Best computer option for a workstation at a remote location for clients?
January 11, 2019 8:59 AM   Subscribe

We are a small, non-profit domestic violence agency serving two large counties in a state that is mostly rural. We are trying to set up computer workstations in some of our counties’ most rural areas, to serve domestic violence victims who can’t physically come in to our office. I haven’t needed to purchase computers in about 10 years, so I need help figuring out what the most efficient use of our money would be.

I work for a domestic violence agency that provides shelter, advocacy, legal services, and counseling to domestic violence victims. Many victims can’t come to our offices, whether because their abuser won’t let them go anywhere unsupervised, or they don’t have transportation, or in the case of one town, because most of the residents are undocumented immigrants, and to get here they would have to pass through a border patrol checkpoint. To be able to help these victims, we are going to be setting up computer workstations in host agency sites such as medical clinics and local health department offices. These workstations would consist of a PC, monitor, fax machine, and printer.

We know there are “simpler” ways to do this, such as a tablet or laptop, but theft may be a large problem at some locations, and laptops and tablets are too easy to steal. (We are aware of the existence of laptop security cables, but these kiosks will be unmonitored during use, due to privacy considerations, and cables can be cut.)

The only things these computers will need to be able to do is access the internet, download and print PDF forms from our website, and use Skype to contact us. Assume we will have access to the host agency’s network for internet access. We don’t foresee a need for Microsoft Word or any other office applications.

(Every time I type “host agency”, I picture aliens implanting their embryos into humans)

We have access to TechSoup (a low-cost software and hardware provider for non-profits), but most of their computers come with Microsoft Office, and I don’t want to pay for something we don’t need, unless that’s still the cheapest option. Also, a big issue there is that their computers are refurbished. Our computers will all be located a minimum of about a 90 minute drive from us, so if one has issues, that’s a lot of traveling to deal with it. Also, I’ll probably be doing some tech support over the phone, and if every computer is different, it will be harder to explain to someone over the phone exactly where the button is that they need to push. And it’s conceivable that at some point when we need to order a computer, TechSoup may be out of stock.

Not sure how much can be seen by people who don’t have a TechSoup account, but this is their most inexpensive option at the moment:

Desktop, Core i5-2410M, Windows 10 (Condition B)
Donor Partner: Refurbished Computers

This is a Condition B refurbished desktop computer that includes:

An Intel Core i5-2410M processor, 4 GB RAM, and a 500-GB hard disk drive
Windows 10 Pro (64-bit), including Windows Defender
Microsoft Office 2010 Home and Business
An AC power adapter
A one-year warranty

The make and model pictured may not be the make and model you receive. All software is preinstalled. The keyboard and mouse are new, not refurbished. A monitor is not included. It might have cosmetic defects that do not affect its operability.

It will meet or exceed these specifications:

Processor: Intel Core i5-2410M dual-core 2.3-GHz
Hard Disk Drive: 500 GB
Optical Disc Drive: CD-ROM/DVD-ROM

Input Devices: keyboard with numeric keypad and mouse
Power Cord/AC Adapter: standard
Interface Ports: Ethernet, USB (multiple), speaker/headphone, microphone-in, VGA
Case: mini-tower, desktop, or small form factor

I’m mainly looking for suggestions for PC’s, but if you have any suggestions for any of the other hardware, that would be great, too – with the caveat that printers need to be laser printers, because this is in the desert and inject cartridges dry out long before they get used up.

posted by MexicanYenta to Computers & Internet (7 answers total) 2 users marked this as a favorite
I've used TechSoup for this and it's probably fine. The last few years haven't seen the drastic change in processors that we used to see and anything that runs Windows 10 is going to be similar enough for anything you can phone troubleshoot. You didn't put the price for the TechSoup computer and I no longer have an account, so I don't know if you are really paying much of a premium for Office on there. I seem to recall that they were cheap enough that it didn't deter us. If you wanted to compare it to a "retail" refurb, I've had great luck with MicroCenter refurbs.
posted by advicepig at 9:20 AM on January 11, 2019

Others may get into the technical side of things, but if you're worried about theft with laptops or tablets, you probably also need to be worried about theft with the monitor (or keyboard/mouse) of your desktops. Not as much, but I definitely wouldn't want to leave them unsecured.

Given that, I'm going to suggest that you should reconsider going the tablet direction. Given the limited needs you have, I think a tablet is going to be easier to administer than a full-fledged computer. Securing a tablet is pretty straightforward (and relatively inexpensive): Amazon has lots of options but looking for a locking iPad case (or "locking iPad kiosk") turns up possibilities.

I don't know what your budget is, but a tablet and locking kiosk could be under $400 each; it's hard to beat that with a computer+monitor+keyboard+mouse+locking hardware.
posted by Betelgeuse at 9:25 AM on January 11, 2019 [5 favorites]

I have a TechSoup account, logged in and looked. These are fine for what you need (advicepig, they're $138), and since they don't have monitors, pop over to the monitors page and the $58 ones ought to do too.

As far as supporting them, make sure to make an account that has standard user privileges and can't install/uninstall anything, and keep the admin account for yourself, and install TeamViewer on there for a quick way to get into the computer (as long as it's on the internet).
posted by deezil at 9:30 AM on January 11, 2019 [1 favorite]

I would also suggest you consider an option that does not require as much administration, because a public use computer is going to require a lot of cleanup, updates, etc. Security cables can sound an alarm if they're cut, or a kiosk can be used. Far less moving parts on a tablet. Way less physical space required; can be locked up off hours if necessary. Unless there are other considerations not mentioned here I'd reconsider the "no tablets" stance.
posted by RikiTikiTavi at 9:49 AM on January 11, 2019 [2 favorites]

What's stopping you from just printing out lots of copies of all the forms in advance and leaving them a stack of paperwork and a ballpoint pen?
posted by Lanark at 10:48 AM on January 11, 2019

If this kiosk will be processing forms other than your own, it really has to be a PC rather than a tablet. A whole bunch of government PDF forms only work with Adobe Acrobat on Windows or mac OS.
posted by scruss at 1:12 PM on January 11, 2019

I'm wondering about the networking and wheter it's cable or wireless. And the printer as well: USB or wired or wireless. You can't do tablets without wireless, you also can't swap out parts with spares or fix them in any way. But if it is wireless, the PC will need some wireless of it's own.

If it weren't for Skype and maybe Adobe, you could do this with a $40 Raspberry Pi running a stable Linux and never have to worry. Going full down into the Kiosk thinking.

I'd ponder for a moment whether finding a decent open source solution that works across platform for your VideoChat thing and then deal with the maybe/maybe-not PDF thing for government forms (you could easily work around this anyway). And then throw a $40-$90 brand new little box thing that has no hard drives, no CD, that you can remotely make all of your boxes have the exact same setup that you can manage them all remotely in one fell swoop.

Sorry if a bit ranty, it comes from supporting university computer rooms and such.
posted by zengargoyle at 2:26 PM on January 11, 2019 [1 favorite]

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