How to Set Up a Great Home Office

The day I started working in my new home office, I never felt more exhilaration. Or so completely alone.

You see, setting up an office is a lot harder than working in one. Suddenly you have no colleagues to back you up, no support staff, and dozens of dilemmas: For example, you're confronted with the initial expense for office equipment and furniture: How do you keep that cost to a minimum without sacrificing comfort and productivity? And how do you establish an office in your home that's really an office and not just a makeshift work area on the kitchen table or in the bedroom closet--or a retrofitted garage with a telephone?

At first, all of these daunting questions overwhelmed me with anxiety. But my fears were quickly allayed as I discovered an entire universe of support on the Web and from friends who had previously taken the home office plunge. Encouraged by the copious advice that came my way and armed with a checklist of the steps I needed to take to get started, I found that I could be up and running in no time, without spending a fortune.

My Office Setup Checklist

Okay, so you've decided to relocate your office from the kitchen table to another area of the house. You're going to clean out the small, unused den in your home (or an unused corner of the den, anyway). Once you have the location squared away, a slew of other considerations arise. Here are the most important ones:

  1. Computer: desktop versus laptop
  2. Peripherals: desktop or laptop necessities, depending on your scenario
  3. Printer: stand-alone printer versus multifunction device (combination fax, scanner, and printer)
  4. Phone: landline versus cellular versus Voice-over-IP
  5. Phone message service: machine versus phone company service
  6. Fax: online versus landline
  7. Furniture: the right chair facing the right desk
  8. Networking: hardwired versus wireless
  9. Security: for the computer and for the office as a whole
  10. Environment: your office location

The Brains of Your Operation: Picking a PC

Now that I am on my own in my home office, I'll be relying on my PC to do more of the heavy lifting for my business than before. In addition to creating documents and worksheets, I need to create promotional materials, write and organize invoices for my work, print out mailing labels, organize a contacts database, and cruise the Internet at warp speed. I also have to keep my PC in good shape--and have backups in case one day it conks out. (For backup strategies and tips, check out "Get in a Good Habit: Back Up Your Data.") I didn't have to worry about most of this stuff when I worked for a large corporation; but now my computer needs to have the power to handle these sundry duties. It also has to be compact enough to fit in my limited workspace.

Though notebook PCs tend to be a tad more expensive than desktop systems, today they can be just as powerful as their desktop counterparts. And they have the advantage of being smaller, lighter--and portable. On the other hand, desktop units are easier to upgrade (read: last longer for less money), and many models are compact enough to occupy only a modest amount of space on your desk. In fact, many of the budget desktops now come with flat-screen LCD monitors, which are much slimmer and lighter than CRT monitors of the same size.

No matter what type of PC you decide to buy, check out PC World columnist Jim Martin's advice about the equipment you'll need. See "Essential Hardware for Home Office Dwellers." And for software to complement your hardware, read "Great Software for Your Home Office."

If you're shopping for a computer, take a look at PC World's desktop PC and notebook PC buying guides.

And finally, for the latest product reviews, ratings, and prices, consult PC World's Top 15 Desktop PCs, Top Cheap PCs, and Top 15 Notebook PCs charts.

Don't Forget the Sidelines: Peripherals to Consider

I eventually settled on a desktop replacement-style notebook. But while my laptop might replace a PC tower, it didn't have a stand-alone mouse or keyboard--absolutely essential to my comfort if I were to use the notebook all day. Some keyboards and mice sell for as little as $10, but I would avoid buying them, since most cheap input devices offer no ergonomic comfort. Instead, spend at least $25 on a separate mouse and even more on a keyboard. Buying a wireless mouse/keyboard combo is cheaper than buying each input device separately. Depending on the product you buy, you'll typically connect just one cable (or adapter) to the PC. For a roundup of cordless keyboards and mice, see "Top 100 Spotlight: Walk on the Wireless Side."

Even if your desktop PC has a standard (most likely low-end) mouse and keyboard, consider replacing them with higher-quality ones. Ultimately, you need to invest in the right input devices for both your ergonomic comfort and your productivity.

While testing keyboards and mice in a store is a good start, using them in your office for a few hours will determine whether they're a good fit for you. So always buy them from a retailer that has a good return or exchange policy. For other shopping guidelines, see "How to Buy Input Devices."

For notebook users, unfortunately, there is a catch. Even if your notebook has enough USB ports to handle a mouse and a keyboard, you still have to deal with all the cabling. In my case, each time I wanted to move my notebook, I had to disassemble a bunch of cables. If I didn't insert the device cable into the same port that it occupied previously, Windows treated it as a new install, further delaying the PC startup. That was enough reason for me to invest in a universal port replicator--a small USB device that supplies ports for all your devices (printer, mouse, keyboard, speakers, you name it) and only one plug to connect to the PC.

Vendors such as Belkin, Targus, and Codi make universal port replicators that cost from $50 to $140. If all you need are additional USB ports, buy a USB hub for $10 to $30 from one of these companies. For more information, read "Mobile Computing: Port Replicators."

The Ultimate All-in-One, Budget-Pleasing Printer

Would you rather hire an assistant who could only do one task or someone more versatile? The question might seem like a no-brainer, but I asked myself something similar when choosing between a stand-alone printer and a multitasking workhorse that combines printer, fax, scanner, and copier functions (a.k.a. a multifunction printer or multifunction device).

On my shoestring budget and for my home office, an MFP made the most sense. A good one costs as little as $200, but you save a lot more money over what it would cost to buy a separate device to handle each function. The MFP's printing speeds may pale in comparison to those of an individual inkjet or laser printer), but the device pays you back by letting you dispense with trips to a copy shop and sessions with an online fax service like EFax, which charges customers $13 a month, whether they send a fax or not.

If your business requires photo printing and graphics-laden pages, a stand-alone inkjet printer is probably right for you. On the other hand, if you need printouts of crisp text regularly--for clients, say--you can't beat a laser printer. For detailed shopping advice, see "Should You Buy a Multifunction Printer for Photos?" And check out PC World's picks in the Top Multifunction Printers and Top 10 Monochrome Laser Printers charts.

To get the 411 on purchasing a printer, read "How to Buy a Printer."

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