Why do you need a computer?
Before you rush out to buy (or lease) a computer for your home office, the most important piece of advice we can give, is to take a bit of time thinking what you actually need it for. Not what you want, but what you need. You will probably be stuck with your new computer for a few years, so this part is critical, and you will thank yourself for it later on.
Make the wrong decision now and you could end up stuck with a computer that’s slow, can’t run the software you need to manage your business or is overpowered for your needs and costs twice what you really need.
Quick Note: The purpose of this guide is not to direct the reader towards any particular manufacturer or operating system. When we use the terms ‘computer’ or ‘PC’ we are not referring to Windows versus Apple Mac or vice versa and unless specified can be used interchangeably.
General Use Computers for a Home Office
Will you be using the computer mainly to check email and browse the web? Are you planning on doing a significant amount of office work on your computer? If so, then a basic PC with workhorse Intel and AMD processors should suffice.
Make sure you get at least 4GB of Ram, too, which will help Windows 10 run a lot more smoothly. If possible, get more, especially if you are going to end up working on multiple documents or have multiple browser tabs open at the same time.
The Official Microsoft minimum system requirements for running Windows 10 are below.
- Processor: 1 gigahertz (GHz) or faster processor or SoC.
- RAM: 1 gigabyte (GB) for 32-bit or 2 GB for 64-bit.
- Hard disk space: 16 GB for 32-bit OS or 20 GB for 64-bit OS.
- Graphics card: DirectX 9 or later with WDDM 1.0 driver.
In comparison, since all Apple Mac devices are integrated, any Apple device you purchase will meet the minimum standards for running the Mac OS. With Apple, it is more a case of how big your budget is.
A PC for lots of multi-tasking or photo-editing
If you like to do a lot of things quickly, you’ll want an Intel Core i5 processor as a baseline. You’ll also want at least 16GB of Ram and a solid-state drive (SSD) for storage will speed things up quite a lot.
Music/Video Editing/Gaming/Game Design/3D
Is your computer going to be used by everyone in the family? If so, will it need to be powerful enough to run the latest computer games or will it be needed for music or video editing? If you are going to be editing 8K video and need it done quickly, then consider an Intel Core i7, processor as a minimum and at least 16, if not 32GB of Ram.
If you are editing video, you will also need a dedicated graphics card or if not, then a lot of patience and a lot of time.
Your Home Office Space
How much space do you have? Do you have a purpose-built Home Office or are you going to set up office during the day on the kitchen table? If you don’t have much space, then you are going to have to seriously consider buying a laptop.
If you have your own home office and you can shut the door on the muddles at the end of the day, you are in luck. With a desktop computer you can get a lot more bang for your buck. This leads us nicely onto…
Desktop versus Laptop
Desktop PCs are essentially the more traditional “tower” type computers. They can range from large, bulky devices that have to be hidden away under a desk, to more discreet and elegant models that can be simply tucked away.
The advantages and disadvantages of a desktop computer
The one big plus-point of a desktop PC is that it can be easily adapted to suit your needs. You can pick the monitor you want and make more significant changes internally, such as adding more RAM, a new graphics card, or a more powerful processor. You can buy one that is configured exactly to your needs or have one made to your specification and you can extend their lifetimes by swapping in new graphics cards, drives, more memory etc as it becomes available.
Desktop computers can also be good value (Even Mac Minis). You can buy a desktop and keep your current monitor, keyboard and mouse and because they are not so tightly integrated and designed as laptops, they can also be built using more generic or OEM parts and this can save you quite a bit on their cost.
With desktop computers you are, effectively buying one based on its specification and performance and not the design and branding budget necessary to get you to buy it in the first place.
The one big disadvantage of a desktop PC is that flexibility and extensibility come with a big downside, they are big, and they can be pretty ugly. You can also end up with a plethora of cables sprouting out of the back, like a ‘plateful of spaghetti’, as the old advert used to say.
You can get smaller, mini-desktop computers but always measure the space you have available before you buy one. It is better to be safe than sorry.
What you get in the box with your desktop computer ,depends on where you order it from. Some come with keyboard and mouse, while others will require you to purchase a monitor, speakers, and peripherals separately.
