Buying isn’t the only management decision with desktop computers. You have to make decisions about support contracts and vendor vs. local maintenance, how often to replace rather than upgrade, and issues that arise as your company grows.
Support and Warranties
Once you acquire the personal computers you need, how do you keep them humming?
Today’s PC hardware from brand-name vendors is much more reliable than the machines slapped together in the industry’s youth. However, the things still break down.
Most hardware-related problems will occur soon after you buy a PC. It’s more common to get a problem within the first couple of months than after a year.
If your PC doesn’t work properly, does it really mean something is broken inside the computer? Unless you’re technically astute, it may not be immediately apparent if your problem is more of a hardware configuration, or a software issue with no parts required to fix.
The standard warranty offered by most hardware vendors won’t help you resolve your software problems, unless it’s related to software that comes bundled with the hardware, such as Microsoft Windows.
Some extra-cost extended hardware support agreements do offer some software problem resolution. But there are a lot of buts, limiting the programs supported and restricting support to current versions. Frankly, if your fancy Accounting Deluxe Special Edition application can’t print properly aligned checks on the printer, you’re better off contacting the software developer for help. They’ve heard it all before.
Support Contract or Self-Insure?
Extended warranties and support contracts are highly profitable add-ons for hardware vendors because, in most cases, nothing bad happens to a computer under warranty. Does it then make sense to forget about a support contract, save your money, and self-insure for those rare times when the chips are down?
The right decision depends on the size of your computer fleet, and the expertise you have in-house or locally available.
If you have only a couple of PCs, the cost of servicing the one that turns out to be a digital lemon can be more than you can easily afford. Get a support contact to nail down your costs. On the other hand, if you have 30 machines, the extra cost attributable to fixing that one bad apple (not Apple) will be a negligible part of your much larger IT budget. Self-insure.
Similarly, if you have a computer geek in-house, or can find one within easy travel time, you can get your computer hardware problem fixed fast and resume productive work. It’s certainly quicker than if you need to pack up your sick machine in its original carton, ship it to an out-of-town service center, wait while the distant computer gurus tinker with it, then eventually send it back. You’ll wind up unpacking the now-healthy beast late one night while scratching your head trying to remember which cable plugs in where.
Selecting Local Tech Support
If you have a computer geek on staff, you’ll know it, and you don’t need my advice. But if you don’t have one, but you like the advantage of local tech support, how do you find someone in the neighborhood who knows the difference between RAM and ROM?
Well, how do you select any other good business service professional, such as a public accountant or lawyer? I recommend you ask business associates. Who do they use and recommend? If someone won’t give you the name because “He’s already too busy,” that’s the one you want!
A cheaper hourly rate is not better in this line of work. Look for someone who can also assist in fixing configurations and minor problems with popular software.
Ideally, you’ll get someone who will first come to your office and assess your setup. This may mean adding up-to-date anti-virus, anti-spyware, and firewall software. Reviewing the procedures for data backup is another good idea, to enable a quick recovery if a hard drive decides to grind to a halt. This proactive problem management will take time and initially cost more, but it will pay dividends to extinguish the brushfires before they grow to infernos.
What About the Geek Squad?
If you buy a computer at a Best Buy chain store, you can get service from Geek Squad, which offers in-store service at Best Buy or at their own stores, by-phone service, or on-site visits. There are a number of services like this in the U.S., with Geek Squad most famous for its TV commercials involving VW bugs painted like police cars, and its tongue-in-cheek ads: “You’ll recognize an Agent by their short-sleeved white shirt, black pants, shoes, belt and clip-on tie.”
This and similar services are really aimed at consumers (they also fix digital cameras and game systems) or very small businesses that just want someone to come by on an ad hoc basis and get the doggone thing to work. PC Magazine reviewed the by-phone services in its August 31, 2005 issue: “Who You Gonna Call To Solve PC Crises?”, testing five paid-support telephone services: Geek Squad, Geeks By Minute, 888 Geek Help, PC Pinpoint, and YourTechOnline.com–the last of these got the editors’ nod, with mixed feelings about all of them. Prices range from about $50 to over $200 depending on what they do for you and whether they come out to your site.
