What’s Hot, Cool and Very Useful

Hardware, software and handy suggestions.



In the nearly three decades that CPAs have embraced the computer—replacing their yellow columnar pads, pencils and typewriters—they have become more effective and sophisticated at controlling and analyzing corporate finances. But rather than simplifying their work, the intrinsically complicated computer often has made it more challenging. This article’s goal is to focus on the latest technology that enhances CPAs’ ability to do their professional tasks without adding more complexity.

  Power to the core. If you’re in the market for a new computer, pass on any product (no matter how inexpensive) that doesn’t have a dual-core processor—and that includes laptops.

How important is the processor? It’s the brains of a computer; it does the calculations, controls access to all data and directs the new and edited data to be stored on the hard drive. The dual-core design, as the name implies, contains two processors, linked in one package and able to communicate with each other. Thus they can operate in true multitasking mode at speeds exceeding single-core processors. And because they run at lower power levels, batteries last longer and computers run cooler and more efficiently.

If you’re not planning to buy a new computer, consider replacing your old processor with this new design. Check with the model manufacturer or a computer repair shop to see whether you can switch your old processor for the new design.

  Smart patch practice. Like it or not, Microsoft probably will continue marching in the patch parade—issuing those frequent updates to fix big and small bugs in an effort to protect Windows against hacking vulnerabilities. Although most patches are necessary, they’re not without occasional problems that can disable an application or make your computer act cockeyed. As a result, some users, distrustful of the patches, disable Windows’ Automatic Update, a feature that alerts you when Microsoft sends a patch via the Internet. That’s a mistake. A better course of action is to make an adjustment in the Automatic Update tool that allows your computer to automatically download the update, but gives you control of whether to actually install it.

To activate that command, click on Start , Control Panel , and if you don’t see System , click Automatic Updates . If you do see System, click it first and then Automatic Updates (see screenshot below). Select Download updates for me, but let me choose when to install them .

Then, when Microsoft sends you a message, via the Internet, to install the patch, select Custom Install (Advanced) . That will evoke a brief description of the patch plus its Microsoft Knowledge Base number, which you can then access at Microsoft’s Windows Update Web site (www.microsoft.com) to see whether there are any installation problems. If you decide to proceed, you must take one more step: Go back to Start , Control Panel , System , and then click on Automatic Updates and create a restore point, which lets you revert to an earlier healthy configuration just before you launched the patch.

To remove a troublesome patch while you’re in the Control Panel , go to Add or Remove Programs . Before removing the patch, be sure to place a check at the Show Updates box.

While all this is a drag, it’s a worthwhile safety step.

 Ink-jet vs. laser printers. Cost-conscious CPAs often opt for lower-price ink-jet printers over more costly laser models.

But while the initial price of ink-jets is cheaper, their lifetime cost far exceeds that of lasers because their expensive ink cartridges need to be replaced more frequently. Also important: Lasers print much faster.

However, if your rationale for choosing ink-jets is brilliant color, you’ve got a point. Their color reproductions are better than color lasers, though the quality gap has gotten much narrower. Also, laser prices have been dropping; they start as low as $300 now. So before making a decision, take a trial run with a color laser and see whether it meets your needs. Still, if color is only an occasional need, and you plan to print very few pages, a less-than-$100 ink-jet printer makes economic sense.

  Kinder keyboards. If excessive keyboarding is giving you hand or arm pain, look into ergonomic keyboards. If you’re already experiencing pain, they are effective for relief; they also are effective in avoiding the problem. If you’ve been resisting getting a “split” keyboard because it’s hard to get used to, consider a slightly curved keyboard, such as the Microsoft Comfort Curve Keyboard 2000. It’s easier to use and provides relief.

  E-mail extra. No matter how much you love your e-mail service, consider adding Google’s Gmail. The price is right—it’s free. You can access Gmail from any Internet connection. It provides 2,770 gigabytes of free storage space.

I use Gmail in two ways: I send myself files I want to back up or be able to access from any computer when I’m traveling. As if that’s not enough, Gmail contains an ever-growing selection of nifty features, from an automatic notifier that you received an e-mail to filters and a chat service.

