Small Office, Home Office Solutions

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Ten Technology Tools That Make Your SOHO Productivity Soar

By Jacqueline Emigh

If you’re a SOHO or small business user, finding the right technology tools is an absolute necessity, especially if you’re competing with bigger companies for customers. You’re virtually certain to save time, cut costs, and winnow your competitive edge if you can cut back on the numbers of products you buy, while building up features and functionality.

Fortunately, tons of tools are available these days that let you spread your resources wisely by doing just this kind of “multitasking.” Some of these work double- or triple-duty by combining multiple capabilities – such as phone calling and picture taking, printing and faxing, or even Internet access and TV watching – in a single gadget.

Other tools of this type — generally in the software and Internet services categories — prevent the need for more expensive extras by letting you accomplish more tasks on an existing PC.

But no two businesses of any size are exactly alike. How well a specific tool works for you will depend on what tasks you need to do, what tools you already have on hand, and how much spending your budget will allow.

Here, in no particular order of importance, are ten top productivity tools that might just turn you into the ultimate multitasker. Most of these tools can be purchased for a few hundred dollars or less, and some are even available free of charge.

1. Multifunction Printer (MFP)
Benefit: Handles printing, along with scanning, copying and/or faxing.

The MFP is one of the most clear-cut examples of a multitasking hardware device. Instead of buying separate machines for printing, scanning, and faxing, you can get all of this functionality rolled into one. Gone, too, is the need for different paper and ink supplies for multiple machines.

As MFPs rise in popularity in small and large offices alike, prices are coming down fast. You can choose between inkjet and faster laser printer technology, but a good color inkjet MFP can run you as little as $200 or so. Obviously, though, an MFP isn’t the best way to go for offices that have multiple well functioning devices already in place.

2. Software Office Productivity Suite
Benefit: Combines a word processor, spreadsheet, and presentation package
all in one, with maybe some drawing tools or a project management apps thrown
in, too.

As most of us know, a software suite brings together several different software applications into a single integrated package. Suites are available for all sorts of functions, ranging from customer relationship management (CRM) to PC maintenance and security, for instance. Yet office productivity suites are some of the best known suites around. While it’s true that licensing prices for Microsoft Office can be costly, you’d be spending even more by making separate purchases, at various points in time, of products like Word, Excel, and PowerPoint.

What’s more, you can get hold of a lot of open source and online software suites free of charge. In some cases, alternatives to the big commercial suites add functionality you wouldn’t get otherwise. The open source Gnome Office, for example, adds a database management program, tools for drawing and mathematical equations, and other goodies to the basic word processor/spreadsheet/presentation package mix. KOffice, another open source office suite, throws in the KPlato project manager application.

3. Smartphone
Benefit: Mobile voice calling, e-mail, instant messaging (IM), Web browsing,
and photography, plus assorted additional functionality through new mobile
software apps.

Many people in small businesses spend much their time out of the office visiting customers. Cell phones have long served as a boon to SOHOs for mobile voice calling. The advent of so-called feature phones earlier in this decade added text messaging and e-mail capabilities, along with some limited Web access.

But with the newer wave of iPhones, Droids and other smartphones, users now get full Web browsing from their handheld devices, built-in cameras for shooting photos and videos, and GPS capabilities to help them navigate the business terrain. Smartphones also differ from the earlier feature phones in that they’re able to run downloadable mobile software apps (both business-oriented and not). Smartphones do cost more. But you can typically purchase a carrier-subsidized model for $200 or less if you sign a two-year contract for wireless services.

4. VOIP and Virtual PBX Software
Benefit: Slashes phone costs while making your business look bigger.

Although all phones support voice calling, anyway, VOIP (voice over the Internet) services can reduce your costs by letting you place calls over the Internet instead of through carrier-operated networks. Virtual PBX, on the other hand, can provide you with keener weapons against otherwise daunting rivals through its sophisticated call routing options.

Many companies today offer products enabling small business access to either or both types of services. Phone.com, for example, now supports these with mobile software apps for smartphones. Although wireless customers still need to pay monthly carrier fees, the VOIP services keep you from using up voice minutes. International calls can be placed either free of or at reduced rates. Through the virtual PBX services, you can use a single phone number from Phone.com for multiple phones – such as the office phone and home and mobile phones – and choose how calls are routed to those phones. Phone.com also offers multiple phone greetings with selectable professional-sounding voices. While the smartphone apps are free, Phone.com charges monthly fees which vary according to which services you choose.

