I keep hearing the same question, even from my FedEx guy: "I'm setting up a home office -- What kind of computer should I get?" Since it's no longer possible to leave all of our work at the office, most of us need an office for our work at home. " I've had a home office for more than 10 years. It went from a paper-strewn cubbyhole to a paper-strewn room. Now it has taken over most of the dining room, and my wife's not happy about it. "
I've learned the hard way that there's more to a home office than a solid personal computer. You Need the right printer, telephone, software, accessories, maybe even a copier. So I've scouted out equipment that won't let you down when you're working solo and there's no MIS guy to call.
You Need: An office with just the essentials, for working late nights and on weekends.
PowerTools: IBM Aptiva S8C, Quicken 6.0 Deluxe, Canon BJC-4200 Photo, Sony IT-D250
Admit it: keeping office work out of the house is a losing battle. But you needn't pile up the equipment purchases just so you can crank out the occasional report.
IBM's Aptiva S8C has enough speed and features to take on overstuffed spreadsheets, and it comes with enough software and accessories to keep the rest of the family happy. It's a deal at $1,999.
The Aptiva S8C is packaged in separate, slick black components. A media console with power controls and 16x CD-ROM sits under the monitor, while the main CPU and guts of the system reside in a floor-standing box. The system comes equipped with a 166 MHz Pentium with MMX to handle current and future software, 32 MB of SDRAM, built-in sound (speakers are included), a 33.6 Kbps modem with fax (upgradable to 56 Kbps), and a 3.1 GB hard drive to store all your programs. The monitor is extra, unfortunately. You can get away with a 15-inch model for $499, but I suggest springing for the 17-inch model for $749, so you get a better view of those spreadsheets. By shopping around, you should be able to bring the whole system in for around $2,500.
IBM includes abundant software with the system. The main business package is Lotus SmartSuite, which includes Lotus 1-2-3. There's also RingCentral software, which enables the Aptiva to answer incoming calls, store faxes, and even page you. They left out a top-notch personal finance program, however. Fill the void with the clear leader in this category, Quicken 6.0 Deluxe from Intuit. It will set you back $54.95, but will save money by tracking your expenses.
Even an intermittent home office user needs to print out a report every once in a while. To keep down the total cost of the office, consider getting the Canon BJC-4200 Photo. It's an upright Bubble Jet printer that holds 100 sheets of paper. With rebates until the end of June, it can be purchased in discount computer stores for about $230. It prints in both color and black and white, and the print quality is surprisingly sharp for the price.
It doesn't matter if you work just a couple of nights a week: get a separate phone line to cruise the Net, fax, and email without interruption. You should also pick out a phone. One of the best econo-line desk phones for the task is Sony's IT-D250. It lists for just under $100, and several major stores offer it at a discount. The IT-D250 can handle two phone lines and comes with an automatic call timer and redial.
Geek Factor: The Aptiva S8C doesn't scream "Back to Work!" at you. Its unobtrusive yet cutting-edge design helps it blend in with other gear.
Weak Factor: The Aptiva lacks a backup storage device, so you should shell out another $149 for an Iomega Zip drive.
Coordinates: IBM Aptiva S8C, IBM Consumer Division, 800-426-7235, http://www.pc.ibm.com/aptiva ; Canon BJC-4200 Photo, Canon Computer Systems, 800-848-4123, http://www.ccsi.canon.com ; Quicken 6.0 Deluxe, Intuit, 800-446-8848, www.intuit.com ; Sony IT-D250, Sony, 800-222-7669, http://www.sony.com .
You Need: An office that can handle part-time telecommuting.
PowerTools: NEC Ready Office 1720, Hewlett-Packard OfficeJet Series 500, DataViz e-ttachment Opener, Lucent Technologies 7650
The conflicting demands of work and family mean more people are taking at least one day of flextime a week. If you're one of these latchkey workers, you need a little more computing power than the Aptiva delivers.
