Anyone working from home will need a computer of some kind, either because you choose to work remotely, or you have to.
Where most small business owners get confused is choosing a home office computer with the right specs.
How can you possibly know which one is best for you?
The worst thing you can do is walk into a computer store with that “I have no idea what I’m doing” face.
You’ll end up leaving with a computer worth $2,000…that you don’t actually need.
So how can you avoid this happening?
Never, fear because by the time you’ve finished reading this guide you’ll know exactly what laptop or desktop computer you need for your home office.
Which leads us neatly to your next question.
Is it better to have a desktop or laptop?
All you need is to answer one simple question: Do you need to work from multiple locations, or just from your home office?
Now, you might have this kinda hipster notion that you’re going to work from home some days, and then from some local coffees shop other days.
But that never happens.
So be honest about the type of work you do, and then buy a computer for that purpose.
Will you need to work away from your home office?
Yes – invest in a laptop setup
No – a desktop/smartphone combo will work
So let’s look at what you need to know to make an informed buying decision.
How fast does your computer need to be?
Every computer looks the same on the outside.
The important differences are all hidden away inside the case.
One of the questions most new computer buyers have is “How fast should my processor be?”
Let me explain this with a story.
Many, many moons ago I managed a computer retail store.
I was very good at selling computers to anyone who walked through the door because I always started my sales pitch the same way, “…what do you actually need it for?”
I hated seeing people spend more money than they needed to.
The net result though was that I outsold every other person in the company.
So let’s start with the different types of processors (CPUs) you’ll find in a computer.
Intel Celeron/AMD Sempron
Any laptop or desk featuring one of these processors is 100% entry-level and it’s going to run very slowly. Don’t buy a computer with this type of CPU unless you have no other choice.
Intel Pentium J / Core i3
These cost a tiny bit more than a Celeron/Sempron but are way more powerful.
Intel Core i5
More than capable of running several programs at once, and with enough RAM and a decent graphics card they can handle all but the most high-end computing tasks.
Intel Core i7/i9
This range of processors sits at the top of the food chain when it comes to computing power. A brand new i7 system with plenty of RAM can munch through video editing, 3D design, and anything else you can think of.
How much RAM do you need?
RAM stands for Random Access Memory, and is the temporary storage space used by computers to work on files. The simple rule with RAM is more is always better, but you don’t need to go nuts.
If you’re running a 64-bit operating system like Windows 10 then you’ll need at least 8GB of RAM, but ideally 16GB.
RAM is so cheap these days that it’s silly not to max out what your system can handle.
How much hard drive space do you need?
More hard drive space is always better, simply because you can fill up a small hard drive faster than you can possibly imagine.
As a rule of thumb aim for a laptop or desktop computer with a 1TB (terabyte) hard drive, because it gives you more than enough storage space for millions of documents, photographs or audio files…and some games.
Because we all need a little downtime.
The good news is hard drives are getting cheaper as each year goes by, so extra storage costs less than the year before.
When it comes to choosing which type of hard drive is best, you can choose from either a standard mechanical SATA drive, or an SSD (Solid State Disk) drive instead.
SATA drives are reasonably fast and reliable, and are very affordable.
SSD drives are mind-blowingly fast, and equally affordable.
A computer with a SATA hard drive will take between 30 seconds and several minutes to boot up, whereas a computer with an SSD drive can boot in 10 seconds – literally.
The other major difference is that a SATA drive can last for 10 years whereas an SSD drive might roll over and die after 5 years.
I use Sandisk SSD drives in my own computers.
What about all-in-one desktop computers?
Here’s something that’s become popular again after many years – a computer where the screen and internal components are integrated into one single unit.
This type of computer can save you a huge amount of desk space, while providing all the computing power you need.
But the sleek looks and integration come with a case of sticker shock.
A typical Core i5 computer – with a reasonable amount of RAM and hard drive storage – will cost you around $800.
An equivalent all-in-one desktop computer with the same spec will set you back around $1,000, and that’s just for the entry-level model.
This type of computer looks great, takes up almost no desk space, but they’re stupidly expensive.
Another pet hate for me (and this is the computer repair guy in me speaking) with all-in-one systems is that if one component fails then the entire computer stops working.
With an all-in-one system a failed hard drive means returning the whole computer for service, leaving you with an empty space on your desk.
What’s the best desktop computer when buying on a budget?
If I was buying a small business computer on a really strict budget then I’d be looking at the following specs:
- Intel J series processor
- 4GB of RAM
- 1TB hard drive
- 1GB graphics card
- Windows 7
The above computer spec will cost you about $400 brand new.
If you want to save yourself a small fortune on your first home office computer then look for refurbished computers.
