Best budget business desktops

Looking for an affordable business desktop to roll out? We look at the major players available in the market today.
Written by ZDNET Editors, Contributor

Corporate desktop roll-outs can be a pain. Ultimately you want all your machines to be the same to take the hassle out of re-imaging, but it's not a cheap process and often needs to be done in stages — which may result in rolling out different model machines.

Of course, every business has different needs and no two roll-outs are the same; but there is a basic strategy you can follow for most, as well as a baseline machine spec you can start from, and customise later.

Service, service, service

The make or break of any roll-out is service and warranty. While obviously you'd rather avoid problems, the truth is you need to roll out equipment with the mindset that it will fail, and have contingency plans for when it does.

Apart from using infrastructure to protect against things such as data loss (getting employees to save to the network, etc), you need as little downtime as possible. Having vendor support on-call, same day swap-out and an extended warranty may just save your bacon. By the same token, it's not worth overspending on your infrastructure. Plan your worst-case scenario, your required response times, your replacement costs and spend accordingly.

Buy the same machine company wide

Not always possible due to employee requirements, but having similar hardware corporation-wide can massively save on storage required for OS images, as well as diagnosing faults. It also mitigates the envy factor — co-workers who complain that Bob in accounting has a bigger monitor or a better mouse than they do.

Be aware of product cycles

You'll want to change your OS images as little as possible, so be aware of when a product range is going to be refreshed (and indeed, ask your account manager!). You don't want to buy PCs just as they're reaching end of life, so you have no option but to buy different hardware whenever you need a new machine, complicating your fleet.


From a business perspective, this is going to be hugely variable depending on your roll-out size and the bargaining savvy of the person doing the deal. Needless to say, drive the vendors as low as they can go without sacrificing service.

Single point of failure

Your most likely point of failure (outside of dead on arrival components) in a business machine is either the power supply or hard drive. If your employee productivity in relation to their desktop is critical, it might be worth having a machine or two on standby. This could be an older box from a previous roll-out or perhaps even a laptop, although if your budget permits buying spare desktops, a direct 1:1 swap out may save you time while the vendor's support mechanisms kick in. Once the vendor finishes fixing your issue, you can then make that machine the spare. It can also be useful for dealing with expanding headcount.

Speccing the box

Chassis size, noise
The less room these things take up the better — but perhaps not to the size of say, a Mac Mini, where employees can easily just pick them up and take them away unless they're locked down through a Kensington lock slot.

Similarly, 3-litre systems like Acer's Veriton may initially seem tempting, but their size requires you to give up some flexibility — they can't take half-height expansion cards, which may limit you when it comes to expanding your spec for special case employees. As always, it depends on the nature of your business as to what best suits. Silence is an oft-overlooked factor in the face of budget, but a quiet machine can help employee productivity. If you can, try to keep it in mind.


The vPro badge makes finding
a vPro machine rather easy.
(Credit: Intel)

Processor and chipset
Dual-core, without question. Quad-core is not needed from a client perspective (unless you're dealing with 3D artists), as most apps just aren't that threaded. Single core is likely to make multitasking just that little bit more painful for the power users.

For most situations, the E series of Intel Core 2 Duo processors offer excellent performance at a cheap price. For support for Intel's Active Management Technology (AMT) 5.0 and vPro, the E8600, E8500 and E8400 are a good bet, paired with a Q45 chipset (Q43 and G43 are not vPro enabled). Just like Centrino, vPro certification handily doesn't exist if you don't have Intel hardware all the way down the line, so be aware of the pitfalls here, especially with non-Intel NICs (network interface cards).

The four series chipset also gives access to digital video out, which may be required for certain monitor roll-outs. If you're really looking to cut corners, the current range of Pentiums and Celerons are simply older re-badged Core 2 chips — as a result there's no virtualisation support (and so no vPro), lesser cache and a lower front-side bus, but these sacrifices may not be noticeable on the standard office machine. Alternatively, AMD's range of CPUs are currently nicely priced.

