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Back to Basics

Ready to outfit your home office with the tech essentials? Here's what you need.

Congratulations-you've taken the big step and decided to start your own business. You've also figured out that a home office is right for you. You've selected a room or space to work in, but now you're faced with a wide expanse of empty desk space. It's time to fill in the blanks with some home-office technology basics. The hardware and software you choose will be the tools that help you run your business smoothly, so there are important decisions ahead. We're going to look at the bare-bones items you need to get up and running on a budget.

The logical first step is to buy a computer. Before the merger, Compaq Presarios were popular home-office desktop machines. Though Hewlett-Packard now owns the Presario line, they're still hot items. What's especially appealing about the HP Compaq Presario S6000 is that you can configure it online at www.hp.com to fit your needs. The basic S6000Z model starts at $359 (all prices street) with a 2GHz AMD Athlon processor, 128MB RAM and a 40GB hard drive. Those specs will handle most light jobs like Web surfing and word processing. If you plan to use more demanding applications and expect to network PCs eventually, you'll want to customize your computer with higher-end components like Windows XP Professional Edition and more RAM.

Just because you have a desk doesn't mean you must have a desktop computer. A pricier but more flexible laptop may be the ticket. If you'll be doing a lot of business traveling or will need to take your computing power with you on sales calls, then a laptop is something to consider. They're also nice for getting out of your office for a while, even if it's just to sit on the back porch. The eMachines M5312 comes in at an affordable $1,249 and has desirable features like a CD-RW/DVD combo drive, a 60GB hard drive, a 15.4-inch screen and built-in 802.11g wireless networking. At 6.6 pounds, it's not a featherweight, but it's not bad for the price.

Whether you've got a desktop or want an extra screen to view your laptop through when you're at your desk, a monitor is a key component. The reasons to invest in flat-panel LCDs are numerous: They save space, have flicker-free viewing, generate crisp images and are more affordable than ever. While a 17-inch display is nice, those on a tight budget may be more inclined to explore 15-inch displays like the NEC AccuSync LCD51V, which runs about $345. If even that price tag looks too steep, there's always the old standby CRT monitor to consider. The ViewSonic E70b gives you 17 inches of viewing for an inexpensive $129.

When it comes to printers, there are two hot options for home offices: inkjets and laser printers. If you're going to get an inkjet, you might as well get a lot of extra capability, too. The Epson Stylus CX5400 is a $149 color inkjet printer, flatbed scanner and copier. All this comes in a compact size with printing speeds of up to 22 pages per minute for black text and up to 11 pages per minute in color.

If you expect to print large volumes of black-and-white documents, an inkjet may not be the best choice for your home office. Prices for inkjet consumables, particularly ink cartridges, can add up over time. Check into a personal laser printer like the $239 Samsung ML-1750. It performs at up to 17 pages per minute, comes with USB 2.0 and parallel interfaces, and features a toner save button to extend the life of your toner cartridge.

Starting a home office isn't just about all the equipment that goes on and around your desk. There's also the equipment you carry around with you. In today's business world, the most important portable hardware is your mobile phone. Which phone you go with depends a lot on which service provider you choose. You can find everything from stripped-down $50 models to phone/PDA combinations that cost more than $400.

On the budget side, there are phones like the Siemens C56, which costs $49 with a service agreement through AT&T Wireless. It weighs 3 ounces and packs up to 200 minutes of digital talk time. You won't find a camera because it's also very no-frills.

The best way to find a good deal and throw some light on confusing calling plans is to visit your local mobile phone dealer. Check into the available plans, shop around and figure out what the true cost is before you commit. You'll always get the best price on a phone by purchasing a service plan to go with it.

Speaking of finding good deals, never pay more for home-office hardware than you have to. There are two main options for your hardware shopping: Find a local retailer you can visit in person, or buy online. Prices may be a little higher when you just walk into a store, but you also have the security of having a physical location to return the product to in case of a problem. The Sunday ads are a good place to compare prices and keep an eye on specials and rebates at local stores. You can also take advantage of price-matching policies or even visit warehouse-style retailers like Costco or Sam's Club to look for business equipment savings.

Bargain hunting over the Internet doesn't have to be time-consuming. Web sites such as PriceGrabber.com, PriceSCAN.com and MySimon.com are hubs for price comparisons. They're especially handy if you already know what you want and are just looking for the lowest price. Don't be blinded by what seem to be incredible bargains. Always check into an online retailer's reputation if you're not already familiar with it. There are still a lot of fly-by-night ventures out there preying on bargain hunters with hard- sell pitches and poor customer service. You probably know this already, but always use a credit card for your purchases in case you have to dispute charges later.

Another great resource for home office hardware is eBay. You can pick up a wide array of products-from extra cell phone batteries to monitors and ink cartridges-at prices that would make some retailers blush. But eBay is no utopia. You still have to check into the seller's reputation. Also check to see if the product you are buying is refurbished, if it comes with an original warranty or tech support, and if all documentation and pieces are included. Some entrepreneurs may decide that the savings are worth living without some or all of those things. It's not good or bad, it's just a matter of deciding what you feel comfortable with.

From the moment you choose an office space in your house to the moment you sit down and start up your new computer for the very first time, the hardware purchasing decisions you make will set the tone for your business. Price is important, but always keep a close eye on what you need your equipment to do for you. Throw in a little comparison shopping, and soon you'll have a great, functional office that fits your budget and your business.

Hot Digital Camera
The Canon PowerShot Digital ELPH SD10 follows the trend toward smaller and smaller digital cameras. This 3.5-ounce feather of a camera fits into a shirt pocket and weighs less than some cell phones. It still packs four megapixels of resolution and a 5.7x digital zoom. This is a point-and-shoot style that's easy for beginners to use.
Manufacturer: Canon
Model: PowerShot Digital ELPH SD10
Web Site:www.usa.canon.com
Phone: (800) OK-CANON
Retail Price: $349

Hot Telephone
Besides just a mobile phone, most home offices still use a regular land-line phone. But if you like moving around while you talk, the Plantronics CT10 gives you all the freedom you could ever want. This 900MHz phone has a cordless remote unit and a lightweight headset that work over a range of 150 feet. You won't be tethered to your desk, and you'll have your hands free.
Manufacturer: Plantronics
Model: CT10
Web Site:www.plantronics.com
Phone: (800) 544-4660
Street Price: $129

Hot Router
There are many reasons to add a wireless network to your home office. You may want to be able to wander about with a laptop or hook up other computers (including your family's) to the Internet. The D-Link Systems DI-624 is an 802.11g wireless router with four ports for direct connections. You'll need adapters for your other computers. 802.11g is fast, has a good range and features the strongest Wi-Fi security yet.
Manufacturer: D-Link Systems
Model: DI-624 AirPlus XtremeG
Web Site:www.dlink.com
Phone: (800) 326-1688
Street Price: $109

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This article was originally published in the February 2004 print edition of Entrepreneur's StartUps with the headline: Back to Basics.

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