One challenge many small business owners face is deciding what technology is needed to get a growing business off the ground. What computers are appropriate? Desktops or laptops? Does the model make a difference? What about warranties? In this brief article I will address these questions in regards to office computers, providing a high-level overview of the options, and some general advice.
First, it is important understand the need to standardize on computer hardware. For maintenance purposes, administrative overhead goes up exponentially when dealing with distinctly different computer models. So whatever direction you go, stick with it. This does not mean that everyone in your office gets exactly the same computer. That may not be appropriate (see below). But if you choose to have desktops, pick a single desktop model that makes sense for everyone. If you pick a laptop, pick a middle-ground model that covers everyone’s need. If someone in the organization needs specialized hardware, make one-off purchases the exception. This goes for monitors and accessories. Buy everyone 17” or 19” monitors—one or the other. Don’t mix and match models.
Second, do you want laptops or desktops? Before we begin there are some things you should know: laptops are more expensive than desktops. Laptops are also generally “less powerful” than desktops. I put that in quotes because current generation laptops have more than enough power to perform all but the most computationally intensive applications. That said if power is paramount, particularly graphical power (for CAD or graphics-intensive software development), a desktop might be a better choice. The obvious advantage to laptops is portability. For salespeople that freedom is almost always a must. This brings up the main point in the laptop vs.desktop debate: the user. If there is travel involved, provide that employee with a laptop. If the employee (or role) is tied to a desk, or if information on that employee’s machine should stay in the office (accounting, finance, HR) then a desktop might be the right choice. Finally, laptops are very useful in environments where there is a lot of dynamic collaboration.
Next, what model of laptop or desktop? It might be a nice idea to give everyone a giant 17” laptop that is good at showing movies and playing games, but if that is not the core mission of the business (or the recipient’s role) then it is not appropriate, too expensive, and too delicate. Let’s face it, office equipment gets dropped, dinged, and generally treated like a rental car. While it is generally not necessary to buy a “ruggedized” laptop, “fleet machines” (commodity equipment meant for business use) are built to take more abuse than the typical consumer grade, multimedia-focused systems. They are also designed to be easier to repair and maintain, two key points for reducing overhead. Both Dell and HP have solid lines of business-class machines, as do many other companies. When you get ready to buy make sure you ask for business-class equipment.
Fourth, when buying any long-term asset, such as a computer, one has to take into account support and service. For computers this is addressed by the warranty. The rule of thumb here is: assume that the computer will give you three years of service. With that in mind, the choice becomes clear: buy a three-year warranty. If you do not have an in-house resource for computer maintenance, it might be wise to add an “on-site” clause. Such extended service generally costs more but can reduce the effect of a computer failure by bringing in a technician within 24 hours, rather than a 5-7 business day “send it back to the manufacturer” routine.
Finally, the question about whether to buy or lease almost always comes up. First, a quick disclaimer: I am no accountant or finance expert. Every business owner has a different financial situation, and they must choose the right option for him or her. In general with computer hardware you want to spend as little on it as possible because after the 3 years of depreciation, you end up with zero-value equipment. While the equipment may be off the books, it also holds no value in the marketplace. Forget the idea of selling old equipment to buy new equipment—after three years the industry has moved on. Given this, it can be advisable to lease the equipment for new companies- particularly for organizations with more than a handful of employees. In the case of a 3-year lease, the cheapest lease rate is advisable, as any buy-out option is unattractive, again, because the equipment will be near worthless after three years. So skip the dollar-buy-out option, and go for the cheapest monthly payment (often market-value). When the lease is up, it’s time to upgrade.
Outfitting a new business with computers is costly and must be done carefully. Here we have addressed some basics to help new business owners make sense of the choices. To review, standardize on a single platform, and as few models as possible, to reduce administrative overhead. Choose desktops or laptops based on the type of work is being performed, and whether or not travel is anticipated. When choosing from the many laptop or desktop models, always choose from business-class equipment. When buying a computer for an office, make sure you get at least a three-year warranty, and consider the “on-site” option if you lack an in-house IT resource. Finally, the decision to buy or lease is heavily dependent upon the finances of the organization, but in general leasing is a good option to avoid large cash outlays for equipment that holds no value (to the industry) after three years.
Brian Stoffer is a business and technology consultant with Pixel & Type, a web design and development firm focusing on the needs of financial services professionals. Visit Brian's website at http://www.pixelandtype.com