I often get asked what the best PC configuration is and I always ask “What are you going to use it for?”
The first question in a small business should always be “What do I need?”, you will notice the word “need” not “want”, this is important. “Need” is based on a reasonable requirement to be able to do the job. Whereas “want” is more of a wish, we all want a Ferrari or a Porche, do we need one? Probably not.
Now that we have this concept out of the way and understood let me tell you something else that may surprise you, the gap in performance and price between desktop PCs and a laptop are becoming near negligible, so my statement from here mostly applies to both Desktops and Laptops. However, be aware that there is a significant upgradeability issue developing in the laptop market. So, if you are opting for a laptop, make sure you either get the memory (RAM) and drive space (HDD/SDD) you need upfront if the machine is not upgradable. For example, the current line of Apple laptops are not upgradable; a lot of other manufacturers such as ASUS, Dell and HP have no upgradability paths on some models.
No matter if you decide on a desktop PC or a laptop there are inescapable musts, Windows 10 x64 will not be happy with less than 8GB of RAM, it will run at 2GB, but it will suffer on performance. The other is not inescapable, but rather a strong recommendation, get an SSD large enough to house Windows and the programs you need to run your business. Whether on a desktop PC or a laptop, these two items will make a massive difference in performance. If you have an older desktop or laptop, all you might need to do is these two upgrades. Upgrading your old machine may be the best and cheapest route to go and revive that “old” machine.
Now that I have told you not to buy a new machine and instead to upgrade your old one let me tell you the configurations that work.
Basic Office Configuration
For regular office use, a modern Intel Celeron with 8GB of RAM and a 256GB SSD will comfortably handle Windows 10 with Office 2016/2019/365, an anti-virus, an online accounting package and browsing the internet including HD video playback. It may not handle any graphics-intensive tasks such as games as well as photo and video editing or large spreadsheets very well.
An example of an affordable business grade PC is the Intel NUC Mini PC (Celeron) with 8GB of RAM, and 256GB SSD will set you back less than R5000 without a screen, mouse or keyboard and you will need to add about R1800 for Windows 10. This is a Desktop mini PC that you can mount under your desk or behind a monitor using standard VESA mount; it is that small (11.5cm x 11.1cm x 5.1cm). I know employees that take them home to be able to do some work, our oldest one is a 4-year-old Gen2 and it does not seem to have any issues.
If you want to run large spreadsheets or more specialised software, the configuration above with an i3 or i5 will work better; you can still use the Intel processor’s built-in video capabilities, so you do not need to purchase an additional video card.
Need more processing power?
As soon as we are talking photo editing, an i5 processor is a must, and at this point, I recommend an external graphics card (GPU). We use Nvidia cards in our PCs, but this is our preference, the AMD line is just as good. An Nvidia Geforce GTX 660,760, 960, 1060 or AMD equivalent will do fine; I would not go below that for photo editing or light video editing. We are getting into the entry level gaming machines at this point.
Video editing takes a lot of GPU (graphics processor), and CPU (central processor) power, an Intel i7/i9 or AMD equivalent with a higher end GPU and bigger SSD will help a lot, we are squarely in gaming territory by now, these are expensive machines, the Porches and Ferraris of the PC world.
The ports your machine is becoming is an important consideration. With the introduction of USB-C a few years ago it allowed having one port that can act as a docking station, for laptops it was a great addition but required adaptors. For a desktop, you will need a minimum of f0ur USB 3 ports, a network port, an HDMI port and optionally a D-Sub/VGA port and a USB-C port. This range of ports will allow for a wide range of adapters, add-ons and docking solutions.
A note on desktop versus laptop
Most South African businesses would exclude a laptop due to its premium cost, but with the reality of load-shedding, this may be your only cost-effective way to work with no power, with the added value of portability. Should you consider a laptop, the same considerations as described above will apply, here are some more.
When purchasing a laptop you will need to weigh the requirements of the battery and screen, the battery should last more than 5 hours of regular use, most Ultrabooks will do that for you, but they are expensive. This should cover you for the duration of a load-shedding period of 4.5 hours. Screens are mostly about taste and are available in a wide range of sizes from 10′ to 17′, 15′ being the most common. We recommend a 13′ for its balance between portability and screen usability. Screens have the other consideration missed by most, resolution. For regular office work, a 1366×768 (WXGA) resolution screen should be sufficient, but if you can afford it a 1920×1080 (FHD) will give you enough real estate to perform most tasks, the higher resolution screens are also sharper.
Lastly, laptop weight and durability, this is counter-intuitive but the lighter the laptop, the flimsier it is is not necessarily true. Aluminium chassis is used in higher-end laptops, and this makes them light and durable, high-quality plastic chassis are generally heavier than their aluminium counterparts. Just make sure that your chosen laptop is not bending under a light twist of the frame and you should be fine.
The short of it is, our base Celeron or the i3 machine will do for 80% of employees and not break the bank in the process. Developers, accountants, architects and geologists for examples will need more specialised machines. If you need more storage space do not remove the SSD, add an HDD, they provide cheaper storage and will not slow down the computer too much, put your documents, music and videos on it. If you need a fast scratch drive, for photo or video editing, use a separate SDD for speed, why a different physical drive? SSD generally do not last as long as HDDs; they wear out quicker and you want your fast boot drive to last.
Too often I see people with big i7 machines (or big rigs as we tend to call them) and they are used for Microsoft Office; this is an expensive mistake.