Big Value For Small Business

The little guy has lots to choose from. But which is the right setup for you?

There's never just one thing to fret about when you're picking a personal computer to run a small business. Unlike corporate buyers, who turn to major brands for quality and service, small businesses tend to buy on the basis of price and performance, expandability, and ease of use. There are many trade-offs and tough choices.

With those differences in mind, BUSINESS WEEK scanned the PC landscape and prepared a list of attractive models that are geared to small shops, from real estate agencies to consultants to the corner retailer. All of the PCs provide enough processing and storage to handle any office job. Any will make direct mail, accounting, or billing a breeze. And they offer some nice surprises to boot.

We started with some basic assumptions: A small-business machine shouldn't take up the whole desk. It should allow for future expansion. And strong communications features are a must.

On this basis, we confined our picks to "mini-towers," which fit under or alongside a desk rather than on top and have plenty of internal space for adding cards or peripherals. We outfitted each machine with at least 16 megabytes of memory (32 is better) to run sprawling applications such as Microsoft Corp.'s Office 97 and Netscape Communications Corp.'s Netscape Navigator Internet browser. All our selections come with high-speed, 56 kilobit-per-second modems for quick downloading of information from online services or the Web.

Topping this list is Hewlett-Packard Co.'s Brio family of systems. The model 8034 has some nice, cost-saving communications features. For example, it's bundled with Artisoft Inc.'s iShare software, which lets up to three networked PCs share a single modem. That won't suit businesses that need constant links to cyberspace. But it can lower telephone-line costs for busy real estate or advertising offices that only occasionally venture online. The iShare approach saves you about $150 on each additional modem that you can manage to live without.

SMARTWARE. The Brio line, available through some 3,000 dealers in the U.S., is only two months old. But it builds on HP's earlier Vectra 500 small-business PC, adding at least one nifty touch. The system has built-in networking software, which turns itself on when you plug in an optional, $69 networking card. The software is so smart that an employee with no previous experience can set up a local-area network of up to seven PCs and printers. Installation is a snap, thanks to on-screen setup menus.

For those on a tight budget, we found the best value in CompUSA Inc.'s PC American, which began shipping in September. At $1,358, they're about 30% lower than the average cost of BUSINESS WEEK's picks. Unlike Brio, they're not based on an earlier line with a solid track record. On the other hand, CompUSA, with its 164 sales-and-service centers around the U.S., can probably address any customer problems locally.

If you'd rather stick with a brand-name supplier, we recommend Compaq Computer's Deskpro 2000 model 5200X, Dell Computer's Dimension M200A, Digital Equipment's PC 5100, and Gateway 2000's G5-200, all of which offer good value. Our Dell and Gateway models come configured with Microsoft's Office 97 Small Business Edition, a $220 package that includes word processing, desktop publishing, a spreadsheet, and mapping software. These programs are ideal for a financial-planning firm, a small retailer, or a real estate office. Gateway adds a large, 17-inch monitor that's ideal for in-office presentations. And the Dell Dimension includes a networking card that makes it easy to hook up to an existing network.

The Compaq and Digital machines aren't tailored to small businesses. But both provide beefed-up memory, security, and remote-maintenance features, which are important, say, to small legal offices or doctors' practices. And both models are available from wide networks of resellers that can provide installation, software loading, and networking assistance at additional charges.

One other small concern: None of the six machines is fully stocked with all the software a small business needs. There are no programs to set up a customer database, put a parts catalog up on the Internet, or automate bookkeeping, for example.

But you can get that from software developers or computer dealers. Any of these dependable systems will give you a strong foundation for setting up a small shop--or expanding one that's already humming.

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