Tech Audit

Razor’s Edge of Purchasing

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If a computer is akin to a razor and software is akin to the razor blade, computers are almost being given away to profit from software and other add-ons. But buyer beware. You can easily pay too much, even from optimal vendors. And you may not need as much software as you think.

Let’s talk hardware first. A desktop machine for a lawyer or support staff has a sweet spot (maximum cost benefit) in the $400 to $1,000 range. The price for a server in a small office looking for an economical configuration is not much different.

Minimum configuration for a powerful desktop or a minimal server (which will be closer to the $1,000 end of the price range) includes:

• An Intel chip of around 2.8 gigahertz.

• 1 gigabyte of RAM.

• A 160-gigabyte hard drive (large for a client machine, but it should not cost much).

• A rewritable DVD drive.

• A separate CD drive.

You may be able to stay within the upper end of that price range and get a 19-inch flat-screen monitor with no additional charge.

There are always specials, so the key is to be reasonably aggressive replacing your obsolete equipment. Never buy anything you don’t need or aren’t likely to use in a foreseeable time period. And try to anticipate what computers to replace before they irretrievably fail. Five years is usually the long term functional survivability of an aggressively configured machine.

Configure the machine online at the seller’s Web site, then get on the telephone to reconfigure it. If you can’t make the computer configuration come out close to the advertised price (with the same features), ask the person on the telephone to assist. And always look at the next incremental improvement to see where the cost jump becomes prohibitive.

Save on Software

Software next: Less is best. Microsoft Office can cost half the price of a cheap computer. And preloaded software may have a nontransferable license for that particular machine. That means that while the machine lives, the program can only be run on that machine, and when the machine dies, the license dies.

You know what your core programs are—probably a word processor (Word or WordPerfect), a spreadsheet (Excel or Lotus 123) and a presentation program (PowerPoint). But you can save a lot by using OpenOffice (Microsoft Office-compatible and free) on at least some of your computers.

Your vendor may try to persuade you that you need Windows XP Professional rather than XP Home for your network to function. Depending on your setup, most small offices can function fine with XP Home clients, for about $60 less per PC.

When you order lots of RAM, a large hard drive and little software, you may be quizzed whether the machine is a client or a server. (Sellers tend to get annoyed if you are buying cheap client machines to function as servers.) You are probably better off if the seller thinks you are buying client machines.

And, when a large hard disk only costs an extra $30 to $60, why shouldn’t a client machine have a large hard disk? This is particularly true as more and more data is scanned and digital video (like taped depositions or taped interviews) becomes more prevalent on desktop machines.

Wouldn’t it be interesting to do a survey of ticket prices paid in a large airplane that has every seat filled on a nonstop flight? Still, we know how to optimize the ticket price, recognizing that if we fly on short notice, we are likely to pay more. We may not be used to different prices for identical computers from the same manufacturer on the same date, depending on how we access the Web site or how the 800 number is handled. But we should get used to that fact.

David Beckman and David Hirsch practice in the law firm of Beckman & Hirsch in Burlington, Iowa. Contact Beckman by e mail at [email protected] or Hirsch at [email protected].

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