NEC has set out to build an all-inclusive computer system that bundles everything you need into one box. And they've largely succeeded. The $2,600 Ready Office 1720 minitower system comes in a solid-but-stylish case and is based on a 200 MHz Pentium with MMX. It's loaded with all the basics, including 32 MB of EDO RAM, a 3.2 GB hard drive, and a 16X CD-ROM drive. There's also a built-in Zip drive. And if your home's power gets zapped in a thunderstorm, the Ready Office comes with an uninterruptible power supply that keeps your screen lit for about four minutes while you store your work.
NEC supplies foldout diagrams that make it clear what gets plugged into where. Even if you're a novice, you'll have little trouble setting up the system. And NEC packs in the software, including Microsoft Office 97 Small Business Division, Automap Streets Plus, Microsoft Bookshelf, Publisher 97, and a disc with 16 million business addresses and phone numbers. Used in combination with the external speakers and headset with microphone, the system's 33.6 Kbps modem and communications software can transform the computer into an electronic receptionist. The one piece that's missing is a monitor. NEC's 17-inch MultiSync XV is a good buy for around $750.
One handy piece of software for even part-time telecommuters is DataViz's e-ttachment Opener. This $39 program will open any email file or attachment you're likely to receive, so you no longer need to ask vendors and customers to email data in a special format.
You'll need a printer to complete the system. A standard laser printer is fine for general business purposes but it won't copy or scan. (Heavy-duty laser printers are overkill in a home office.) You'll do better by combining these features into a less expensive ink-jet printer. My choice: Hewlett-Packard's OfficeJet Series 500. Starting at about $500, it can print in color, scan in black and white, copy, and fax. It holds 150 sheets of paper and stores about 35 fax pages in memory. There are better (but separate) scanning, faxing, copying, and printing products on the market. But combining them all into one device saves hundreds of dollars.
The Ready Office system can act as a phone, but you must use a headset that ties you to a desk. Cordless phones are less than perfect (I live in Interference Central, aka Manhattan). But Lucent Technologies's 7650, a $180, 25-channel model, has the longest range (1,000 feet) and clearest audio quality of any I've tested. It also includes a digital answering machine with multiple mailboxes that holds about 20 minutes of incoming calls.
Geek Factor: With just two main pieces of equipment -- the NEC Ready Office and the HP printer/copier/fax -- there's nothing the corporate office can do that you can't.
Weak Factor: The Lucent phone can't handle two phone lines; e-ttachment Opener runs as a separate program, making it a little awkward to use.
Coordinates: NEC Ready Office 1720, NEC Computer Systems Division, 888-306-4636, www.nec-computers.com ; HP OfficeJet Series 500, Hewlett-Packard, 800-552-8500, http://www.hp.com ; e-ttachment Opener, DataViz, 800-733-0030, www.dataviz.com ; the 7650, Lucent Technologies, 800-635-8866, www.lucent.com .
You Need: A fully equipped office -- you're going solo!
PowerTools: Gateway G6-266 XL, Iomega Jaz drive, QuickBooks Pro 5.0, Hewlett-Packard OfficeJet Pro 1150C, Diamond Multimedia System Supra NetCommander ISDN, Northern Telecom PowerTouch 350, ComSwitch 3500
You've got entrepreneurial dreams. You're bolting from that gray corporate cubicle; You need a full-blown home office to escape to. If you can endure high maintenance costs in return for Porsche performance, check out the latest and greatest CPU from Intel: the Pentium II. It's the new version of the Pentium Pro, and it includes MMX extensions.
One of the first of the Pentium IIs to go on sale comes from direct marketer Gateway 2000. The company's G6-266 XL tower system is centered around a 266 MHz Pentium II with double the RAM in the systems reviewed above (64 MB) and triple the amount of hard disk storage (a 9 GB Ultra Wide SCSI drive). But it costs $4,999. At least the price includes a 21-inch Vivitron monitor.
