High Tech for the Small Office

Hardware and software to improve your efficiency.
BY RANDOLPH P. JOHNSTON

  

 
ust a few years ago it was relatively easy to select the electronic equipment for a small office. All you needed was a computer, a printer, a phone and a fax machine. But today’s technology offers a bewildering choice of options—from local and wide area networks (LANs and WANs) to Internet connections, and from wireless and cell phones to computer telephony. Adding to that complexity is the growing number of CPAs who opt to forgo the conventional four-wall office and conduct their business wherever they happen to be—at home, in an airplane or car or at a client’s facility. So whether you work in a fixed location or out of a virtual office, read on for advice on the technology best suited to make you more efficient and comfortable at work.

No matter what your office setup, you should not suffer the inconvenience of having to work on two computers—a desktop in the office and a laptop when you’re on the road. Such a setup burdens you with the need to keep the data on both machines synchronized. Although you can store all your data on a special storage network, that’s an added complexity and expense and there may be times when the network is not available. And while there’s also software to sync the data, that’s just one more thing you must remember to do each time you switch machines—and one more thing that can go wrong.

Don’t be put off by some of the technical language in this article. Use it to help you shop for some of the hardware you’ll need to upgrade your office operation.

As a result, a growing number of accountants—even those who travel only occasionally to visit a client—opt to use just one computer that serves their needs both in and out of the office. The obvious choice is a laptop. Today’s laptops, as small and portable as they are, rival larger desktops in power and speed. In choosing a laptop, look for one that is light enough to carry conveniently, but also fast and powerful enough to handle big jobs.

Laptops come in four basic sizes or styles: ultralight, tablet, normal and wide-screen. As the name implies, the ultralights weigh about two pounds and generally have only 12- to 14-inch screens. Unless you’re willing to pay a premium price, those superlight computers are relatively slow and suffer from mediocre performance.

A tablet laptop with a swivel screen.

The tablet computer, the newest laptop design, can operate like a conventional laptop or can be configured to resemble a tablet—a great convenience for some users. While it has a built-in keyboard, the screen can be twisted to lie flat on the base to convert it into a tablet so you can write and draw on it with a stylus. Because tablet PCs are relatively new and perform demanding chores (recognizing handwriting and drawings, for example), they tend to be relatively heavy and still exhibit some technical annoyances, such as being slower than similarly priced normal laptops.

The wide-screen laptop sports the biggest screen, is the heaviest (five to nine pounds) and tends to be the most powerful of the four. However, slogging a nine-pounder through an airport will make you an instant convert to a lighter model.

So which to choose? While it’s a compromise between size/weight and speed/power, most mobile users find the normal-size laptop, weighing between four and five pounds with a 14- or 15-inch screen, serves their needs well.

When buying any laptop, be sure it has a built in DVD+RW (read/write) drive, is set up for wireless reception and contains several Universal Serial Bus (USB) ports, which have become the default connection for all sorts of peripherals: scanners, printers, card readers and those handy memory sticks. The laptop also should contain Ethernet network ports so you can hook up if a facility you’re visiting has a network.

An assortment of docking station designs for laptop computers.

Most laptops have a battery life of three to four hours—hardly enough for most users. So it’s a good idea to order an extra battery, which doubles the computer’s operating life. Some models let you remove the DVD drive and plug the second battery into that slot so you don’t have to stop work and replace a fading battery. If you buy two extra batteries, you always can have one charged up and ready to install without interruption.

When ordering a laptop, consider insisting that it contain one of the Intel Centrino family of processor chips; they are more energy-efficient than other chips. Also be sure your wireless access can handle the three major transmission standards: a, b and g.

READY TO WORK
To make use of the laptop more convenient and comfortable when you’re in your office, get an adjustable docking station for the laptop. In that way, when you return to the office you can simply plug the computer into the docking station to automatically hook up to power, wireless printers and an Internet connection.

Second Copy software automates backups.

And, if you also buy a full-size wireless keyboard and optical mouse and a large-screen monitor, they, too, will be automatically connected via the docking station. So with just one connection you’ll be ready to start work immediately—no need to start plugging in an assortment of cables and wires. An additional benefit is that all the gear you’ll need when you travel—power cables, batteries, the mouse and other items you need—can be conveniently stored in a travel bag. When you leave the office, just unplug your computer from the docking station, grab the bag and go.

A Jabra wireless headset for cell phone.

When ordering a second monitor be sure to get a flat-screen model (to save desk space) with at least a 19-inch screen so you won’t have to struggle to view large spreadsheets on your relatively cramped laptop monitor. If you’re mostly office-bound and use a desktop, it would be wise to order a second monitor, too. That will make you more efficient because you’ll have the opportunity, for example, to simultaneously examine multiple parts of a worksheet or a document and a worksheet. Add a wireless keyboard and mouse for more maneuverability around your desk.

BACKUP IS CRITICAL
When you’re traveling, data backup is crucial. After all, there’s the risk of losing (or someone stealing) your computer or, more likely, of it getting damaged when it falls off your lap or when you accidentally spill a cup of coffee on it. Although the computer can be replaced, the data may be lost forever. So you want to be able to regularly and easily back up all new data, synchronize it with stored data and be able to access any information stored only in the office—and you want to do all that whether you’re in the office or on the road.

