Computer hardware for business
Computer hardware are the bits and pieces that make up computers. For example, the hard disk drive, its processors, video cards etc. Peripherals like the monitor, mouse and printer, or storage devices - which you plug into your computer - are also considered hardware.
Hardware requires software to run correctly. Without the correct hardware, your software may not run efficiently or at all. It is important to consider both when making decisions about your IT systems, as this can affect the way you work, your productivity and your business' bottom line.
This guide explains the business benefits of new computer hardware. It tells you how to choose the right hardware for your business and describes your options for purchasing or leasing computer hardware.
Business benefits of new computer hardware
Buying new computer hardware for your business should be more than just a financial business decision.
Advantages of investing in hardware
Before buying any hardware, you should first consider what benefits it might bring to your business. This might affect what type of hardware you choose. For example, certain types of computer hardware could help you:
- reduce costs by automating routine tasks, such as record-keeping, accounting and payroll
- improve customer service or supplier relationships
- develop more effective communication within the business or with customers
- increase business efficiency and staff productivity
- increase employee morale
- expand your business offer or reach new markets - eg through an online shop
- develop a competitive advantage by implementing the right business technology
Before any purchase, it is generally a good idea to carry out a technology needs assessment.
To determine if buying new hardware could benefit your business, you should:
- list the key hardware investments you are thinking of making
- look at their individual cost/benefit relationship
This will help you to prioritise them and see which you can afford now, and which can wait. Keep in mind that the cost of hardware depends on its specification and this, in turn, is determined by some key computer hardware components.
Make sure that any hardware you choose is compatible, brings clear advantages to your business and is worth the investment. For more information, see choosing computer hardware for your business.
Choosing computer hardware for your business
With so many options available, choosing computer hardware for your business can be difficult. You will have to keep in mind:
- your current and future hardware needs
- potential compatibility issues
- security concerns
- your long-term IT strategy
Your new IT systems should support your business goals and objectives, and align with your business strategy.
How to assess computer hardware needs
To assess your needs, look at how you intend to use computers in your business. Think about, for example:
- the tasks you plan to computerise, eg record-keeping, payroll, invoicing, advertising
- your basic requirements, eg networking equipment, operating systems or software
- your business-specific requirements, eg web servers for e-commerce businesses
Different types of businesses will generally have different computer hardware needs. A personal computer may be enough for a small start-up, but a growing business may need more advanced equipment to meet its changing needs.
See how to carry out a technology needs assessment.
Your staff may also require training if you purchase new equipment that you expect them to use. You can carry out an IT training and learning needs analysis to determine what type of training, if any, your staff might need.
When choosing hardware, make sure that any new or replacement components are compatible with your existing computer equipment. Consider the overall costs, including if it might be cheaper to install a new system rather than upgrade the existing components.
Hardware theft or loss is a potential businesses risk. Whether by accident or malicious intent, loss of a laptop, a mobile device or storage devices (such hard drives) can jeopardise your business' data security. You should take steps to protect both hardware and data against a potential breach. Read about the different types of IT risk and the importance of managing IT risk in business.
Long-term IT strategy
Your IT strategy should take into account any future changes in your market, your employees and your products or services. If possible, integrate hardware refresh and software rollout strategies in your business. See also computer software for business.
When choosing new hardware for your business, it's good practice to keep a list of purchase dates and cost of hardware for accountancy, tax, warranty and insurance purposes.
Find out how to develop an IT strategy for your business.
Hardware life expectancy
Life expectancy for some computer hardware parts is three to four years. At some point, your hardware may fail or it may become too old to perform adequately for your needs. Many businesses work on a hardware replacement cycle of about three to four years for desktop PCs and five years for servers.
Disposal of old hardware
Before you dispose of old computer hardware, it is important to delete any confidential or sensitive data. You can do this by either:
- securely wiping the data
- removing and physically destroying the storage drives that hold this data
You should dispose of old hardware in an environmentally friendly way. In some cases, the manufacturer can arrange free collection from you. Retailers or suppliers may charge you to dispose of the equipment.
