The key characteristic of small and medium-sized businesses (SMBs) is a general lack of funds and human resources compared to those available to enterprises. So when it comes to considering what computers SMBs should choose, issues surrounding budget and IT support will usually figure highly.
But while cost is an important factor in SMB buying decisions, that's not to say they should always head down-market: buying a fleet of bargain-basement PCs and then discovering a significant number of 'dead-on-arrival' systems, or a high failure rate requiring repeated interventions by IT staff or customer support will not deliver an optimal total cost of ownership (TCO).
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Beyond product functionality, performance and cost, there are important ancillary issues such as the vendor's track record, product roadmap, warranty provisions, customer relations, user community and commitment to usability. All of these should feed into the buying process at some level.
With these general comments in mind, what are the key factors that should determine SMBs' choice of computer? Before going any further, it's worth stressing that by 'computer' we mean general-purpose productivity devices ranging from traditional desktops and workstations to tablet/laptop hybrids. We're not talking about smartphones (even though phones are becoming increasingly powerful and able to deliver desktop experiences) or servers.
What do you want to do with it?
The computer used by a traditional 'knowledge worker' at an office desk will be a different beast from the device in front of a 'first-line worker' in manufacturing, construction, retail, hospitality or transportation firms, for example, or in public sector organisations. Then there's all manner of 'power users' -- particularly in the scientific, financial and creative sectors -- who will need computers with a completely different level of functionality and performance.
Devices serving these broad user classes -- first-line workers, knowledge workers and power users -- will also need different levels of portability, ruggedness and security, depending on the requirements of, or demands on, the particular business sector.
All this may seem obvious, but without a clear picture of the workloads your computers will be running, and the circumstances under which they'll be running them, your chances of making an optimal selection are slim.
Generally speaking, the leading PC vendors have the broadest range of PC offerings at a wide variety of price points, and are most likely to be able to cope with unexpected economic headwinds such as those we're currently experiencing.
So unless they already have fruitful pre-existing relationships with second- or third-tier vendors, or have good reasons to seek out suppliers in the 'Others' category, most SMBs will be looking at what are often termed 'the usual suspects':
Of course the top-tier vendors have been affected by the coronavirus pandemic, with the traditional PC market (desktops, notebooks and workstations) seeing a 9.8% year-on-year decline in shipments in Q1 2020, following extended factory closures in February, according to analyst firm IDC. Apple saw the biggest decline at 20.7% compared to Q1 2019, because almost all of its manufacturing is based in China. HP, Acer and Lenovo saw declines of 13.8%, 9.9% and 4.3% respectively, while Dell's shipments actually rose slightly (1.1%) thanks to its strong relationships with the supply chain, IDC said.
What is your preferred platform?
Judged purely on worldwide market share, Windows is likely to be the first choice of operating system for SMBs: across all versions, Windows accounts for 88% of the market, according to NetMarketShare, with Windows 10 comprising over half (52%) and Windows 7 around a third (30.6%) -- even though support for the latter ended in January 2020:
Windows dominates the PC operating system market thanks to its long-time availability on a wide range of OEM (and more recently, Microsoft) hardware, which has resulted in a huge variety of software written for the platform. That's not to say that it's necessarily the 'best' operating system, but as an SMB you're probably going to need a good, specific, reason to overlook it in favour of Apple's macOS, which comprises around 9% of the market, Linux (1.8%) or Chrome OS (<1%).
For example, you might choose macOS for some employees in order to run creative software on premium hardware, or because Apple's ecosystem is already embraced company-wide. Linux might get the nod for its free, open-source and increasingly usable nature, or because it's less of a target for cybercriminals than Windows. And Chrome OS-based Chromebooks offer an affordable platform for web-based productivity apps or thin client software.
What form factor is most appropriate?
Computer form factors range from tablets and ultraportable laptops to large, powerful multi-monitor workstations, touching many points in between. Choosing between them is another 'what do you want to do with it?' question, and will involve trade-offs between computing power, portability, screen size, input methods and upgradability. This taxonomy of the main device classes may help to put them into perspective:
There's currently a lot of activity and innovation in the space occupied by tablets, ultrabooks and 2-in-1 laptop/tablets, mainly because 'mainstream mobile productivity' is (or has been) an outpost of growth in a generally declining PC market. That's why Apple is seeking to make the iPad more 'computer'-like with add-on keyboards and trackpad support, and why there's much interest in forthcoming devices like Lenovo's ThinkPad X1 Fold and Microsoft's dual-screen Windows 10X-based Surface Neo, as well as Intel's prototype Horseshoe Bend that unfolds from a clamshell to a large standalone 17.3-inch screen, and concept folding devices from Dell. However, products in this space will carry premium prices for some time, and will likely be out of the reckoning for the average SMB for the foreseeable future.
Once you've settled on the workloads you'll be running, the OS you'll be running them on, and the form factor(s) you require, it's time to consider the specifications. The basic ones revolve around CPU, RAM and storage, GPU and connectivity. Here are some very broad recommendations.
System type / CPU vendor
A-Series, Athlon, Ryzen 3
Core i5, i7
Ryzen 5, 7
Core i9, Xeon
Ryzen 9, Ryzen Threadripper
Processors come in 'desktop' and 'mobile' variants, the former generally being more powerful but less power efficient than the latter for a given model number. If you want enterprise-grade security and manageability features built into the CPU, look for vPro (Intel) and PRO (AMD) models.
