These Babies Really Mean Business

Don't know what to look for in an office desktop? Here's a quick guide to the basics

There's at least one in every office. You know who they are and rely on their intimate knowledge of personal computer technology and cool Web sites. They're the ones who can tell you whether it pays to shell out for the 266-megahertz computer or if the 233-Mhz machine will do just fine. They know a Jaz drive has nothing to do with music. They even know what MMX stands for.

O.K., you may never become one of the digerati. But in the world of business, there is no getting around--or up the corporate ladder--without mastering the basics of desktop computing. With the rapid spread of the World Wide Web and electronic mail, the PC is becoming more important than the telephone. Even your old business school now has a course in electronic commerce.

INVISIBLE COSTS. Fortunately, PCs are getting easier to use. And the software, thanks to inexpensive memory and hard-disk drives, packs a lot more performance for most corporate tasks. Even heavy-duty jobs that once required a powerful Sun Microsystems Inc. workstation--for drawing intricate 3-D designs or mining large databases--can be handled by the new crop of speedy desktop machines.

If your company is shopping for such a system, here are some basics to keep in mind: Look for at least 32 megabytes of random-access memory (RAM) and 2.1 gigabytes of space on the disk drive. Your corporate "server" computer, with its huge disk drives, will hold most of the company data and do the other heavy lifting. Even so, each "client" desktop will need at least this much capacity for programs such as Microsoft Office 97. On the processing side, even a 200-Mhz machine may seem pokey these days. Think about top-of-the-line Pentium II chips running at 300 Mhz, or Macs with equivalent power and storage.

The next thing to factor in is the "cost of ownership," this year's buzz phrase in corporate computing. It's not about how much money that PC with Bose speakers and 21-inch display will set the company back. Hardware accounts for only about 15% of what it costs to put a computer on a desk. The rest--maintenance, software upgrades, training, and the like--can up the expense of operating a single PC to $12,000 a year.

In grappling with cost issues, it helps to be in the know about recent advances in technology. Tools such as Intel's LANDesk Configuration Manager allow the techies in your company's information systems (IS) department to roll up their shirtsleeves--remotely--and tweak your computer. With just the click of a mouse, a technician elsewhere in the building is able to upgrade software, debug a program, and tune your disk drives.

For this buying guide, we scrutinized an array of corporate desktop offerings. We found that client systems from IBM, Compaq Computer, and Hewlett-Packard outshine the competition. For these systems, which can be monitored by IS managers from a central-server computer, IBM excelled at lowering cost of ownership by bundling network management tools with all their PCs. For example, the IBM PC 300 XL, a 266-Mhz Pentium II machine priced at $2,749, comes with NetFinity software, which allows remote troubleshooting and diagnosis.

A comparable machine is the Hewlett-Packard Co.'s VL 6/266. At $2,946, it has several features that could save your company money. For one, it's easy for technicians to service because the innards slide right out on a rack. It also comes with software to allow IS managers to fix any glitches or snafus remotely. The computer, with a 266-Mhz Pentium II chip and 64 Mb of memory, boasts good graphics performance, which is ideal for advertising or publishing offices.

For the budget-minded, Compaq Computer Corp.'s Deskpro 4000S Model 5200X/2100, at $1,587, is a solid corporate citizen with a good base of software to help cut support costs. It's probably not powerful enough to handle complex architectural drawing. But it's a good machine for putting together multimedia presentations or doing moderately heavy spreadsheet work in a sales or marketing department. Its design also gets points just for its slim look.

For all-around business computers, our pick is Dell Computer Corp.'s Dimension XPS D266. At $2,542, this machine delivers just the right amount of power for cruising the Web, running spreadsheets, and putting together multimedia presentations--without going overboard. Think of it as a utility infielder. A solid number-cruncher, it will fit nicely within a finance department or sales office.

STATE OF THE ART. In every office, there are always a few people who covet the most powerful tool available. With computers, that distinction usually lasts about six months. So, for what it's worth, circa late 1997, our pick for the champ is Micron's XKU 300, for $3,099. It combines the latest Intel Corp. 300-Mhz Pentium II chip with a vast 128 megs of memory and 8.4 gigabytes on the disk drive. That should be enough to satisfy any power tripper. And it's a whiz with 3-D design work and other image-heavy applications.

So what does MMX stand for? Officially, nothing. Intel gets a bit huffy if people insist it must stand for something. But originally, it was derived from "MultiMedia eXtensions."

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