The system delivers a 12x/16x CD-ROM drive, a 56 Kbps modem, and software including Microsoft Office 97. But you must add a backup device, which is essential if the system is your sole means of support. A tape backup is included with the system, but my tests over the years have shown that tape backups are sometimes unreliable. I recommend Iomega's durable Jaz drive. Available from Gateway, the Jaz drive holds 1 GB per cartridge and adds another $429 to the pricetag, bringing the total close to $5,500.
One drawback: there are some additions Intel needs to make before the Pentium II reaches its full potential. You might want to save yourself first-generation headaches and get the NEC Ready Office system instead.
One edge you'll need is a faster connection to the Net, to match the speed you're accustomed to at corporate HQ. A faster connection requires an Integrated Services Digital Network (ISDN) line. Installing an ISDN line can cost as little as $100 and will give you a 128 Kbps link to the online world. To handle data traffic, the best ISDN terminal adapter (aka modem) is Diamond Multimedia Systems's $249 Supra NetCommander ISDN. It's an ISA card that resides inside your computer. (Don't worry, it's easy to set up.) A bonus: the card will save you money. That's because phone companies charge for two phone lines when you use the two channels on an ISDN line. The Supra NetCommander dodges additional phone-line charges by automatically adjusting its speed to use just one ISDN line when you need it. For large file downloads, it connects with the second ISDN channel and then disconnects when you're done.
I rarely give out three-star recommendations, but the HP OfficeJet Pro 1150C is an exception. This $1,000 peripheral looks like a personal copy machine. Actually it includes a color printer, scanner, and copier. The 1150C will crank out clean sheets at eight pages per minute. For scanning business graphics, the internal scanner churns out 24-bit color images that are sharp enough for most work needs. HP software is included, along with Adobe PhotoDeluxe LE for manipulating scanned photos and Caere's OmniPage LE for turning scanned text into word-processing files. If that's not enough, the copier part of the OfficeJet 1150C works just like an office copier (except that it doesn't jam). Put the paper in, use the control panel to adjust darkness or zoom in, hit the button, and out comes the copy.
If you're launching a full-fledged business from home, don't forget some accounting software. Intuit produces the best software package for this task, QuickBooks Pro 5.0 for $199. It tracks invoices, bill payments, payrolls, checking accounts, and your time. An introductory, interactive interview process helps you set up the software so it's tailored to your business needs.
So now you've got the office loaded for a 24 (hours) x 7 (days) workweek. But you still need a professional phone. Check out Northern Telecom's $325 PowerTouch 350. It has more features than Exxon's switchboard and yet it's pretty easy to use. The PowerTouch 350 handles two separate phone lines without the voice "leaking" that occurs on cheaper models, so your personal calls won't be overheard by a customer who's holding on the other line. To complete your communications center, the PowerTouch 350 also works with Caller ID and Voice Messaging services, should you decide to order them from your regional Bell.
All of these phone lines may cause confusion as to which machine takes which call. An inexpensive solution is the $90 ComSwitch 3500. The little gray box can take a single line and direct incoming calls to voice mail, a fax machine (internal on your PC), or even another phone.
Geek Factor: The Pentium II is the fastest PC on the market. Period. Just a few short years ago, only minicomputers possessed this kind of speed.
Weak Factor: Nearly everything in this setup, even the phone, requires a fairly steep learning curve. It will take about a month to get comfortable with this equipment.
Coordinates: G6-266 XL, Gateway 2000, 800-846-2000, www.gw2k.com ; HP OfficeJet Pro 1150C, Hewlett-Packard, 800-552-8500, www.hp.com ; Supra NetCommander ISDN, Diamond Multimedia Systems, 800-468-5846, www.diamondmm.com ; PowerTouch 350, Northern Telecom, 800-466-7835, www.nortel.com ; QuickBooks Pro 5.0, Intuit, 800-446-8848, http://www.intuit.com/quickbooks ; ComSwitch 3500, Command Communications, 800-288-6794.
John R. Quain (firstname.lastname@example.org) , a contributing editor at Fast Company, appears regularly on the CBS News program "Up to the Minute."