Pity the modern worker. Back when our ancestors served their 60 hours a week lashed to lathes, coupled to conveyor belts, and harnessed to harvesters, it was impossible to take work home. Clock out, and you were done for the day. No longer. The home office—whether as an adjunct to a distant workplace or as the location of your primary workplace—is a common component of home.
But what determines the perfect home office? Other than available space, the most limiting factor is money. We’d all love to pour unending streams of lucre into our home offices to obtain lightning-fast computers, massive monitors, and software powerful enough to manipulate the solar system.
But let’s face it, the kid needs braces, that scraping sound from the brakes can’t be good, and it won’t be long before the spring protruding from the couch gives someone tetanus. With that in mind, I’m here to offer advice on creating the ultimate Mac-based home office—within reason. In this case, I define reason as a budget of $1,500, $3,000, or $6,000.
The rules of the game are these: You will buy a new Mac and equipment—no used gear or software is allowed. Tax is not included in our recommendations. I assume you have the furniture you need and wired broadband. At the very least, you must be able to use e-mail; browse the Web; create, read, and edit Microsoft Office-compatible documents; and perform basic billing and expense tracking. The rest comes out of your budget.
My recommendations are based on prices easily found on the Internet at such familiar and accessible outfits as the Apple Store, Amazon.com, and Costco.com. And of course, regardless of how much money you actually have, you’ll find interesting tips you can use when you need to make tough purchasing choices.
Follow along as we break out the virtual credit card and gear up to create the ultimate home office.
The bargain office
A budget of $1,500 doesn’t provide you with a lot of wiggle room, but it’s remarkable what you can do with this amount of cash. Here are my recommendations.
My pick for your computer is the $1,199 2GHz 17-inch iMac Core 2 Duo ( ). People familiar with Apple’s computer offerings understand that the iMac is not the company’s least expensive model. That honor goes to the $599 1.66GHz Mac mini Core Duo ( ). Given the mini’s low price, why recommend a computer that costs twice as much? Because of what the mini lacks and the iMac provides.
Specifically, the mini includes no keyboard, mouse, or monitor. If you don’t have these items (which is the case in this little experiment), you can expect to drop at least $200 or $300 to get them. The 1.66GHz Mac mini Core Duo includes only a Combo drive—a drive capable of reading DVDs and playing and burning CDs but not burning DVDs. This drive won’t let you burn your projects or back up really large files to DVD. The mini offers a scant 512MB of RAM, which can result in poor performance, especially with iLife programs such as GarageBand and iMovie. Likewise, its hard drive is cramped at 60GB. Make a few movies or acquire a decent collection of music and videos from the iTunes Store, and your hard drive is full.
In addition, the mini’s Intel GMA 950 graphics processor, which shares 64MB of the mini’s main memory, is nothing to write home about. (If you plan to spend your off-hours playing 3-D games, definitely cross the mini off your list.) Finally, unlike the rest of the Mac line, the mini includes an Intel Core Duo processor rather than the more powerful Intel Core 2 Duo.
The mini becomes less attractive when you consider what the iMac brings to the table. To begin with, all iMacs offer an Intel Core 2 Duo processor, which Apple suggests is up to 50 percent faster than the Core Duo. The 2GHz 17-inch iMac Core 2 Duo satisfies the desire for more RAM and hard-drive space by including 1GB of RAM and a 160GB hard drive. It also sports an 8x double-layer SuperDrive and includes the ATI Radeon X1600 graphics card, which holds 128MB of its own SDRAM. Add to that a built-in iSight camera, a built-in monitor, built-in speakers, AirPort and Bluetooth, an Apple Remote for controlling Front Row, and an included keyboard and a Mighty Mouse, and you’re looking at a pretty capable Mac that fits a bargain budget.
Why not save $200 by purchasing the $999 1.83GHz 17-inch iMac Core 2 Duo ( )? The lowest-priced iMac is hobbled by its lack of a SuperDrive, an underpowered Intel GMA 950 graphics card, and 512MB of RAM. You could get away with it if you don’t care about backing up your data to DVD or playing games. But although you might think you’d save money by shopping around for RAM instead of getting it preinstalled, times have changed. Having Apple install RAM was once prohibitively expensive, but now the company’s prices are competitive.
