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What's new in computers.

With prices low and technology high, now's the best time to invest in new high-power equipment.

If ever there was a time to upgrade computers, it's now.

Not only do today's machines perform with record power and speed, but their prices have been cut ... and cut ... and cut again as recession-burdened manufacturers try to stimulate sluggish sales.

The good news for CPAs in companies and accounting firms is the recession has slowed the introduction of more advanced computer technology, and a result some of the best buys are for the top-of-the-line present technology - 386 and 486 personal computers (for a description of what these numbers mean, see the sidebar, page 53). Even Compaq and IBM, the two giant computer makers that had resisted price concessions as a marketing tactic, trimmed prices to meet the competition.

Some accountants are using this opportunity to trade their old 286 and their even older 8088 computers for 386 machines. When high power is critical - such as when a computer controls a network - they are turning to 486 designs.

In addition, bargain prices are convincing some firms that computer sharing among employees is no longer economical; they are providing a computer or a terminal for practically every employee.


In considering new computers, CPAs would be wise not to skimp on random-access memory (RAM). Memory size is the key factor in whether and how well some applications can be run. Prices for memory have dropped so sharply it's actually economical to buy more RAM than a user currently needs. That's because any excess memory certainly will be used eventually and installing extra RAM at the outset is more convenient and cheaper than adding it later. Some consultants advise clients to figure out what current memory need is and double it. Computers that run Windows, for example, need a minimum of 2 megabytes (Mb) of RAM, but they run much better with at least 4Mb and even better yet with 8Mb or 16Mb.

Buy for cache (pronounced cash). There's another reason to buy extra RAM. One of the easiest ways to spend up almost any computer - by 50% or more - is to add an inexpensive cache program. Cache is a technique for turning a portion of RAM into a data-storage buffer; the cache program identifies the most frequently used data, storing as much as it can in the buffer. And since data stored in RAM are almost instantly available - because the computer does not have to access it from the relatively slow hard disk - an application that uses that data proceeds at blinding speed.

Although some computers are sold with built-in caches, they can be added to any machines with sufficient RAM. Software utilities such as Norton Utilities, PC Tools and Super PC-Kwik provide easy-to-install cache programs.

Hard bargains. Accountants also should not skimp on hard-disk drives - the component that stores data permanently. Like RAM, prices of hard disks have dropped sharply and it's far cheaper to buy a larger-than-needed drive initially than to replace it later. A prudent buyer will order a drive with at least double or even quadruple current needs.

Crunch it. Another way to get more hard-disk storage space is to compress the data already there. Several software programs squeeze both application programs and data files to about half size. Thus, a 100Mb hard disk containing compressed data in effect is doubled in size to a 200Mb storage medium.

Many accountants may balk at data compressing because they remember the old "data-zipping" programs. Although those programs could squeeze files down as small as the new programs, they were slow. And that's because, if users wanted to compress files, they first had to stop whatever they were doing and call up the compressing program to do its job. Then when the compressed files were needed, they again had to repeat the process to "unzip" the files.

The new data-compressing programs do their job "on the fly" - without leaving whatever application programs they are in. If a compressed file is called, the new program automatically uncompresses it and delivers it ready for use. The action all occurs in the background. When the file is done, the program reverses the procedure, sending the shrunken files back to the hard disk. The action is so fast most users hardly notice the slight delay.

But the user who wants to shorten even that slight delay can add an inexpensive plug-in component, the Stacker AT/16 made by Stac Electronics.

Swappable components. One of the concerns of computer users is that today's technology will quickly obsolesce. Several computer makers are dressing this valid concern by designing machines that can be upgraded simply by replacing outmoded components with new ones. Although the swap is not quite as easy as changing a light bulb, any do-it-yourselfer can accomplish the job with a minimum of tools and minimal instructions in a few minutes.


While desktop computer sales remain in the doldrums, laptops are setting new records, in sales, application power and speed. Accountants are discovering today's laptops can do nearly anything a desktop machine can do - but they're portable. In fact, some CPAs are talking about eventually replacing most of their office's desktop models with portables.

This year the big laptop technical leap is color screens. However, prices for color models are still high (about $5,000) and screen readability doesn't match a good desktop's. But since most laptops weigh no more than seven pounds, can be tucked into a briefcase and can be used at 41,000 feet or in a hotel room, that inconvenience is acceptable to many.

Making them even more useful are these recent enhancements:

* Software and cable components that link laptops desktops. They make the transfer of data easy and fast. Previously, users had to swap floppy disks from one machine to another to transfer data - a time-consuming process often requiring many disks. One of the most popular laptop-desktop links, using software and a cable, is a product called Laplink.

