The Products You Need for Your Home Office

Every year, more and more workers move from traditional offices to home offices, often converting rooms or even larger portions of their homes to work-away-from-the-workplace settings. I've been working from home for almost a decade, and I've learned one thing over the years: Home and work can mix if you develop a sensible strategy. Aside from some of the obvious problems that are inherent when you separate your work and home lives, telecommuting can be a rewarding alternative to the drudgery of commuting, bagged lunches, and office politics, although many people miss the daily chitchat with coworkers and other social interplay. The first step in the transition to a home office is outfitting your office with the right tools. The following products will help you turn your home office environment into a workplace.

Computer Hardware
If you work at home, you're going to be spending a lot of time using a computer, so you need at least one system. These days, many telecommuters are better off using laptop computers than desktop systems. Although laptops are more expensive than their desktop-bound brethren, they're inherently mobile. And one of the nice things about working at home is that you can work on the patio, in the den, or even in the bedroom, if you have to, and no one back at the office will be the wiser. More important, perhaps, a laptop can go with you when you hit the road, either on a business trip or a trip to the office. If you do any sort of traveling—or think you'll want to be mobile around the house—a laptop is a must-have.

Laptops come in a variety of types, and the right type for you depends largely on your work habits. If you'll be working primarily out of the home office, only occasionally moving around the house, and don't need to travel outside the home, consider desktop alternatives, which are large and heavy but powerful and inexpensive (about $1000). If you're truly a mobile user, however, you'll want an Intel Centrino- or Pentium M-based notebook computer or Tablet PC, both of which offer amazing battery life and excellent performance, albeit for a slightly higher price (about $2000). You can turn virtually any kind of laptop or Tablet PC into a desktop system by using a dock, to which you can connect an external monitor, keyboard, mouse, and other peripherals, creating an environment that's almost indistinguishable from a traditional desktop PC.

I have different laptop preferences depending on the type of system I'm using. For a desktop-replacement model, consider Dell's Inspiron line, which offers several alternatives, including the value-priced Inspiron 1100 ($800 and higher) and the widescreen-wonder Inspiron 8600 ($1400 and higher). For the ultimate in portability, consider an IBM ThinkPad X30 or ThinkPad X40 ($1400 and higher), which offer svelte, low-weight designs. Are you considering a Tablet PC? Make sure you get a so-called convertible model, which can double as a laptop if your wrist starts to hurt from all that writing. I prefer the Toshiba Protege M200 series ($2200 and higher), but the stunning HP Compaq Tablet PC tc1100 ($1900 and higher) is smaller and technically a slate model, although it offers an innovative, clip-on keyboard.

Desktop PC users have even more choices. I tend to favor Dell desktops, such as the Dimension 8300 ($900 and higher), although I think most users would be better off skipping Dell's low-end Dimension 2400 ($500 and higher) and 4600 ($700 and higher) lines, which offer less-expensive, less-expandable cases. Budget buyers might want to consider an eMachines desktop, such as the eMachines T3085. Prices start at just $400 and quality has improved dramatically since the company's rocky start.

Whichever type of PC you choose, be sure to remember the following important considerations: The first factor to weigh is the display, which you'll stare at all day. Don't scrimp on this purchase, or your eyes will pay the price over the long term. For desktop systems, you'll want an LCD display, not a bulky, potentially blurry CRT monitor. For both laptops and desktops, make sure you're using the lowest-possible native resolution you can tolerate. Although high-resolution displays can often make you more productive, they also make onscreen elements such as icons, menus, and text smaller, forcing you to squint and, again, affecting your eyesight over the long term.

If you're truly a connected-home worker, you might want to consider buying a home server or repurposing an older PC as a server-like device that can sit on the network and provide various services. The server can be connected to a shared printer, store crucial backup files, or even contain your digital-music collection, which you could access over the network from any PC in the house. These days, tossing out old PCs doesn't make sense unless they're truly ancient. Anything with a 233MHz or faster CPU can probably be used effectively as a home server.

Internet and Home Networking
As a telecommuter, you'll need to be connected to the Internet at all times, which means you'll want a cable-modem connection, preferably, or a DSL line if cable isn't available. Both services—which fall under the broadband umbrella—typically cost $25 to $40 a month. Cable-modem and DSL broadband connections offer much faster speeds than the traditional dial-up modems that were popular when Windows 95 first shipped. The benefits of broadband are enormous. You can transfer huge files with ease, load Web pages in the blink of an eye, and leave your email application open at all times. Best of all, because you'll likely spend most of your time online during the day, you'll benefit from even faster speeds because most of your neighbors will be at work. Contact your local cable or phone company for details.