Outfitting your office
We’ve burned up $1,200 of our budget already, so we need the biggest bang for the littlest buck for our other office peripherals. The bargain office requires a single device that performs multiple functions, and HP’s Photosmart C6180 does that for just $216.
The Photosmart C6180 includes a color ink-jet printer, a flatbed scanner, a copier, and a fax machine. It includes slots for a variety of media card types, so you can print directly from your cards. The printer uses individual color cartridges, so you needn’t toss out a single multicolor cartridge simply because you’ve run out of one color. And the printer supports both Ethernet and wireless 802.11b networking.
In my experience, HP’s Mac software can be problematic. It always pays to download the latest set of drivers. Fortunately, many of the applications included with HP’s multifunction printers are unnecessary. You can do most of what you want with Apple’s Image Capture and iPhoto, which are included with your Mac.
The best software for the budget
We’ve now spent $1,415 of the budget, which leaves no room for a copy of Microsoft Office. Although I feel that the real thing offers distinct advan-tages over other options, the free, open-source NeoOffice is a reasonable compromise for many people.
Based on the OpenOffice.org office suite, NeoOffice doesn’t require that you run the X11 X Window System for it to work (a requirement for Mac users running OpenOffice). NeoOffice opens nearly all Office documents you throw at it, including Word files and Excel spreadsheets (save for some created by the Windows-specific Microsoft Office 2007), and, for the most part, maintains the original document’s look-and-feel. (PowerPoint presentations may lose embedded media, and cus-tom bullets may appear as odd characters, for example). You can also save your NeoOffice documents in native Microsoft Office formats so that others can open them.
Media Software Every new Mac includes a free copy of Apple’s iLife multimedia suite, and with only $85 left in your budget, free is just about what you can afford. Fortunately, iLife works great. From making movies to burning those movies to DVD, organizing your photos and music, creating attractive Web sites, and making music, iLife has you covered.
AppleWorks was once bundled with many new Macs, but Apple has set its easy-does-it office suite adrift. NeoOffice covers most of AppleWorks’ capabilities—including a drawing component—but nothing in NeoOffice or bundled with the Mac allows you to unleash your inner artist. To do so, you need a good paint program, and the best bargain-basement Mac painting program currently available is Ambient Design’s $20 ArtRage 2. ArtRage 2 is a natural media painting program, offering tools that emulate paint, chalk, pen, crayon, and airbrush set in an intuitive interface. Although a painting program may seem out of sync with a Mac meant for work, bear in mind that with little effort a good paint program can help you enhance business cards, flyers, reports, and presentations.
If you’d care to save $20, go with ArtRage 2 Free. Unlike with the full version, ArtRage 2 Free doesn’t support layers, nor do you get the full complement of tools—no airbrush or paint roller, for example. However, even without these capabilities, it’s a useful painting application, and you can’t beat the price.
Finance Software For handling the finances of the average home office, Intuit’s Quicken Mac 2007 ( ) is the way to go. Although its list price is $70, we found that Costco sells it online for just $50.
Adding it up
You’ve spent a total of $1,485. What to do with the remaining $15? There are any number of worthwhile and inexpensive shareware utilities that deserve your attention, but in order to put them to good use, you need the continued use of your hands, wrists, and arms.
To help keep those parts of your body in operational order, we’ll use up much of the remainder with the Belkin WaveRest Gel Mouse Pad. Available for just $10, the pad will help keep your mouse hand more comfortable.
True, it would be wise to pocket the money you have left. But consider this: There’s a world of great software for which the author asks nothing but a small donation. Visit MacUpdate or VersionTracker.com, find something “free” that you love, and send the author your $5.
Bargain office shopping list
The middle-of-the-road office
If you feel pinched by a $1,500 budget but aren’t willing to fully fling open the financial floodgates, you’re looking at the middle-of-the-road office—one that costs no more than $3,000. With this budget, you can get a more-powerful computer.
