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Office PCs buying advice

How to purchace the perfect PC for your office

General-purpose business PCs aren’t about ultimate performance, multimedia or graphics power. Designed for productivity, their main requirement is to run office applications such as your word processor, spreadsheet and email client, along with some web browsing. We expect conservative styling and competitive pricing, preferably below £500.

In a typical networked business environment there will be storage available on the LAN, so you’re unlikely to need a large hard drive. A 500GB drive will be ample unless your business involves storing a lot of video or other large media.

Provided you have sufficient RAM, almost any modern CPU will provide enough power for low-level administrative tasks. An exception here would be Intel’s Atom processor, which barely has enough grunt to run Windows alone. Intel’s dual-core Core i3 chips should provide ample performance for general use and come with integrated graphics, saving you the cost of buying an additional card.

AMD’s Llano series of processors, such as the A8-3850, offer value for money, but with performance shifted towards graphics processing rather than general-purpose computing. Our business performance benchmark scores are therefore considerably lower for AMD-based PCs than Intel-based ones at any given price.

A 4GB memory setup should be fine – even 2GB should be okay. We would normally expect a standard processor cooler to be installed, but third-party cooling fans can help to keep down office noise levels.

The motherboard won’t need the latest and greatest features, although some spare memory slots may prove useful so that extra RAM can be added later. Power-management and fan-speed control can also help to save you money and create a more peaceful working environment.

Integrated GPU solutions provide enough graphics power for business applications, so you’re unlikely to need to add a graphics card to your specification. However, you may want to consider an entry-level one if you’re running a multi-screen setup.

If you’re using an Intel processor, the low-cost H61 Express chipset should provide all you need for a basic office PC, while keeping the price as low as possible.

Wireless keyboards and mice may cause issues in the workplace due to interference between adjacent workstations. A decent wired kit is ideal, while quiet-typing keyboards can be less distracting to others.

For small businesses with just one or two Windows PCs, you may be tempted to save money by opting for Windows 7 Home Premium. Of the two, Windows 7 Professional is a better option for most businesses, especially if you need compatibility with older software designed for XP. The Windows XP Mode available in the Professional option places additional demands on the processor and memory, so it’s a good idea to invest in both if you want to make frequent use of this feature. You may find it preferable in this case to go for a quad-core CPU and 8GB of RAM.

Furthermore, the network backup and restore option is missing from the Home Premium Edition, as is the ability to join Windows workgroups. Windows 7 Professional will add £50 to the price of your system.

Always pay close attention to the warranty offered with your PC. Obviously, a longer period is preferable, but also look at the terms and conditions.

When you’re relying on your PC for the running of your business, an onsite arrangement can save you considerable time and money. Also check to see whether the vendor will collect faulty systems for repair or whether you’re expected to return them to the vendor at your own cost.

Visit our Group Test: What's the best office PC.

How we test

The PC Advisor Test Centre evaluates each PC in a number of ways.
Application performance
Core system performance is measured using the WorldBench 6 real-world benchmark. This customised test suite runs actual Windows applications with a real-world workload, mimicking how a PC is used in day-to-day life.

The workload includes tasks such as editing Microsoft Word documents and Photoshop images, compressing files, browsing web pages and encoding video. Select tasks are then run simultaneously to form an additional test of the PC’s multitasking capabilities.

In total, eight applications are used: Adobe Photoshop CS2, Autodesk 3ds Max 8.0, Firefox 2.0, Microsoft Office 2003, Windows Media Encoder 9.0, Nero 7.0 Ultra Edition, Roxio ViewWave Movie Creator 1.5 and WinZip Computing WinZip 10.0.

Results are then combined to produce a numerical score relative to a baseline PC.

The baseline configuration is a computer running a 2.4GHz Intel Core 2 Duo E6600 processor, 2GB of DDR2 RAM, an nVidia GeForce 7900 GS graphics card and two Western Digital Caviar WD3200KS 320GB drives in a striped Raid 0 array. The operating system is Windows Vista Home Premium (32bit). This baseline PC scores 100 points in WorldBench 6.

In round-ups of office PCs, we don’t publish any gaming test results. But the graphics processor can now often be levered into improving other aspects of performance, specifically video transcoding.

Transcoding performance

If your business requires you to work with video, then you may need to work with multiple video formats. We set each PC the task of converting a batch of 1080p MPEG-4 video clips for use on the iPad and recorded how long it took to complete. We used CyberLink’s MediaEspresso software.

This software is able to make use of hardware-accelerated decoding and encoding built into graphic cards and CPUs with integrated graphics-processing capabilities. These techniques can often shorten conversion times by a factor of 10.

Multiple CPU threads are also fully exploited, allowing quad-core and six-core CPUs to shine when compared to dual-core versions.

We also calculated the total energy required to transcode our batch of 16 fles.

Overclocking

We allow overclocking of the processor only in dedicated gaming computers. All other components are run at their stock speeds, with the exception of factory-overclocked graphics cards, which are designed and sold at boosted speeds.

Power consumption

We measure the power consumption of each PC while it’s idling at the desktop and has settled down after booting up.

Subjective assessment

Of course, it’s not all about performance. We also pay close attention to the physical characteristics of the PC, its noise output and its build quality, delving inside the system case and taking note of important features such as the quality of components used, cable management and air flow.

Good-quality peripherals are also essential, and where these are supplied we pay particular attention to details such as the ergonomics of the keyboard and mouse as well as the quality of the display.

For reasons of image quality and convenience, digital display connections are preferred over analogue ones.

Support

Differences in warranty terms can affect our verdict. Obviously, longer warranties are better, but we also look at the terms and conditions – specifically whether faulty systems must be returned to the vendor at your own cost, and whether both parts and labour are included.

Conclusion

This month we’ve received a variety of different types of office PC; from the sound-proofed quiet of Arbico’s FX4130 Office PC to the blistering performance of the Chillblast Fusion Obsidian with its Ivy Bridge processor.

Most of the time, a high level of performance won’t be needed, but when it comes at no extra cost you may as well take it providing it doesn’t unnecessarily increase power consumption. For this reason the Fusion Obsidian is not only the fastest performer but excellent value for money. Chillblast also offers the best collect-and-return warranty terms.

Palicomp’s Phoenix Flash is also a very fast performer, although it uses the previous-generation Sandy Bridge chips to keep the costs even lower. Eclipse’s dual-monitor setup is a great productivity booster. We would have preferred to see a better quality pair of monitors supplied, though we appreciate that this would have pushed the price up. Eclipse, like Palicomp, has chosen to ship Windows 7 Home Premium rather than Windows 7 Professional which is another way to shave off a few pounds from the final price.

If you’re managing a number of desktop PCs it can be advantageous to select smaller system cases which are easier to store and move around as required. PC Specialist’s small form-factor MPC-2120 is a good example of such a PC. It offers a great balance of performance and features although it does cost a little more than a similar system built into a generic case. Part of this extra cost will be down to the high-speed SSD.

We would like to see more emphasis placed of quality peripherals. For maximum productivity, the keyboard should be comfortable to type on and the monitor crisp and clear. Having singled it out last time, the Logitech MK120 keyboard has been supplied with four of the review PCs, but there’s still room for improvement. We would also recommend digital monitor connections where possible as it’s less susceptible to interference and doesn’t require alignment to achieve the best picture.

Most of these PCs are at the higher end of what we would like to see price-wise, but with a few judicious customisations you may be able to specify a less expensive version fairly easily, perhaps by opting for a smaller hard drive or a lower-powered processor more suited to office duties.

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