Which PC should I buy to run a small business?

Matthew looks after IT for a parent-run nursery and is looking for a reliable, trouble-free desktop PC.


The HP 3500 Pro Microtower has a third generation Intel Core i5-3470 IPS LED backlit monitor.

My kids are enrolled in a parent-cooperative nursery in Sweden, so all parents have roles in the running of the nursery. My role is responsibility for IT, and over the past few years, I have been slowly updating and improving all the hardware and software. Now it’s time for the desktop PC to be replaced, and this is where I am at a bit of a loss. As a Mac user, I have little knowledge of what would be suitable. However, I know that the staff – capable as they are – couldn’t cope with a switch to Mac.

The main requirements for the hardware are:
• A good financial investment – reliable quality – takes care of itself.
• Future proof/upgradeable (three years or more).
• Can handle images, and Microsoft Office for documents, posters, forms etc.

For software, I’m also looking for a backup system similar to Time Machine on the Mac, and for newsletters, software that can simply edit photos from iPads and digital cameras. Also, I want an email client to let each staff member log into their own account from the same user profile.

There are two ways to approach the hardware. Either you can buy from a global giant that specialises in supplying small businesses and offers on-site service, or you can buy from a small, local shop that also specialises in looking after small businesses. The former is probably the safest course, but the latter is worth considering if you are close to a really good local supplier.

If you decide to go with a global giant, both HP and Dell supply cheap, reliable, small-tower desktop computers that are easy to repair and upgrade. Their desktops should easily last three years, and six years is more likely. Indeed, I think you should buy a machine that you expect to run until 14 January, 2020, which is when Microsoft will stop supporting Windows 7. This means you can amortise the cost over 300 weeks or 72 months.

HP or Dell?

From HP’s range, I would go for the HP 3500 Pro Microtower PC & HP 23bw IPS LED backlit monitor. This has a third generation Intel Core i5-3470 quad-core processor with 4GB of memory, a 500GB hard drive, and 64-bit Windows 7. The closest I can find after wrestling with HP’s Swedish site is the HP Pro 3500 MT (C5X65EA). Note that you will want to add a Care Pack to provide three years of next business day on-site service.

“Defective Media Retention” means you get to keep the hard drive if something goes wrong with it. This is highly recommended for data protection purposes. It’s even more recommended if the drive contains data about nursery school children.

From Dell’s range, I would go for the Vostro 270MT. This has the same specification as the HP machine, including the Core i5-3470 processor. Again, go for three years of Pro (rather than Basic) support. I bought a similar but slightly bigger machine two years ago — a Dell Vostro 460DT with a Core i5-2500 — but included an Nvidia GeForce GT 420 graphics card. The 270MT lacks this and will use main memory for graphics, but it should not be a problem for your purposes. In any case, it’s easy to add a cheap graphics card or extra memory later.

The third-generation Core i5-3470 is quite a bit faster than, for example, a fourth-generation Haswell Core i7-4600U. Being in a desktop tower, it can run hotter than would be possible in a thin laptop (in this case, 77 Watts vs 15 Watts).

Windows and Office

There are several reasons for getting 64-bit Windows 7 Pro. First, the desktop interface should be an easier step up, compared to Windows 8, for those not already familiar with it. Second, it will be supported until 2020, as mentioned, and it’s not going to change, though you should keep updating to newer browsers. Third, Microsoft allows you to run a free virtual copy of Windows XP under Windows 7 Pro, if you have some reason for doing that. Fourth, you’re actually buying a copy of Windows 8 with a downgrade to Windows 7 Pro, so you could upgrade to Windows 8 free of charge, if you wanted to.

You don’t mention which version of Microsoft Office you have, but if you have the DVDs, you can install the old copy on your new PC. If not, I would buy a DVD copy of Microsoft Office Home and Business 2010. There are some advantages to the new Office 2013, particularly the wealth of templates and the live preview options that make it much easier to make documents look nice. Also, you can synchronise Office 2013 with Outlook.com web-based email without using the old Microsoft Office Outlook Hotmail Connector. However, 2010 is more likely to be familiar to existing users of Office 2007 and 2010. (You don’t need to be at the “leading edge”, but nor should you fall too far behind.)

Microsoft Office Home and Business 2010 includes Word, Excel, PowerPoint, OneNote and Outlook, which should take care of most of your office needs. Everyone should use the same Microsoft Outlook account for all nursery business email, contacts book and calendar, and Outlook can also be used to organise meetings and keep to-do lists. Staff should not use it to send personal emails: they can use their own web-based mail accounts, such as Google’s Gmail or Microsoft’s Outlook.com. Of course, you should remind them not to store their passwords in shared web browsers.

This version of Office does not include Microsoft Publisher, but Word already includes simple photo editing tools. Once you have pasted in a photo, you can crop and rotate it, change brightness and contrast, and add effects, including soft edges. I prefer to edit copies of photos first, but the free Paint.net is powerful enough for most ordinary purposes. You don’t need Microsoft Publisher (which is included in bigger versions of Office) because you can use the free Serif PagePlus Starter Edition instead. Scribus is a free, open source alternative, but harder to use.

Backup strategies

Windows 7 already has easy-to-use backup and restore, which includes scheduled backups. If you buy a Dell, you may find it includes a similar but unnecessary program, Dell DataSafe Local Backup, which tries to get you to upgrade to a premium version.

Time Machine keeps hourly backups for the past 24 hours, daily backups for the past month, and weekly backups until your backup drive is full. I can’t think of a PC product that does the same thing out of the box, but there are plenty of options that keep earlier versions of files, if you set them up. RollBack RX ($69) and Genie Timeline Professional 2013 (£44.95) seem closest to Time Machine. 2BrightSparks’ SyncBack Pro (£37.48) should also do everything you need, as long as you watch out for running out of drive space. Altaro’s BackupFS (£79) is another option, though it’s really designed for servers. However, I’m going by spec sheets: I haven’t used any of these programs myself.

The more obvious way of backing things up to an external hard drive is to use a free file synchronisation program. I’d go for either 2BrightSparks’ SyncBackFree V6.5 or the open source FreeFileSync (which is the one I use) rather than Microsoft’s popular SyncToy 2.1.

Windows 7 already has System Protection turned on by default for the C: drive, so right-clicking on any file offers the menu option to “Restore previous versions”. Otherwise, AutoVer freeware provides a really simple way to keep real-time backups of multiple versions of files. Windows 7’s backup program can create a disk image as a VHD (Virtual Hard Drive) file that is a complete, mountable clone of your PC. That plus some free file syncing may be all you need.

There are lots of other useful free programs for Windows, but that’s a different question, if someone wants to ask it …


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