Busines PCs buying advice (early 2013)

General-purpose business PCs aren’t about ultimate performance, multimedia or graphics power. They don’t even need to look pretty. Designed for productivity, their main requirement is to run office applications such as a word processor, spreadsheet and an email client. We expect conservative styling and competitive pricing, typically below £500 with a monitor.

See Group test: What's the best business PC?

In a networked business environment there will usually be storage available on the LAN server, so you won’t need a large hard disk. Although 1TB drives are now affordable, a 500GB drive should be ample unless your business involves storing a lot of video or other large media.

Provided you have sufficient RAM, any modern CPU will provide enough power for low-level admin tasks. For example, Intel’s dual-core Core i3 chips should provide ample performance for general use and come with integrated graphics, saving you the cost of buying an additional card. For demanding users, you may wish to go for a more powerful Core i5 processor. These might be used for manipulating very large spreadsheets or working with high-resolution images or video.

An AMD processor such as the FX-6100 can form the basis of a low-cost system, but performance is way below what can be achieved with Intel’s Core processors.

Even AMD’s own previous-generation Phenom chips can sometimes outperform the FX-6100.

A 4GB memory setup will be fine – even 2GB should be okay, although 2x 1GB kits aren’t as cost-effective. Memory is relatively inexpensive, but to avoid waste you should aim to add to rather than replace your existing allocation.

We would normally expect a standard processor cooler to be installed, but third-party cooling fans can help to reduce disturbing noise levels in the office.

The motherboard won’t need the latest and greatest features, although some spare memory slots may ?prove useful so that extra RAM can be added later.

?Power-management and fan-speed control can also help to save you money and create a more peaceful working environment. There’s no point investing in an enthusiast-grade motherboard as the features gained, ?such as overclocking and the ability to add multiple graphics cards, are of no benefit to the office user.

If you’re using an Intel processor, the low-cost H61 Express chipset should provide all you need for a basic office PC, while keeping down the price. However, chipsets designed for business use, such as the B75 Express, support Intel’s Anti-Theft Technology and Small Business Advantage platform (SBA). SBA includes features such as software and PC health monitoring, plus the ability to block the use of USB ports by unauthorised users.

Integrated graphics solutions provide enough graphics power for business applications, so you’re unlikely to need to add a graphics card to your specification. However, you may want to consider an entry-level one if you’re running a vast multi-screen setup or higher display resolutions than 2048x1536 pixels.

For monitors, a usable 18.5- or 20in screen starts at around £60. Due to the consumerisation of IT, most screens are now 16:9 widescreen; great for watching films, but ill-suited to word processing or spreadsheet work. Older 4:3 or 5:4 models are all but extinct, but you may find a good compromise with a 16:10 model. For most business use, a cheap TN panel works fine; for any work that requires colour accuracy or decent viewing angles, get an IPS model.

Wireless keyboards and mice can sometimes cause issues in the workplace due to RF interference between adjacent workstations. A decent wired kit is ideal, while quiet-typing keyboards can be less distracting to others. For systems used by full-time typists, high-quality mechanical keyboards may result in better productivity.

For small businesses with just one or two PCs, you might think it saves money to opt for Windows 7 Home Premium. Windows 7 Professional is essential if you need to connect to a Windows server or have compatibility with older software designed for XP. The Windows XP Mode in Windows 7 Pro places more demands on the processor and memory, so invest in both if you’ll need to make much use of this feature. You may find it preferable to specify a quad-core CPU and 8GB of memory. Network backup and restore was also stripped from Home Premium. Windows 7 Professional typically adds £50 to the price of a system.

To ensure a level playing field while testing, the systems reviewed here have been supplied with Windows 8 Pro; all are also available with Windows 7. If you’re already making use of XP Mode in Windows 7, be aware that this feature isn’t available in Windows 8.

Pay close attention to the warranty offered with a PC. Obviously, a longer period is preferable, but also check the terms and conditions. When you’re relying on your PC for the running of your business, an onsite arrangement may save you considerable time and money.

Also check to see whether the vendor will collect faulty systems for repair or if you’re expected to return to the vendor at your own cost.

Next page - Conclusion and How We Test.