  Cool it. Computers don’t like it hot. The warmer they get, the slower they run and the faster they break down. That’s why all computers contain little fans designed to circulate the air around the hot electronic components. Over time, as the fans wear out, they get noisier and slower. If your computer is several years old or if the fan sounds like more than a soft hum, consider replacing the fan.

Prices start around $10—a small investment for a big benefit. The replacement is a do-it-yourself job requiring a small screwdriver. Check with a computer shop for the right design to fit your computer.

And while you’re at it, take a peek inside the computer. You’d be surprised how much dust accumulates, thwarting cooler air circulation. Invest in a portable, handheld vacuum cleaner with a long, narrow attachment that can clean both your keyboard and the innards of your computer. You can buy one at any office supply or computer shop for about $10.

  Shopping guide for multifunction printers. One of the neatest products for any office is an AIO—an all-in-one printer, copier, scanner and fax machine. They’re cheap (prices start around $100) and while they’re not designed for very high-volume operation, they can serve a small office excellently. Here’s what you should know if you’re in the market for one:

Printing. If you anticipate using it sparingly, then a color ink-jet is the way to go. That way, even though per-sheet printing is much higher than that of a laser model, you get the extra advantage of color. If higher volume is expected, stick to lasers, which are not only cheaper to operate but print faster and sharper.

Scanning. Make sure that, in addition to copying and faxing, the unit can scan to your PC.

Works alone. You don’t want an AIO that needs your PC to make copies; you want one that works alone—just like a fax machine.

PC fax. You want to be able to fax from your PC. Otherwise you will have to print a document and then fax it—a time-waster.

E-mails. The AIO should be able to scan a document, create an e-mail and then attach the document for sending.

  Printing plus. The Brother MFC-8860DN is the perfect AIO tool for a small office that is satisfied with only monochrome (black) printing. It’s a laser that not only prints fast but also on both sides of a page in one sweep (duplex). It also can copy, fax both sides of a page over a network and scan a document to your PC or to e-mail. And if that’s not enough, it has a 50-page automatic document feeder.

  Go for color. If you want a fast color printer, consider the Dell 3100cn. It spews out text at more than 19 pages a minute and color graphics at 6 pages a minute. Also handy are its two paper trays (the second one for letterheads). It’s network capable.

 Digital space-savers. Digital pack rats are delighted because hard drives are getting faster, smaller and less expensive while their capacity to store data is growing. The technology behind these improvements is called perpendicular magnetic recording (PMR)—a revolutionary way to orient the data-bearing magnetized particles on the surface of the hard disk.

Two memory products with PMR are worth considering: an external drive (linked to a computer by a USB cable) and a conventional internal device to supplement or replace your current hard disk.

Many tech-savvy CPAs have discovered that portable hard drives are the way to go when they are on the go. Use them to supplement limited storage space computers and for fast, easy-to-perform backups. The Seagate ST9160821U2-RK, a 160-gigabyte hard drive, packs all those data in a pocketbook-size case that weighs just three-quarters of a pound.

The Seagate Barracuda 7200.10, designed to replace internal hard drives, uses PMR technology to store up to 750 gigabytes at impressively fast speeds. Its high-capacity storage comes at an economical price ($349)—almost half the per-gigabyte cost of conventional drives.

  Mouse on the go. Over the years the ubiquitous mouse has morphed from a clumsy, wired clamshell-shaped device to a streamlined wireless component that effortlessly glides you through the most complex computer functions. But despite its superior technological evolution, even the best mouse is quite useless when it’s on your desk back in the office and you’re just about to make a PowerPoint presentation in Indianapolis. So you sidle up to your laptop and slip out of its PCMCIA slot the MoGo Mouse, a wireless mouse (right) no thicker than a few business cards that stores (and recharges) in the laptop (so it’s always handy) and is optical (so it slides smoothly and never experiences tracking problems). When it’s in use, a concealed “kickstand” elevates the mouse for a natural position under the hand. Price: $69.95. (www.newtonperipherals.com)

  Bright, light and skinny. Every ounce and inch counts when you have to pack your electronic gear to make an out-of-town business presentation. Casio’s XJ-S35 projector (left) weighs just 3.9 pounds and measures 1.7 inches thick by 10.6 inches wide and 7.8 inches long, which means you can tuck it neatly alongside your computer carrying case. At $1,699 it contains all the bells and whistles you’re likely to need. It handles PowerPoint slides, digital photos and DVD movies, comes with a USB input for PC-less presentations and an optional adapter is available for making completely wireless presentations.

