Hot Stuff: What You Need and What You Don't.

Your technology setup may be sufficient for your needs.
BY STANLEY ZAROWIN

EXECUTIVE SUMMARY
PUT YOUR CHECKBOOK AWAY. Although there are loads of hot, new technology gadgets on the market, you probably have nearly everything you really need with little or no upgrading necessary—that is, if you’ve been keeping technologically up-to-date.

SINCE MOST OF THE EQUIPMENT you may be buying will not be urgent, got-to-have-it-now technology, there’s no need to buy just-introduced, cutting-edge gear for a lot of money. Price competition is so keen these days that if you wait a while, not only will the kinks in the new products be worked out, but prices likely will drop, too.

HERE ARE SOME NEW PRODUCTS TO CONSIDER:

USB host adapter: a device that lets you easily add new peripherals to your computer.

Memory stick: a portable thumb-sized device that can store huge amounts of data.

Color laser printer: Minolta has introduced one priced at under $800.

Tablet PCs: One of the big hypes this year—they are notebook computers with a screen that can be swiveled around the base so viewers can see the screen from the left, right or the rear. Also, you can write on the screen with a special stylus.

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

eady for some good news? For the past decade or two, your office technology goal probably was to stay reasonably current—or at least avoid obsolescence. That was a challenge because nearly every year many of your critical applications underwent upgrades and you were forced to buy faster, more powerful computers to run that hot, new software. Not only did your wallet suffer sticker shock, you had to get up to speed on how to use this new technology.

Although there are plenty of new gadgets out there right now (and some actually are pretty good), you’ll be happy to learn you probably have nearly everything needed with little or no upgrading necessary. So you won’t have to reeducate yourself on how to use the new stuff, and you can even put your checkbook away.

To determine whether your current equipment really can handle your immediate future needs, read “ Time to Upgrade ” ( JofA , Dec.02, page 30). If you’ve stayed reasonably up-to-date in recent years, all you’ll probably need is some minor equipment tweaking, such as adding computer memory (you can’t have too much memory), rather than a major overhaul.

And there’s more good news: Hardware bargains abound. In addition, since most of the equipment you may be buying will not be urgent, got-to-have-it-now technology, there’s no need to pay a lot of money for just-introduced, cutting-edge gear. Price competition is so keen these days that if you wait a while, not only will the new products’ kinks be worked out, but prices likely will drop, too.

For example, those recently unveiled 3-GHz speed-demon computers not only are overkill, they’re overpriced; a far less expensive PC with a 1-GHz Pentium processor is fast enough for most business applications.

Now, on to the hot, new stuff.

USB HOST ADAPTERS
In the old days, if you wanted to add some major components to your computer—such as another hard drive to expand your data-storage capacity, or a read-write optical drive for massive backups or to copy huge chunks of data onto a CD—you had to hire an expert to crack open the computer’s case, fiddle with the wires and cables and then reprogram it to recognize the new hardware.
A typical USB host adapter , about the size of a club sandwich, can connect a computer to multiple peripherals.

No more. Meet the USB host adapter. If you’ve never heard of USB, which stands for Universal Serial Bus, listen up, because that little component is about all you’ll need to easily upgrade your computer into a more versatile machine—without expert help to open the PC’s case and reprogram its setup.

A USB is a special kind of plug, or port, that links a computer with any number of peripherals. A few years ago, manufacturers began installing one or two USB ports in the back of most computers in addition to the conventional serial and parallel ports that connect your printer and other gear. Few people used the adapters even though they transmit data between the computer and a peripheral far faster than conventional links.

One of the barriers to USBs was the computer’s own “stupidity”—that is, before the plug could work, a user had to laboriously “teach” the computer where the USB was and what it was supposed to do. But when the Windows operating system incorporated software that automatically did the job—called plug and play —USBs began catching on. All you had to do was plug in the USB adapter and it played without fiddling with the software.

An even bigger push came when the second generation of USB—USB 2.0—was introduced. Not only is it much faster than its predecessor, 1.0, but it is “backward compatible”—which means it can adapt to handle components designed for the slower 1.0.

MEMORY STICKS
While we’re on the subject of USBs, think memory sticks. They’re everywhere—hanging from key rings and from neck lanyards—some people even dangle them from gold necklaces. They come in many colors (including Day-Glo, so you won’t lose them) and designs (including zebra stripes and jungle camouflage). The memory stick is one of the hottest tech items to hit the market this year.