The iMac was once the inexpensive “Mac for the rest of us,” but it has turned from a moderate all-in-one performer into nigh on a desktop powerhouse. For this budget, I recommend the $1,499 2.16GHz 20-inch iMac Core 2 Duo ( ).
The iMac offers many of the same benefits found in the 17-inch iMac I recommend for the bargain office—a built-in iSight camera, a built-in monitor, built-in speakers, AirPort and Bluetooth, an 8x double-layer SuperDrive, 1GB of RAM, and the ATI Radeon X1600 graphics card (which you can upgrade from 128MB of SDRAM to 256MB for an additional $75). When you spend that extra $300, you gain a slightly faster Core 2 Duo processor, more screen real estate (with a resolution of 1,680 by 1,050 pixels versus the 17-incher’s 1,440 by 900), and a 250GB hard drive.
In Search of Screen Space Why not trade down or up? Even a 20-inch display can be a little cramped, particularly if you work with large spreadsheets or use applications that include lots of palettes. If your work requires only more screen real estate—not a more expansive hard drive—you might consider rejiggering our budget to accommodate a second monitor. In that case, I’d add Apple’s $19 Mini-DVI to DVI Adapter and Dell’s UltraSharp 2007FP 20-inch Black Flat Panel Monitor. It’s bright and sharp, offers multiple video inputs (including VGA, S-Video, and composite inputs), and is inexpensive (it costs around $400). NEC and ViewSonic also make good-looking, although slightly more expensive, LCD monitors.
If your desk is too small to accommodate two monitors, the $1,999 2.16GHz 24-inch iMac Core 2 Duo ( ) is another option. But you’d eat up two-thirds of your budget just to gain another four inches of monitor space and a faster graphics card, Nvidia’s GeForce 7300. I can think of better uses for the money, such as sticking with the 20-inch iMac and adding another gigabyte of RAM—an expense of $175 if you do it through Apple.
Again, you can actually save money these days by getting your RAM preinstalled. For example, when I compared Apple’s RAM prices with those of Crucial, a popular RAM vendor, Apple’s prices were lower at press time. That extra gigabyte of RAM makes your iMac a little zippier by allowing the computer to use RAM rather than resorting to virtual memory, which is slower because it uses the hard drive.
Outfitting your office
With a middle-of-the-road budget, you can think outside the box—specifically, the box that held your Mac. Extra storage and alternate input devices will enhance your computing environment.
Extra Storage An external hard drive provides a fast and easy-to-access destination for your backup files. You’ll need such a drive to use Time Machine, the slick-looking backup utility built into the upcoming Mac OS X 10.5 (Leopard). But since all Mac users should back up important data, you can put that drive to good use right now.
OWC’s $250 500GB Mercury Elite-AL 800 Pro FireWire 800/400 includes a 7,200-rpm drive and both FireWire 400 and 800 ports (but no USB 2.0 port). Better yet, Prosoft Engineering’s Data Backup ( ) is bundled with the drive, saving you the cost of purchasing a separate utility.
Input Devices You’ve got a little money to burn and, because you do, there’s no reason to settle for the limited Mighty Mouse that Apple includes with your iMac. A more versatile mouse can be had in the form of Logitech’s MX Revolution Mouse ( ), which I found for $80 at both Costco.com and Amazon.com. This five-button, two scroll-wheel cordless mouse is highly configurable, precise, and—in my humble opinion—comfortable.
A Pair of Printers Sometimes you have to give a little to get a lot. In this case, you’ll give a little more money for the hardware and, down the road, save a lot on consumables by purchasing a multifunction printer, such as HP’s LaserJet 3055 (priced at $425 at Amazon.com), that incorporates a monochrome laser printer rather than a color ink-jet. Printer manufacturers sell their ink-jet printers for very little money, knowing that they’ll make it up in the expensive inks these printers require. So, if you primarily print black-and-white documents, you’re better off choosing a laser printer.
In addition to a laser printer, this HP multifunction printer includes a flatbed scanner, a copier, and a fax machine. The printer comes standard with a 250-sheet input tray and a 50-sheet automatic document feeder. It can connect to a network over Ethernet. And you can find compatible toner cartridges for under $25.