Deciding between a laptop or a desktop
Laptops are portable and are great for students or occasional home workers, but unless you spend a lot of money on them, they are normally less powerful than a desktop and you are much more limited when it comes to extending the life of a laptop by upgrading it.
Their main advantages over a desktop are portability when you don’t want to spend any more time locked in your home office, and need to work but also need some family life, and if you don’t have pace for a home office, they are often your only option. If you decide to go down the laptop route, also check how long the batteries last and if it possible to get replacement batteries. If not you will end up with a laptop as a desktop.
Also consider if you can get a docking station for your laptop. With these you can have the best of both worlds, a desktop computer with dedicated keyboard and monitor, but one that you can pick up and literally take with you in a matter of seconds.
The things you need to consider when choosing a computer
Having worked out what you want to use a computer for and whether it should be a desktop or a laptop, the next things to consider are the operating system, CPU (Brains), Memory and storage capacity you need to get you started.
The Operating System
This is where I strap on my hard hat. When it comes down to choosing between a Mac or a Windows PC, the Graphical User Interfaces they use have converged so much, it really comes down to two things.
- The heart. What do you prefer, what do you want it to say about you?
- The head. Can I get the software I need for my work, to run on it?
Apple Mac computers tend to be more expensive than Windows PCs when you compare like for like. Some trades such as musicians, photographers, videographers etc have traditionally veered towards getting a mac because they used to run content creation programs such as the Adobe product suite much more efficiently than a Windows PC and originally were only available on an Apple Mac.
The fact that Apple has always marketed its products as being for individuals rather than corporate clones has also gone some way towards this attitude as well.
I personally use a Windows PC for my day job and an Apple Mac personally. Why, simply because most of the software I need for my day job is not available for the Apple. And I chose an Apple for my personal use because I got tired of the never-ending windows updates and crashes every time I switched my personal laptop on. I digress.
This is the computer’s processor (its brain), and what makes your computer do anything. Regardless of whether you are looking at Microsoft Windows or Apple, a laptop or a desktop, In reality there are only two major manufacturers you can consider, AMD and Intel.
Intel started the whole Personal Computer (PC) business off, decades ago. Intel supplied the chips and Microsoft supplied the operating system (DOS not Windows) and the whole thing was known as WINTEL. AMD is a newer outfit than Intel and their products tend to be cheaper than Intel’s.
It is not possible for us to recommend one CPU over another, they change so frequently, anything we say will be out of date very quickly. The best advice we can give you, is, now you know what you are going to use your computer for, do a bit of Google research and identify the most common/recommended CPUs mentioned for what you are interested in.
Your computer programs run in the computer’s memory and get as much as you can within your budget. If you don’t have enough memory in your computer you will find everything runs very very slowly, until at the end everything crashes and you have to switch it off and start again (another quick tip is, save as you are going along. This can save you having to do hours of rework if your computer crashes).
The minimum recommendation for general computer use is 8 GB of RAM. If you run graphic intensive software, you will need at least 2x or 4x this.
If you are planning to start off with a base level of RAM and extend later on. It is worth checking the number of memory slots you have available on your computer, as well as the speed and size of RAM chips you can install (as well as their cost).You don’t want to find later on that you cannot add more memory or it is too expensive to get hold of. A small saving here could cost you big time in the future.
This is basically the size of your hard disk. It used to be that the Hard Disk Drives (HDD) would cost a small fortune. These days storage is not that expensive for desktops (it costs more for laptops). Storage is measured in gigabytes (GB) or Terabytes (TB) and all of your documents, programs, photos, videos, and music will use this space.
In general, the more storage, the better, though average users can easily get by with 500 GB. If you need more it is probably cheaper to buy external storage and talking about external storage, also remember to back up what is on your hard drive to an external storage device. At some point it will fail, disk failures are one of the few guarantees in life.
It is also worth considering paying more for SSD (Solid State Drives), especially in laptops. Unlike the old hard disk drives, SSDs do not physically spin like a record, this means they do not break so much, are quieter, consume less power and are faster.
Is it extensible?
By this we mean can you upgrade it or add bits to it over time? Such as:
Unless you are mining crypto currencies, designing games or running a design studio, you probably don’t need a specialist video card for your computer. If you are doing anything like these things, then you are probably better off with a desktop computer that allows you to select a video card of your choice and swap it in for the existing one.