The most effective way to achieve that goal is a wirelessly accessed Network Attached Storage (NAS) device. An NAS is basically a hard drive designed exclusively to store data and applications. At less than $400, it’s cheaper than a similarly equipped computer.

Apple makes this lightweight wireless access point that works on PCs and Apples.

To access an NAS you’ll need a wireless access point with a firewall and a switch such as the LinkSys WRT54GP2A-AT (for recommended equipment and prices, see “ The Hardware and Software for a High-Tech Office ”). Consider getting an Ethernet version; it’s faster than a USB version. You can automate the data-backup process with a software package such as Second Copy ( www.centered.com ). A popular backup alternative for a very small operation is the 90-gigabyte removable Iomega REV drive ( www.iomega.com ). As a general rule it’s smart to back up all your applications on a separate removable drive so that if an application gets corrupted, you can reload it in just a few minutes.

If you don’t want to go through the fuss and expense of setting up an NAS, you can use a hosted backup service like Mistral ( www.mistralbackup.com ), which rents easily accessible data storage space. The host takes care of all the technical details—you just transmit data for backup and call up any data you want retrieved.

Bose noise-canceling headphone for music.

STAY IN TOUCH
Frequent travelers have one goal: to stay in touch with clients and colleagues without technical complications. In other words, the technology should be lightweight and easy to use. Here are some tips for packing your travel bag:

Carry the extra laptop battery and leave the heavy AC power plug in your luggage; with two batteries, you’ve enough power for nearly eight hours.

Add an Apple Airport Wireless Access Point ( www.apple.com/airportexpress ) and retractable network cable, which work on both PCs and Apples. This will allow you to convert any wired jack to a much more convenient wireless connection.

Minimize the weight of carrying your cell phone by packing connection cables from Seidio ( www.seidio.com ) and attach the phone to a wireless cell phone headset from Jabra ( www.jabra.com ). This will keep you compliant with headset laws that prohibit driving and cell-phoning at the same time and also let you keep the cell phone in your pocket or purse while making and receiving calls.

To drown out ambient airplane noise (and cries of sleepless children), consider Bose noise-canceling headphones. ( www.bose.com ) so you can listen to soothing music while you read.

And be sure to carry an extra cell phone battery.

VTech/Vonage Broadband Telephone System marries telephone and
computer technology.

If long-distance telephoning is a major part of your communications expense, consider a subscription to Vonage’s Voice over Internet Protocol (VoIP) ( www.vonage.com ), which marries telephone and computer technology. VoIP allows you to make unlimited long-distance calls on a standard phone as well as to have a published fax number for less than $50 a month. You also can take your phone equipment with you when you travel.

SOFTWARE BASICS
Here is the basic software arsenal every small office should have:

Operating system: Windows XP Professional (and be sure it’s loaded with the Microsoft’s Service Pack 2 update).

Applications: Microsoft Office Professional 2003, which includes Word, Excel, Outlook, Access and PowerPoint.

Antivirus software: Computer Associates’ eTrust EZ Antivirus ( http://store.ca.com ). Although the product is not as popular as packages like Norton Antivirus software ( www.symantec.com ) or McAfee VirusScan ( www.mcafee.com ), eTrust is noticeably faster.

Desktop search tool: Copernic ( www.copernic.com ) or Google ( http://desktop.google.com ). Each offers free copies of their tools, which perform blindingly fast searches for words or numbers stored in your computer.

NETWORK TOOLS
Every office should have high-speed Internet. It’s become a major communications tool, replacing many fax machines. Choose the most reasonably priced high-speed service available in your area—either DSL or cable. Prices vary from area to area, but typically it will be between $19 and $69 per month.

If neither DSL nor cable is available in your area, consider the new generation of cell-phone access that provides unlimited Internet connection for about $100 a month or include unlimited Internet access in your base cell-phone plan. Two-way satellite at $69 to $79 a month is another option, although expensive to acquire and marginally reliable.

Each of these services will come with its own type of modem. If there is a monthly charge to rent it, consider buying one; the cost is usually less than one year’s rent.

The final step to bring your work tools into the 21st century is to transform your office to a wireless setup that frees the Internet link to your computers from a tethered wire. Likewise, it gives you the opportunity to connect any computer in the office wirelessly to your printer. Think of the convenience: You’re in a conference room with your laptop and with a few mouse clicks you can order the printer in another room to spew out a report.

Consider a multifunction printer (MFP) with built-in networking. Such devices print, scan, copy and fax, but be aware that modestly priced MFPs are relatively slow and designed for low-volume use. If you need high-speed printing, add a small monochrome laser printer that has network capability such as the HP 4200. When it comes to printers, don’t buy the cheapest; slow printers will drive down your productivity.

When it’s all connected, a typical wireless office will look like the diagram below.

Wireless connections for a typical office—connecting computers to the Internet and to printers.

