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Choosing the right work-from-home computer

Some employers will give you a work-from-home computer. Others leave the choice or even the cost up to you. You may be your own employer and make all your own decisions.

Either way here’s a short, straightforward guide on choosing the best computer for your needs.

Start by taking a breath. There is no need to stress. You won’t fail this test. Making the wrong choice will not be a disaster.

That’s because for most people reading this almost anything you buy will be adequate. It will get the job done. There are some exceptions. We’ll look closer at them later. But if you fall into the exception camp you already know that.

Here we’re going to focus on finding the right kind of computer for you to work from home. That means something you are comfortable with. One that fits with both your work and the way you live at home. We’ll consider entertainment and other non-work tasks.

We’ll leave specifics, which brands, operating systems and models for another time. This is the first of a series of posts.

What is a computer anyway?

Let’s start by looking at the big picture. When we say computer, we mean what people in the industry might call a device. It could be a desktop personal computer, it could be a laptop or a tablet.

There are devices that sit between these classes. There are 2-in–1 devices that sit between laptops and tablets. Desktop replacement laptops are another class straddling category. As you can guess from the name, occupy the space between conventional laptops and desktop PCs.

At a pinch the right device for your needs could even be a high end mobile phone. Premium smartphones are a least as powerful as most conventional computers. You can connect many phones to keyboards and screens to act more like everyday computers. Samsung designed the Dex range to make this easier and better..

For the sake of keeping things simple, let’s say a computer comes with a screen, a processor and storage. Most come with a keyboard and either a mouse or a touchpad. There are devices worth considering where these are an optional extra.

Cloud does heavy lifting

Earlier we saw that almost anything you buy will be adequate. That’s because cloud computing can do much, even all, of the heavy lifting. So long as you have a reliable internet connection you’ll be able to connect to cloud services.

There’s a good chance the software and tools your company work with are already hosted in the cloud. The most popular cloud software is Google G-Suite and Microsoft 365.

Even the most basic device can connect to the cloud. In some cases there are cloud versions of applications that you might run on a desktop when working in the office.

Being able to connect to cloud apps and tools like Zoom or Microsoft Teams covers most of the important stuff. Up to a point everything else in this post is about the icing on the cake. Your choices can make for a better working experience. They will give you something more comfortable to live with, can make you more productive and will offer more fun when you’re not working.

Laptop

Laptops

The perfect device depends on what you intend to do, where you intend to do it, how you live and how much budget you have.

Laptops are the most popular choice by a long way. They range from tiny ultraportable laptops to huge desktop replacements. You can pick up a serviceable low-end laptop for a few hundred dollars or spend thousands.

If you don’t have a spare room or a rumpus that can act as a home office, a laptop you can pack away means you can work on the kitchen table or anywhere else. As things return to normal you can take the laptop to a cafe or the local library. You’ll also be able to carry it between the office and home when needed.

Laptop downside

The laptop downside is they often don’t last as long as desktop computers. In part that’s because they can take more of a hammering. Moving them around and bumping them doesn’t help.

Some laptops are fragile, others are more robust. As a rule of thumb smaller, lighter, thinner models are more robust. But first impressions can be deceptive.

Although it is easy to upgrade some laptops, that’s not always the case. This means the internal hardware can become out of date if newer, more demanding applications come along or if your needs change.

Unless you have technical and fine motor skills it is best to leave laptop upgrades and repairs to professionals. There is a cost, but it is often worth the investment.

You will hear stories of people who made a laptop last a decade or more. It happens far more often than the industry might have you think. Yet in general you can expect about five years useful life from a laptop if you look after it.

iPad Pro 12.9-inch 2018 with Pencil

Tablets

If mobility is your main consideration you may do better to choose a tablet with a keyboard case.

Tablets are easier to move around even when compared with light laptops. You can sometimes work on them in places where laptops feel clumsy. If space at home is tight or there’s a lot of competition for the kitchen table, a tablet could be your best bet.

Although tablets are not always more robust than laptops they often cope better with knocks if you have a nomadic working life. You will need to buy a cover or case to protect the screen. Often tablet keyboards double as protective covers.

Tablets tend to go a longer time between charges than laptops, but that can be down to how you use them.

You can buy tablets that connect direct to the mobile network for communications. Yet most tablet users do fine relying on Wi-fi or by tethering to a mobile phone to reach the internet.

Dell Inspiron 13 5000

Hybrid computer, 2-in–1s

The distinction between tablets and laptops is blurry. There are tablet-like laptops and laptop-like tablets.

Some laptops fold, origami style, to become tablets. Some can also work in a tent configuration. This is useful for watching movies or giving presentations.

It’s not always the case, but foldable laptops can be more fragile than straightforward tablets or laptops. Take care when choosing.

Another consideration with hybrids that almost everyone overlooks is that buyers often end up using them as only a laptop or tablet.

Given they tend to cost a little more than straight laptops and tablets, this means you can waste money. There are almost always better ways to spend that part of your tech budget.

Desktops almost forgotten these days

Laptops outsell desktops almost two to one1. In round numbers that means desktops only account for one computer sale in five.

There is still a strong case for choosing a desktop computer. Yet they are not right for everyone2.

Desktops can have big screens, far bigger than even the largest laptop. Big screens are great for productivity. They allow you to place documents or windows side by side. If you work with spreadsheets you can see a lot more data.

Desktop computer productive, fun

At a pinch a large desktop computer screen can double as your television. Lots of people do this with laptop or tablet screens, but larger screens are better. Desktops can also have far better audio speakers than laptops. In general they are better than laptops for games and other entertainment software.

You can also use a proper keyboard. While many laptops have great keyboards, desktop keyboards are often better. Again this can help productivity, especially if you are a touch typist.

In some ways desktop computers can be less expensive than laptops. You generally get more raw computing power, storage and graphics for your money.

Desktops also tend to be far easier to upgrade. They take less of a hammering, so you can make them last far longer than a laptop.

You need to have enough room and a spare desk or table for a desktop computer. You can’t pack it up when you’re not working. You can push the screen back and store the bulky part under the desk.

Don’t get too hung up on specifications

At the top of this story it says specifications are not the most important thing to consider any more. That’s true, but it needs more explaining.

Almost every device has more than enough power to handle all your everyday tasks. Writing, web surfing, playing music, watching videos and Zoom calls will not challenge any modern device.

Likewise every modern device will come with a screen of some description, that way you can see what is going on.

Storage used to be a huge deal. Today, if there’s not enough in the device you choose, you can make up for the shortfall by using cloud storage.

Where computer specifications matter

More processing power and memory means you can run more applications at the same time. You also need a more powerful processor if you want photo, video or music editing.

People who work with large databases or huge spreadsheets also need more powerful processors. But you can often let cloud computing do that kind of heavy lifting.

So by all means choose an upscale specification, but don’t waste money buying more computer than you will ever need. You’d be better off spending that money on a better quality device. We’ll come back to this point in a later post.


  1. In case you were wondering laptops outsell tablets by around four to three. ↩︎
  2. I’ve recently gone back to using a desktop as my main work-from-home computer. ↩︎

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29 thoughts on “Choosing the right work-from-home computer

  1. An MBA with a modest spec bump above the entry level with a 5K monitor does me just fine. Decent broadband is probably more important than the device, however. This is more of a concern for Australians because our service is so patchy

  2. Why do you put large screens (TV), and big keyboards as a “desktop” thing? I’ve always plugged my laptops (Ubuntu + Chromebooks) into the TV (HDMI) and use a Bluetooth keyboard + mouse.

    Desktop may have other exclusive advantages, but that ain’t one of them

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