For most roll-outs, 2GB is enough. Be aware of the trap of buying a machine with 4GB of RAM shipping with a 32-bit operating system, as it won't be capable of using the maximum. As for speed (as long as you're running dual-channel), capacity is likely to be more important in most roll-outs. As such DDR2-667 or 800 is perfectly fine.


The GMA X4500 isn't the most powerful graphics chip in the world, which makes it handy for business roll-outs that don't need any such frivolity. (Credit: Intel)

Integrated graphics cards, as much as it pains us to say, are perfectly fine for most circumstances. While you can get away with VGA out if you're trying to be cheap, your users will thank you for the improved image quality that comes with DVI. Some desktops ship with DisplayPort or HDMI ports in order to save on back panel input/output space, but keep in mind if your monitors won't take that connection and DVI adapters aren't included, this may drive up your cost.

Hard drive
Realistically very few workers will use up an 80GB hard drive, yet this is likely the smallest capacity mechanical drive you'll find today. Vista itself has a footprint of around 14GB — give or take around another 5-10GB for pagefile.sys and hiberfile.sys. Adobe CS3 comes in at around 4GB, Office 2007 at around 600MB. Allow for around 20GB of cruft, and you're still only at around 50GB.

XP by comparison has a footprint of about 5.8GB excluding pagegile.sys and hiberfile.sys, allowing for even more flexibility. It's unlikely most users will ever see more than half of that 80GB capacity chewed up. A large capacity hard drive just invites people to do things you don't want to encourage, like store their entire music collection there, or depending on how much they can get away with on your infrastructure, run a torrent client.


...please let it die already. (Credit: Panasonic)

Floppy drive/optical drive
Truth is, floppy drives can still be damn useful for firmware updates and for inserting custom drivers during a Windows XP install, since it's not smart enough to find other targets. However, if you're equipped with a bootable USB key, the Ultimate Boot CD or the shadier Hiren's Boot CD, you can often bypass the need for one. You can always have a USB floppy drive around for those "just in case" moments — although chances are it'll be a mandatory part of any machine you choose anyway.

Unless you pull everything over Ethernet, it is still best to keep an optical drive as there'll be unique situations where you really need to use a disc — plus workers will probably love you for supplying the free cup holder.

Power supplies
While you can get away with power supply units as low as 135W and still run something reasonably powerful, it's not the capacity but the efficiency that's important when it comes to power in the workplace. Most vendors are starting to push 85-plus — that is, power supplies that are at least 85 per cent efficient. Picking one of these up should help you save on power bills, and since less energy is escaping as heat it will potentially affect air conditioning bills over a long period of time.

You'd be crazy to not get gigabit, even crazier not to get a PXE-capable NIC with remote wake-up — luckily this should be the defacto standard these days. If you want vPro, you must use an Intel integrated NIC on a Q45 chipset.


Windows 7 threatens to displace XP, if only because of XP's age. (Credit: Microsoft)

OS licensing
If you've already got deals with say, Microsoft, for your OS roll-out, vendors may be able to offer OS-less machines for a cheaper price. On the Microsoft side, a lot of businesses haven't gone with Vista, and considering its hardware overhead this is understandable. You may want to check that the machine offers XP downgrade rights from Vista Business.

However, if you're on Windows XP, you need to be aware of a little thing called Windows 7 — or what is becoming quickly known as "Vista done right". It'll be with us 22 October 2009.

XP by its nature is, well, becoming old. The 32-bit version can't create GPT disks, only MBR, meaning it can't create volumes over 2TB in size. Not to mention the whole 4GB RAM problem, compounded by the fact that Windows XP 64-bit is horribly supported when it comes to applications and drivers. Believe it or not, even Vista can claim some positives compared to XP — in specific ecosystems there can be a visible improvement in network performance.

The upgrade to Windows 7 64-bit may be a choice that is ultimately made for you by both hardware and software vendors — best to start evaluating it today to see if and how it fits your infrastructure. For those that are considering Linux or other operating systems, it sounds obvious, but make sure you have the technical staff and IT infrastructure to support them and more than likely, their integration into a Microsoft infrastructure.

