Quest for perfection: stalking the perfect, affordable personal productivity PC. (includes related articles and product listing) (Buyers Guide)
by Gregg Keizer
Working at home is no picnic. The hours can be brutal, the alter-ego boss a demanding slave driver, and the work load sometimes erratic.
Still--and this goes for full-blown home-based businesses, moonlighters, and even anyone struggling to keep up by working extra hours at home--it's hard to beat. You can work when you work best--late at night, for instance. Office politics almost disappear. And the harder you work, the more you make (OK, maybe it doesn't always work out like that).
But any home office success is due as much to technology as to talent and perseverance. Without the gizmos and gadgets acattered around the house, you wouldn't be able to do the work you do, be as productive and profitable, or even keep tabs on your clients.
The linchpin of home office success is the personal computer. That one box provides almost all of the tools you'll need, from those that crank out correspondence or bills to the ones that manage numbers or volumes of data. It plays the role of assistant, secretary, co-worker, confidant, accountant, and half a dozen others, all without salary demands or time off.
Begin with the Box
Because it provides so many options with so few drawbacks, it's crucial that you have the perfect personal productivity PC in front of you. Since so much depends on its ability to get jobs done, you need the best-fitting computer you can find.
But don't fall into the trap of thinking the best PC also has to be the most expensive. Far from it. You can equip your home office with an ideal PC for as little as $1,600.
The perfect PC can begin with an almost empty box--a computer sans drives and monitor--or it can start with a basic system already configured with an adequate array of memory, disk drives, and video card. Though either opening gambit works, the trend today is for sellers to assemble a lineup of stock PCs and then let you pick. You can, of course, build the perfect PC from scratch, but the advantages are usually so inconsequential--the main one being an ability to name the brand of every component--that it's rarely worth your time.
Instead, start by buying a capable 386 IBM PC compatible, selected for low price and high power. It doesn't matter whether you buy your PC by mail order or in a retail store, a superstore, or even a discount warehouse or shopping club. Just match the computer's specifications with this list of features.
* 20-MHz 386 microprocessor
* 2MB RAM
* 100MB or larger hard drive
* 5 1/4- or 3 1/2-inch high-density floppy drive
* VGA monochrome monitor and video card with 256K of video memory
* MS-DOS 5.0 or DR DOS 6.0
* FCC Class B approval
Because PC prices continue to plummet--especially for machines centered on the 386--you can actually find this core computer for a little more than $1,400. In fact, several mail-order firms break or nearly break this barrier, among them companies like Insight, HD Computer, and FastMicro. Closer to home, most cities sport a handful of entrepreneurs who will assemble a PC like the one above for about the same price.
To be on the safe side, budget $1,500-$2,000 for the foundation of your perfect home office PC. That should account for shipping charges (mail order) or sales tax (local), as well as for any slight price differences if you're set on a particular model.
What About Windows?
Just how good is this inexpensive PC? Although we've cut corners in order to cut costs, the fact is that for most home office tasks this foundation works just fine. More memory, a larger drive, and color VGA would be nice, especially for heavy Windows use, but what you get in this base machine can handle the bulk of your chores. Besides, you can slide past problems with some ingenious software.
A 100MB hard drive may seem on the small side, but with Stacker, an on-the-fly compression/decompression utility, you can effectively double the size of the drive (certain kinds of files compress more compactly than others). Stacker as software lists at $149; a faster hardware/software version of Stacker (Stacker AT/16) lists for $249.
More memory? You'll find that 2MB is enough for the basic DOS word processor, database, spreadsheet, and telecommunications applications. Multi-tasking-running more than one program simultaneously--is possible within that much RAM with DESQview or GeoWorks.
Or you coul opt for a task switcher instead. Software Carousel can segregate that 2MB of RAM into two or three separate and smaller work areas and then flip between applications with the press of a couple of keys. If you're sold on Windows, you'll feel cramped in two megabytes--no doubt about it--and you'll porbably have to forgo its multitasking capabilities. Making this machine Windows-ready, though, will only cost you around $100-$120.
Though color brightens up games and educational programs and is a prerequisite for multimedia presentations and some graphics work, you won't mind the monochrome VGA monitor if your home office work revolves around words, data, and numbers. Most desktop publishing can be done without color, as well.
Of course, you can always add to this perfect PC down the road when your budget allows and your needs demand it. Snap in more memory, upgrade the video board, or replace the monitor with a color model.
