High-Tech Tools That Do the Job

Computer and communications hardware that meakes CPAs more effective.

New computer and communications hardware continues to inundate the market, numbing even the most technology-savvy user. But most of those new products tend to be blips on the horizon—here today and gone tomorrow. Often they dont do what they claim, or they do it badly or what they do is not particularly useful to accountants.

Some new products not only do whats expected of them, but also do it well. This article describes some of the most useful products. The ones selected can make an accountants work easier, faster, more effective and profitable—maybe even more enjoyable.

As competition grows in the cellular telephone arena, prices continue to shrink and the range of mobile services widens. Although the cost of cellular service is still pricey, the advantages of being able to place and receive calls from nearly any location are beginning to outweigh the premium charges. From a technical point of view, most cell phones are about the same—with one exception. The Motorola StarTAC weighs only 3.1 ounces and is so small you can clip it onto a belt. It comes with two lithium-ion rechargeable batteries (the longest lived and most powerful batteries of their size); when one is depleted, the other automatically takes over. As a result, the tiny phone delivers talking time of more than 4 hours and standby time of up to 47 hours. Fast recharges can be done in less than 2 hours.

StarTAC has two down sides: Because its speakers are so small, an incoming call sounds tinny. And then theres the price: about $1,000—but that surely will soften as competitors make inroads. More information: Motorola (888-782-7822).

Laptop computers come in three basic types: the lightweight, scaled-down machine for traveling; the hefty, fully loaded computer with sound and graphics muscle for multimedia presentations; and the workhorse, an in-between machine that offers a compromise in power and weight between the other two.

The workhorse models tend to be the most popular—especially for those who use their portables both in the office and on the road. Two economical machines are the IBM ThinkPad 365XD and the Texas Instruments Extensa 510. The ThinkPad, which sells for about $2,500, comes with a built-in CD-ROM drive. The Texas Instruments machine, which lacks a CD-ROM drive, sells for about $1,800. But if ruggedness is your prime consideration, take a look at Dells Latitude XPi even though its a bit pricey. The 133-megahertz (MHz) model costs $3,400 and lacks a CD-ROM drive. Not only is it designed to survive the bumps and bruises of travel but also its battery longevity is legend (about five hours, depending on how its used, compared with two to three hours for most other laptops). A faster model (150 MHz) does contain a CD-ROM drive and costs about $4,200.

More information: IBM (800-426-2968), Texas Instruments (800-848-3927), Dell (800-388-8542).

When Apple introduced its Newton—the pocket-size personal computer into which data are entered with a special pen, not via a keyboard—many users said, Wow; finally, a real pocket computer! But once the pocket-size machine was put to the test, those wows dissolved as users realized that Apples reach had exceeded its grasp: Newton was a good idea that was—and continues to be—a bit before its time. Now, while Apple continues to refine its design, U.S. Robotics has leapfrogged the Newton with its much simpler Pilot 1000. The Pilot may not be a perfect pocket computer, but considering what it can do—in the shirt-pocket space it takes and at a reasonable cost ($299 street price)—its pretty close to pocket computer nirvana.

The Pilot is a scheduler, address book, calculator, notepad and sketchpad that also uses a pen as its input tool. However, unlike the conventional English letter printing used for the Newton—which does not do a very good job of translating handwriting into computer text—the Pilot uses an unusual alaphabet that takes about an hour or so to master but overcomes the Newton translation problem. And when youre back in the office and ready to download its contents into your full-size computer, all you need do is slip the 5-ounce Pilot into its little desktop cradle (which is connected by cable to your computer) and the data transfer is inaugurated automatically—synchronizing data between the two machines without fuss. More information: Pilot (800-881-7256).

How would you like to have a small package that (1) backs up data on a hard disk, (2) copies even huge files for sharing with others or for toting home in your pocket and (3) can function as a spare hard drive for any computer. And, as if thats not enough, it needs little setup effort, is easy to use and is reasonably priced? Iomega has two such devices.

To understand the significance of these products, some background is necessary. As you know, unless youre connected to a network, copying and backing up data from your computer in the traditional way is a tedious chore. For huge backups, the conventional way is with tape—cheap but slow and cumbersome to download. For file sharing, the choices are floppy disks or e-mail. But if the files are very large, e-mail transmissions can be torturously long and floppy disks are not convenient because you either must stop and compress (zip) the file (and assume the person destined to receive it can unzip it) or tediously load the file on as many floppies as it takes.

