Personal computers have enabled millions of Americans to operate businesses out of their homes. According to recent market surveys, some 20 million people will earn all or part of their household income from a home-based business next year.
Finding the right computer at the right price is a goal of most of these workers. Link Resources Inc., a market research company in New York that tracks the home office market, found that home office workers spent an average of $1,830 for their latest computer.
Given that amount as a target, we recently set out to find the best home office computer. No one computer can really be said to be the best, simply because the needs of home office workers vary so widely, but we looked for one that offered good value, high performance, ease of use and good technical support.
A home office worker typically has no backup computer and no technical support staff, so if the computer goes down for any length of time, so does the business. With that in mind, we chose two very different computers for consideration: the Dell 316SX, and the Apple Macintosh Classic 2/40.
For $1,699, the Dell 316SX offers good performance and a fairly long useful-life expectancy, since it is capable of running Windows.
It is based on the 16-megahertz version of the Intel 386SX microprocessor. It comes with 2 megabytes of system memory, a 40-megabyte hard disk drive, a choice of either a 3.5-inch or 5.25-inch diskette drive, a VGA-level color monitor, a keyboard, a Microsoft mouse and both the DOS operating system software and the Windows 3.0 graphic system software loaded onto the hard disk.
Dell offers as an option a 2,400-baud modem, plus ProComm communications software, for an extra $99, taking the system price to $1,798.
There are comparable computers available for slightly less money, but the selling factor for us was Dell's return policy and one-year, on-site service warranty.
Basically, one can return the computer within 30 days, for any reason, for a full refund.
After that, if anything goes wrong that cannot be fixed by telephone support, Dell will dispatch a technician to fix the computer in the user's office (or home office). There is no charge for parts or labor in the first year.
The Dell Computer Corp. of Austin, Texas (telephone 800-626-4294) sells its computers directly to customers, rather than through retail stores (although it is experimenting with retail sales through the Soft Warehouse chain).
Many people say they are afraid to buy computers by mail, perhaps because they cannot test-drive them in a store, and perhaps because of uncertainty about what to do if something goes wrong after the sale.
We have found, however, that Dell and other direct-sale computer companies generally offer faster and more helpful service than the retail stores from whom we have bought computers in the past.
Also, because there is no "middle man" distributor, prices for mail-order computers are generally lower than for computers bought through dealers.
Keep in mind, though, that Dell prices are rarely discounted, while prices quoted by dealers are almost always open for negotiation.
Dell recently placed first in the J. D. Power and Associates customer satisfaction poll of small and medium-size businesses. Apple Computer Inc. finished second, AST Research Inc. was third, and the Hewlett-Packard Co. was fourth, followed by Everex, CompuAdd, Compaq, Epson, Toshiba and NEC.
Apple's high showing in customer satisfaction is notable because the company relies heavily on dealers for service and support.
Also, the Macintosh family of computers is simply easier to use than computers using DOS or Windows. Ease of use is important, because it often translates into greater productivity.
From a technical standpoint, the $1,495 Macintosh Classic 2/40 is underpowered. It uses a relatively old and slow processor, the Motorola 68000 running at 8 megahertz, and it has a small, black-and-white screen.
On the other hand, it does more with those humble attributes than most IBM PC-compatible computers in the price range (one can usually get a 25 percent to 30 percent discount at a dealer, more if the buyer is a student or teacher at an accredited college).
Also, the Mac takes up very little desk space, and space is often at a premium in home offices.
The Mac Classic 2/40, with 2 megabytes of memory and a 40-megabyte hard disk, with keyboard and mouse, is quite capable of running the standard business applications needed by a home-based business. It will also capture the imaginations of younger members of the household.