I used to think that "SOHO" stood for South of Houston Street, a section of Manhattan known for its artists, writers and other bohemians. Today it stands for "small office/home office," and it's the fastest-growing segment of the computer market.
Because of the size of the market, there are lots of hardware companies, software vendors and online service providers scrambling to create or repackage products for people who work at home.
In many cases, there are no real differences between a product designed for the home office and those for any other type of business or personal use. Rather, your home office needs are determined by the type of business you're in.
If you're an architect who works at home, for example, you would probably use the same industrial-strength computer-aided design program that colleagues who commute to an office do.
A professional writer might need a full-feature word-processing program such as Word or WordPerfect, but someone who writes only a few letters a week and an occasional short report can get away with an integrated program such as Microsoft Works or ClarisWorks.
The type of computer you'll need at home will also be pretty much the same as what you'd need at the office, with a couple of exceptions. First, office machines typically have network cards that would be superfluous in most home offices. Second, computers connected to a company's local-area network might not need a modem, printer or CD-ROM drive, all of which are essential for the home office.
Hewlett-Packard Co., cognizant of this market, is now offering the Vectra 500 Series for small businesses. The machines come with Microsoft Office software (Word, Excel, Access Database and PowerPoint presentation system) pre-installed, which is great if you want these programs and don't already have them. It also has a modem that not only sends and receives data and faxes, but also acts as a voicemail system and phone dialer.
The version I received from HP to test has a 166-megahertz Pentium CPU, 16 megabytes of memory, a 1.6-gigabyte hard drive and, of course, Windows 95. It was easy to set up--everything is pre-installed. The only thing I didn't like is that the CD-ROM drive and floppy are near the bottom of the case, so if you put the machine under your desk, you have to bend down almost to the floor to get to them.
Acer's Aspire Home Office Solution series of machines, which start at about $2,000, come with at least 16 megs of memory and up to 2 gigabytes of hard disk storage. A 28,800-bps (bits per second) fax modem with phone answering machine and voicemail capabilities is standard. Acer has done a phenomenal job of packaging these machines in attractive cases.
You don't have to spend a lot of money for a PC that's suitable for a home office. AST Computer, for example, has introduced a line of machines that Wal-Mart is selling for $997. The basic machine has a 66-MHz 486 CPU with 8 megabytes of RAM and 540 megabytes of hard disk space. A 486 is old technology, but it's fast enough for general office applications. Later, you can add more memory and hard disk drive should the need arise. The machine has a 14-inch color monitor, stereo speakers, four-speed CD-ROM and a 14,400-bps modem. It comes with Windows 95, Microsoft Works and the Microsoft Encarta encyclopedia.
The 14,400-bps modem is the only major weak point in the AST machine. I can live with a 486 CPU, but if you plan to surf the World Wide Web, you'll want a 28,800-bps modem. Internal modems, which come with these machines, are cheaper than external modems and save desk space, but I prefer external modems because they're easier to install and move--and if something goes wrong, you can turn them off and back on, which often resolves the problem. External modems also have status lights that you can use to diagnose a problem. Nevertheless, an internal modem will get the job done, and that's what counts.
Just about any modem can be used to send and receive faxes, but this is a mixed blessing.
It's great for sending computer-generated documents from the PC but not so great for receiving a fax. You send a document by "printing" it to the modem, and because it doesn't have to be printed and scanned as with a regular fax, the receiver gets a higher-quality fax, plus you save paper. I don't rely on a fax modem to receive faxes, however. Regular fax machines are cheap, reliable and use little electricity. Best of all, you can leave them on 24 hours a day. If you use a modem to receive a fax, the PC must be running, the fax software must be loaded, and when a fax does come in, it can interfere with whatever else your PC is doing. Then, if you want the document on paper, you have to print it out.
Electronic mail is quickly becoming as important as a fax machine in communicating with customers, and the World Wide Web is full of free information that will help you run your business. Home pages on the Web may soon be as important as company brochures.