Busines PCs buying advice (early 2013)

General-purpose business PCs aren’t about ultimate performance, multimedia or graphics power. They don’t even need to look pretty. Designed for productivity, their main requirement is to run office applications such as a word processor, spreadsheet and an email client. We expect conservative styling and competitive pricing, typically below £500 with a monitor.

See Group test: What's the best business PC?

In a networked business environment there will usually be storage available on the LAN server, so you won’t need a large hard disk. Although 1TB drives are now affordable, a 500GB drive should be ample unless your business involves storing a lot of video or other large media.

Provided you have sufficient RAM, any modern CPU will provide enough power for low-level admin tasks. For example, 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. For demanding users, you may wish to go for a more powerful Core i5 processor. These might be used for manipulating very large spreadsheets or working with high-resolution images or video.

An AMD processor such as the FX-6100 can form the basis of a low-cost system, but performance is way below what can be achieved with Intel’s Core processors.

Even AMD’s own previous-generation Phenom chips can sometimes outperform the FX-6100.

A 4GB memory setup will be fine – even 2GB should be okay, although 2x 1GB kits aren’t as cost-effective. Memory is relatively inexpensive, but to avoid waste you should aim to add to rather than replace your existing allocation.

We would normally expect a standard processor cooler to be installed, but third-party cooling fans can help to reduce disturbing noise levels in the office.

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. There’s no point investing in an enthusiast-grade motherboard as the features gained, ?such as overclocking and the ability to add multiple graphics cards, are of no benefit to the office user.

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 down the price. However, chipsets designed for business use, such as the B75 Express, support Intel’s Anti-Theft Technology and Small Business Advantage platform (SBA). SBA includes features such as software and PC health monitoring, plus the ability to block the use of USB ports by unauthorised users.

Integrated graphics 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 vast multi-screen setup or higher display resolutions than 2048x1536 pixels.

For monitors, a usable 18.5- or 20in screen starts at around £60. Due to the consumerisation of IT, most screens are now 16:9 widescreen; great for watching films, but ill-suited to word processing or spreadsheet work. Older 4:3 or 5:4 models are all but extinct, but you may find a good compromise with a 16:10 model. For most business use, a cheap TN panel works fine; for any work that requires colour accuracy or decent viewing angles, get an IPS model.

Wireless keyboards and mice can sometimes cause issues in the workplace due to RF interference between adjacent workstations. A decent wired kit is ideal, while quiet-typing keyboards can be less distracting to others. For systems used by full-time typists, high-quality mechanical keyboards may result in better productivity.

For small businesses with just one or two PCs, you might think it saves money to opt for Windows 7 Home Premium. Windows 7 Professional is essential if you need to connect to a Windows server or have compatibility with older software designed for XP. The Windows XP Mode in Windows 7 Pro places more demands on the processor and memory, so invest in both if you’ll need to make much use of this feature. You may find it preferable to specify a quad-core CPU and 8GB of memory. Network backup and restore was also stripped from Home Premium. Windows 7 Professional typically adds £50 to the price of a system.

To ensure a level playing field while testing, the systems reviewed here have been supplied with Windows 8 Pro; all are also available with Windows 7. If you’re already making use of XP Mode in Windows 7, be aware that this feature isn’t available in Windows 8.

Pay close attention to the warranty offered with a PC. Obviously, a longer period is preferable, but also check the terms and conditions. When you’re relying on your PC for the running of your business, an onsite arrangement may save you considerable time and money.

Also check to see whether the vendor will collect faulty systems for repair or if you’re expected to return to the vendor at your own cost.

Next page - Conclusion and How We Test.

Conlusion

When reviewing office PCs we are not looking for a family PC with the gaming features removed. We expect systems with balanced performance, low purchase price, manageability, low running costs, a business-like appearance and ease of maintenance.

The PC vendors here installed Windows 8 Pro at our request, but each also offers Windows 7 Professional as an alternative
for business use.

In our view, there’s no reason why an office-ready Windows box with a monitor, good keyboard and mouse should cost more than £500. Each vendor has over-specified for their consumer/enthusiast customers and you could easily make them cheaper
by reducing the specs such as processor and system case. You may not need a monitor, either. We offer these reviews as
a guide to what to buy.

Arbico’s i5357 Pro deserves special mention for being very expensive; and Quiet PC’s Serenity Value almost stratospherically so for an office admin machine.

The latter does offer the unique quality of being almost silent in operation, but this comes at the cost of £795 – around twice what businesses expect to pay for a PC.

PC Specialist’s diminutive MPC-3470T is remarkable for its physically small size and impressively low power consumption, despite its powerful quad-core processor. It’s the cheapest PC here, but you’ll have to factor in the cost of a monitor.

Eclipse has delivered a nearly balanced system with a relatively modest CPU. Coupled with an SSD it ensures responsive interaction and rapid boot times. It’s less over-priced than some at £569.

Or you can save £20 on Chillblast’s Fusion Sapphire, which tips the balance in favour of processing power by using an overkill quad-core chip, but skipping on the SSD. This gives broadly similar overall performance to the Eclipse system, but is better suited to crunching video than spreadsheets. It does, however, come with a superior IPS monitor and business-oriented motherboard, and came closest to receiving a Recommended award.

Performance isn’t critical for a general office PC, and CyberPower’s Essential 3000 offers adequate speed, a good monitor and a built-in card reader at a reasonable price. But it is very much slower than any of the competition, without costing correspondingly less. And it will tax you three times as much in electricity costs.

We’d like to see better-quality peripherals bundled with these PCs. For maximum productivity, the keyboard should be comfortable to type on and a monitor, where supplied, crisp and clear. Most of these systems came with the cheapest examples the vendor could find. If you’re doing a lot of typing, invest in something more substantial.

How we test

The PC Advisor Test Centre evaluates each PC in a number of ways:

Application performance

Core system performance is measured using PCMark 7, an industry-recognised test suite that uses 25 different workloads to measure areas such as storage, computation, image- and video manipulation, web browsing and gaming. We understand that results from this benchmark are not absolute, with Intel driver issues in Windows 8 meaning video-transcoding tests can present sub-optimal results.

Nevertheless, the results give an idea of the relative performance.

As well as the overall PCMark 7 result, typically a point score between 3,000 and 7,000 with current hardware, we have also published results garnered from some of the suite’s sub-routines.

Power consumption

We measure the power consumption of each PC while it’s idling at the desktop and when it’s settled down after booting up. We then measure again while pushing each PC to the limit. This is achieved by running Prime95 with the maximum number of available threads, and simultaneously running the PCMark 7 storage test. Real-world power consumption will fall somewhere between these two measurements, depending on use.

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 airflow.

Good-quality peripherals are crucial, and where these are supplied we pay particular attention to details such as the quality and ergonomics of the keyboard and mouse, as well as the image quality of the display and its construction. 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. For example, some vendors advertise a two- or three-year warranty that specifically excludes the cost of replacement parts after 12 months. J