Purchasing or leasing computer hardware - pros and cons
When it comes to acquiring new hardware for your business, finance is one of the key things you will have to consider. Typically, your options will be: buying outright, hire purchase or leasing.
Pros and cons of buying computer hardware outright
If you want to own the equipment outright, you can buy it in full with your own money or use a bank loan or overdraft to purchase it.
The advantages of buying outright include:
- having full ownership of the assets, which you can add to your balance sheet
- the ability to deduct or write off the value of the assets for tax purposes (in some cases)
- the ability to use or alter the equipment as you wish, since you're not tied into a contract or a leasing agreement
On the other hand, disadvantages to buying outright include:
- paying the full costs up front, which can cause cashflow pressures
- possibly having to source a loan to cover the costs
- having to maintain or repair the equipment yourself, which can be costly or impractical
- losing value over time - hardware depreciates quickly and may become obsolete after a few years, requiring a further investment
Read more about buying equipment outright.
Pros and cons of leasing
Leasing allows you to rent computer equipment for a monthly fee. You enter a contract with a leasing provider and, at the end of the agreed term, you typically either:
- give the equipment back
- extend the lease if you wish to keep using it
Depending on the leasing company, you may also agree to buy the assets at the end of the lease. Leasing has several distinct benefits. For example:
- it allows you to use assets without actually owning them
- it doesn't tie up your funds in an outright purchase
- it minimises maintenance costs, as the lender is typically responsible for any upkeep
- it is more flexible and makes it easier to upgrade your equipment
- it is considered an operating cost, so you can write it off against profits
Leasing may be worth considering if the equipment you need is likely to date quickly or if you are looking for a short-term commitment. However, leasing over long-term may not be cost-effective, as you may end up paying more than the equipment is worth.
Pros and cons of hire purchase
Hire purchase allows you to buy IT equipment on finance, using monthly payments rather than a lump sum. Typically, the payments cover the purchase price, as well as a fee for the lender. At the end of the agreed hire purchase term, you own the asset in full.
The advantages of hire purchase agreements include flexibility and scalability. They allow you to:
- spread fixed costs over time, which is easier on your cashflow than an upfront payment
- maximise your tax relief via capital allowances - seek accountant's advice
- have maintenance, repairs and servicing as a part of the deal
- enter into a new contract at the end of the original term to upgrade or replace equipment
As with other options, there are disadvantages to hire purchase. For example:
- the equipment's overall cost may be greater than if you'd purchased it outright
- there can also be more administration involved
- the equipment remains the property of the supplier until the final payment is settled
- by the time you pay off the equipment, it may be obsolete
When deciding if you should buy or lease your hardware equipment, it's important to take into account your needs around hardware installation, maintenance and support.
Computer hardware components and specifications
PC hardware, such as a desktop computer, is the most common type of IT hardware purchased by a small business. The cost of hardware depends on its specification, which in turn is determined by some key components.
When you buy PC hardware, you need to decide what the specification of these key components should be.
Central processing unit
The processor is the driver of the computer. Processors are usually differentiated by speed, measured in gigahertz (GHz). The higher the GHz, the faster the computer will run. You should buy the fastest processor you can afford, but dual or quad-core processors running at speeds of 2 GHz or above will normally be enough for most business functions, eg word processing, spreadsheets and some multimedia.
Random access memory (RAM)
The processor uses memory to run programs. Generally, the more RAM you have, the better your computer will run when using several programs at once. Your computer should have enough memory to make the most of the processor speed. To use multiple modern software applications effectively, you should have at least 2 gigabytes (GB) of RAM and preferably 4 GB or above for more memory intense software applications, such as design, photography or video editing.
The hard disk stores the data you create in your business, as well as the programs you use. A typical office computer will have at least 500GB of hard disk space. Some new laptops and specialist performance computers come with solid state drives (SSD). These drives are silent because they have no moving parts and are five to eight times faster than the standard magnetic hard disk drives used in most desktop computers. Although SSD can offer significant performance advantages, the cost per GB of storage is approximately four times more expensive for the same storage capacity.
