Notebook or desktop?

Notebook or desktop?

With prices of notebook PCs dropping and their power and expandability rising, the decision to go with a notebook or its desktop brethren as corporate standard gets tougher all the time. End users, from top executives to sales people love the flexibility and can make a strong case for the productivity that notebooks afford corporations. But IT managers still face the issue of cost - both up front and support - staring them in the face when it's time to upgrade their PCs By Mark BrownsteinThere may be little doubt that the notebook computer initially costs more than a similarly equipped desktop com-puter. LCD screen (probably the most expensive notebook component) and proprietary board and component designs will cost more than desktop computers.

In addition, the portability of notebook computers places them at risk of travel-related damages to which desktops are never subject. Dropping, thermal problems (leaving a notebook in a hot car boot is not healthy for the computer), and other similar hazards can all contribute to increased support costs when compared to the desktop.

However, a notebook computer used on a desktop provides a number of advantages over desktop computers. A notebook connected to a docking adapter or port replicator, or simply hooked to an external keyboard and monitor, with a PC Card/ Ethernet card linked to the company's network, can function as a desktop replacement.

When compared to a desktop, in-office notebook support also works around desktop-related problems. For example, a notebook that develops a problem can easily be removed and swapped with a notebook from the company's support inventory. By contrast, technicians probably don't look forward to lifting a 15, 17, or 20in monitor off a desktop computer to gain access to it.

Portability = productivity

Citing these benefits to corporations, analyst Gerry Purdy predicts that by the year 2000, the number of corporate notebook computers will equal the number of desktop computers being used. According to Purdy, IT is in the late stage of a phase that has begun to recognise that notebook computers now offer performance equivalent to most enterprise desktops. In 1998 and 1999, IT will better understand the advantages notebooks have over desktop computers and will begin to purchase more notebooks than desktops, Purdy says.

Some argue that heat concerns with the next versions of Intel's processors will make desktops a more powerful option. But the image of workers tending to unfinished business outside of work hours, such as catching up on e-mail after the kids are put to bed, is what is going to sell top management on notebook productivity.

"What we're finding is that on average, employees are using a mobile computer four hours a week outside of normal work hours," Purdy says. "The economic return for a computer that costs about a thousand dollars more than an equivalent desktop can be anywhere from three to six months of work, depending on the individual. There is a very fast payback for most companies."

The notebook's portability provides numerous benefits, such as the capability to make sales presentations, offer training remotely, give formerly desk-bound workers the option to work at home, and communicate through videoconferencing.

The payoff from each activity in many cases can quickly offset the extra cost of notebook ownership. Assuming that the cost of ownership of a notebook computer is $10,000 during the notebook's lifetime (a figure that may be much higher than that paid by most companies), the payoff resulting from extra hours worked away from the office can quickly make up for the difference. The chart, based on an analysis by Dataquest, shows the number of hours per week that are required to pay off a $US10,000 ownership cost difference during the first year.

Complex support equation

But despite these productivity metrics, support costs for notebooks can be significantly higher than for desktops, which stay put and can be fixed on-site. Because support depends so much on usage, IT managers have to run complex equations. For example, a notebook user in another time zone or, perhaps, another country, will require a significantly different level of support than a worker who can bring a failed notebook back to the office the next morning.

Various levels of support may be assigned to the users, depending on their distance from the main office and the importance of their job function. For example, an employee who takes the notebook home primarily to catch up on work or send and receive e-mail may not require after-hours support, though a key sales person who is on the road nearly all of the time may require around-the-clock support.

Service contracts, which in the US typically cost about 15 per cent of the notebook's purchase price per year, are one option available to corporate purchasers, according to one IT manger, Bruce Nash. But although this may take care of hardware problems, companies that use specially developed software or information systems may still have system-support issues ahead of them.

Another IT manager, Robert Plan, is handling hardware support in a somewhat novel way. The company standardises on a limited number of notebook models and purchases 10 to 15 per cent more machines than it puts to use, keeping the extras as replacements for notebooks that stop working.

"We keep a spare or spares available so that we can do a quick exchange with the user," Nash said. In the company's remote offices, "we will probably overnight the unit. If the user is local, we can exchange it within a few hours."

After swapping out the notebooks, the disabled notebook is repaired, usually under the manufacturer's warranty. Over the long term, Nash expects this support approach to be more cost-effective than purchasing a service contract because the company pays the 10 to 15 per cent fee only once, rather than annually.