If economy is a more important consideration, consider the Dell 2400M (above), which sells for about $1,099. Be aware that although its image projecting is excellent, its sound effects are limited by low-wattage speakers.

  Scanners for all occasions. Every office needs a scanner—to make copies of paper documents and to transform text and graphics on paper into electronic format for easy filing and storage.

Scanners fall into two basic categories: the desktop and the portable. One versatile desktop model is the HP Scanjet 7800 (right). It does duplex copying on one pass and is bundled with a variety of powerful optical-character reading (OCR) and document-management software. It even has software that digitally improves hard-to-scan originals, such as documents marked with highlighters.

A portable scanner is a must for CPAs who travel, and the Plustek OpticSlim M12 Corporate (above left) is a good choice. Although it lacks amenities such as an automatic document feeder (you feed it manually and print the other side by turning the document over) and it’s not very speedy, it is lightweight (a mite over half a pound) and gets its electric power via a USB plug to your laptop.

  Virus swatter. When it comes to viruses, worms, assorted spyware and all those other unfriendly bugs that try to invade our computers, you must have guaranteed first-rate protection. Although not widely known, one powerful antivirus product is Kaspersky Anti-Virus software (http://usa.kaspersky.com). It provides effective protection with relatively little intrusion on your computer’s speed.

  QuickBooks vs. Peachtree. At any CPA gathering you’re sure to hear a clutch of accountants debating which small-business accounting program is better—QuickBooks or Peachtree. If you listen carefully, you’re likely to discover the judgments are more pronouncements of personal taste, not the intrinsic value of the software. One CPA likes one unique function of QuickBooks, while another likes a different unique function of Peachtree.

The bottom line: It’s not wise to fully rely on the judgment of others, no matter how knowledgeable they are. The only way to make a valid decision on which product is best for you or your small-business clients is to invest the time to test each one, running the kind of data you expect to use if you acquire the product.

 Computer health. The older a computer, the more likely it has loads of junk on its hard drive—old temporary files, abandoned software applications, unused applications cluttering up the startup menu, broken shortcuts and bits and pieces of files scattered helter-skelter across the hard disk. The net result of all that junk: Your once-snappy computer slows to a crawl—start-ups take forever, file openings advance at a crawl and the machine even struggles to prepare itself for a shutdown when you turn it off.

Some high-tech people periodically back up their data and completely reformat their hard disk, wiping off everything and returning it to its virgin state. Then they reinstall the operating system and all the applications and data. Although starting from scratch is very effective, it’s not always practical. The alternative solution is to periodically run software utilities, of which there are more than a dozen on the market, that are designed to clean up and fine-tune computers. One product to consider is Iolo Technologies’ System Mechanic 6. (www.iolo.com).

What makes System Mechanic useful is that it performs not only a wide range of repairs and cleanups, but it also kills spyware and accelerates start-ups, shutdowns and Internet connections. It continuously monitors your computer and alerts you to problems with blinking icons in the toolbar. It even automatically updates itself with new spyware software (as often as daily) and adds improvements in the System Mechanic engine itself.

  Cell phone smarts. Having trouble reading your phone’s fine print? The Phone Monocle (www.thephonemonocle.com) slips over the face of the phone and enlarges the image.

  Get information. If you’re traveling and resent paying $1.25 for the 411 operator to locate an out-of-town phone number, consider these options:

• Dial 800-FREE-411, a toll-free information service. The only cost is the time spent listening to a 10-second advertisement.

• If your phone can browse the Web, go to www.go2.com. In addition to locating phone numbers for free, it provides driving directions.

As you can see, there are many opportunities to make your computer not just a more potent tool, but one that is easier to operate. Connect it with the right supplemental equipment, like printers and scanners, and invest in utility tools that keep it clean, safe and fine-tuned, and you’ll find your work goes easier and faster.

Stanley Zarowin is a contributing editor of the Journal of Accountancy. His views as expressed in this article do not necessarily reflect the views of the AICPA or the Journal of Accountancy . The JofA does not endorse or recommend any products. Mr. Zarowin can be reached at stanley.joatech@gmail.com .


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