Product Lifecycle — How Often to Replace?
All good things must come to an end. Your PCs won’t last forever. When should you replace your computers?
Some believe in running a computer into the ground. I know a tightwad accountant who still runs MS-DOS and the Lotus 1-2-3 version 1A spreadsheet on an Intel 80386-based PC. He thinks he’s money wise, but he’s losing out on the productivity he could gain with more up-to-date software running on a PC made in this century.
Your computer is likely to get technically obsolete (unable to run the latest software) long before it becomes physically obsolete and its hard drive bites the dust. Yet trading in a computer annually for this year’s snazzier model with the bigger mouse tail fins is costly, and frequent migration of user data to a new computer is time consuming. The most common hardware upgrades–more memory to speed program operations and a larger hard drive to provide additional storage–are relatively inexpensive and easy to install.
Good news: The performance increase in new computers isn’t as ferocious as it was a few years ago, when it seemed like your system became obsolete between the time you ordered it and the time it showed up at your front door. Chips are no longer going up in processing speed, having stalled out just shy of 4GHz, so a two-year-old 2.4GHz is still in pretty good shape. (Dual-core systems will be the way to go, but they are still working their way down the price list.) Business software isn’t getting fatter and heavier as rapidly as it used to, either. Though Microsoft’s new Vista operating system will abruptly obsolete a lot of older machines, it won’t be avaialble until sometime in late 2006, and it won’t make you sorry you bought those 1.5GHz bargain boxes until well into 2007.
So when’s the right time to replace a PC? You should direct your financial analysis team to perform a cost-benefit computer lifecycle replacement study. Who am I kidding, I know most small businesses don’t have time for that stuff, so read on.
Rick’s Rule of Thumb: If you purchase a computer that’s reasonably up-to-date, then it’s worthwhile to keep it and add upgrades for the first two years of ownership. If your PC is over five years old, then it’s likely not worth upgrading. You should replace it with new hardware.
The Bigger You Get… (Scaling Issues)
As your business grows, it becomes more complex. Beyond a certain point, adding another computer doesn’t mean simply duplicating what you now have. Increasing specialization of employee duties as the business grows means you acquire more specialized software, which requires more effort to support.
The bigger you get, the more sophisticated your problems. For example, you may want to allow employees to login to use the office computers from home or while on the road. If you have just a handful of PCs, you might consider using the free and easy Remote Desktop in Windows XP Professional.
If you have several employees who need to logon remotely at once, you need a more powerful solution, such as a “VPN” virtual network. Handheld wireless devices for outside sales staff also need a way to call in to the network from the field.
At some point, your off-site tech support guy will be spending so much time in your office, you’ll need to consider whether you should bring this function in-house or continue to outsource it.
Standards: Who Needs ‘Em?
Standardization of both hardware and software makes computers easier to support, particularly if some are located off-site, in remote offices, or in an employee’s home office.
Smaller businesses generally buy computers opportunistically. That is, one buys a PC when the need arises and considers any special deals that may be available. You may wind up with several different brands. This hodgepodge is manageable for a dozen or two computers but can be very difficult to support if you have 2,000.
Larger businesses and those with established growth patterns buy according to a budget. For example, an upgrade cycle may call for 100 new PCs each month over an 18-month period.
Efficient rollout on this scale demands that the PC configuration not change during the upgrade period. Major hardware manufacturers are prepared to give large customers a technology guarantee that the exact model and configuration you buy today will be available a year from now. Typically, this is not a significant benefit for a smaller business that doesn’t value the standardization benefits.
Richard Morochove is a computer consultant and columnist who can be reached through his business, Morochove & Associates, at http://www.morochove.com.