What the HP LaserJet 3055 lacks is photo printing, and most home offices require it. Because of its price and the quality of the prints it produces, we recommend HP’s Photosmart D7360 (which costs $134 on Amazon.com). Although it’s not the fastest photo ink-jet printer in the world, the D7360 includes separate ink cartridges, bears a large touch-screen LCD, and accepts a variety of memory cards.
The best software for the budget
If you routinely work with documents created by both the Mac and Windows versions of Microsoft Office and require complete compatibility with those documents, you should run the real thing— Microsoft Office 2004. Unlike with NeoOffice, you won’t encounter formatting problems and PowerPoint presentations won’t lose their embedded media. Our one regret is that Microsoft Office 2008—a fully Universal edition of the ubiquitous office suite—won’t ship until the lat-ter half of 2007. It seems a shame to drop $300 (the Amazon.com price) for Office 2004 with a new version coming so soon. On the other hand, Microsoft Office 2004 runs perfectly well under Apple’s Rosetta, and you may be happy enough with its performance that you see no need to upgrade to the next version. Also, if you have a minor child in school or your mate is a teacher, you qualify for the Microsoft Office Student and Teacher Edition 2004, which costs just $130 at Amazon.com (and may be even less expensive at the school bookstore).
Office Additions In addition to Microsoft Office, I recommend Apple’s iWork ($70 at Amazon.com). You just can’t make the kind of rich-looking documents with Microsoft Word that you can with Pages. It’s a great tool to have when you need to make a simple newsletter or brochure. You can also create much cooler presentations with Keynote than with PowerPoint.
Media Software Yes, Apple’s free iLife and the $20 ArtRage 2 are not only good enough for the bargain office, they’re good enough for people with a midlevel budget.
Finance Software You need to track expenses just as closely as other home-office dwellers do. Quicken Mac 2007 ($50 from Costco.com) is an inexpensive way to do it.
Adding it up
You’ve spent $3,003 and are just a bit over budget. Thankfully, because you’re at home, it should take only a few minutes to dig beneath the couch cushions and make up the difference.
Middle-of-the-road office shopping list
The luxury office
Ah, finally—the chance to spread your wings and live a little. Although you don’t exactly have money to burn, $6,000 is enough to buy some mighty fine tools.
For the luxury office, I recommend starting with the top-of-the-line 2.33GHz 15-inch MacBook Pro Core 2 Duo ( ). Yes, I can hear the screams from here: “ But we’ve got the dough for the fastest Mac made!” Just because you can buy a Mac Pro doesn’t mean that you should.
The 15-inch MacBook Pro costs the same as a stock Mac Pro—$2,499. But consider what you get: a built-in iSight camera, AirPort and Bluetooth, 2GB of RAM, a 120GB hard drive, the ATI Mobility Radeon X1600 graphics card with 256MB of SDRAM, a bright display (flat or glossy), and, most importantly for many of us, portability. Why be chained to your desk when you can take your office anywhere? (For exceptions, see “When a Laptop Won’t Do.” below)
Double your horizons by adding Dell’s $674 UltraSharp 2407WFP 24-inch monitor. Put your MacBook on a stack of books next to the monitor. Or, if you’re willing to spend the money, buy a stand, such as Griffin Technology’s $40 Elevator.
Outfitting your office
Like your cousin with the $3,000 budget, you’ve got money to throw at computer peripherals.
Extra Storage Because you can afford it, we’re going to trade up to OWC’s $270 500GB Mercury Elite-AL Pro FireWire 800/400+USB2. This drive includes ProSoft’s Data Backup for Mac OS X. It also has a USB 2.0 port, which is handy because one day you may wish to devote your MacBook’s FireWire ports to another device. Also, Intel-based Macs can boot from a properly configured (and compatible, as this one is) USB 2.0 drive.
Input Devices I recommend wireless input devices for you. The $59 Apple Wireless Keyboard ( ) uses Bluetooth, has a solid feel, responds nearly as well as a wired keyboard, and offers good battery life. I also recommend Logitech’s $80 MX Revolution Mouse.