The better way is with Iomegas Zip or Jaz drives. The Zip can store 100 megabytes (Mb) on a single removable cartridge and the Jaz 100 times that amount1 gigabyte (Gb). Both operate so fast that application software actually can be run directly off a cartridge as it would from your hard drive. While several other vendors make equally good (or slightly better) competing brands, Iomegas products caught on first. Because they have grown so popular, its more likely your colleagues have them, too, and thus can swap Iomega cartridges with you.

The Zips street price is about $200 and the Jaz is $500. Cartridges cost about $20 for the Zip and $99 for the Jaz. More information: Iomega (888-246-6342).

If youre adventuresome and want to make your own CD-ROM discs to distribute to colleagues for training or to clients or prospects for promotional presentations, consider the Hewlett-Packard SureStore CD-Writer. The CD-Writer is easy to use and costs about $1,100.

The downside: Later this year several vendors will introduce CD drive products that let you not only write your own CD but also erase the recorded data or write over the old data as you would with a floppy disk. More information: Hewlett-Packard (800-810-0134).

CDs are becoming ubiquitous in business offices—and for good reason: They are a lot handier than floppies because they are faster and hold more data. But each time you want to change a CD platter, you have to eject it from the computer drive, store it (so it wont get damaged), search for the next one and slip it into the CD drive—not a very efficient routine if you frequently access different CDs.

The solution is a device that holds many CDs—like a jukebox or a carousel. But up until recently, CD-switching devices have been relatively expensive. Now, for less than $200, you can buy the quad-speed Panasonic Big 5 that stores up to five CDs and, with a touch of a button, switches from one disk to another. More information: Panasonic (800-742-8086).

espite all the talk about the paperless office, high-tech companies continue to invest a significant amount of research in computer printers, and the effort is paying off with laser and inkjet printers that are cheaper, faster and generate higher quality print jobs than earlier models. Also, they require almost no maintenance and can produce complex graphics easily.

The traditional leader in quality has been Hewlett-Packard, but the competition has grown keen and, frankly, the performance difference among the leading competitors is hardly discernible.

For high-volume network office use, theres Lexmarks Optra Rn+, which generates laser copies at 16 pages per minute (ppm) and costs about $1,850. For those who wont stray from the Hewlett-Packard brand and are willing to pay a premium for that peace of mind, theres HPs LaserJet 5Si. It prints at a blazing 22 ppm and costs about $3,500.

For desktop use, look at Brothers HL-720. Priced at only $350, it churns out 6 ppm. And for Hewlett-Packard fans, theres the $900 LaserJet 5P, which also prints at 6 ppm. More information: Lexmark (800-891-0331), Hewlett-Packard (800-752-0900), Brother (800-276-7746).

The trend today is color printing—to enliven reading material and to highlight key points in a report. And todays color printers—whether laser or inkjet—generate more true and more brilliant hues than ever before. In addition, speed is up and prices continue to shrink, so even the most economy-minded accounting office can make an eye-dazzling statement on paper without adding too much red ink to the budget.

For economy, Epsons America Stylus Color 500 wins hands down. At a street price of about $280, this model generates color jobs that rival those of a laser printer. However, it takes about a minute to produce a single color page at 720 dots per inch (dpi). For slightly more—$499—you can buy HPs DeskJet 870C, which generates 8 ppm at 720 dpi. For perspective, network models cost between $6,000 and $8,000.

More information: Epson (800-463-7766), Hewlett-Packard (800-752-0900).

Gone are the days when the laptop-lugging accountant had to scout around for a printer to plug into to run off an emergency report. Now CPAs can carry their own portable printers. Several lightweight models are available today that produce good quality output—even in color—at reasonable prices. One of the best for the price (about $300) is the Canon BJC-70. It weighs only 4 pounds with the power adapter and can switch easily between color and black-and-white printing. More information: Canon (800-848-4123).

What could be more frustrating than to spend hours developing a computerized presentation and then lugging your laptop and a projector to a client or customer only to find that, when the slide show is presented, the image is washed out or fuzzy and the sound is tinny? The Lightware Viewpoint100, a liquid crystal display (LCD) projector, to the rescue. The Viewpoint is no bigger than a laptop, weighs 9.5 pounds (half that of comparable projectors) and generates a reasonably bright image for its size. Price: about $5,000. More information: Lightware (800-255-9469).

If youre more interested in a projector thats not quite so portable but produces bright, vivid, uniform video color images even in fully lighted rooms, consider the 17-pound Epson ELP-3000. It costs about $9,000 and comes standard with a zoom lens. For more information: Epson (800-463-7766).

