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IS IT TIME FOR A NEW COMPUTER?


May 1, 1999
By Pulp & Paper Canada

My normal guideline for buying a new machine is to spend the money only when technology has advanced sufficiently to provide a machine that is three times as fast as the computer I am using. This mean…

My normal guideline for buying a new machine is to spend the money only when technology has advanced sufficiently to provide a machine that is three times as fast as the computer I am using. This means that we buy a machine about once every three years. When we do buy a new one, we buy the fastest computer we can find, with a hard disc that is larger than we think we need. This has resulted in computers even seven years old still being useful in the office.

One should always measure the merits of a portable computer against a desktop machine for most purchases. The general statements I made in the January 1997 column are still true, except that speeds and computer capacities have risen substantially, and the cost differential between equally powerful laptops and desktops has dropped from about 3:1 to 2.5:1

A portable computer itself will cost about twice as much as a desktop machine of equal power, and the desktops still lead the portables in power, but not by much. The maintenance costs for portables will be higher than for desktops, even if they are well cared for.

For those who never wish to travel with a computer, a desktop machine is the best buy. However, there are many benefits in having a portable. In addition to the obvious ones, I find that the portable gives me much more free time at home, since I get a lot done in hotel rooms and in flight. For some users, having a portable computer allows work to be done at home instead of staying late at the office.

DIRECT PURCHASE VS DEALER

For a small business with a little computer knowledge in-house, I feel that direct purchase is the best, since local dealers cannot offer 24-hour telephone support and their computers usually cost about 20% more than Dell or Gateway for equal quality. This time, we bought Dell, despite excellent service in the past from Gateway. The principal reason was that we got fed up waiting on hold while Gateway sales (and recently tech support) staff were “busy serving other customers”.

Both these companies avoid any nuisances of dealing with Canada customs. Any computer that is unsatisfactory can be returned within 30 days for full refund except freight one way.

For most users outside the downtown areas of cities, it takes a lot less time to deal on the phone and Internet than to hike around computer showrooms.

LAPTOP VIDEO

One major issue that has changed is that laptop computers are now available with 15-in. diagonal screens, with 1024 x 768 pixel resolution. Our Dell provides an honest 15-in. diagonal viewing area, which is equal to that of a 16-in. CRT monitor. When added to the fact that the flat LCD screens always seems sharper than CRTs, it is really as good as having a 17-in. CRT monitor on the desk. In the past, I always felt that it was necessary to have a CRT on the desk if using a laptop as the principal computer, but that is no longer true. This lowers the effective cost of a laptop computer by about $500. However, since the Dell can drive an external monitor at 1600 by 1200 resolution, I still use an old 20-in. CRT. The greater resolution allows comfortable work with very small screen fonts, so that it is practical to write and edit in the word processor with two full text pages on the screen. In practice, I have one page visible, filling about half the screen, so that it is easy to jump to other software.

For spreadsheets, no screen is ever large enough, but bigger is always better, and the ability to work conveniently with 70 rows in an Excel spreadsheet is a great help. Programs like AutoCAD benefit also, and the ability to view two documents simultaneously is a great help, since it often avoids having to print one or both just to read them.

The Dell with 128 Mb RAM, and a 366-MHz processor is about twice as fast as my old 150-MHz computer with 48 Mb RAM when undertaking practical work. There is some additional gain in productivity from the excellent screen mentioned above.

TOUCH PADS AND KEYBOARDS

I would not like to work all day with the keyboard on any portable, but Dell and its competitors have sweetened the pie somewhat by providing much improved touch pads. These are small rectangles on the keyboards below the keys for pointing at screen items, like a mouse. The older ones simply emulate mice, with your finger being used for pointing and the thumb for the left and right buttons. However, they now respond well to finger touch and have convenient features such as scrolling the screen when the right hand side is stroked, jumping to the “Start” menu when the lower left hand corner is touched etc. These capabilities are user programmable, and make the touch pad much more useful than a mouse.

I have a Microsoft “natural” keyboard, which has the keys split into two inclined areas, so that my hands are in a more natural and comfortable position than with standard keyboards. They are not expensive, and are a great improvement over standard keyboards, particularly those on laptop computers. Now I am hunting for a natural keyboard with a touch pad that is compatible with the portable computer’s one. If the touch pads differ, then I would have to change software each time I traveled or returned home.

Most people who have tried a modern touch pad seem to prefer them to mice. I much prefer them to the IBM-style joystick in the middle of the keyboard.

WINDOWS 98 VS 95

The new machine came with Windows 98 installed, and I am pleased with the many minor improvements over Windows 95. However, I do not feel that the benefits are sufficient to risk possible difficulties in upgrading the two older computers in the office.

When buying a new computer, it is best for most users to select the latest operating system. Is it worth replacing a working computer with a new one? That depends on the intensity of use. It is difficult to quantify the benefits of upgrading. All I can say is that when I work with clients who have a policy of minimal upgrading, a lot of time is wasted because the old machines use only the old software. By “old”, I mean 80486 computers with 8 Mb RAM, or slower machines. These are definitely not cost effective for more than checking E-mail and writing the odd short note.

I think our approach of buying a new, top end machine every three years, and not keeping a machine more than about six years works well. Some large and successful companies give everyone a new computer every two years. I might if it was not my money.

Computers are like process control systems. One can conduct studies to “prove” that almost any expenditure is cost effective, and in end the decision has to be based at least as much on business judgement as on facts. One can prove almost anything about computer productivity by selecting appropriate base assumptions.


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