They’re usually ex-government stock and in absolutely perfect condition, but cost about $150 for a computer that will do everything you need it to.
The word “budget” is entirely relative to what state your personal finances are in i.e. you might have no more than $250 to spend on a computer, where somebody else “…absolutely can’t spend any more than $800” on a computer for their business.
How to choose a screen for your computer
You have two basic choices when deciding what kind of display setup you want for your computer: One large monitor, or dual monitors.
This applies to both laptop and desktop systems, and there are pros and cons to each.
Ultrawide vs. Dual Monitors
Most new computers are sold with a single large screen, measuring anywhere from 22 to 27-inches.
This is a huge amount of digital real estate to have, and is perfect if you’re just going to use your computer for gaming, watching movies, etc.
Where ultrawide monitors fall down – even though they really do look amazing – is when you’re trying to multitask.
You can Alt + Tab between windows, or try tiling them to create layout that works for you, but no ultrawide screen can improve your productivity in the way that a dual screen setup can.
Dual monitors do, however, take up a huge amount of desk space, so if you’re working on from a really small desk you simply might not have the physical space to accommodate dual screens.
You can get around this problem with a dual monitor stands because they allow you to raise your screens above the desk’s surface.
You also need a desktop PC with dual graphic output ports (SVGA, DVI or HDMI) and the corresponding cables to get everything set up correctly.
If you want to connect a second screen to your laptop it’s as easy as simply plugging your laptop into its docking station, and once Windows is configured properly, your desktop will be shared between both screens.
What puts most people off using a dual screen setup is the perceived cost, because isn’t it stupidly expensive to do this?
In fact you can get good refurbished computer displays for under $100, including 19-inch and 22-inch models. In fact, most suppliers of refurbished office computers sell dedicated dual screen PC packages, often costing less than $200.
The Pros and Cons of laptops and desktops
I left writing this section until the very end because it just made sense for you to read all the other information first.
- Laptops are small, powerful and completely portable, making them ideal for remote workers or telecommuters
- Desktops are fixed in place, but offer far more functionality and processing power
- Laptops consume far less power than a desktop computer, but you’re limited by battery life at times
- Desktop computers eat more electrical units, but you never have to worry about battery life
- Desktop computers are easier to upgrade and the components to do that are cheaper than with a laptop
- You can’t ever drop a desktop computer….well not unless you’re really clumsy
- Laptops tend to have a shorter life expectancy than desktops, possibly because they’re designed that way
- Laptops should always use hard drive data encryption of some kind in case they’re stolen
- Desktop computers occupy 2x – 3x times the same amount of space as a laptop
- A laptop allows you to work from anywhere in your home
I’ve probably left out a lot of advantages and disadvantages, so be sure to let me know in a blog comment below. Please and thanks 🙂
Should I buy a UPS?
Wait…a backup battery for a computer?
What we’re actually talking about here is a UPS, or Uninterruptible Power Supply.
This is effectively a large battery that serves two purposes:
It gives you several minutes to save any files you’re working on, and to shut your computer down safely if the power goes out
They also act as “power conditioners” for your computer, limited voltage spikes and “brown out” problems that can play havoc with sensitive electronics.
The run time on a UPS (how long it keeps your computer powered on for) depends on how much power your computer consumes, and the capacity of the UPS itself.
A basic UPS – costing about $80 – will keep your computer running for about 8 minutes. If you’re willing to spend $400 – $800 then you can get one that keeps your PC running for an hour.
Wired vs. Wireless Keyboards and Mice
Most new computer systems will come with a wireless keyboard and mice as standard.
They’ve become so cheap to manufacture it just makes sense to do that, plus manufacturers save on the cost of making cables for them.
The beauty of the wireless keyboard and mouse are you avoid the tangle of cables across your desk, around your screen(s) and spilling out of the back of your PC. They’re the neat and tidy option when it comes to human interface devices.
Is there a downside to wireless peripherals?
Oh yes there is, and that’s keeping them charged.
I’ve lost count of how many times I’ve had to drive to the nearest garage at 2am because the batteries in my keyboard or mouse decided to die without warning.
Another ongoing annoyance for me was connectivity issues, where the keyboard might decide to stop responding and type the letter “F” across my screen several hundred times, and then just go back to working flawlessly again for several days.
No amount of driver updates, software tweaking, or brand spanking new wireless keyboard sets ever made these problems go away permanently.
In the end I got tired of having to fiddle around with wireless peripherals and dusted off a faithful old wired Microsoft keyboard and mouse set.
This is just a personal choice for now, but the clutter of cables has been annoying me for several weeks.
You can check out my thoughts on wired vs. wireless keyboards here.
** Quick note – I don’t discuss Apple products here because they’re just far too expensive for most people who are setting up a home office for the first time.