Everything Else Is Gravy
Let's say you have the essentials on your desk, and some money burning a hole in your pocket (OK, so it's not really burning, maybe just smoldering).
Customizing this rock-bottom computer to fit you business won't bust your budget, either. Depending on the specifics, you can equip this machine with the extras for as little as $500. You just need to know the kind of work you expect to do with the computer and the options you need for that work.
A typing service or accounting practice requires a PC different from the one required by a home desktop publishing business. And a full-time athome worker's PC should be different from the one used to telecommute to the office part of the week.
It's What's Inside That Counts
As you're building your prospective home office PC, use this short checklist to ask some smart questions about what's inside.
* Can you easily add system RAM to the motherboard by snapping in extra SIMM chips? That's the simplest way to beef up the PC's memory. You should be able to insert at least 8MB of RAM if you're using 1MB SIMMs.
* How many slots are still empty after the necessary boards--I/O, video, and disk controller--are in place? The more expansion slots still open, the more capability you can later add to the computer. Demand three empty slots, minimum.
* How many drive bays remain vacant? Later, you may want to add another floppy or hard drive, or a CD-ROM or tape backup device. Make sure the PC has at least two empty bays, with one of those large enough for a 5 1/4-inch half-height drive.
* Does the computer come equipped with a cache, and if so, how large is it? Cache RAM dramatically speeds up some computer actions by acting as a buffer between the fast processor and slow RAM.
* Are the components from dependable, reputable manufacturers? Although personal preference plays a part here, look for recognizable names on such things as the drives, video card, and motherboard chip set.
Not matter what your business needs may be, your perfect PC should be designed and built to deliver on the promise of technology--to make your time more productive and your business more profitable. From here on, we'll look at several specific personal productivity applications and talk about the hardware and expenditures it will take to assemble the optimum machines to meet their requirements.
The Perfect Telecommuter
Still on salary, but working at home with the help of your modern and the phone lines? Lucky you--you get the benefits of both worlds.
Build the perfect telecommuting PC by starting with the basic 386 system and adding the following.
* (600-or 2400-bps modem. Telecommuting usually depends on intensive file transfers and remote connections with the office network. A 9600-bps modem dramatically cuts the time you'll spend online in a remote connection; a 2400-bps modem, though slower, is less expensive. The Practical Peripherals Pratical Modem 9600SA external modem was just slashed to $399 list; Everex's 2400-bps internal modem, the Evercom 24, lists at $129. Also look for 19,200-bps modems to become more common--and more economical.
* Fax board or fax modem. You'll need a fax modem to supplement the computer-to-computer connection. Intel's SatistFAXtion board lets you receive faxes in the background. New low-cost StatisFAXtion boards will be released by the time you see this.
The bottom line. In the end, the total cost of the perfect telecommuting PC: $1,900-$2,400.
The Perfect Publisher
Your spare bedroom can be the work site that churns newsletters crisp presentations and proposals, fliers and brochures, and enough other documents to paper the neighborhood. Today's technology makes it possible for one talented person to write, design, and produce camera-ready copy in a single step on one machine.
Assemble the perfect desktop publishing PC by adding the following items to the stock 386.
* Additional memory. Font-and graphic-intensive documents cry out for more RAM, so spend $100-$120 for another 2MB of RAM in SIMMs and snap them in yourself. Remember that if your computer isn't equipped for SIMMs or you aren't technically minded, a technician can usually do the job in a few minutes for not much more than you pay for the chips.
* Better video card. You can often increase your monitor's resolution and number of colors by either adding memory to your existing video board (this strategy isn't always easy, or possible, beyond 512K) or buying a new 1MB video board. The Diamond SpeedSTAR Plus VGA is a better-than average VGA card that lists at only $269.
* Scanner. You'll need a scanner to incorporate real-world images into your publishing masterpieces. A quality hand scanner, such as Logitech's ScanMan 256, lists at $449. If you're scanning large images or large quantities of images, though, a flatbed scanner like The Complete Page Scanner/GS (GS stands for Gray Scale) is a much better pick. It's also more expensive at $1,009.00.
* Full-page monitor. Squeezing desktop publishing projects onto a 14-inch monitor is only inviting headaches. You need a screen that show a complete page. Samsung's 15-inch Hercules-compatible full-page monitor may be hard to find, but the reward is an affordable $849 (list price) cure for the video headaches in desktop publshing.
The bottom line. Total cost of the perfect publishing PC: $2,400-$2,900.