Business desktops

With all this in mind, here's our current favourites in the market for an office roll-out. We've listed vPro capable models here where appropriate, but if you don't need the technology you can save more by rolling out cheaper chipsets.

(Credit: Apple)

Apple iMac
Apple made a number of changes to the 24-inch iMac, but making it available at this price is the most impressive. Provided you like your all-in-ones best as straightforward desktop computers, the iMac will meet your expectations with speed and elegance.

Base price AU$1999 for 20-inch, Intel Core 2 Duo 2.66GHz, 2GB 1066MHz DDR3 RAM, 320GB HDD, keyboard, mouse
Warranty AU$268 for AppleCare Protection Plan; on-site (up to 80km from service centre); three years; next business day; five days a week, 12 hours a day support. Phone support 9am-6pm Saturdays
Pain points No vPro; no WOL (without unofficial app); no internal expandability; all-in-one nature means it makes component swap-outs a hassle

(Credit: HP)

HP dc7900 SFF
The HP Compaq dc7900 is a solid business offering in the premium desktop space, but the competition seems to be a small step ahead.

Base price AU$1579 for Intel Core 2 Duo E8400 @ 3.0GHz, Q45 chipset, 2GB 800MHz DDR2 RAM, 160GB HDD, mouse, keyboard
Warranty On-site; three years; massive array of upgrades called "HP Care Packs" including next business day, four- or eight-hour response times; five days a week, nine hours a day or 24/7 packages; warranties exclude monitors and accidental damage protection. Mix and match to your needs.
Pain points DisplayPort will likely need DVI adapter (approx AU$25 for HP adapter [FH973AA]), vast range of care packs over-complicates and will need serious consideration

(Credit: Dell)

Dell OptiPlex 960
If you're shopping at the premium end of the business desktop market, you'll be hard-pressed to do better than the Dell OptiPlex 960.

Base price AU$1925 for Intel Core 2 Duo E8400 @ 3.0GHz, Q45 chipset, 2GB 800MHz DDR2 RAM, 160GB HDD, mouse, keyboard, optional DVI adapter
Warranty On-site; three year "ProSupport" End User/IT*; next business day; AU$188.10 extra for five days a week, 12 hours a day support, four-hour on-site diagnosis.
Pain points None if you select to include the optional DVI adapter.

* Dell defines the differences between End User and IT support as the ability for an IT department to diagnose issues themselves. IT support staff can also be trained to use Dell's website to log replacement hardware requests themselves without having to engage with Dell engineers.

(Credit: Acer)

Acer Veriton L670G
Tiny and powerful, the Veriton is an excellent business machine. Its size comes at the price though of having to deal with an external power adapter, and lack of room for internal expansion.

Base price AU$1849 for Intel Core 2 Duo E8400 @ 3.0GHz, Q45 chipset, 2GB 800MHz DDR2 RAM, 320GB HDD
Warranty On-site (up to 50km from an Acer Authorised Onsite Service Provider); three years; next business day. AU$50.01 to increase to four years.
Pain points Too small for half-height expansion cards (Mini PCI-Express card only — users can opt for the larger S670 for this ability); external power pack adds trip hazard; no efficiency rating on power supply.

(Credit: Lenovo)

Lenovo ThinkCentre M58p Small Form Factor
The M58p does what Lenovo does best — provides a business machine that just does its job. With a few options added to the base configuration, it's flexible enough for most workplaces.

Base price AU$1807.05 for Intel Core 2 Duo E8400 @ 3.0GHz, Q45 chipset, 2GB 1066MHz DDR3 RAM, 160GB HDD, keyboard, mouse (options selected: 85 per cent efficiency PSU, DVI-D connection adapter, DVD ROM, no Microsoft Office)
Warranty On-site; three years; five days a week, nine hours a day, parts and labour; AU$77.00 to increase to four years.
Pain points None noted, particularly if it's equipped with the optional DVI bracket and DVD ROM.

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