Tactical Advice

Ready to Roll

10 Tips for Tricking Out Your Rig
This story appears in the June 2007 issue of BizTech Magazine.

 


Illustration: Peter Bollinger

Let’s face it: PCs have become much cheaper, faster and more stylish than the typical putty-colored cubes of even three years ago. “Plug and play” is no longer “plug and pray,” which makes getting the PC of your and your end users’ dreams possible without shelling out outrageous amounts to get it.

 

But information technology buyers beware. Some end users will request upgrades to transform their rigs from busted to toasted that offer marginal business value. “At home, the cool factor of high-end rigs is clear to see, but at times it is not so clear which cool components bring real power to the computers and the business, as opposed to those that are simply cool,” says Phil Leiter, IT manager at investment adviser Cumberland Associates LLC of New York.

Still, Leiter explains his users aren’t hurting when it comes to productivity-enhancing technology investments. “We’ve long had dual displays on many of our end-user desks and 19-inch or larger displays on most others,” he says. “Our computers are loaded with a healthy amount of RAM [random access memory], especially with more applications running simultaneously. End users work faster, and disk I/O [input/output] activity is minimized. Currently, new desktops must come with 2 gigabytes of RAM, and that may increase once Vista becomes the operating system.”

Here are 10 suggestions from BizTech that provide business value and turn up the cool factor to boot.

1 RAM in More Memory

Take a look at Microsoft Windows Vista and you’ll quickly notice that its memory requirement is greater than its predecessor, Windows XP. With each new OS incarnation, memory requirements seem to increase. When purchasing a new PC, load it with the most RAM you can afford. Sounds nice, but what about if you want to upgrade to Vista on a PC that is a few years old? Well, adding RAM is a relatively inexpensive and easy way to increase system performance. If your system is short on RAM, then Vista and even XP will start to swap too much data in and out of the hard drive as virtual memory.

Many organizations are testing Vista before rolling it out to their users. While increasing the memory is one critical requirement, Glen Damiani, director of IT at United Capital Markets in Key Biscayne, Fla., found adding in a graphics adapter helped boost Vista’s processing power.

Though Damiani rules out adding in a high-end video card for every workstation, he noticed considerably improved resource allocation and system performance with reduced latency after adding in the graphics adapter. He recommends adding the Asus En8800GTX video card (CDW price: $681.99) for testing Vista.

In general, when adding RAM, go as large as 2GB. Keep in mind that RAM comes in many shapes and sizes. Small Outline Dual In-Line Memory Module is frequently used in notebooks or miniature PCs, while standard DIMMs are used in full-sized PCs. Since RAM comes in so many speeds and requires certain configuration options, it’s best to check your PC manual or motherboard for the type and size required for your system. It’s important to note that just about every memory manufacturer has an online configuration utility to help you with the memory selection process.

2 Supersize Your Drive

They say you can never be too rich or too good looking. You can never have too much hard-disk space either. Just look at space requirements for Vista and all your applications, and you’ll know exactly what we mean. A hard-drive upgrade is always useful, especially with e-mail, music, pictures and video occupying huge amounts of disk space. The good news is that hard disks are cheaper than ever, making 320GB or larger doable. CDW offers the fast Seagate Barracuda 7200.10 for $105.99, using the newer Serial-ATA interface or the same drive in ATA-100 for $99.99, both with a 320GB capacity. If you need or want something even bigger, the Barracuda is also available in 750GB capacity.

 


Photo: Andrew Kist
IT Manager Phil Leiter provides dual displays and plenty of RAM at Cumberland Associates.

Cumberland Associates configures its desktops with two SATA hard drives in Redundant Array of Independent Disks zero-channel, a technique that Damiani also deploys for disk-intensive end users.

 

A larger SATA hard drive is a good thing, but a configuration of two SATA hard drives in RAID zero is definitely cool with huge benefits for disk-intensive applications. This configuration provides the end user with rights to two drives simultaneously, Damiani explains. “With a RAID one configuration, you are writing to just one drive. With RAID zero, you get a separate partition for data, which allows you to protect your data at all costs,” he says. “We partition C: and D: drives, and redirect all My Documents to the D: drive. If a drive is corrupted, we can burn the image and recover it with no loss of data.”

But SATA disk space isn’t the only reason to upgrade. Today’s hard disks are quieter, faster and use less power than their ancient brethren. So, if you’re keen on being green, your company can save money by saving power while increasing your productivity.