By now nearly everyone who sends e-mail, faxes computer-to-computer or links to the Internet has a 28.8-kilobyte per second (Kbps) modem. Well, get prepared to sack it. Its already outdated, so give it to your kids or the last to be hired in your office. For less than $200 you can replace it with a 33.6 Kbps modem. While its not going to work significantly faster—even though its capable of handling more data (because speed is limited to the slowest speed of any other modem that relays your transmission)—it will give you several significant bonuses. Because the 33.6 designs contain a new higher powered chip, they are capable of handling simultaneous two-way voice communications when the modem is used as a telephone component; if you use your computer as a phone answering machine, the modems can be used to set up multiple mailboxes for messages. All the leading modem makers are offering the 33.6 devices, and they are equally good, so check out the best price.

From a productivity point of view, the scanner is equivalent to a team of 100-words-per-minute typists. Loaded with optical character recognition (OCR) software, a scanner can convert pages of text into flawless electronic type in seconds, and that material can then be edited on the computer, faxed, e-mailed or stored as an image.

One of the most convenient and user-friendly scanning devices is the Visioneer PaperPortVx. What makes the $300 PaperPort so handy is its simplicity, size and shape. Its about the size of a roll of paper towels and fits neatly and unobtrusively between a computers keyboard and monitor.

To scan a page, simply feed it into the slot in the front of the device, which automatically turns on the scanner. The image of the scanned pinstantly appears on your computer screen. If you want to convert the image into a word processor file, drag the image on the screen over the word processor icon with a mouse. This inaugurates the OCR software and the computerized text flashes on the screen in moments. If you want to fax or e-mail the document, drag the image to the appropriate icon. PaperPort comes with software that provides for a well-designed electronic cabinet for storing images. Visioneer also makes a keyboard version—with a built-in PaperPort scanner. It sells for about $350. More information: Visioneer (800-787-7007).

The PaperPort does have two drawbacks: It cant scan a page from a bound document (a book or a magazine, say, unless the page is removed, which is not very convenient), and it lacks an automatic page feeder, which means you have to feed one page at a time into the scanner. To overcome those shortcomings, consider a flatbed scanner. One of the best is Hewlett-Packards ScanJet 4c. Its fast, handles color and, as do most scanners, comes bundled with OCR software. Cost: about $1,000. For more information: Hewlett-Packard (800-752-0900).

In the past few years several office equipment manufacturers have introduced all-in-one desktop machines that can print, photocopy, fax and scan. One of the first on the market was Hewlett-Packards Office Jet. It was an instant success, with an estimated 500,000 sold in 1996 alone.

The all-in-one idea seems good—after all, it saves desk space and, in some cases, money because it generally costs less than the price of separate machines for each function. But such designs have limitations. They can do only one job at a time; if the machine is faxing, you cant copy or print. Also, their repertoire generally is more limited than the single-job models; they cant, for example, enlarge or scale down a page while copying.

While users can work around some of those drawbacks, there is one that cant be overcome unless you buy a spare machine: If the unit breaks down, youre out of action—you cant print, copy, fax or scan. More information: Hewlett-Packard (800-752-0900).

Now that Steve Jobs—the founder of Apple who was unceremoniously ousted in 1985 for being too visionary and innovative—has been brought back to Apple to rekindle that creative culture, does that mean Macintosh will be born again? Can Jobs return Apple to its preeminence as a producer of user-friendly powerful computers? Should CPAs consider the possibility of putting the Macintosh in their future budgets?

As much as Apple is to be honored for inventing the easy-to-use windows environment, its recent recruitment of Jobs may be too little too late. Microsofts Windows 95, the new NT and the about-to-be-released Windows 97 appear to have raised the bar on the PC operating system environment far beyond Apples reach. Not only is it unlikely that Apple can play catch-up with its technology but also third-party developers of accounting applications—without whom an operating system is only a collection of floppy disks—have placed all their bets on Microsoft. Therefore, betting on Apple as the long shot may be more than risky; it may be foolhardy.

For years accountants were slow to adopt new technology and many paid a high price for that tardiness. Its not terribly expensive to stay on top of the technology wave—prices for most components have fallen and their return on investment is impressive. None of the hardware cited here is leading edge: its well-proven technology that works, and its available to enhance your work.

Setting Up a Modern Conference Center

Most businesses reserve a large space to accommodate conferences, and usually that room is equipped with a large meeting table, chairs and a blackboard. While the space may be effective for some kinds of meetings, it certainly isnt being used to its fullest potential as a modern communications conference center. For a modest investment such a room can be transformed to handle multimedia presentations and online meetings, where participants can share computer documents and join in videoconferences with others either in nearby offices or remote locations.

