Buyers of PCs beware, it takes time and expert knowledge to pick the best.
Flick through the pages of any computer magazine and you will be forgiven for thinking that PCs are going out of fashion. Page upon page of glossy colour advertisements offer hundreds of bargain-priced machines, many boasting free state-of-the-art software. The vast range of accessories, such as printers, disk drives and special graphics boards, increase the impression that IT warehouses must be offloading their stocks.
This is partly true. No sooner has a PC hit the market, than its successor is on the drawing board. But, apart from ferocious price-cutting, the industry shows few signs of recession. Demand for PCs, in their various desktop and portable forms, is forecast to continue as one of the computer industry's fastest growth sectors. According to IDC, the market research company, British PC sales will increase from 1.5 million units (£2 billion) in 1992, to 2.5 million units (£3 billion) by 1997.
For the buyer, the abundance of machines, many of which offer similar functions, presents a problem - which one to choose? The most obvious answer is to pick the cheapest. But bargains may not be quite what they seem. The mail-order companies which advertise in catalogues and magazines achieve their rock-bottom prices by providing nothing more than a box delivered to your door. This may be ideal for large organisations with their own in-house IT departments and experts who know how to set up the machines and install software. They can even buy the odd spare machine in case one breaks down. But purchasing off-the-page can cause considerable problems for smaller companies which may not have the skills to get started once the equipment arrives. Many such customers prefer to see what they are buying beforehand, and discuss the implementation with an expert. These customers would do best to visit computer superstores, or dealers, most calling themselves value added resellers (VARs). Such buyers are also advised to stick to the major brand names and big suppliers, on the basis that they are more likely to be around in three years' time.
The perils of going to a fly-by-night supplier should be borne in mind by staff who think they have found a cheaper deal than their IT manager in a magazine. Graham Hopper, UK general manager at AST, says: 'Everyone likes to be one up on their IT section by saying they have found a cheaper product. It's often a false economy.'
One problem with buying on price alone is that you can be sure that in a few weeks or months a souped-up model offering more power for less cost will become available. The answer is to wait until the last moment. As Tony Westbrook, editor of PC Magazine, puts it: 'When you need to solve your problem, all you can do is look for the best deal at the time.'
On the other hand, customers who can afford a more leisurely approach, could wait until their chosen model has been around for a few months and try to catch it on the first swathe of price cuts. This strategy is used by David Blackett, head of Information Systems at SM Magazine Distribution, a subsidiary of Argos Press. 'We tend to buy not quite at the top, but just a fraction below, after the product has been on the market a few months.' By the time the second round of cuts comes, however, there is likely to be a faster, more powerful machine at a higher price, so you will have to decide whether it is worth paying less for yesterday's technology.
Blackett is in favour of splashing out on the best you can afford, on the basis that a higher specification machine will last longer. He believes that 'the cheap and cheerful tends to be a very short-lived solution'. Four years ago he bought a number of PCs based on the Intel 386 microprocessor. Though pricey at the time, these are still giving good service - 'we have not had to throw any out, and they probably have another couple more years useful life in them'. Moreover, if you buy cheaper models as a stop gap, with the intention of writing them off after a couple of years, you may find staff reluctant to make the switch. Blackett also tried getting people to share machines as a cost-cutting measure. This was not very successful - people like to have their PCs available on the desktop for use whenever they are needed. In fact, PCs do not really wear out, although occasionally parts of them need to be replaced.
One good way to get a low price, while guaranteeing a level of service, is to go to the manufacturer direct. The pioneer of direct sales is Michael Dell. He set up his first mail order operation at the age of 19 and his eponymous business now has sales of $2 billion a year. Dell's firm has always focused on providing high quality support and service - if something goes wrong with your machine it is simply swapped for a new one. Choice of supplier is certainly an important consideration. There is often a trade-off between price and quality, although this is not always the case. 'It is now possible to buy quite cheaply and still get good quality,' says Westbrook. 'On the other hand, you can still pay too much. You have to know enough to be able to shop around.'
WH Smith favours the safe route of a mainstream supplier, says Martin Cutler, the group's information systems director. 'We stick to the middle of the road as far as possible and have a small list of approved equipment for use by everyone.' Compaq and IBM are the group's chosen PC suppliers, while Toshiba is preferred for portables. Despite its wealth of in-house knowledge, WH Smith also uses the services of two large dealers, Systemhouse and Technology. 'By sticking to the big manufacturers and dealers we hope to avoid making too many strategic blunders,' Cutler says. He reckons that going for a discount supplier can end up costing more. 'If you go for a cheap brand where nobody is sure what's in the box you might end up spending far more on maintenance over five years. There is also a stronger chance that software will function on the mainstream machines.'
Blackett agrees on restricting your company's range of hardware. 'Stick to one supplier then there's more chance you will be able to swap pieces around. We just have Apricots. This ensures that we can just pick up screens, keyboards and tape drives and swap them over with very few problems, even though they have been bought over a period of several years.'
Buying from the big names does not necessarily mean higher prices. A huge round of discounts begun by Compaq in June last year triggered a major boom in spending. Users for whom ergonomics is a top priority might consider ICL, which specialises in comfortable PCs with low power consumption. Patriotic PC buyers might want to go to one of the fast-growing new UK manufacturers, such as Viglen and Elonex, both based in London.
Compatibility is less of a problem these days. The PC world has settled down into two basic standards - Apple and IBM. Apple machines pioneered graphical screens with pictures or 'icons' and a 'mouse' pointing device. The majority of business users opt for the IBM-type PCs, based on the Intel range of microprocessors, for which thousands of applications packages are now available. These machines also offer Mac-type graphical screens thanks to the Windows operating system.
When in doubt, try it out. You may want to enhance your system, for example, with a flashy graphics board, extra sound facilities, or a compact disk memory unit known as a CD-Rom. In this case, you should choose a model which is capable of supporting the extra load without becoming too slow. Insist on a demonstration before committing yourself. Benchmark results published in computer magazines are useful references. The crucial strategy is to decide what sorts of things you want to use a PC for before buying. 'You should have a clear idea of precisely what it is you're trying to achieve,' says Westbrook. If necessary consult an expert. Most companies are likely to require a mixture of low and high performance models. There is no point in purchasing a top-of-the-range workstation capable of switching between applications if all you need it for is to type menus for the staff canteen. Take portables, for example. If you are using them mostly to dial in to remote databases while on the move, IBM compatibility may not matter, so you could happily use a PowerBook from Apple. On the other hand, if you frequently need to exchange data with office colleagues who use IBM systems, life would be a great deal easier if you chose a similar portable.
Another question is whether you can afford to buy a desktop machine to complement your mobile one. If not, you will probably need to choose a more powerful portable with extras such as a mouse, network adapter and full-sized keyboard that you can plug in at the office. Ensure that your chosen portable is sufficiently powerful as they are difficult to upgrade. Another option might be to invest in a docking station. This provides a desk-top carcass with full-sized screen and keyboard - you simply slot in your portable to turn it into a full-sized PC.
In some cases, your organisation may not need PCs at all. Traditional 'dumb' terminals linked to mainframes or minicomputers provide a much cheaper solution for applications where no local processing is required. They are also more secure, as users cannot load or extract data via floppy disks. Blackett says: 'We have a mix and match approach. We will always pick the machine that works best at the job.' SM Magazine Distribution has people who only need dumb terminals because they are performing data entry and other such simple tasks. 'Also, not everyone wants a graphical front end. It may be very nice if you are doing lots of things at once, but can be very slow and awkward if your task is basically to key in lots of information. Not everyone needs vast power.'
But to realise the true potential of a PC it must be connected to a network. It then ceases to be merely a personal productivity device. Computer networks can help entire organisations become more efficient by enabling individuals to share files and collaborate on projects over long distances. They are ideal for the flatter management structures and empowered workforces of the 1990s.
Of course, there is no point in adopting a PC strategy of this sort if your organisation wants to remain hierarchical and tightly constrained. Gary Eichhorn, general manager of Hewlett Packard's worldwide workstation business, says: 'These networks are for fluid, democratic organisational structures.'
Some PC users may want to be able to perform several different operations simultaneously on their PCs, for example, preparing a financial report by combining spreadsheets, graphics and text. The ability to run a range of software concurrently is known as multi-tasking - a buzzword you cannot avoid on the PC procurement trail. Here, the choice is mainly between Unix and the new system from Microsoft which is called Windows NT.
Unix was developed for scientific users more than 20 years ago, and is now being widely introduced in commercial environments. NT, on the other hand, has four million lines of new code which have yet to be proved in a commercial environment. Companies such as Hewlett Packard and Sun argue that Unix is the only robust system for enterprise-wide computing. Eichhorn says: 'It is the only system that has the maturity and functionality necessary in a distributed network.'
Blackett, who has interconnected all his 386s, regards computer networking as 'imperative' in any environment where data is to be shared. 'Transferring data without a network is a laborious task which either involves swapping disks in and out or interconnecting large numbers of wires into various sockets at the back of the machines.'
However, like many companies experimenting with computer networks, SM has not yet entrusted its critical applications, such as customer accounts and invoicing, to the PC network. These applications still run on dumb terminals and the company minicomputer. So buyers be warned: before you fork out on PCs for the entire workforce, do yourself a favour - check whether those battle-hardened terminals linked to your company mainframe do not have a little more life in them yet.