Working at home has its perks: Your commuting time drops dramatically, you get to pick the brand of coffee in the coffee maker, and every day is casual Friday. But whether you're running a home business or telecommuting a couple of times a week, your home office will be a success only if you take your equipment seriously.
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For anyone who has ever despaired over a plodding, office-issued computer or a budget printer that mangles copies, the freedom to choose your own gear can be intoxicating. But don't be enticed into paying for bells and whistles you'll never use, advises Erica Orloff, coauthor of The 60-Second Commute (FT Press, $12). "Shop with a very clear idea of the real-life application of your office," she says.
Start with your work style. Do you sit in one place, or do you like a change of scenery? Does your job entail a lot of printing, copying or faxing? Are you on the Internet constantly or just a few times a day? Also consider the footprint of each piece of equipment, says Lisa Kanarek, founder of HomeOfficeLife.com. If you don't have much room in your home office to spread out, look for space-saving devices.
Choosing a computer boils down to two main factors: money, then use. In general, desktops are cheaper than laptops; you can get a decent one for about $500. But prices on laptops have come down, and we found a good model for only $700. Whether you choose a laptop or a desktop, you'll need a minimum of 512 megabytes of RAM to jump seamlessly between programs. And with hard-drive memory so inexpensive, go for at least 100 gigabytes. It's easier and cheaper to add storage when you buy than upgrading later on.
Laptops. Our top pick is the Apple MacBook Pro ($1,999). Its 2.2-gigahertz Core 2 Duo processor can run either the Mac OS X operating system or Windows, so you get a Mac and a PC in one. To run Windows XP or Vista, you'll need to buy your own copy and download a free program called Boot Camp from Apple's Web site. The base price includes 2GB of RAM and a 120GB hard drive. The MacBook Pro is lightweight -- less than 6 pounds -- and has a 15.4-inch wide-screen display. The machine comes with iLife '06 software, Apple's highly regarded suite of multimedia programs.
On the PC side, a good (and less expensive) choice is the Dell Inspiron E1505 (starting at $699). A 15.4-inch wide-screen display and 1GB of RAM come standard, and upping the hard drive from 80GB to 120GB costs $55.
Desktops. If you don't need to take your work with you, a desktop will do. But don't cost-cut too much. Desktops in the $500 range may be fine for personal use but rarely have the memory you need to run several programs at once, and they come with smaller hard drives. One top machine for the money is the Dell Dimension E521 with enhanced multimedia ($659). A 19-inch flat-panel monitor accompanies a comfortable keyboard and an optical mouse. This quiet-running system has a gigabyte of RAM and a 250GB hard drive -- plenty of space for most users. A dual-core AMD processor enhances the Dimension's speed for multitasking. Windows Vista Home Premium gives you Media Center capabilities, such as editing home movies and connecting your PC to a TV.
Another top pick is the Apple iMac 20-inch ($1,499). It's compact but packed with features. A speedy 2.16-GHz Intel Core 2 Duo processor is included, along with a gigabyte of RAM and a 250GB hard drive. Like the MacBook Pro, it can run Windows if you purchase it and download Boot Camp.