5. Tablet PC
Benefit: Mobile e-mail, IM, and browsing in a handy and user-friendly device.

Typically outfitted with screen sizes five to ten inches across, tablet PCs offer much better viewing ability than smartphones, yet they’re smaller and lighter to carry around than laptops.

Apple’s wildly successful iPad, just rolled out in May, is the best known example of a tablet PC, but there are lots of other tablets out there – including the just emerging, multi-carrier Samsung Galaxy Tab – and many more are just around the corner.

While some of the competing tablets run Windows 7, others are running Android and
other breeds of Linux, an operating system supporting tons of free software apps. With other vendors vying hard to catch up to the iPad, intriguing new features are undoubtedly on the way.

6. Fax Software and Services
Benefit: You can repurpose your PC and printer – whether old or new
– as a fax machine.

If you do a lot of work with international customers — or if you’re in a graphics-intensive business like advertising or marketing — you probably need either a full-fledged fax machine or an MFP. Yet with the rise of e-mail, texting, and instant messaging (IM), many SOHOs today experience only occasional needs for faxing.

Faxing might come into play if you get a sudden request to quickly a contract, for example. If your business only sends or receives faxes once in a blue moon, you might want to turn your existing PC and printer into a virtual fax machine. There are a couple of ways of doing this. Web-based services are out there that will convert e-mails into faxes, for a fee.

If you want to take an even more affordable route, avoid throwing out all of your old PCs. Before the rise of digital modems, many PCs came with built-in fax modems. Set up one of your aging PCs in a corner somewhere and you’re good to go, free of charge except for the price of a phone call on an outbound fax.

7. E-reader Software
Benefit: Spares you the cost of a separate Nook or Kindle device by turning a smartphone, PC or even your tablet PC into a virtual e-reader.

Maybe you use books to help you run your business. Whether it’s an accounting textbook, a dictionary or regulatory handbook you need, newer e-books have now emerged to replace the cumbersome and easily dog-eared traditional paper-based book.

While you can also read these e-books on a wide range of dedicated e-reader devices, downloadable software is becoming available to let you read them on either a smartphone, a tablet, or your laptop or desktop PC. Barnes and Noble offers Nook apps, and Amazon does likewise with Kindle apps.

8. HDD/SSD Hybrid Storage Drive
Benefit: Brings together two types of storage technologies into a single,
affordable solution.

To keep productive, businesses of all sizes need to back up the data on the hard drives in some way, just in case a PC crashes. But some small businesses need abundant hardware storage, while others do not. For those that do, a product in the emerging category of hard disk drive/solid state drive (HDD/SSD) hybrid devices can turn into a very worthwhile investment. These USB plug-in gadgets store some data in solid state flash, and the rest on the external hard drive.

SSD offers certain advantages over HDD, such as higher speed and lower power consumption. It’s very well suited to storing small amounts of information requiring quick access. But it’s also more costly, on the whole. Seagate’s Momentus XT hybrid drive, for example, also comes with a built-in capability for automatically figuring out what data should be stored on which drive. Prices range from $113 for a 250GB hybrid drive to $153 for a 500GB edition.

9. Cloud Storage
Benefit: Expands PC storage while potentially minimizing costs and management.

Then again, you might be able to forego the need to buy – and manage – a new storage device, if you decide instead to expand on existing PC storage by sending some information up to the cloud.

Many businesses, though, worry about security and privacy issues around storage in the cloud. If you share those kinds of concerns, make sure you go with a trusted provider, and consider keeping your most sensitive and mission-critical information in-house.

10. Internet TV Hardware
Benefit: Permits simultaneous Internet access and TV broadcast viewing.

PCs and TVs are no longer two separate worlds. While the integration has been
under way for some time now, it’s now hitting a new peak with the advent of Google TV. Sony and Logitech have each already announced new Google TV-driven devices that will let you and your employees access both the Internet and broadcast video services on a single HDTV screen.

Most likely, you don’t want your staff to spend their time viewing movies and soap operas all day long. That wouldn’t be at all productive. Yet Google TV does seem destined for business purposes, too. Employees can tune in to pertinent stock reports from TV land while conducting financial research on the Web.

You can even use the same HDTV screen to show DVD-based employee training videos, or pitch to potential clients since Sony has released a GoogleTV-enabled Blu-ray drive.

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