From the May 2001 issue of Entrepreneur

Sure, the PC may be the technological anchor of your business, but that doesn't mean it has to weigh down your start-up. Picking out a desktop for yourself can be confusing enough, but when it comes to outfitting your entire office, the options multiply like rabbits in the spring. Fortunately, you're in luck: With PC manufacturers overstocked and PC sales slow, now is a great time to stock your employees' desks without busting your budget. Following is a quick primer on the basics of picking out the right PC, from the name on the box to the amount of RAM inside.

  • Name Brands: Purchasing computers somewhat parallels buying groceries: You can buy either the Nabisco Shredded Wheat for $2.99 or the Super-DuperValue Wheat Squares for $1.99. You pretty much know what you're going to get with a name-brand PC; you don't have to think too hard about it. But if you decide to go the route of buying a built-to-order from the local computer shop, you'll likely save money.

If you're technically inclined and know how to ask for it, you can get a very specifically configured computer with exactly the components you want. If that's not a big deal, you might feel more comfortable paying a little more and opting for the name brand. As a rule of thumb, however, generic computers are as compatible and reliable as name brands, but always check out the warranty terms and customer service reputation of whomever you decide to deal with.

One final consideration is the software. Make sure the final quote you get includes the price of the operating system you choose. A single Windows 2000 license will cost about $250 when bought separately. You may also have to purchase minor and major applications after the fact with a custom-built computer. That can mean substantial extra costs. Most name-brand computers come with Windows and either Microsoft Works or Microsoft Office pre-installed, in addition to a Web browser and other smaller programs. Do your homework, and you won't run into any unpleasant surprises.

Here's a rundown of the options you'll want to consider when shopping around:

  • Specs: Computers don't just come prefab in boxes anymore. Custom configurations are all the rage online. Paying a visit recently to Micron's online small-business store gave us 10 different configuration categories for Micron's ClientPro CT desktop.

Because you're buying new computers, you'll have the advantage of getting the Windows 2000 Professional operating system pre-installed. This is the business OS of choice, outdoing the consumer-oriented Windows Me. If networking isn't on your mind, it will be as soon as you see your office full of equipment. The ideal companion to your desktops would be a server running the Windows 2000 Server OS.

With Windows 2000 in mind, there are some requirements a PC has to meet to run the resources-hungry system. Microsoft lists the minimum specs as a 133MHz or higher Pentium-compatible CPU, 64MB RAM and a 2GB hard drive with at least 650MB of free space. Doesn't sound like much, does it? You've got to read between the lines: When Microsoft says, "More memory improves performance," that translates to "64MB of memory plus Windows 2000 equals slower than molasses."

For computers that are earmarked for word processing and other undemanding applications, 128MB RAM should suffice. For anything more intensive than that, such as graphics, database or multimedia work, it's in your best interest to get at least 256MB. You have to plan for both the OS and the heavy- (or light-) duty programs you'll be running on it.

As for processor speed, Microsoft is either very hopeful or very naive. 133MHz isn't enough for anything anymore. It's especially not enough to run Windows 2000. With Intel's introduction of the Pentium IV pro-cessor, prices have come down on the speedy Pentium IIIs. Intel Celeron processors clock in even lower on the price scale. With a Celeron, you won't get the same level of performance as with a PIII, but you will save money and still get adequate speed. Anything in the 700MHz and higher range, whether it comes from Intel or AMD, will serve you very well, and you won't have to run out and upgrade every two months.

  • At your service: Receiving your new PCs is just the beginning. If you have your own IT support staff, you're probably in good shape when in comes to installation and troubleshooting. If that's not in your budget, you'll have to rely on the manufacturer for service. Here's a look at IBM's typical service plan; it gives you an idea of what an upgrade will get you. The standard IBM warranty for a new business desktop (like the NetVista A40 at left) is a limited three years for parts and labor. A couple of IBM ServicePac options are available when customizing the computer. For $129 per PC, you can upgrade to three years of on-site 9-to-5 service, with a four-hour response time from when the problem is diagnosed. Or you can pay $159 to get 24/7 service, including holidays.

Shop Around

Beyond simply bargain-hunting for the lowest prices, there's another alternative you may want to explore-especially if you've got to fit lots of PCs into a very tight budget. Refurbished desktop systems sometimes represent substantial savings over their completely new counterparts. The downside is, you might end up with a lemon. Protect yourself by shopping directly from the manufacturer and paying special attention to the warranty (or lack thereof) and whether anything is missing from the box, like program and hardware documentation.

Compaq, Dell, Gateway and IBM all have online store departments that sell refurbished PCs. The Gateway remanufactured PC warranty, for example, is one-year limited with one year of hardware technical support, 90 days of software tech support and a five-day money-back guarantee. Compare that to the standard Gateway warranty: three years parts and labor, limited hardware and software technical support for the life of the system, and a 30-day money-back guarantee. Also, keep in mind that your configuration options may be limited. Supplies vary greatly, so you may not be able to buy 10 of the same model.

A few final things to consider: Shipping costs can make your good bargain go bad. Get a firm figure before you give up your credit card number. Head straight for the business section when you visit a manufacturer's Web site; you'll often find special deals, services and arrangements, like business lease programs for companies your size. They want your business-so take advantage of that.

Medium Octane

How one entrepreneur filled up at the PC pump

When it was time for Andre Charland, 21, to outfit his six-employee office with PCs, he was more than happy to travel down the middle of the road. "We don't need high-end graphics and video, but we didn't want our systems to be obsolete overnight," explains the CEO and owner of eBusiness-Apps.com, which spent an average of $1,700 per system, including monitors.

Charland powers his Vancouver company, an ASP for small and midsized businesses, with a typical configuration for each PC: a 600MHz processor, a 20GB hard drive, 128MB RAM, a 17-inch monitor and a network card connected to cable Internet access. You won't find any brand names hanging around under the desks. "We went with clones to keep our costs lower and get higher-quality internal components and greater flexibility with configuration," Charland says.

What else did Charland purchase? Micron laptops for field sales agents, a Hewlett-Packard black-and-white laser printer ("Which is great," he says), a color bubble jet ("Which is horrible," he says), a couple of Umax scanners and a great little Sony digital camera that he uses for everything from e-commerce product shots to company parties. While Charland points to the bubble jet as the worst part of the computer outfitting experience, he's happy to note, "The most fun has to be the officewide network video games-great stress relief!"