Screen resolution is key when buying a monitor, and unless you need a calibrated specialist monitor, this should be one of your main concerns. The minimum you should consider is Full High Definition (1920 x 1080 pixels.
Generally speaking, the higher the number of pixels, the sharper the image (and the smaller the icons). You can correct this in the PC settings configuration and increase their default sizes to suit you.
If you’re using your desktop PC for mostly office tasks, Full HD will be more than enough, but if you’re doing a lot of graphics work, or playing games, you’ll notice a big difference by stepping up to a ‘4K’ or ‘ultra HD’ screen.
When it comes to specialist screens for video work and commercial photography it will definitely be worth you taking a lot of time and asking people a lot of questions before you buy anything. Specialist video screens can set you back thousands of dollars and you really don’t want to get this wrong.
Other things to consider when buying a monitor
Can it be adjusted to suit your set up? Some can be raised or lowered, but not all, so you’ll need to make sure that it is suitable for your needs. Some monitors can be swung on their stands so they can be used in portrait (vertical) mode rather than the more common (landscape) mode. Is this something you need for your work?
Does it have additional ports? Some monitors have additional ports built in, such as USB. This can be a great help if you’re in need of an extra connection or two.
Does it have the right connections? No, we are not asking whether it knows the President. Can you connect it to your Laptop as a second monitor, or to your desktop base station, without having to buy yet another cable or adapter to plug two cables together just to get it to work?
Does it have built in speakers? Some monitors will come with built-in speakers. If so, do you need them and are they good enough for what you need? Most built in speakers are not that good, and whereas they may save you some crucial desk space by being built in, if they are not up to spec, why pay extra for something you don’t need or is not good enough to use?
Does it have the right viewing angle? if you sit directly in front of the monitor, it is a given that it has the right viewing angle, but what if you need to regularly share the screen with someone else in the room? Is it up to spec? Is it good enough or do you need to consider another monitor?
The other important bits and pieces you may need
Dependant on whether you are setting up your home office from scratch or replacing what you currently have, you may need to but a few more things such as a keyboard and/or mouse.
When it comes to buying a keyboard, you can get wired or wireless keyboards. Wireless keyboards cost a bit more and most of us only use wired keyboards but wireless ones can reduce the clutter on your desk and make it easier to work with the additional freedom it gives you. The battery life on them is often pretty good as well.
You can also get ergonomic keyboards. They take a bit of getting used to but are designed to feel more natural to use and can really help relax your wrists and arms if you have to do a lot of typing.
You should always try one out before you buy one but if you suffer from RSI (Repetitive Strain Injury) or chronic pain, or CFS, they can be a great help.
Keyboards have different layouts depending on the country they are intended for. They can also have different secondary character sets, again dependant on the country they have been specified for. If this could be a problem for you, check that the keyboard you are buying matches the one you normally use, especially if you’re buying online.
You may also need a keyboard with dedicated media keys or one which you can attach a graphics tablet too, or overlay with a specialist video editing character set.
If you are going to use your computer for any specialist services such as video or music editing, it is worth checking the keyboard matches what you need and if necessary, replace it with one that does.
Same as keyboards, you may find a wireless mouse a useful thing to have. Again, they can help declutter your desk. The batteries in them last for months and you can also use them as impromptu devices to control PowerPoint presentations.
Most computer mice these days come with two buttons and a scroll wheel. The original mac mouse had one button. You can also configure your computer mouse via the PC configuration settings for such things as the scroll speed, direction and sensitivity and switch the functionality of the mouse keys.
Similar to keyboards, you can get ergonomic mice, and again, check them out to see if they suit you before you buy them.
You can also get computer mice designed for left-handed people. For most standard mice, this does not matter, you can just reprogram the keys but if you want a left-handed ergonomic mouse you can get them.
Finally – How much can you afford to pay?
Finally consider how much you can afford to spend on the computer and balance your needs versus your available budget. Focus on what you need now and consider what you may need 18 – 24 months down the line from your home office computer. Also consider leasing a device or offsetting your tax liabilities against the cost of the device.
If in doubt speak to your accountant and good luck.