Perhaps the largest problem with swapping notebooks or, indeed, with managing any notebook computer, is the loss of data - much of which can be highly sensitive for the corporation - on the notebook's hard drive. If a unit is swapped or sent away for service, the data travels with the com-puter. If the notebook is not returned to the user, or if the hard drive was the component that failed, all of the user's data will be lost. Users say frequent replication of data on a safe server is an important aspect of notebook management.

Who's the lucky one?

With support costs shifting according to function, IT managers need to decide who gets a notebook. At some companies, the question of a notebook or desktop computer is left to the employee as an "either/or" decision. Office-furniture company Lindsay-Ferrari has adopted a one-computer policy. "For sales and other functions, the benefits of notebook portability are significantly higher than the added cost of ownership," one company official says. In addition to the use of notebooks for field sales and product presentations, Lindsay-Ferrari allows employees "whose primary workplace is the office, but who wish to work after hours or who may occasionally travel", to also use notebook computers.

These employees can have a notebook com-puter or desktop computer "but never both," the official added.

Technology's pace also requires managers to actively manage the notebook fleet. For Wall Data, a software developer, a cascade program is in the works.

According to Brad Julum, purchasing supervisor at Wall Data, "part of asset management is determining a cascade program". Such a program identifies which employees require frequent upgrades to state-of-the-art machines, and traces the path of older notebooks through the company.

Julum notes that "although a notebook may be obsolete for its original intended user, more than 90 per cent of the time we can find another user for it within the company, either a lower-end corporate user or in a test lab".

Good networked citizens

One more factor to consider is how to connect the mobile user to the office network. This may be as simple as an Internet connection through a corporate firewall, using a local dial-up Internet service provider for the connection. But depending on the company's security requirements, connection may require travel to a branch facility with a secure connection to other company sites or, in the most remote areas, might even involve satellite transmission of data.

In the office, connection to the corporate network is also taking a number of directions. The primary choices are a CardBUS Ethernet adapter, a port replicator, or a docking station.

For many companies, the decision to lease, instead of buy, the notebooks may be very attractive. For one thing, a lease with a life of 18 to 24 months means returning a notebook that is nearing the end of its practical life to the leasing company.

Another attractive element about leasing is that a department may be more readily able to authorise the commitment to the monthly cost of leasing than it would be to the much larger, one time, capital expenditure to purchase the notebook.

The enterprise may be headed for more notebooks, but it is IT managers' ability to resolve these thorny issues that will keep the notebook's future bright.

Tomorrow's notebooks may close the desktop gapThe increase in notebook sales has been fuelled by an ongoing stream of technical improvements that are making the notebook an irresistibly attractive desktop replacement. Improvements in notebooks' design, upgradability, and a move towards additional notebook-related standards will make the notebooks of the next year or two even more attractive as desktop replacements.

This year's notebook computer sports a number of improvements - some visible, some not so obvious. In terms of performance, for example, CPUs have caught up with desktops. An IT manager can get the same performance out of both a desktop with a Pentium 200MHz or 233MHz MMX CPU and a notebook. The argument that notebooks take a back seat to desktops, with respect to performance, has lost its factual basis - at least this year.

The new Tillamook processor, which began shipping early this year, uses considerably less power than its 3.3-volt predecessor. What this means is that the traveller can carry a smaller battery while getting more useful hours from a full charge than was possible with last year's CPU.

Today, USB devices are just beginning to come onto the market. Over the long term, USB drives and peripherals will be equally at home on the desktop or connected to a notebook.

USB: here to stay

The CardBus is a hidden technology that provides for considerably higher data transfer rates than the old PCMCIA standard. A new CPU module closely related to the Pentium II, which is commonly referred to as a Mobile Module, comes installed on a card that slides into a modular socket on the notebook's motherboard.

In theory, a company may also be able to upgrade its notebooks by installing a new and faster processor into a notebook that uses the Mobile Module.

However, the theory may not apply. According to Scott Mueller, an author of books on upgrading PCs, making such an upgrade may cause more problems than passing down the older machine and buying one with a newer processor.

The thermal characteristics of each processor may change from module to module (in other words, a 300MHz module may produce more heat than a 233MHz module), and the thermal differences may exceed the notebook's design "envelope", Mueller said. In addition, even when the form factor may be the same, there may be other differences between modules that make the interchange of modules impractical if not impossible.

FireWire, also known as the IEEE 1394 specification, will also make its way onto the notebook computer, providing very high-speed connections to a network or to compatible peripheral devices. With USB and FireWire, the historic notebook bottleneck should become a thing of the past. A standard docking port specification is also being developed.

$10,000 notebook payoff

Annual Salary

Number of hours per week for payoff in one year$40,000 10.0$60,000 6.7$80,000 5.0$100,000 4.0Source: Dataquest

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