Business Desktops: What to Look For

Should you choose a SATA drive or an SAS drive? Should the PC include a Blu-ray drive? Many newer features are increasingly affordable and increasingly necessary, while others are things you can definitely wait on. To help you decide which options are must-haves, and which you can bypass, we’ve put together a checklist of options to consider. Read on for help in deciding how to configure your next desktop purchase.

Operating System: Go Forward to Go Back

Let’s face it: Microsoft Vista has suffered some black eyes from people and businesses that have had serious trouble getting it to operate consistently, reliably, and quickly, as well as from those who simply prefer the XP interface.

That’s why you may find the option for an XP downgrade on new PCs welcome, if rather odd. You’re essentially buying Vista, but getting XP for free, and obtaining an upgrade disk for Vista when and if you want it. If you buy the Vista Business edition, models and makers that support this option will impose no additional charge; if you buy a cheaper Vista version, you may have to pay additional fees, or an XP downgrade may not be available.

Dell’s arrangement is typical: by choosing its “bonus” edition of Vista Business or better, you can opt to have the factory install Windows XP and include an upgrade DVD for that flavor of Vista. Dell offers support through the computer’s lifetime warranty for both XP and Vista. You can even downgrade back to XP if you choose.

Since most businesses haven’t standardized on Vista, you’re unlikely to have problems with coworkers or other companies you work with if you stick with XP; operating systems rarely affect compatibility, either, only tech support.

Our verdict: For your operating system, buy Vista Business with XP preinstalled for the greatest flexibility.

Upgradability: Case the Case and Motherboard

You will likely want to upgrade any computer you purchase, no matter what the specs are on the model you choose. With terabyte drives available today for $300, you might want to switch to the inevitable 1.5TB drives next year, or boost your 4GB of RAM to 16GB in 2010.

Make sure that you can answer the following questions about any desktop you purchase:

  • What’s the maximum amount of RAM supported and in what configurations? (32GB across eight slots isn’t unique.)
  • Can the optical drive be upgraded later? (See “Optical Drive” section below for more on this issue.)
  • How many internal hard-drive bays are built in? (If you opt for a RAID configuration, you may wind up maxing out the bays with your initial configuration.)
  • What sort of security measures can be overlaid on the case? (Port covers, locks with keys, and cable-lock slots are all options.)

Our verdict: Buy your computer today, but plan on needing, and choosing, an updated case and motherboard in a few years.

Optical Drive: Upgrade to Blu-ray Later

As DVD burners have become increasingly faster, there are fewer differentiating factors among them. You’re primarily deciding between CD/DVD burning and CD/DVD/Blu-ray burning. (You can purchase a Blu-ray drive that plays video disks and read-only Blu-ray disks, but that seems like half a loaf.)

The latest generation of Blu-ray drives can burn 25GB or 50GB to a single disk. But the upgrade is pricey: Often $300 (HP) to $470 (Dell) to install a Blu-ray writer instead of a fast CD/DVD burner. Blank Blu-ray discs are ruinous: from $10 to $20 each for 25GB media and $35 to $50 each for 50GB media.

But with Blu-ray the winner in the high-definition video market, prices for both home players and PC drives will plummet this year, as will blank media, since users will buy such media in larger volumes. And most of us use hard drives for larger backups, anyway.

Our verdict: Wait for Blu-ray to become a $150-to-$200 upgrade, and for 50GB media to drop to $20. Optical drives in desktops are often a simple upgrade.

Monitor: Big LCD Displays = Pricey Video Card

You can buy stunningly large LCD displays from several PC makers–30 inches at 2560 by 1600 pixels, say–and video support for using a single one of these behemoths is typically an included cost for any business desktop. The PC will need a dual-link DVI connection for such a big display, because of the sheer number of pixels involved.

If you need to use two or more monitors, especially two 30-inch beauties, costs can mount for the video card upgrade. Typically, you can manage two monitors, at least one of them 30 inches in size, with the included card or a very cheap upgrade ($15 for one Lenovo model, for instance).

Driving two 30-inch LCDs, however, means that the dollars can start to add up. Apple builds the cost of two dual-link DVI connectors into all its Mac Pro models, which tend to start with options that bring their price higher than comparable PC makers’ workstations.

Other manufacturers offer cards at an upgrade cost starting at $400 for such support, with prices that can reach into the thousands for the highest-performance cards.

Our verdict: If you consider two or more 30-inch LCDs vital to your work, you’re simply choosing how much power under the hood–from the video card–you’re going to buy.

Next page: Hard Drives, RAID, Power Consumption and Warranties

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Jim Love, Chief Content Officer, IT World Canada

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