You can use external plug-ins, such as USB memory sticks and portable external hard drives, to supplement your computer's storage requirements.
The monitor is the computer's display screen. Liquid Crystal Display (LCD) or flat screen monitors offer reduced bulk and lower power consumption, relative to the older style cathode ray tube (CRT) monitors. Monitors are normally measured diagonally in inches - typically 19, 22 or 24 inches. Larger or wide-screen monitors allow you to compare two documents on-screen. Many monitors have an aspect ratio - the proportion of image width to height - of 16:10, although screens with a 16:9 ratio are becoming more widely available and offer higher resolution.
The keyboard and mouse usually come as part of a bundle, but you may be able to select wireless devices that make desktops neater.
There are alternative computers to conventional PCs available, such as Apple Macs. These have historically been used to support desktop publishing software but now also offer a comparable system for general office use.
Desktop or laptop devices for business
There are two types of computer that you might need for your business: desktop PCs and laptops.
Advantages of desktop computers
If you carry out all your work in one place, a desktop computer will meet your needs and will offer the best price for a given level of performance. Desktop PCs are generally more durable than laptops - an important factor in a busy office.
Desktop computers can generally be repaired and upgraded by local computer shops using standard off-the-shelf components. This can extend their life considerably. Laptops are more difficult to repair and you may need to return them to the supplier or manufacturer for repairs.
Advantages of laptops for business
If you need to use a computer while away from your office, a portable device such as a laptop or a tablet computer can be invaluable. They are particularly suitable for salespeople making client visits and for employees who work from home or out of the office regularly.
If your workers occasionally need to work in the office, you should consider using a docking station. This will allow them to use their laptop in the office in place of a desktop PC, and connect it to the existing business network and a power supply.
Laptop theft and security issues
Laptops are easy to steal and need additional security measures such as a security cable to lock them to a desk when away from base. Most laptops on the market are equipped with a Universal Security Slot that allows them to be attached to a cable lock or laptop alarm.
More than a third of laptop thefts occur in the workplace. You can help prevent this by:
- using docking stations that are permanently fixed to your desktops and have a feature that locks laptops securely in place
- storing laptops in a secure room or cupboards, especially if you're leaving them unattended overnight or for the weekend
Due to circumstances around COVID-19, remote access has become a necessity for many businesses. It is important that staff working from home secure their devices appropriately and in line with your business' security policies. You will also have to manage the additional cyber risks that can arise from remote access.
Read about the various remote access security issues that can affect your business.
Some workers may benefit from having a smart phone, netbook, tablet or other handheld computer rather than a laptop. These devices can synchronise data such as diaries, telephone numbers and short documents with a desktop computer or via cloud services. They are ideal for workers who need to make notes while out of the office. For more information, see mobile technology and cloud computing.
Printers, scanners and multi-function devices
If you use several computers and peripherals (such as printers and scanners), it may benefit your business to network them together.
Sharing printers over a network
A network allows you to share internet connections, data and resources within your business, improving both efficiency and speed of working.
Originally, all computer networks used fixed wiring to link PCs and peripherals. However, many businesses now have wireless networks - which are ideal for workers who need mobility - or wired networks with wireless hubs in shared spaces.
Types of office printers
Printers are essential for most businesses. There are three basic types of printers:
- Laser printers produce colour or black print and are suitable for most office printing needs. They are more expensive than other types of printers but are more economical if you do lots of printing and are relatively fast.
- Inkjet printers can carry out either colour or black printing. Some inkjet printers can produce photographic quality images. Although cheap to purchase, inkjet supplies like paper and ink make them expensive per page printed. They are also slower than comparable laser printers.
- Impact printers, such as dot matrix printers, are now rarely used except for special purposes, eg for printing forms used with accounts packages.
You can connect printers directly to desktop PCs, or share them on a wired or wireless network. Shared printers are preferable for most small offices, but some workers may need a personal printer in a secure location, particularly if they are dealing with sensitive or confidential information.