If you’re not technically inclined and feel overwhelmed by all this equipment, the worst thing you can do is nothing. Consider engaging a consultant to take you through the steps of setting up all the equipment. When it’s all set up you’ll quickly appreciate how much easier and more efficient your work life has become.

RANDOLPH P. JOHNSTON, executive vice-president of K2 Enterprises, Hutchinson, Kan., is a technology consultant. His e-mail address is randy@k2e.com . For more information on this subject, go to one of his many Web sites linked to www.k2e.com .

The Hardware and Software for a High-Tech Office

Listed here are the principal hardware and software products you need to upgrade your small office. Model numbers of each product and list prices (as of midsummer this year) are included.

Caution: While economy is wise, resist the temptation to do it cheaper. Laptops, desktops, printers and switches always will be offered for less money. Consider the products in the tables as reference points when comparing other products, particularly those under the Option 1 column.

Be careful. Slight changes in models, even from the same vendor, won’t have the same capability.

Need Specification Option 1 Option 2
Mobile Office
Laptop computer Centrino 760 (2 GHz, 2-Mb cache, 533-Mhz FSB), 14-inch screen, 1-Gg RAM, 60-Gb hard drive (5,400 or 7,200) RPM, 802.11 a/b/g wireless, two USB ports, SD/SC memory cards HP NC6230: $2,087 Dell Latitude D610: $2,219
Second monitor 19-inch flat screen HP L1955: $539 Samsung 912N: $320
Portable computer surge protection Inline surge protection APC SurgeArrest Notebook Pro C8: $14.99  
Convenience items To minimize setup and teardown time Docking station with adjustable notebook stand: $149; wireless mouse and keyboard: $69; Mistral hosted backup; Apple Airport: $125; wireless mouse (for travel): $35; Bose QuietComfort 2 Acoustic noise-canceling headphones to use while traveling: $299 Extra power supply for laptop: $49; USB hub: $49 (for keyboard and mouse: $49)
Cell phone and personal digital assistant (PDA) Coverage in all areas traveled, access to Internet via cell phone, which can be used as backup when traveling or when normal Internet access is not available. Seek a quad-band phone. Treo 650: $399; PDANet from June Fabrics: $34; Seidio sync cable: $16; Jabra BT250v wireless phone headset: $99.99  
Hot-spot access Wireless high-speed access while traveling iPass: $29 a month TMobile: $29 a month
Projector Projection of laptop images for presentations and training HP mp3135: $2,299; inline surge protector InFocus LP70+: $1,499; inline surge protector
Fixed Office
Desktop computer Intel 541, 2-Gb RAM, 160-Gb, 7,200 RPM SATA, 10/100/1000 network adapter, 9-in-1 card reader HP Compaq dc5000 Small Form Factor: $1,699 Dell Dimension 5100C: $1,870
Dual monitors Two 19-inch flat screens HP L1955: $539 (2) Samsung 912N: $320 (2)
Network cables Category 6. Provide high-speed connection between switch and computer or printer Belkin CAT6 RJ-45M to RJ-45M Snagless 25-foot patch cable blue: $18.45 each  
Network and Infrastructure Support
Wireless access point Firewall, 10/100 switch, wireless 802.11b/g, VoIP Linksys: $129.81 NetGear: $79.99
Five-port switch 10/100/1000 Linksys SD2005: $84 3Com 3C1670500A: $87.58
Internet access High-speed Internet access, 512 Kbps minimum DSL: $19–$59 per month Cable modem: $29–$69 per month
Printer/copier/fax 20 pages per minute+, color, scanner HP 7410: $499 HP2840: $999
Network attached storage (NAS) 200–300-Gb shared disk over Ethernet Maxtor H01R300: $358.76 Maxtor E01H300: $267.37
Wired phone Traditional phone Panasonic KX-TG5571M: $153.99; Plantronics headset DuoPro H171N: $93.99 Vtech i6763: $131.99
Phone carrier Provide local and long-distance telephone service Vonage Voice over IP via cable modem or DSL: $49.99 a month Local telephone provider: $19–$39 a month
Uninterruptable power supply Battery backup with protection for computers, firewalls and switches Liebert Associates POWERSURE PSA 1000VA/600W, five full minutes, full eight outlets minitower: $325.99 APC Smart-UPS 1000 USB & Serial 120V: $407.56
Surge protector Protection for printer and possibly laptop APC PRO8 Professional SurgeArrest 8 Outlet 120V: $26.82 APC Network SurgeArrest 7 Outlet: $32.10
Software
Operating system Security, ease of use Windows XP Professional with SP2 applied (included with computer) or purchased separately for $307.99  
Productivity Word processing, spreadsheet, e-mail, database, presentation software MS Office Professional 2003: $469 OpenOffice: Free
Virus, spyware and other protection Filter out and automatically update against viruses and other intrusive software Computer Associates eTrust EZ Antivirus: $19.95 Symantec Norton Antivirus: $49.95
Desktop search Search for files of all types on desktop system Copernic: Free Google Desktop: Free
Paperless Convert as much material as possible to magnetic format Adobe Acrobat: $409 PaperPort: $177.44
Utilities Help make system faster and more stable with minimum user intervention Second Copy: $29.95; System Mechanic: $39.95  

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