When buying a home-office computer, don't settle for just any old system featured in the Sunday circulars. A well-thought-out business machine has several important distinctions.
The first is the microprocessor. Although most telecommuters can get by on a 486DX2-66, home-business owners should buy the most powerful chip they can afford. For IBM-compatible machines, that means choosing a version of the Intel Pentium microprocessor, starting at around $1,600. For Apple users, the logical choice is a Macintosh based on the Motorola PowerPC 601 chip. Such systems start at $1,900--without monitor or keyboard.
Random access memory (RAM) is another key factor. Most PCs today come with 8 megabytes. Consider that the barest minimum. If you want your PC to be a true multitask workhorse--juggle voice mail and faxes, organize your schedule and contacts, balance your books--the more RAM you have, the faster your computer will perform. Also, forthcoming software such as Microsoft's Windows '95 are expected to require at least 16 megabytes to operate efficiently. Expect to pay $180 for an extra 4 megabytes.
While hard drives in the 500-megabyte range may seem big, space can fill up quickly. So consider a 1-gigabyte drive, especially if your work involves a lot of correspondence, large spreadsheet files, or graphical sales presentations. Most 1-gigabyte drives cost about $390.
Don't pass on a tape backup unit. Having copies of your files, including the operating system and application programs, will save you from stress after a system crash and allow easy archiving of completed business projects. This adds about $150 to $200 to the price.
For communications, go for the latest v.34 fax/data modems. They send data at 28,800 bits per second and faxes at 14,400, and cost about $200. Some modems offer advanced features such as voice mail--if you decide to leave your PC on to intercept calls.
SPACE WATCH. The need for certain other features depends on personal preferences and the nature of your business. Add a double-speed CD-ROM drive if you use CD-based reference works. Monitors vary in sharpness and clarity (consider 0.28 dots per inch a minimum), so buyers have to test them out. Most 15-in. noninterlaced Super Video Graphics Array color monitors are fine for everyday viewing, but opt for a 17-in. display if your business involves detailed graphics.
A fully loaded home-business machine should run about $2,500 for an IBM type and $3,200 for a Mac. All else being equal, look for the smallest one that meets your needs. Home offices are crammed with stuff, so the less space the PC takes up, the better.