3 Back It Up

Having a larger, faster hard disk is a great way to speed up productivity. But increased storage capacity means you’ll almost certainly store more data, increasing the significance of good backup and restore capabilities. Whether through hard-disk failure or by inadvertently hitting delete, anyone who has lost important data knows the sinking feeling when all has been lost or destroyed with no hope of retrieval. That is, unless you have your data backed up. There are a number of ways to back up data — an eternal hard disk connected via FireWire or Universal Serial Bus offers an easy-to-install way of protecting data with the added ability to use the drive on multiple computers.

At Addison, Ill.-based Century 21 Lullo, Frank Demarest, director of marketing and technology, equips all new machines with USB readers on the front of the machines. In a shared computing environment, this enables the real estate agents to carry their important files with them and be productive on any computer in the office, he says.

“With agents who spend a lot of time out of the office, we have to keep them productive,” Demarest says. “We have camera support capability on new machines, and we put USB readers on the front of the machines. Instead of using the USB directly, the agents can pop out the USB stick and take it with them.” Demarest also recommends password-protected USB drives to staff members with dedicated machines.

The Seagate Pushbutton Backup External Hard Drive (CDW price: $173.99) offers 300GB of space and uses either high-speed FireWire or USB 2.0 connectivity. With the simple push of a button, you get a fast and easy backup. If 300GB is not enough, there is a 500GB model available for a few dollars more, at $219.99, which also uses push-button backup.

4 Keeping the Lamp Lit

Whether from natural disaster or bad weather, power fluctuations and outages are a fact of life. One way to mitigate the damaging effects of voltage spikes and power outages is to install an uninterruptible power supply. A good UPS actually filters electrical noise and provides battery backup power, as well. During and after a power outage, a UPS will allow your system to continue to run for at least several minutes, so that you may quickly save the data in your RAM, and then power down your computer in proper fashion.

Of the four UPS types, the least effective is the standby or offline UPS, and it will only protect your system from small power spikes, although most outages fall into that category. Online, line-interactive and ferroresonant UPS systems are better-suited for critical data protection in the event of large spikes, power sags and alternating current frequency variations. In many cases, if your needs are simple, Belkin’s 375VA UPS With Automatic Shutdown Software (CDW price: $39.99) will suffice. If you need something with a bit more capacity, the APC Smart-UPS 750VA USB & Serial 120V (CDW price: $291.99) is a better option.

5 Safety First — Fingerprint Readers

From an administrative standpoint, the management of passwords is onerous to system administrators and end users. This is especially true when there are multiple passwords and when those passwords must be changed regularly. And with passwords gradually falling out of favor, the biometric industry has stepped in to fill the void. Several manufacturers have developed portable and convenient fingerprint readers either built into keyboards and mice or as a separate add-on USB-powered device. Fingerprint verification is a cost-effective, accurate and user-friendly method for most PC authentication needs.

Cumberland Associates LLC deploys fingerprint readers on all of its new notebooks, and is looking to make them a standard on desktops as well, to further lock down data security, according to Leiter.

“With the fingerprint-reading technology, we know exactly who has entered into certain data files, and there is no possibility that an individual shared their password or identification with someone else,” he says.

6 No Strings Attached

When it was first introduced many years back, USB was slow and worked inconsistently. Today, USB has matured to the point where it is a fast and reliable means of connecting peripherals. One of the coolest and most convenient USB devices to hit the shelves is the wireless USB adapter. Available in a variety of shapes and sizes, wireless USB adapters can make all the difference when it comes to providing network connectivity in places where wires are difficult or perhaps cost-prohibitive to run. A lot of businesses are transforming their offices to incorporate wireless access points, providing their employees with flexible, wireless connectivity, so that they can access network resources from virtually anywhere. By taking advantage of data transfer speeds that rival wired Ethernet brethren, organizations can quickly turn any PC or notebook into another node on the network.


Photo: Grant Kessler
Century 21 Lullo’s Frank Demarest favors password-
protected USB drives.

On the low end of the price scale, the SMC SMCWUSB-G EZ Connect g 2.4 gigahertz 54 megabits per second Wireless USB 2.0 Adapter (CDW price: $27.42) offers 54Mbps speed by simply plugging into a USB 2.0 port found on most computers today. The Linksys WUSB300N Wireless-N USB Network Adapter (CDW price: $109.99) offers even higher transfer rates with 802.11n support.