So what’s a memory stick? It is a storage device (technically called flash mass storage) about the size of your thumb and encased in plastic that connects to a computer. Say you need to copy 1 or even 1,000 electronic files for a client, or you need to back up your whole hard drive or just a few files: Use a memory stick.

One end of the stick contains a special fitting—you guessed it, a USB—that plugs directly into the back of most computers or into one of those adapters mentioned above.

Memory sticks —such as this 64-Mb device from Sony—offer convenient, portable data storage at economical prices.

Think of memory sticks as portable hard disks—except they have no moving parts. The lowest capacity stick can store up to 8 megabytes (Mb) and the largest (so far) can handle 1 gigabyte (Gb). Some even contain a fingertip-operated security switch for password protection. Typical street prices (which are falling fast) range from about $10 for an 8-Mb device, $25 for 32 Mb, $40 for 64 Mb and $60 for 128 Mb. The specialty 1-Gb device sells for less than $400.

People use them in many ways: for personal backups, file synchronization between different locations and file sharing with clients and colleagues. Since they are so small, portable, inexpensive, easy to use and very, very fast, they eventually should take over much of the portable memory market, which now includes the bulky 250-Mb Zip Drive cartridges. When compared with stick memory, Zips do not seem so zippy.

PRESENTATION PROJECTORS
If you conduct PowerPoint presentations, you certainly will appreciate the newest projector models: They’re lightweight, produce bright, sharply focused images and are significantly less expensive than the models of just a few years ago.

However, if you’re wondering whether you should pay a premium for the lighter and brighter projectors that employ the new digital light processing (DLP) technology rather than the conventional liquid crystal display (LCD) ones, the answer is not a clear yes or no.

DLP devices generally are somewhat leaner by about a half-pound and—for the accountant who must lug a computer and a projector in addition to a change of clothes through airports—every ounce counts. In addition, DLP projectors are a smidgen brighter; although both models work about equally well in ambient light.

The major difference is price. DLP projectors generally cost about $500 more than the conventional LCDs. However, LCD projectors produce a sharper image. So, if you often display detailed spreadsheet data, LCDs have a slight advantage. But because the differences are so slight, don’t base your buying decision on the DLP hype—and there’s plenty of it; instead, try out each type and go with your personal preference. The InFocus LP 130 weighs in at 3 pounds.

DRIVE MANAGEMENT SOFTWARE
If you’re like most computer users, the mention of disk partitioning produces either a yawn or an anxiety attack—a yawn if you’ve never heard the high-tech term (and you probably don’t want to learn about it now) and anxiety if you’re faced with the awesome task of partitioning your hard disk. Partitioning, or dividing a disk into sectors, is done to make way for a second operating system or to rope off a safe place to store backup files apart from your active data.

If you are a computer novice and you yawned, I advise you to pay attention now because partitioning gives you the option, among other things, of installing an additional operating system such as Linux or even DOS (yes, there still are some useful DOS applications around you may want to use). So if you are faced with the task, you should know software available today can make it a no-hassle job.

PartitionMagic ( www.powerquest.com ) has been the leader in the field for some time, and now, with its latest edition, 8.0, it has reinforced that position. The new version makes it easier to create safe places on your hard disk for backups even if your main partition becomes corrupted.

PartitionMagic lets you safely add another operating system to your hard drive.

Computers upgraded from an earlier version of Windows to XP often run slower than they did before the upgrade. Without getting technical, suffice it to say that PartitionMagic can solve that problem. In addition, it gives you the bonus of creating more available storage space on the drive.

COLOR LASER PRINTER
The high price of color laser printers no longer is an excuse not to buy one or to limit your purchase to an insufferably slow (but very cheap) inkjet color printer. Minolta ( www.minolta-qms.com ) has introduced a model—the Minolta-QMS magicolor 2300DL—priced at under $800. But don’t be misled by the affordable price; the new product is superior.

The color quality nearly matches true photographs, and the machine prints up to 16 pages per minute (ppm) monochrome and up to 4 ppm in color. It can handle 14-inch-wide paper and its footprint is small enough (14 inches by 19.5 inches) to fit on a desk.