Memory & storage
System type / Component
For desktops and laptops, the more RAM and the more storage -- particularly fast SSD storage -- you can specify, the better. But if you have to choose between spending more on RAM or on storage, go for RAM. You can always store data on external media or in the cloud if need be, but more RAM will make any PC more responsive. If you see Optane Memory in a PC's specs, that's not RAM, but non-volatile memory used in fast SSDs or for 'intelligent system acceleration' -- speeding up access to data on legacy hard disk drives (HDDs), for example.
When it comes to graphics, the integrated GPUs in Intel's and some of AMD's processors will handle most SMB workloads just fine. Intel processors come with integrated HD or UHD Graphics, and Iris, Iris Pro or Iris Plus Graphics, while AMD processors come with integrated Radeon or Radeon Vega Graphics. Integrated GPUs share RAM with the main processor, which is another reason why it's always best to specify the most RAM you can afford.
For graphically demanding tasks, you'll need a system with a discrete desktop or mobile GPU, with its own dedicated video RAM (which can range between 2GB and 16GB). The main discrete GPU vendors are Nvidia (GeForce, Quadro, Titan, Tesla) and AMD (Radeon, Radeon Pro).
Intel's next move in the GPU space will be with its Xe architecture, which is expected to scale from mobile all the way up to high-performance computing (HPC) systems.
All computers, laptop or desktop, should come with wi-fi for wireless local area networking (WLAN) and Bluetooth for wireless personal area networking (WPAN). The latest 802.11ax (Wi-Fi 6) standard will be supported on higher-end devices, but 802.11ac (Wi-Fi 5) is still widely used. Look for Bluetooth 5 and Bluetooth LE (Low Energy), in preference to older versions. Mobile broadband -- over 4G LTE and, in due course, 5G cellular networks -- is available on some high-end, mostly ultraportable, laptops: 4G or 5G wireless wide area networking (WWAN) will be useful for highly mobile professionals, but is an expensive option.
The variety of wired connections on a PC will vary widely depending on form factor and budget tier. Look for USB-C with Thunderbolt 3 support, as it's the most versatile single connection, capable of handling data, video and power delivery. USB-C is often accompanied by previous-generation USB 3.0 ports, while video connections include HDMI, DisplayPort and even legacy VGA on some systems. Ethernet (RJ-45) for wired network connection is available on most desktops and some laptops. On smaller laptops lacking an RJ-45 port, Ethernet can be added via a USB dongle, or on an external docking station along with other connections.
Other key factors
If you're choosing a laptop, and especially one destined for use away from a source of mains power for significant lengths of time, battery life will be extremely important. You'll want a device that offers 'all day' battery life (>8 hours), but be aware that manufacturers' claimed figures are often optimistic. Seek out reviews that test with realistic workloads and usage patterns. A removable battery is preferable but increasingly rare, especially on ultraportable systems.
Security should be front and centre on all business PCs. Key security/manageability features include Intel's vPro, Trusted Platform Module (TPM), UEFI firmware and Secure Boot, along with biometric authentication via fingerprint or facial recognition.
If you're going to be running demanding software on expensive high-end PCs or workstations, make sure the vendor has certifications from ISVs (Independent Software Vendors). This should ensure that mission-critical applications will run reliably on your chosen hardware platform.
Some laptops used in vertical industries such as construction or field service need to be able to handle rough treatment and extreme environmental conditions. In such cases, you should be looking for rugged systems with IP ratings for dust and water resistance and military-grade MIL-STD 810G testing. You'll see various grades of ruggedness in manufacturers' descriptions -- ruggedised, semi-rugged, business rugged, fully rugged, ultra-rugged, and more. Check carefully to determine exactly what you're getting. Rugged laptops are available from top-tier vendors (Lenovo, HP, Dell), as well as specialists, including Panasonic, Getac, GRiD and DT Research.
Finally, an important feature you won't see on a spec sheet: ergonomics. Relevant areas include the adjustability and eye comfort of a screen or monitor, the feel and layout of a keyboard, and the location of ports, slots and webcams. On the latter point, the coronavirus lockdown and consequent explosion of video conferencing has provided plenty of opportunities to experience disturbing 'up-the-nose' camera angles and poor audio quality.
PC & Device as a Service
If you want to minimise the hassle surrounding the procurement, management and upgrading of your business PCs, the PC-as-a-Service (PCaaS) model is worth considering, along with broader Device-as-a-Service (DaaS) offerings.
Available from tier-one PC vendors like Dell, HP and Lenovo, and others such as Microsoft and third parties, PCaaS/DaaS lets businesses choose the PCs and devices they require and then, for a monthly subscription, have the service provider deploy, manage, maintain, secure, support and eventually replace those devices.
There are many benefits to the PCaaS/DaaS model, including minimal upfront costs, a single point of contact for IT staff (who will also be freed up for more creative tasks), and shorter device lifecycles, resulting in more up-to-date devices being on users' desks or in their hands. Downsides include vendor lock-in, and potential pushback from employees who appreciate the bring-your-own-device (BYOD) approach.
For more detail, check out this (HP-sponsored) research from IDC.
Desktop as a Service & VDI
Easily confused with device-as-a-service because it shares the same DaaS acronym, desktop-as-a-service delivers user desktops -- usually Windows and/or Linux -- from the cloud to end-user devices over an internet connection. It's essentially a cloud-based version of traditional virtual desktop infrastructure (VDI), where desktops are hosted by on-premises server infrastructure.
As with any cloud-based service, there are pros (e.g. pay-as-you-go pricing, flexibility, scalability, freedom from IT infrastructure management) and cons (e.g. software licensing issues, internet latency and outages, data security worries). Desktop as a service is a particularly good fit for SMBs, which are unlikely to be able to deploy on-premises VDI solutions.