The Perfect Marketer
When your business depends on selling, you need to beef up your PC's ability to take calls and punch out direct mail pieces.
Start with the standard 386SX system and add these components.
* Fax board or fax modem. You can't do business today without communicating by fax. Intel's $499 SatisFAXtion board pulls in faxes while you work the phones. By the time this is printed, Intel will have released new versions of the SatisFAXtion board with list prices starting at $129 and specialty fax software for use from within Windows. The top-of-the line model will support the new 14,400-bps fax standard.
* Label printer. Processing orders and printing labels--whether for shipments or direct mail pieces--can try your printer's patience. Buy a label printer instead, like Seiko's Smart Label Printer Plus. This thermal printer uses one of your PC's serial ports and can even print from lists you create with your word processor or database. As of this writing, its list price is $249.95, but discount houses may carry it for far less.
* Voice mail system. You may be able to get by with a two-line phone and an answering machine, but a voice mail system can direct messages and allow customers to leave requests in individual voice mailboxes. The Complete Answering Machine, a $399 board, uses your PC's hard drive to store outgoing and incoming messages. If you don't want to spend money on a separate fax modem and voice mail system, take a look at The Complete Communicator, a package that brings these features together.
The bottom line. Total cost of the perfect marketing PC: $2,300-$2,400.
The Perfect Writer
Wordsmiths need a customized PC, too. Whether you're pounding out the Great American Novel or bringing home the bacon with feature assignments for newpapers or magazines, you can make use of some specialized tools inside the perfect PC.
Build up the PC's word-crafting prowess with these extras.
* Topflight keyboard. When your fingertips make money, they deserve the best. Subjective through this may be, you can't go wrong with Northgate's OmniKey/Ultra, a comfortable, responsive full-sized keyboard with function keys both at the top and on the left side. And it's less than $130.
* 2400-bps modem. Online research pays for itself in time save and aggravation avoided. The most economical way to connect to services such as CompuServe and Dialog is with a 2400-bps modem. The Everex internal modem is a good choice.
* OCR package and scanner. Most writers live and die by clips. Ideas germinate from newspaper articles; files bulge with background pieces torn from magazines and photocopied from books. You can keep all this information digitally if you buy an optical character recognition (OCR) program and a hand scanner. Basic combination packages, such as Logitech's ScanMan 256 with Percieve OCR software, cost approximately $550. Caere's Typist Plus Graphics, a $595 scanner/OCR software pack, is near the top of the line. Either of these packages can be purchased for roughly 50-60 percent of list price at discount outlets.
The bottom line. Total cost of the perfect writing PC: $2,000-$2,200.
The Perfect Accountant
Every home office crunches numbers, even if they're only on the business's books. But for offices that specialize in accounting, figures are everythin.
To construct the perfect accounting computer, include these peripherals along with the core home office PC,
* More memory. Most state-of-the-art spreadsheets, the number lover's best tools, operate under Windows. Spend $100-$120 on an additional 2MB of RAM for snappier performance.
* Tape backup drive. Though every hard drive should be backed up religiously, that advice goes double for critical financials. The easiest and most worry-free way to back up data is with a tape backup drive. The Colorado Jumbo 120 DJ-10, a 120MB drive, is simple to install, backs up even when you're not around, and only costs about $250--less through mail order.
* A math coprocessor. You can significantly speed up really serious number crunching when you plug an 80387-20 math coprocessor chip into your PC's empty socket. The least expensive ones can be found for $115-$120 in mail-order advertisements.
The bottom line. Total cost of the perfect accounting PC: $2,000-$2,100.
Bringing It All Back Home
No matter what computer system you buy, two things will always be in short supply: RAM and hard disk space. If you have the funds to splurge in any area, buy a larger hard disk and more RAM. Some experts recommend that you estimate how much hard disk space you'll need and buy twice as much. But even if you do this, within a year, you'll probably wish you had more. Remember that a hard drive twice as big as the one you're considering probably costs far less than a second hard drive of the same capacity.
If you see software that accesses extended memory--Windows in particular--You'll know if you don't have enough memory. Your applications will fail for no apparent reason. If you have onlly 2MB of RAM, upgrading your machine to 4MB or more is a very small investment, and it can make a tremendous difference in performance.
In every business, performance is the name of the game. It saves you time and makes you money. It only costs a little more to start out with the perfect PC, but it will pay off every day in personal productivity.