Minolta’s color laser printer— the QMS magicolor 2300DL—is priced at under $800.
LCD MONITORS
Now that prices for flat-panel LCD (liquid crystal displays) are shrinking, those big, clunky beige CRT (cathode ray tube) monitors that take up a huge amount of real estate on your desk are on the way out. Last year, LCD unit sales inched ahead of CRTs; the turnaround came as flat-panel-monitor prices fell to bargain levels.

A typical 15-inch flat-panel monitor costs about $300 and a 17-inch model (the most popular size) is going for about $450. Prices for the larger screens are maintaining their slight premium prices because larger screen LCDs still are a little tricky to manufacturer. But that, too, will change as companies perfect new technologies.

ViewSonic’s VE170 flat-panel display is only 3.5 inches thick.

TABLET PCs
Tablet PCs (also called slate PCs) are one of the big hypes this year. The tablets are notebook computers with something extra; they include a screen that can be swiveled around the base so viewers can see the screen from the left, right or the rear. Also, users can swivel the screen so it sits flat atop the PC like a slate, and people can write on the screen with a special stylus.

A tablet PC as a regular notebook computer… But with a twist of the screen, it can be viewed at any angle… And with another twist, it becomes a slate to write on.

Click on an icon, and the tablet PC reads your handwriting and does its best to translate the words and numbers into typescript. The handwriting recognition, while not perfect, can handle neat script fairly well.

Most of the major notebook makers are offering slate models—Hewlett-Packard, Toshiba, Acer and Fujitsu. They carry a price premium over regular laptops of between 10% and 20%, but within a year, if the tablet design catches on, price tags should shrink considerably.

UNIQUE LAPTOP PCs
The perfect laptop is thin, lightweight and its battery lasts a long time. While that may be hard to achieve in one product, here are two laptops that come close:

Toshiba Portg 2000: This PC weighs in at 3 pounds and is 0.3 inches thick. Despite its slim, light body, it has a full-sized keyboard and a 12-inch screen. It runs on a 750-MHz Pentium III, has a 20-Mb hard drive and is priced at about $1,900. For more information see www.toshiba.com . Toshiba Portg 2000 is slim and lightweight.
IBM’s ThinkPad X30: Thin and powerful with a long battery life. IBM ThinkPad X30: If battery life is your passion, but weight and slimness still count, then the X30 may be just what you’re looking for. It weighs 3.7 pounds, is about 1-inch thick and has a six-cell battery that claims 4.5 hours of power. And if you need more battery life, you can clip on an auxiliary battery for another 4.5 hours. It runs on a 1.2-GHz Pentium III and has a 40-Mb hard drive. It starts at $1,800 and has an array of extras including a docking station and snap-in bays into which a variety of peripherals can be plugged. For more information visit www.ibm.com .

MOBILE DEVICES
For those who like to be plugged in, online and with most of their data at their fingertips 24/7, check out the new PDAs on steroids: Handspring’s Treo family and the T-Mobile Pocket PC Phone.

Handspring: The Treo 180 PDA includes a Palm operating system, a cell phone, an e-mail client, an instant messaging system, a speakerphone, three-way calling and a Web browser. It also has a “thumbable” keyboard for typing messages and inputting data, but you’ve got to have flexible, slender thumbs. It lists for about $250. For an extra $50, the Treo 270 comes with a color display.

Handspring’s Treo 180 is a computer and communicator that fits in the palm of your hand. The Treo 270 adds a color display. T-Mobile Pocket PC Phone integrates with Microsoft Outlook.

T-Mobile Pocket PC Phone Edition: Unlike the Treo, T-Mobile’s pocket PC phone runs on Microsoft’s new operating system that integrates with Microsoft Outlook. So if someone in your Outlook database calls, that person’s information flashes on the screen. T-Mobile’s PC phone costs about $550.

WOW
And now for something we’ve all been waiting for—but never knew it. How often do you mutter under your breath when you have to plug one of those bulky black AC power transformer-adapters (for printers and portable gear) into a power strip only to discover the adapter is so big it covers a second socket as well? A small California company, Carpenter Group ( www.powerstripsaver.com ), has introduced a product called the PowerStrip Saver that solves the problem with handy adapter cables which plug into any powerstrip socket (see photo below). The product comes in two configurations: a single-plug adapter and a two-plug adapter.
End power-box clutter.

Don’t be awed by all this hot, new technology. Try to resist the hype. In all likelihood, your current technology will effectively do the job. Instead, keep your focus on making your current technology work more efficiently. It will save you lots of money and time.

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