7 Go for a Multi-function Printer, Fax, Scanner, Copier

Desktop space is always at a premium. With that in mind, manufacturers have developed the all-in-one printer, fax, scanner, copier machine — incorporating the features of all four devices into one compact unit. In addition to saving space, these devices save money because they’re usually less expensive than buying four separate devices. On the low end of the scale, the HP Officejet J5780 All-in-One Printer, Fax, Scanner, Copier (CDW price: $149.99) offers reasonable print speed and a respectable amount of features for low-volume printing needs. If you need something more substantial, the HP Officejet Pro L7780 Series All-in-One Printer, Fax, Scanner, Copier (CDW price: $499.99) offers a bit more “muscle” without breaking the bank.

8 Double or Quadruple Your Pleasure

When it comes to monitors, bigger, yet not fatter, is usually better. As far as tricking your cube is concerned, nothing says cool like two 19-inch or larger widescreen LCD monitors. Offering more than just an aesthetically pleasing view, two monitors increase productivity by enabling end users to view two open documents side by side.

Provided you have the room on your desktop, adding a second monitor to your setup can be achieved in a few different ways. One way is to add a new video card with dual VGA or DVI outputs.

The other is to just keep your existing card and simply add another. If your motherboard only has a single AGP or PCI-E slot, then a dual output card is the way to go. And the good news is that if you wish to upgrade your video card to a single card with two outputs and don’t have tremendous graphic needs, such as CAD/CAM, the Jaton Video 208PCI-128Twin (CDW price: $89.99), or perhaps the slightly more expensive Matrox Millennium G550 (CDW price: $159.99), could fit the bill.

Although two monitors have become the de facto standard in some industries, if you want to increase productivity, then consider multiplying that number by two. At United Capital Markets, Damiani says, about one-third of the desktops sport four monitors.

“You can never have too many monitors,” he says.

9 Cut the Cord

The trend in IT is wireless. And when it comes to cutting the cord, consider your keyboard and mouse next. Wireless keyboards and mice offer added flexibility by allowing you to place the keyboard and mouse anywhere you like in your work area without having to worry about limitations on placement for optimal comfort. Try the Logitech Cordless Desktop MX 5000 (CDW price: $139.99) or the Logitech diNovo Media Desktop Laser – Wireless (CDW price: $169.95) for low-maintenance and heavy-duty computer users.

“Ever sit at a PC and try to drag the mouse, and the cord gets stuck?” asks Damiani. His company is standardized on wireless keyboards and mice to eliminate cord tangles and to provide extra mobility to the company’s traders, who spend a lot of time at their workstations.

“Now, say our users like to be mobile and walk around and sit in a position that is most comfortable,” Damiani explains. “They need flexibility, so that they are not so tethered to their desks and can have some freedom within range.”

Keep a stock of batteries on hand. The wireless keyboard and mouse allows extra freedom of movement and can aid the end-user ergonomics. Instead of situating oneself toward the keyboard and mouse, the end user can put comfort first.

10 Eye-Candy Casing

While looks aren’t everything, they are the first thing people notice. A lumpy PC may perform as well as any other, but why settle for dumpy when an aesthetically pleasing model can function at the same level? Not only does altering the exterior make the PC pleasing to one’s personal senses, but it may also provide better cooling.

One shell upgrade option is the Asus Vento 3600 – mid tower – ATX (CDW price: $173.99). It looks as if it came off the set of “Star Wars,” but it isn’t just a “gamer’s” case. It is suitable for business because it offers more than ample room, better than exceptional cooling, four 5.25-inch and four 3.5-inch drive bays, six PCI slots, one AGP slot, four USB 2.0 ports and two audio ports.

With a turn of the knob, you can open the side-swivel door to quickly access the interior without the hassle of screws and screwdrivers — a very handy feature. The Asus Vento is available in blue, green and red, and uses an ATX form factor, so make sure your current motherboard is of the same configuration before making the transfer.

“In a case, you want a large interior dimension and good air flow,” says Leiter. “We’re in the number-crunching business, so a machine may have a 3GB SATA drive, and if you’re accessing the disk, you need cooling. If you’re doing graphics, the high-end video cards have fans, but they blow inside the case and you must get the air out.”

Leiter suggests Thermaltake’s Tsunami Dream VA3000BWA – tower – ATX (CDW price: $165.99).

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