Pulp and Paper Canada

Independent Computing

May 1, 2002  By Pulp & Paper Canada

IThis month we will discuss the situation of those who have to, or wish to, buy their own computer after years of using their employer’s machine. This is rather common these days as companies downsize…

IThis month we will discuss the situation of those who have to, or wish to, buy their own computer after years of using their employer’s machine. This is rather common these days as companies downsize or people move into partial retirement from choice, but wish to continue to work part time for their former employers or as independent consultants. Students off to university on their own have similar needs.

There is a whole range of needs for the independent worker, and those with advanced requirements probably know what to buy. Those with less exotic needs are more likely to be puzzled by the range of hardware and software offered and this article addresses such situations, with a bias toward low budgets.



The first choice is desktop versus laptop. Today, I feel that a laptop is the best buy for most people, even though the cost is higher than for a desktop of equal computing power. The only situation where I would consider a desktop machine is if it were combined with a Palm Pilot or similar device, and I felt that the Palm device would be adequate for travel needs.


If you are working without corporate support, you are best to buy from one of the large on-line vendors such as Dell or Gateway, since they provide excellent telephone support 24 hours per day. When choosing a model, be sure that lifetime phone support is included, since this is an optional extra for the cheaper models. Always pay the extra for the three year “mail-in” warranty.

The companies’ web sites at www.dell.ca and www.gateway.com have very complete catalogs. Although these are American companies, dealing with them from Canada is painless.

Toshiba, IBM and a few other companies make excellent hardware, but their support is weak for the home or small business user in Canada.

The “Service & Reliability” survey at http://www.pcmag.com/article/0,2997,s=1579&a=7558,00.asp is worth reading. Focus on the results, rather than the rhetoric.


Always buy the latest version available, since you hope to keep the machine for a while, and upgrading operating systems is usually a time consuming and frustrating business. Today, that means Windows XP. I would avoid the Home Edition, and buy the Professional Edition.


Everyone needs a good word processor, spreadsheet and e-mail program. Microsoft Office is the dominant package and recommended for passing files back and forth with other people.

Power Point is used widely for presentations and, if you plan on building your own web site, then Microsoft’s Front Page is probably the best bet.

Microsoft Office comes in several versions, with the more expensive including more programs. It is MUCH cheaper to buy simultaneously with the computer than separately, so err on the high side.

StarOffice is an interesting alternative to Microsoft Office. It is available as a free download from http://wwws.sun.com/software/star/staroffice/5.2/get.html but at 100Mb it may be a challenge to capture all of it over a modem. Sun sells a CD version with printed manual for about $40US on the same site. I have no experience of it, but am advised that it is highly compatible with Microsoft Office and runs well.


All independent computers should have a 56K modem and most an Ethernet card. Many have these capabilities built in to the motherboard. The network card is required for connection to most high-speed Internet connections.

A CD reader is essential today, and I feel that it is worth spending the extra for a CD writer. DVD playing capabilities can be fun, but are of limited business use.

If you do not have a CD writer, then a floppy disc drive is necessary, and is always convenient for exchanging files.

A 20 Gb hard disc is plenty for most people for business use. The only reason to have a larger drive is to store movies, music etc. Machines with under 256Mb RAM may be rather sluggish if running several programs simultaneously.

For extensive use on the desk, I like to have a “real”, full size, keyboard, rather than the laptop keyboard, and also spent the money on a good optical mouse. The $15 ones are best fed to the cat.

A special carrying case is somewhat of an invitation to theft, and rarely allows space for paper files, spare clothes etc, so is it normally better to use a standard briefcase.


Internet connections available to many users are still limited to a 56Kbps modem, and even those who have a high-speed connection at home will need modem access while traveling. Expect to pay about $25/month for unlimited access. Before choosing an Internet Service Provider (ISP), talk to your neighbours and find out which are normally free and which often return busy signals, or give slow service at busy times.

The global suppliers, such as www.attglobal.com have appeal with their worldwide access points, but are relatively expensive, and lacks toll-free access from about half the pulp mill towns in Canada.

You can travel quite well by using hotmail in hotels, Internet cafs and the offices you visit.

The two high-speed options available to home users are via cable TV and the DSL (or ADSL) service from the phone company. Since you are likely to be on-line a lot, the fact that these services leave the phone line free for conversations is quite attractive

One hybrid service that is worth considering (if they ever answer the phone) is Bell’s DirectPC Satellite edition. This provides quite fast 0.4Mb/sec downloads, but your outgoing traffic passes by the phone line, using a modem. Since most of us download much more data than we upload, this is quite useful. To use it you must have an account with an internet Service Provider, (not necessarily Sympatico) and a satellite receiver dish, which can also be used for Bell’s TV service. The extra speed will cost about $60/month beyond the ISP and phone line charges. Such an approach is of interest only if the above mentioned high-speed services are not available in your area.

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