Out With The Old
Through the years, Jim Nolan has followed a simple but reliable pattern for upgrading desktop computers and systems.
On average, Nolan expects to get three years of solid service from a desktop. By replacing one-third of his office computers every three years, he can ensure that the technology stays current, there's no disruption in service and he doesn't break the bank by trying to upgrade all the desktops at once.
But Nolan, director of Information Systems for Inogen, a Santa Barbara, Calif., provider of portable oxygen concentrators, isn't sure that practice still works. The flaw in the formula: There's nothing wrong with most of the three-year-old computers in use today.
"Computers have become so much more reliable that we're not seeing a lot of the problems we used to experience after three years," Nolan explains. "Also, Microsoft hasn't significantly changed the operating system recently, so it's possible we now could get four years of service out of a desktop."
In the past, computers tended to experience higher failure rates as they approached three years of service. Hard drives crashed, processors and operating systems could no longer support the latest software and the costs of maintaining older systems often outweighed any savings to be gained from keeping computers around another year.
In addition, new releases of Microsoft Corp.'s operating system often forced companies to undertake wholesale changes. But Microsoft hasn't released a new operating system since Windows XP in 2001, and its next major release, code-named Longhorn, isn't expected to go on sale until 2006. And as Nolan points out, today's durable desktops for the most part don't need a major upgrade to run standard office applications.
So is Nolan thinking about extending his desktop replacement cycle to four years instead of three? Not exactly. Other factors, such as price and new monitor and network options, have persuaded him to keep to the standard replacement plan—at least for now. The last time Nolan completed a major desktop upgrade, he paid an average of $1,600 per computer. This time around, Inogen purchased new brand-name desktops with more processing speed and twice the hard drive space and memory for about $600 each.
Some of the savings went to outfitting the desktops with LCD (liquid crystal display) monitors, which also have dropped significantly in price. "They're better on the eyes, they take up less space and I was able to get them for about what I paid for a CRT [cathode-ray tube] monitor the last time around," he says.
More Bang for the Buck
Nolan isn't the only one weighing the actual need to upgrade computers against the bigger bang he can gain from his technology budget.
Market research firm IDC predicts that the U.S. personal computer market will experience a 9.1 percent growth rate in 2005. That's healthy, but it's down from the 10.8 percent and 10.1 percent gains in 2003 and 2004 respectively, at a time when the economy appears to be gaining steam.
IDC analyst Alan Promisel believes many companies are simply getting more life out of their older desktops, servers and software. "When the economy slowed, companies started delaying their purchases and found they could get along fine with their older PCs," he says. "The question is, with the economy improving, will companies go back to their traditional three-year cycles? It's too early to tell, but we do know a lot of companies say their computers that are three to four years old are fine for running [Microsoft] Office-type applications."
When it is time to upgrade, buyers find that the price-to-performance ratio that characterizes today's computers makes them an unprecedented bargain, says Rick Broadhead, a technology expert and consultant. To get the best combination of value and performance, Broadhead recommends moving one or two steps down from the top-level PCs offered by manufacturers. Top-of-the-line PCs are packed with features that most businesses don't need, like high-end graphics cards designed for game-playing, built-in televisions and earsplitting sound systems.
"What you need depends on the nature of your business and the types of users," adds Broadhead. Employees running Microsoft Office-type applications probably can get along with a $500 to $700 computer, whereas graphic designers or engineers running sophisticated drawing applications may require a $2,000 to $3,000 desktop.
That's why finding a vendor that knows a business's requirements can pay off big-time, agrees Inogen's Nolan. "Working with a company or representative who is knowledgeable about my business and my needs is worth its weight in gold."
Nolan says a good service representative will know ahead of time what applications need to be pre-installed on desktops and the required system configurations. "If I forget something, like the fact that I always add extra memory, my representative will catch that. It's like having an additional employee," he says.
A worn-out computer will display signs that repair or an upgrade is in order:
1. The desktop can't seem to catch up. When the user pushes a button and the little hourglass appears and seems to stay on the screen forever, it's a good sign that applications are demanding more processing power and memory than the computer can supply.
2. The computer crashes more often than Evel Knievel. This is often caused by a buggy program. It may make more sense to buy a new machine rather than debug an older computer.
3. The PC has no room for new software. For the computer flashing an "out of disk space" message, there are several options: uninstalling programs no longer in use, buying a bigger hard drive or a removable drive to store files—or buying a new computer. Rather than purchasing a new hard drive and paying for installation, the company could be halfway toward the price of a new PC with loads of storage space.
4. The operating system doesn't compute. If installation of a new application is attempted, and the computer reports that it cannot run on the current operating system, that's a good sign it's at the end of its life cycle. A possible solution is to try to install the latest version of Windows, but chances are it will demand more of the computer than it can handle.
5. The fan is whirring, and it's not summer. When the computer fan starts making loud noises, it could soon fail and take the computer down with it.
Sometimes cost isn't the most important factor in the upgrade equation. When Audi Exchange built a new 70,000-square-foot auto showroom in Highland Park, Ill., last fall, it put the wheels in motion for a workstation upgrade and tech makeover.
The need for new equipment wasn't urgent. The Hewlett-Packard desktops from Audi Exchange's former facility were two years old and would have lasted at least another year. Yet with additional employees coming on board to staff the new showroom, the company decided to upgrade all its workstations.
"All the furniture in the new showroom is Audi-approved," says Jack Broder, the firm's IT manager. "The store has an extremely modern appearance—it looks like an airplane hangar of aluminum and glass—and we needed computer equipment that would blend in."
Broder purchased 50 new HP desktops with Pentium 4 3.2GHz processors. The upgrade decision was guided primarily by aesthetics—presenting the proper image to Audi Exchange's customers—and lower maintenance costs (studies show that up to 80 percent of a PC's cost lies in operational expenses such as maintenance and repairs). "We could have gone with more powerful machines," he explains, "but physically speaking they needed to be very modern-looking and neat."
Each workstation is outfitted with an HP desktop, a Planar LCD monitor and a Logitech Cordless Duo keyboard plus mouse, providing a sleek image that complements the ultra-high-tech décor, says Broder. "It looks like everything was custom-built for the showroom."
—John Frederick Moore
Is it upgrade time? In evaluating a company's specific needs, managers should consider several key factors: