Business in Vancouver: News that works for you

Entertainment value lightens notebooks' extra costs

by Alan Zisman (c) 2002 First published in Business in Vancouver ,  Issue #671  September 3-9.2002 High Tech Office  column

While computer sales haven't been particularly impressive of late, sales of portable computers have remained relatively robust, now accounting for almost 24 per cent of worldwide PC sales. People, it seems, like having computers they can tote around with them.

Certainly, I'm always seeing notebook computers being operated in airport terminals and during flights, and even on BC Ferries. What they're being used for may be questioned, however. On a recent trans-continental flight, I casually spied on the dozen or so notebook computer users. One person was obviously doing work. Most of the rest, however, were using the expensive, presumably employer-supplied technology to watch DVD movies in preference to the in-flight entertainment.

Most of today's notebooks fall into one of three broad categories. Desktop replacement models are relatively heavy, with large screens: 15-inch or even larger 16-inch models from Sony and Toshiba, with a full complement of drives and connectors, commanding a high-end price. Ultralight models promise less: small screens and short battery life, leaving behind drives and connection ports in an effort to minimize weight. Ultralight pricing demonstrates that less can cost more.

Most models fall somewhere in the middle, weighing between two and three kilograms, with a 13-inch or 14-inch screen, CD-ROM, CD-RW, or DVD drive. Within this value-priced category, higher-end models will offer more connection options, including built-in Ethernet networking and maybe Firewire and wireless connectivity.

Notebooks are more expensive than equivalent desktop computers. Moreover, there are hidden costs. Like theft. Notebooks remain thief-magnets. Budget $50 to $100 for a lock, and perhaps investigate signing on with Vancouver-based Absolute Software's Computrace service, which sets up your notebook (PC only) to phone home if stolen, reporting its whereabouts. And make sure you have a good backup strategy, and use it. Your data is probably more valuable and all too often harder to replace than the actual hardware. It's also not covered by insurance.

Compared to desktop computers, notebooks are harder and more expensive to expand. Try to anticipate your future requirements when buying. A year ago, I bought a new PC notebook thinking that while it lacked on-board Ethernet, I could easily use the network card I already owned in its PC Card (or PCMCIA) slot. But now I would also like to be able to use fast external Firewire drives and other devices with it, and I've found, to my regret, that it's hard to get both Firewire and Ethernet networking cards plugged in at the same time. I should have paid a little more. (Apple's notebooks, including its lower-end iBook, totally lack PC Card expandability but make up for it by having virtually all the connection options one could want already built in.)

Because portable computers are, well, portable, they get bumped and sometimes dropped. Even with the best of care, things tend to go wrong at a far higher rate than with desktop computers. Hinges crack, hard drives fail, and screens smash. And because notebook parts are relatively non-standard, repair costs are high. It costs almost as much to replace a notebook's screen as to buy a new notebook.

Brass Ring chief information officer Andy Cooper says notebook users needed support 10 to 20 times as frequently as desktop users. Notebooks have half the lifespan of their desktop counterparts, Cooper added.

Many business users think they want a notebook computer in order to take their work home. Given the higher purchase and maintenance price of portable computers, a less costly strategy may be to provide employees with a computer for home as well as for work, and spring for a high speed Internet connection with a virtual private network secure link to the office network.

Of course, then you'll be stuck watching whatever movie is playing on your flight.

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Alan Zisman is a Vancouver educator, writer, and computer specialist. He can be reached at E-mail Alan