The major products needed to equip a conference room for those tasks are

  • A large-screen monitor so participants can see a computer display from across the room.
  • Conference speaker phones.
  • Videoconferencing gear so the participants images and a computer document can be transmitted to remote locations.
  • A multimedia presentation projector so computer-generated slide shows and video images can be displayed on a screen without overly darkening the conference room.
  • An electronic whiteboard (a several square foot panel that displays a computers screen and can be electronically written and drawn on by participants).

What makes such conference setups particularly effective is that the meetings can be interactive: Participants can respond to various aspects of the presentation—answering by voice and video, typing in computer text, drawing on the computer screen or even taking control of a computer displaying the presentation. Following are details on each component:

Large-screen monitor. Last year Gateway introduced Destination—a computer system designed for presentations. The $3,000 system includes a 31-inch monitor with a 133-MHz Pentium processor, CD-ROM drive and audio speakers. The monitor is large and clear enough to be read easily from about 15 feet away. Since it comes with a cordless keyboard and mouse, a presentation can be controlled from anywhere in the conference room. More information: Gateway (800-846-2000).

Conference speaker phone. When making a conference call with a conventional speaker phone, the conversation often sounds like this: "Hello,...you there? This is...and sitting here with me are...." Since most speaker phones are not engineered to handle two-way simultaneous conversations (because they are not, in the current technical lingo, full duplex), a conference call often becomes an exercise in filling in the blanks. A few years ago a company introduced a specialty conference phone for $1,000 that overcomes that problem. And last year, U.S. Robotics launched a comparable instrument (the CS1000) for under $400. More information: U.S. Robotics (800-949-6757).

Economic videoconferencing. Phone conferences are okay, but the visual part of the communication gets lost. Being able to hold up an item for display, emphasize a point with a gesture or confirm a statement made in jest with a smile or an angry comment with a scowl complements communications. The solution—videoconferencing—has always been a choice, albeit a very expensive one until recently. Now there are several solutions—some more economical than others.

Document-only conferencing. If all you want is a system that lets remote parties share a document—from a spreadsheet to a PowerPoint presentation file—consider TalkShow, a $100 product that does the job simply and effectively. More information: TalkShow (415-254-9000).

Enhanced videoconfencing. If you want it all—participants video images, view of the shared computer document and audio—there is a system that costs about $2,000 per station. Compare that with nearly $20,000 per station just a few years ago. This better service requires that you step up from a regular narrow-bandwidth analog telephone line (called POTS, for plain old telephone system) to a high-capacity ISDN digital line; ISDN (for integrated services digital network) provides a larger bandwidth so much more data can be transmitted at one time. (For more on ISDN, see "The Digital Connection," JofA, June96)

The most cost-effective package for this task is Intel ProShare 200. For about $1,300 you get the software, a video camera, an electronic board that must be plugged into your computer, a microphone and earphones. The ISDN terminal connector, which is the digital phone lines "modem," costs another $300. Add to that the ISDN monthly connection costs, which vary from area to area. More information: Intel ProShare: (800-671-0148).

Electronic whiteboard. Lets say you want to make a presentation to a roomful of people or even two groups at the same time—a roomful of people and another group in a distant location. Lets say, too, that you plan to illustrate the presentation with the contents of two computer files: a spreadsheet and a PowerPoint slide show. And what if you also want to annotate the presentation, drawing on the screen, circling significant spreadsheet information with a red marker? Further, what if a person in the remote location also wants to add her annotation, this one in blue?

All of these things can be done with a device called a whiteboard, an instrument becoming increasingly popular wherever sophisticated presentations are required. One of the more advanced whiteboards, the Smart Board 720, measures 57" by 43"—or 72" on the diagonal—large enough for easy-to-view display.

The $3,000 whiteboard is connected to a computer, which in turn can be hooked up via modem to a remote computer for simultaneous presentations in two locations. The hand-drawn images, or separate handwritten notes, can be saved as digitized images for later display. While special electronic pens, one for each color, can be used to write on the display, writing can just as well be done with a finger—also in a choice of colors. A rear-projection model is also available for $9,500. More information: Smart Board (403-245-0333).

STANLEY ZAROWIN is a senior editor on the Journal . Mr. Zarowin is an employee of the American Institute of CPAs and his views, as expressed in this article, do not necessarily reflect the views of the AICPA. Official positions are determined through certain specific committee procedures, due process and deliberation.


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