As with most computer equipment, unless you have in-house expertise, it is worth paying for a maintenance contract for your printer. Access to the right support can help reduce disruption and downtime in case of any equipment failure. See more on hardware installation, maintenance and support.
Scanners are used to capture images digitally. They can be useful in an office for storing content digitally that is only available in print and for extracting text from documents such as books. You can connect scanners directly to a desktop PC.
Multi-function devices: advantages and disadvantages
A small office usually needs a printer, a photocopier, a fax machine and perhaps a scanner. These can be combined in one multi-function device. They have several advantages:
- the total cost may be lower than the combined cost of separate units
- they save floor and desk space
- there is less to install
However, such devices may not deliver all the performance available from separate units and, if they fail, you may lose all the functions at once and will need to replace the entire unit.
Choosing a network server for your business
Servers store data and applications that many different people in your business share and use. A typical small office with a number of desktop PCs will have one or more servers connected by a network.
Difference between a network server and a desktop PC
A small server might look similar to a high-end desktop computer, but the machines are designed for very different tasks:
- A desktop PC is designed for one person, with a simple operating system that runs single-user applications such as a word processor or a web browser.
- A server runs a specialised operating system designed to support multiple users. It is capable of running multi-user applications such as shared calendar and programs, databases, customer relationship management software, enterprise resource planning, etc.
Think of a server as a shared resource and a repository for your business information. Given its central role, its specification needs to be much greater than the typical desktop computer.
Choose the right specification for your network server
The disk storage capacity of your server needs to be large enough to keep all the current data for your business. Servers can require terabytes of storage, especially if you need to keep or share a high volume of large files, eg graphics, images, video and audio files.
Your server must be capable of rapid repair since a breakdown will halt most of your IT functions. Servers are often built so that key components such as disks and power supplies can be quickly changed. Servers that are more expensive will have redundant components, so that if one fails another will take over automatically.
A lot of data flows in and out of your server. All this data needs to pass through a special connector card to your local area network. This card, called a network interface card, needs to be fast enough to handle the flow of data. It is common to use network cards with a transfer speed of 1Gb/s or greater.
Where to store your network server
Location is a major consideration. Servers are normally kept in a secure, temperature and humidity-controlled location, often alongside your networking equipment. It is important to prevent casual access to your server because of the risk of damage to your business information, as well as physical damage from dust and other contaminants. See more on server security.
A server maintenance contract is a wise investment, especially if you have limited in-house IT expertise. You can find information about maintenance contracts on leading hardware supplier websites. A web search for 'server maintenance' will find other possible sources.
Hardware installation, maintenance and support
A single computer can usually be set up and operated by someone who is not an IT expert. However, unless you have in-house expertise, you may need external help to:
- install more complicated systems such as a server client or peer to peer network
- train your staff on using the equipment
- maintain and service your equipment regularly
You may also need ongoing support services, such as those through the manufacturer or supplier's support helpdesk. Access to a helpdesk can be either by phone or via the internet, at no cost or by subscription.
Be sure to find out what the exact charges are, how long the help lasts for and, if possible, whether the helpdesk has a good reputation.
Hardware maintenance contracts
You may also want a maintenance contract from either your supplier or an independent maintenance company. There are generally two types of maintenance arrangement:
- On-site cover, which involves someone coming to your premises to make repairs, can get your system running again quickly but may be expensive.
- Return-to-base repairs, which involve sending your equipment away to be repaired, may be cheaper, but can also be inconvenient.
Service level agreements (SLAs)
You should also establish the quality of the service. For example, check whether the engineers work to ISO 9000 standard and what quality of parts they use. For a business-critical system, you may want an SLA which guarantees repair or replacement at short notice when a fault occurs.
See more on supplier service level agreements.
You can find a lot of information about computer hardware on the internet. You may also be able to find documentation, support forums and upgrades to software on the supplier's website.
It's worth remembering that to get the most from any new technology, employees often need training and support for a new computer system. For more information, see IT skills and support for your staff.