OUTFITTING AN OFFICE with a computer, printer, scanner, fax and copier can be confusing, no matter what your budget. Whether you are planning to spend a little or a lot, determining whether you are getting the most for your money can be a daunting task. That's especially true when your key information source is a computer geek with a well-developed gaming thumb working at a computer retailer.

To demystify outfitting a farm office with a computer and related electronic gear, we consulted Mark Lage, an Iowa farmer who operates Countryside Computers from a refurbished barn on his farmstead near Sheffield, IA.

We asked Lage to take a fresh look at the computer marketplace and then recommend specifications for a computer and related peripheral equipment for two farmers with needs and budgets at opposite ends of the spectrum. The specifications here are not brand-specific. Because today's computer and peripherals market is so competitive, buyers should be able to find equipment that meets the specs from all the major brands, and within a narrow price range. Models from several brands are listed with the specifications for reference.

At one end of the spectrum is a budget-conscious buyer who wants a basic, no-frills system that will accomplish important tasks such as record keeping, information gathering and communication over the Internet and through e-mail. The buyer needs to be able to make a limited number of copies of important documents and wants faxing capability.

At the other end of the spectrum is a buyer with an appetite for the latest technology to help run power-hungry precision-agriculture software. This buyer not only wants a powerful desktop computer, but a laptop he can take to the field for on-the-go record keeping and to drive GPS-related applications. He also wants to improve the efficiency of the farm office with equipment designed to print, copy, fax and scan large numbers of documents.

Budget system

Good news for the budget-conscious: The price of an entry-level computer has fallen dramatically over the past several years.

A few years ago, the price of an entry-level system typically was about $1,800. The base computer system we recommend sells for $650 to $700, including the monitor, and rebates and price cuts could slash that price $100 or more. A multifunction ink-jet printer with fax, copying and scanning capabilities will set the buyer back another $200 or so, bringing the total cost of our budget package to $850 to $900.

“Today, there is a good discount for entry-level machines,” says Lage, who has operated his computer business since 1990. “Today's entry-level machine has the capabilities of the mid-range system of just a few years ago.”

Notice that Lage isn't recommending a bottom-end machine, which can be found for $400 or less. Machines in this price range typically aren't up to the tasks we're asking of them, and these systems often don't include monitors.

Necessary tasks

Before buying a computer, evaluate your needs, now and over the next several years. Our budget machine is well equipped to handle typical farm office tasks, such as record keeping, word processing and handling spreadsheets, the Internet and e-mail. What it won't handle well is graphics-intensive tasks, such as running high-end precision farming software programs, which combine large databases with detailed maps. Nor will it stand up to the rigors of high-tech gaming.

“I often sell new graphics cards or faster systems to be able to run new games the kids got for Christmas,” Lage notes.

His advice: If kids who are interested in gaming will be using this system, pony up $300 to $400 more for a faster processor and beefier graphics card. Increasingly, upgrading computers isn't economical because upgrades can be almost as expensive as a new machine that has even more capabilities.

Availability and power

Our budget computer is available from virtually all the major computer manufacturers, including Dell, Gateway and Hewlett Packard. Although specifications vary slightly from company to company, in today's commoditized computer market, machines from major manufacturers are roughly interchangeable. Deciding where to buy may have a greater influence on what brand you purchase than anything else.

Our budget computer is powered by a 2.6-gigahertz (GHz) Intel Celeron processor with a 128-kilobyte (kB) cache, 256 megabytes (MB) of random access memory (RAM) and a 40-gigabyte (GB) hard drive. It includes a “combo” optical drive that reads and writes compact disks (CDs) and reads (but does not write) digital video disks (DVDs). Note that this computer does not include a floppy disk drive, which is being specified on fewer machines as the industry converts to CDs as the backup media of choice. An internal or external floppy drive could be added for about $50.

Components

For a computer system at this price, you don't get a liquid crystal display (LCD) monitor. The system includes a traditional 17-in. cathode ray tube (CRT) monitor with a 15.9-in. viewing area, a built-in graphics adapter that shares 64 MB of the computer's RAM, a built-in 56-kB modem, a standard keyboard and basic speakers.

Software includes Microsoft Windows XP Home Edition, Microsoft Works 7.0 (a word processor, spreadsheet and presentation program), antivirus software and a one-year parts, labor and technical support service plan.

The operating speed of this computer is dictated primarily by the processor design and speed, the amount of RAM, and hard drive speed. For video-intensive applications, the graphics card also is critical. For our budget user, the Celeron processor, which has less throughput than Intel's high-end Pentium line, should be adequate. The specified amount of RAM, 256 MB, should be adequate, but any less would bog this machine down. It might even be worthwhile to add another 256 MB (either now or later) if the price is right. For data-intensive operations, the hard drive, which spins at 5,400 rpm and has a 100-MB/sec. controller, could slow operations compared with a more expensive drive with a 7,200-rpm platter with a 133-MB/sec. controller.

