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The Home Office Revisited

graphic showing man using computer
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Every year or two I like to rethink what someone might need or want in a small or home office. Some products that seemed necessary a few years ago don't now. But progress has brought us new must-haves.

Of course you'll need a PC or a Mac, but if you already have one, you might not need an upgrade. There used to be compelling reasons to upgrade every two or three years, but that's less true now. If you have a reasonably new Mac or any PC with a Pentium 4 or Celeron chip, you're probably just fine.

Your old machine might be anemic when it comes to memory. These days I recommend 256 megabytes of memory, with 128 MB as a minimum.

If you're shopping for a machine for business, you might be encouraged to get Microsoft Windows XP Professional instead of Windows XP Home Edition. The Professional edition is more expensive, but, frankly, it doesn't offer anything of value to most home users, even those who work at home. A simple rule of thumb: If you don't have an IT manager, you don't need the Professional Edition.

Disk storage keeps getting cheaper, which is a good thing because files -- especially those with photos, videos or audio -- keep getting larger. I recommend a minimum of 20 gigabytes, but 40 GB or even 60 GB isn't much more expensive. If you have an older machine, you can add memory and a second hard drive. Memory is now very cheap. Kingston Technology's Web site (http://www.kingston.com) helps you find memory based on your machine's model number.

I've always recommended a backup system. In the past, I suggested either a tape backup or a Zip drive. But they are no longer needed because you can now back up to CD-ROMs. Most of today's PCs and Macs are equipped with CD-Rewritable, or CD-RW, drives. If you don't have one, you can add an external drive that plugs into a Universal Serial Bus port or you can have a less-expensive internal drive installed in your PC. CD-Recordable, or CD-R, discs, to which you write only once, are cheaper than the rewritable CD-RW discs, and the fact that they can't be updated or erased actually makes them better for backup.

In the old days, I recommended a modem on every machine, but today that's not necessary if you have a broadband connection such as digital subscriber line or a cable modem and a local area network, or LAN, to connect to the Internet. For today's business machines, I recommend an Ethernet card. They are cheap (less than $30 for a desktop machine) and make it easy to connect to a DSL or cable line or a LAN. An increasing number of PCs and all Macs now come equipped with Ethernet adapters.

Although some offices are out of range of both cable and DSL, the services are becoming widely available and are priced competitively, starting at less than $50 a month. A LAN is extremely handy if you have more than one machine in your office. LANs enable you to exchange files between machines and share resources such as printers and Internet connections.

Basic (wired) LANs are quite inexpensive. In addition to an Ethernet card in each machine, you'll need one hub to connect all your machines. That will cost you as little as $25 for a four-port hub (four machines) or $69 for an eight-port hub. Look for a 10/100 hub that allows you to connect at either 10 or 100 megabits per second. Ten Mbps is fast enough for office applications. You'll also need to run Ethernet cables between each machine and the hub.

The main hassle with setting up a network is running the Ethernet cables to each machine. You can avoid that with a wireless LAN, but that is more expensive. I just added a notebook PC to my home office network using an 802.11b wireless network. Installation was easy compared with setting up a wired network. Whether it's cost-effective depends on what it's worth to avoid the cost and hassle of stringing wires. If you get a wireless network, make sure it's 802.11b or "WiFi" compliant, which means that it will operate at 11 Mbps and be compatible with equipment from other vendors. Wireless is especially handy if you want to access the Internet from a conference room, a lunch area or an outside patio. You can even use it at certain public places like airport lounges and coffee shops that offer wireless access.

Of course, your office also will need a printer. A laser printer is good if you do a lot of printing, because even though it costs more to buy, it's cheaper to use. Not counting paper, you'll pay between 1 cent and 2 cents a copy for laser printing compared with 3 cents to 5 cents a copy for inkjet. Hewlett-Packard's LaserJet 1000 ($249) is an excellent value.

A good inkjet printer, however, enables you to print in both black and color, and you can now get inkjet printers that are as fast and almost as crisp as laser printers. Expect to pay between $100 and $250 for a good home office-grade color printer.

I used to recommend a scanner, but I hardly ever use mine. Most of the items I would have scanned in the past now can be downloaded over the Internet. If you do occasionally need a scan, you can have it done at Kinko's or other copy shops.

In the past, I was against multifunction devices, but now I'm convinced that you can get close to "best of breed" for each component. Such machines usually include a printer, a scanner, a copier and, in some cases, a fax in one device -- priced as low as $179 for the Lexmark Z82 (no fax) and as high as $800 for the HP OfficeJet G95, which is faster and has fax capabilities. Multifunction devices save money and desk space and often are easier to set up because there is only one machine and one installation CD.

When equipping a home office, don't forget your environment. Furniture and lighting are also very important. Make sure that you have sufficient lighting as well as a comfortable chair and a table that's the right height for your computer. Dining-room tables are great for eating and regular desks are fine for writing, but both are usually too high for working at a PC.


A syndicated technology columnist for nearly two decades, Larry Magid serves as on air Technology Analyst for CBS Radio News. His technology reports can be heard several times a week on the CBS Radio Network. Magid is the author of several books including "The Little PC Book."

Got a PC question? Visit www.PCAnswer.com.

By Larry Magid
Los Angeles Times Syndicate