Printers and a Fax Machine Like our middle-of-the-road office, the luxury office will bear two printing devices. For starters, I choose the HP LaserJet 1320, which costs $400 at pcconnection.com. The LaserJet 1320 offers 1,200-dpi quality, automatic two-sided duplex printing; a speed of up to 22 ppm; and 16MB of memory.
I like Canon’s $380 Pixma MP960 multifunction printer ( ) for its solid print quality, large LCD, built-in duplex printing, built-in transparency scanning, large paper capacity, and ease of use. This six-color photo ink-jet printer offers two paper trays, printing over Bluetooth, and two memory-card slots and a PictBridge port for printing directly from your digital camera.
The Pixma MP960 doesn’t include a fax machine. Throw $75 of your budget at a fax machine that strikes your fancy.
A Message Center Nothing says “professional office” like a sophisticated answering service that channels calls to mailboxes, demands that the caller navigate through a hierarchical phone tree system, and routes calls based on the identity of the caller. Thankfully, you can do all this with Parliant’s $170 PhoneValet Message Center 5.
Two for the Road No matter how portable your MacBook may be, it’s no match for a key drive that you can slip into your pocket. You can find Kingston Technology’s DataTraveler 2GB USB Drive on Amazon.com for a scant $25.
And lest we forget, when you take your MacBook Pro on the road, Brenthaven’s $80 Leather Edge II Black laptop case shows that you mean business.
The best software for the budget
In case my recommending a laptop didn’t sufficiently inspire your ire, try this: Run Windows on your Mac.
My logic plays out this way: If your job requires that you deal with documents generated by Windows PCs, it makes sense to run the operating system and version of Office that created them. The easiest and least expensive way to do this is to buy Microsoft Office Standard 2007 ($342 from Costco.com) and then get your MacBook Pro from MacMall, with Parallels Desktop for Mac ( ) and Microsoft Windows Vista Business Edition preinstalled, for a total of $2,799. This is a savings of $44 versus buying the software yourself. And not only do you save money, you’re spared the hassle of installing and configuring everything. Be aware that the Better Business Bureau gives PC Mall (owners of MacMall) only an average CCC rating.
Office Additions Also on our list is the $70 iWork. I don’t care which version of PowerPoint you use, Keynote is still the better presentation application.
Media Software With Apple’s free iLife and the $20 ArtRage 2 at your disposal, you can create and edit music, photos, movies, and graphics.
Troubleshooting Team New for the Luxury office is a utility that helps ensure that your hard-won data remains intact. Alsoft’s DiskWarrior 4 ( )—$95 at Amazon.com—can re-create the low-level directory that makes your Mac tick.
Finally, when you’re carrying around—and possibly dropping—a laptop, Apple’s three-year extended warranty can give you some peace of mind; $349 gets you the AppleCare Protection Plan for a MacBook Pro.
Extra Goodies The luxury office needs Quicken Mac 2007 ($50 from Costco.com), just as our other offices have. To round out your setup even more, add C-Command’s SpamSieve ($30). It’s the best spam-filtering utility around. For launching applications via typed shortcuts, get Objective Development’s $20 LaunchBar 4.1 ( ). (Note that the $20 price is for the Home User license.)
Adding it up
You’ve spent $5,988 and have $12 left. Treat yourself to a classic movie and TV episode ($10 and $2, respectively) from the iTunes Store. You deserve it.
Luxury office shopping list
When a laptop won’t do
If you’re in the multimedia business and use your Mac to work with audio, graphics, and video files, the MacBook Pro may not be the best choice for you. You actually need the $2,499 2.66GHz Mac Pro ( ), for its Dual Core Intel Xeon processors and abundant capacity for storage (up to 3TB). Your applications appreciate as much RAM as you can feed them (the Mac Pro supports up to 16GB). Also, the Mac Pro’s three PCI Express slots can accommodate the video and audio cards your business might need. If so, purchase a Mac Pro with my blessing. Otherwise, I contend that the Mac Pro is overkill—and nonportable overkill at that.
[ Senior Editor Christopher Breen is the author of The iPod and iTunes Pocket Guide, second edition (Peachpit Press, 2007). ]