Printer

Our budget system's multifunction ink-jet color and black-and-white printer, with fax, copying and scanning capabilities, keeps the cost of this system low compared with what would have been required in the past. Not long ago, the buyer would have needed a separate printer and fax (which also would have had limited copying and scanning capabilities) at a higher overall cost. The downside of a multifunction unit is that if one part of the system goes down, you lose access to all capabilities while the machine is being repaired. But at this low cost, in the case of breakdown, buying a new machine may be cheaper than a repair.

Print quality and copy quality with machines in this price range are excellent. Like all ink-jet printers, the downside of this machine is the cost of ink, which can run $0.05/page for black and white, and higher for color. By comparison, the cost per page with black-and-white laser printers is about half. But multifunction black-and-white laser printers cost more than twice as much as ink jets, so low-volume users typically opt for an ink-jet unit.

Blowout system

Although the price of entry-level computers has fallen, the cost of high-level machines has held relatively steady. But you get a lot better technology for the same amount of money, Lage says.

Our high-end computer, which sells for $3,200 to $3,700, depending on the brand, has a long list of features that would satisfy all but the most aggressive gamer. It is available from any of the top computer makers, although specifications may vary slightly.

Dream machine

“This desktop computer would be a dream machine for someone who is on the cutting edge of precision farming,” Lage says. “Even power-hungry Geographic Information Systems [GIS] software would fly through layer after layer of precision farming data on this system.” Farm accounting and other software typically used in the farm office would barely cause this machine to breath.

Lage specified a machine with a top-of-the-line, 3.2-GHz Pentium 4 processor, 1 GB of RAM and a high-end graphics card with 256 MB of dedicated memory. This machine would have 500 GB of hard drive space (two 250-MB, 7,200-rpm hard drives), plus separate CD and DVD reader/writers. The large hard drive capacity would help to store data-intensive precision ag files. The DVD writing capability also would be useful for backing up large GIS files, because each DVD holds up to 4.7 GB of data. The machine also comes with a combination 3.5-in. floppy drive and digital media card reader.

In this price range, you will get a 17- or 18-in. LCD monitor, multifunction keyboard, surround-sound speaker system, 56-kB data/fax modem and 10/100/1,000 Ethernet adapter.

We've also recommended a $1,700 to $2,000 notebook computer to fulfill on-the-go computing needs. The laptop sports an Intel Pentium, 2.8- to 3.0-GHz processor, 512 MB of RAM, a 40- to 60-GB hard drive, a DVD/CD read/write drive, an integrated yield card reader and a 15-in. active matrix screen. In addition to a 56-kB modem, it has built-in Ethernet, plus an integrated 802.11g networking card for wireless networking with the desktop computer. Both the desktop machine and the laptop come with Microsoft Windows XP Professional operating system software, plus Microsoft Works, an antivirus program and a three-year parts, labor and technical support contract. The desktop machine also comes with Microsoft Office Small Business Edition 2003.

Lage also recommends an external wireless router/switch using the 802.11g protocol to easily network the desktop computer and laptop. This would cost about $100.

Printer

Lage recommends a multifunction laser printer for most printing tasks for this farm office. The digital machine handles documents up to 8.5 × 14 in. Typical printing/copying speeds are 15 to 20 pages/min. These machines, which cost $500 to $650, allow reductions and enlargements and have an integrated color scanner, though they don't print in color.

The only capability missing is color printing and copying. For those tasks, Lage recommends adding a moderately priced color ink-jet machine costing about $150.

The total cost of this system would be $5,700 to $6,600. Paring the system down to the same number and types of components that are in the budget system would keep the cost in the $3,700 to $4,350 range.

Whether you buy from your local retailer or on line, conducting preliminary research on several computer-company Web sites can help you refine options and clue you in on pricing. When using on-line computer customizing tools, begin with the standard computer whose specifications are closest to the specifications you want. Then alter the specifications using the customize option. Lage says that adding features such as a slightly faster processor, more RAM, or a bigger, faster hard drive sometimes adds little to the final cost of the computer.

