly flexible media tool capable of handling not only e-books, but also magazines, print content and web-based e-mail.
Barnes & Noble's catalogue has a solid lineup of business texts, along with a reasonable recommendation service for new books and even some decent games. But there are limits: The Nook Color's touch-based keyboard is clumsy, and it lacks the iPad's slick user interface.
Support for many web-based tools isn't great--Facebook is particularly odd--and battery life is just eight hours, whereas traditional black-and-white e-readers can last a month between charges. Even so, the Nook Color is an impressive small-business work tool that renders content in high-quality, living color.
3.Shop around for web services
Verizon Small Business Bundle (pricing varies by region, but entry-level packages in the Northeast start at $50 a month)
As bizarre as it sounds, businesses can actually fill their website needs by buying web services from, of all places, the phone company. Verizon, for example, has become what amounts to a reseller for Intuit's website services.
Sure, pricing is the usual phone company exercise in confusion and bait-and-switch. But get past that, and it's possible to find a single business line, a reasonable level of web access and a hosted website for about $50 a month.
Intuit's website tool is far from the most powerful on the market, and web-savvy companies won't be satisfied. But for basic business-class telephony, data and a website, Verizon's data and web package is worth the upgrade.
4. A mobile phone that thinks it's an office phone
Sprint HTC Evo ($200 with two-year contract)
Granted, the HTC Evo is getting a bit long in the tooth, debuting in June 2010. But despite formidable competition from Verizon's Motorola Droid devices, AT&T's iPhone and Samsung's excellent Galaxy S line of smartphones, the Evo remains the gold standard for small-business mobile work tools.
For starters, it's insanely fast, flexible and fairly priced. Sprint's $80-per-month access includes nearly unlimited voice, data and messaging. Google also deserves credit for developing an app marketplace that produces excellent third-party tools for the device.
Those who need a physical keyboard will have to go elsewhere--perhaps to the BlackBerry Torch or Droid Pro--and battery life on the Evo can be lean if too many apps are running simultaneously. Even so, no better value exists in mobile telephony for business.
5. Projecting a great image
The Epson PowerLite Pro G5450 ($3,999)
Epson sells its PowerLite Pro series through professional installers, which means you'll have to work with a local reseller to get one of these projectors. But installation is where the technical expertise ends: These projectors are simple to use.
The 5450 pumps out a Cinemaplex-level bright 4,000 lumens, and users can tweak the image with controls such as six color adjustments, split-screen displays and multi-PC support. To get the most out of what's a truly professional-grade projector, spend some time learning its features so you don't miss any opportunities to give your presentation big-screen oomph. The unit can really bring a blazing bright image to your shop.
6. The iPod: Mikey likes It
Blue Microphones Mikey for iPod ($80)
You might think a high-quality microphone is the last thing you need to make your business more efficient. That means you probably haven't heard about the Mikey for iPod.
This absurdly high-quality mic jacks directly into your iPod and can record just about any audio input: sales pitches, voice notes or interviews. Once there, that file can be reviewed, listened to and tagged.
You know that client contract you need to get done? Or that business meeting where you want to take notes? Whip out the Mikey and your iPod, and you're ready to go. Surprisingly handy.
7. A smarter business calculator
SMK-Link VP6272 Bluetooth calculator and keypad ($60)
You really have to dig through Apple's line of products to find a hot little business device nobody knows about. But here it is: the low-cost, ultra-useful SMK-Link 6272.
It's basically a wireless data entry pad for the Mac and PC that can double as a free-standing calculator. Need to enter piles of numbers into your spreadsheets and hate the numeric keys across the top of your laptop's keyboard? Want to quickly check figures without booting up your PC or Mac? The SMK-Link handles both with aplomb.
8. A better business bag
Travelteq Trash Fox Red laptop bag ($540 at current exchange rates)
Road warriors might like their computer, phone or digital camera, but what they really love is their luggage. This laptop bag from Dutch company Travelteq will make you fall in love, too.
Five-hundred dollars isn't cheap, but you get a lot for the money: perfectly sewn Italian leather, top-notch stitching and remarkable design--which means there's a perfect spot for everything from your phone to your glasses to your cigar.