One of the biggest mistakes people make is connecting a PC directly to a cable or DSL modem. Doing so is a huge security risk because it makes your PC accessible to the outside world, and attackers are constantly sending out electronic feelers looking for unprotected machines. Don't be a chump: Protect your PC—or your entire home network—with a router or firewall device, such as the excellent Microsoft MN-700 Wireless 802.11g Base Station Router ($90). Routers and firewall devices provide numerous advantages. They act as middlemen between your PC or home network and the Internet, protecting you from electronic attacks. Typically, they also offer wireless networking capabilities and provide router capabilities so you can connect five or more PCs to your Internet connection.

Computer Software
Your PC hardware is only as good as the software it runs, so make sure you're using modern Windows and Microsoft Office releases. I recommend Windows XP Professional Edition ($129 for the upgrade) over Windows 2000 for a variety of reasons but most importantly because XP Pro is the most recent Windows version, will be supported longer, and has larger compatible software and hardware libraries. You'll also want the most recent Office release, Microsoft Office Professional 2003 ($124 and higher). If you're running a reasonably recent release (e.g., Office XP, Office 2000), upgrade at least to Office Outlook 2003 ($99), which is a major update of earlier releases.

You'll also need antivirus software—I recommend McAfee VirusScan ($39.99 annual fee)—and a spyware-removal program to keep your PC safe from small, potentially harmful programs that malicious Web sites often install on systems without any warning. I recommend LavaSoft's Ad-aware spyware-removal program, which ships in a free Personal Edition (http://www.lavasoft.com).

Beyond the applications previously mentioned, the software you choose will depend on your needs. If you don't have a hardware fax system, you might consider a software-based alternative such as eFax, which lets you receive faxes for free at a local number and also offers a Plus version ($12.95 per month or $139.95 per year) that includes fax sending. If you take a lot of notes, grab a copy of Office OneNote 2003 ($199). It works with regular typewritten text—or even handwriting if you have a Tablet PC—and can record the audio from meetings.

Phone and Communications Systems
Many telecommuters physically separate their work areas from their personal areas by setting up traditional home offices with separate phone lines. But in this modern age, you might be better off with a broadband phone service, such as Vonage ($25 a month and higher; a secondary line is $9.99). These services supply telephone services over your cable-modem or DSL connection and can often save you a lot of money over a traditional phone line. Here's how the services work: When you subscribe to the service, you get a small hardware box that attaches to your cable modem, DSL modem, or router and connects to your phone. The system isn't perfect. Call quality can vary dramatically depending on your connection speed, and the current service doesn't properly identify you on receivers' caller ID systems. But the benefits are enormous. You can keep a local number or select a number from almost any part of the country if you want people to think you work in a certain area.

You might also consider a portable communications device, such as a PDA (e.g., Pocket PC, Palm OS-based device) or a smart phone/convergence device (e.g., RIM Blackberry, Handspring Treo, Windows Mobile-based Smartphone). The RIM Blackberry 7700 ($500 and higher, plus service charges) is perhaps the best of the lot, although the entire market is constantly improving. In addition to cell-phone capabilities, the RIM Blackberry device offers a large color screen and a keyboard (which is far easier to master than you might expect) for accessing email, Web sites, and Blackberry-specific applications. The Handspring Treo 600 ($600 and higher, plus service charges) offers similar capabilities, albeit with a slightly less usable keyboard that's nonetheless easy to master; it runs the easy-to-use Palm OS. Determining which technology—Pocket PC or smart phone—is better can be difficult. I suspect that the Motorola MPx200 ($300 and higher, plus service charges) or a successor will pull ahead of its competitors. The MPx200's slick, familiar interface is a plus, as is its compatibility with Outlook Contacts, Calendar, and Tasks.

Printing and Faxing
If you're just setting up a home office, you'll need a printer, and you'll probably need scanning, photocopying, and fax services. So it makes sense to consider an all-in-one, or multifunction, printer, which can provide all these services in one device. Today's home-office-oriented models provide plain-paper printing, fax, and photocopying and use inkjet-printing engines because they can also double as photo printers. When it comes to printing, you can't do better than HP. I recommend the HP PSC 2410 Photosmart All-in-One ($300), which you'll need to connect directly to a PC. If you prefer a network-attached printer, look at the HP PSC 2510 Photosmart All-in-One ($400). Both printers feature flatbed scanners and photocopiers, color faxing and printing capabilities, and built-in support for various types of memory cards.

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