Specifications Budget system

Desktop computer/monitor/software

Operating system: Microsoft Windows XP Home Edition

Application software: Microsoft Works 7.0

Virus protection software: Free 90-day introductory offer

Extended service plan: one year for parts, labor, technical support

Processor: Intel Celeron Processor, 2.6 GHz with 128-kB cache

Memory: 256-MB DDR SDRAM

Hard drive: 40-GB ultra ATA100 5,400-rpm hard drive

Optical drive: 48x/24x/48x CD-RW/DVD combo drive

Case: Micro-Tower case

Expansion slots: three PCI expansion slots

External ports: six USB (two in front and four in back are version 2.0) Parallel, Serial and two PS/2

Certification: Energy Star compliant

Monitors: 17-in. color monitor (15.9-in. viewable area)

Video: Integrated Intel Extreme Graphics with up to 64-MB dynamic video memory

Keyboard: 104+ keyboard

Mouse: two-wheel mouse

Sound system: Integrated enhanced audio

Modem: 56-kB PCI data/fax modem

Network adapter: Integrated Intel 10/100 Ethernet adapter

Standard speakers: two-piece speaker system

Estimated price: $650 to $700 (minus $100 mid-winter rebate)

Typical models: Dell Dimension 2400,Gateway 310S, HP Pavilion a400y (customized to meet specifications)

Multifunction printer/copier/fax/scanner

Estimated cost: $200

Typical models: Hewlett Packard 5510, Canon MultiPASS MP390

Blowout system

Desktop computer/monitor/software

Operating system: Microsoft Windows XP Professional

Application software: Microsoft Works Suite 2004

Additional application software: Microsoft Office Small Business Edition 2003

Extended service plan: three years for parts, labor, technical support

Virus protection software: Free 90-day introductory offer

Processor: Intel Pentium 4 Processor, 3.2 GHz with Hyper-Threading Technology and 800-MHz FSB

Memory: 1,024-MB, 400-MHz DDR SDRAM (two 512-MB modules)

Hard drive: 500 GB (two 250-GB hard drives) serial ATA with 8-MB cache

Optical drives: DVD±RW/±R/CD-RW recorder and DVD drive 48x/24x/48x CD-RW

Floppy drive: 3.5-in., 1.44-MB diskette

Additional media drive: Digital media card reader, 3.5 in.

Monitor: 17- or 18-in. LCD flat panel display analog/digital

Case: Tower case

Controller: Integrated Ultra ATA controller

Expansion slots: five PCI and one AGP

External ports: eight USB 2.0 (two in front and six in back) Parallel, Serial and two PS/2

Certification: Energy Star compliant

Video: 256-MB NVIDIA GeForce FX 5900G Ultra AGP graphics card accelerator with TV out and DVI (or comparable)

Keyboard: Multifunction keyboard

Mouse: USB optical wheel mouse

Sound system: SoundBlaster Audigy 2 audio with IEEE 1394 (FireWire)

Speaker system: Surround sound system with subwoofer

Modem: 56-kB PCI data/fax modem

Network adapter: Integrated Intel 10/100/1000 Ethernet (gigabyte) adapter with communication streaming architecture (CSA)

Estimated price: $3,200 to $3,800

Typical models: Dell Dimension XPS, Gateway 710XL Home Office, HP Pavilion a450y (customized to meet specifications)

Mid-range notebook computer

Operating system: Microsoft Windows XP Professional

Application software: Microsoft Works Suite 7.0

Virus-protection software: Free 90-day introductory offer

Processor: Mobile Intel Pentium 4 Processor, 2.8 to 3 GHz

Memory: 512-MB DDR SDRAM

Hard drive: 40- to 60-GB ultra ATA

Optical drive: Integrated DVD-RW slot load drive

Memory card reader: Integrated 6 in 1

Extended service plan: three years for parts, labor, technical support

Expansion slots: one Type II PC card slot (yield card reader)

External ports: three USB 2.0, VGA, Parallel, two IEEE 1394 (FireWire), S-Video TV-out

Screen: 15-in. SXGA TFT Active Matrix

Video: Integrated Intel graphics with dynamic video memory technology (or comparable)

Keyboard: Full-sized keyboard

Multimedia package: Stereo speakers with subwoofer, headphone/speaker jack and microphone jacks

Battery: Lithium ion battery with AC pack and one-year limited warranty

Modem: Integrated V.92 56-kB modem

Network adapter: Integrated 10/100 Ethernet adapter

Wireless networking adapter: Integrated 802.11g wireless networking card

Estimated price: $1,700 to $2,000

Typical models: Dell Inspiron 5150, Gateway M350xb, HP Compaq Business Notebook nx9010

External router/switch

Estimated price: $79 to $99

Typical models: Linksys WRT54g, Microsoft MN-700, Netgear WGT624

Multifunction printer/copier/fax/scanner

Typical models: Canon imageCLASS MF5550; Hewlett Packard LaserJet 3330mfp

Multifunction printer/ink-jet/printer/copier

Estimated price: $150

Typical models: Canon MultiPass MP360, Hewlett Packard PSC 1350 (customized to meet specifications)