* Removable hard disks, which are interchangeable between desktops and laptops. Some CPA firms maintain libraries of removable hard disks, one for each client. That way an accountant can load a client's data into the computer just by plugging in the hard disk.

* New rechargeable batteries and power-conserving circuits and software that extend the working time of laptops from about three hours to up to six hours. Also, recharge speed has been accelerated. One model can be fully recharged in about two hours; previously, an overnight charge was needed to return a laptop's battery to full strength.

* A "deskstation" that marries desktops and laptops. The deskstation is a uniquely designed desktop customer into which a laptop can be nested. When they are snapped together, they can exchange data; when they are unplugged, they work independently. In a typical situation, a CPA just returning from a trip plugs the laptop into a deskstation and downloads all the data. Conversely, before visiting a client, files can be uploaded from the desktop to the mated laptop. Toshiba and Epson recently introduced such nested compatibles.


Before buying a laptop, CPAs should consider these advisories:

* If the laptop will be used for heavy number-crunching and other power applications, it's best to buy a 386 machine rather than the soon-to-be-obsolete 286. However, if it's to be used primarily to write reports and run an occasional spreadsheet (assuming speed is not important), the 286 is the much better buy because dealers are trying to unload them and prices are very low.

* The most important component of a laptop, from the user's perspective, is the screen. Many of the early designs produced nearly unreadable, faded-green images. The most readable screens are paper white and can handle graphics; if the machine is rated as having a "VGA" screen, then it can handle graphics. VGA or not, potential, buyers should check the screen in bright and dim ambient light before making a decision.

* Just because a laptop is light in weight, doesn't mean it should be light in terms of data storage. Consider this: A typical laptop loaded with WordPerfect, Excel and Windows uses more than 15Mb of hard-disk space just for those applications. For a few hundred dollars it's worth buying the largest hard drive available.

* The lighter the machine the better. Seven pounds - the weight of a typical laptop - may seem light when hefted in a showroom, but when it must be carried through air terminals along with a briefcase and luggage, its dead weight feels heftier.


The most serious error committed by computer users is failure to back up data. Most users back up their hard disks to floppy disks, which is fine for small backups. However, in an office with hundreds or thousands of files, handling a huge stack of floppies is so inconvenient that even the most dedicated backup supporters soon lose their commitment and either back up hap-hazardly or not at all.

New alternative solutions:

* Minicassette tape systems. The drives that run such tapes are similar to small home tape players. They cost as little as $200 and can copy as much as 250Mb on a cassette the size of a deck of playing cards. That is sufficient storage for a small company or CPA office.

* Digital audio tape (DAT) systems. These more advanced tape drivers store far more data - measured in gigabytes (billions of bytes). Prices range between $1,500 and $2,000.

* Bernoulli drives. These ultrareliable systems have many of the advantages of conventional floppy drives. They are fast and easily portable; because they work like floppies, it's possible to swap large blocks of data (up to 90Mb) between computers. But unlike floppies, they are practically impervious to damage and data loss if the drivers are jarred or lose electric power. A Bernoulli drive costs about $1,100; each floppy cartridge (with three disks) costs about $200.

* Mirroring. This technique uses two hard-disk drives; when data are stored, they go to both. Thus, no separate backup is necessary. If one drive fails, an exact duplicate is available on the other. The price of a mirroring system is about $2,500.

* Magneto-optical (MO) disk drives. This brand-new technology grew out of music compact disk (CD) engineering. Unlike CDs, MOs can be erased and rerecorded, so they are excellent storage devices. A 3 1/2-inch MO can store as much as 128Mb; prices start at under $2,000. The next size up, 5 1/4 inch, can store 1 gigabyte; prices start at about $4,000.


Interest in wireless networks is growing. While usually more expensive than conventional wired systems, such networks provide enormous bottom-line savings because there are no wires or cables to install.

The new systems use one of two technologies to pass signals between computers: radio transmission or line-of-sight infrared beams. Because there is no physical connection, computers on the network can be moved at will. This is especially attractive for laptop computer users: They can be doubly mobile - free of wall plugs and network wires.

But the current designs of wireless networks have some drawbacks. They tend to be slower than wired networks, although transmission rates are improving; the computers in a wireless network cannot be too far away from each other (maximum distances are about 150 feet); and most wireless models require the interconnected computers to be on the same floor, with no solid wall separations.

So far, CPAs in firms and businesses generally are taking a wait-and-see attitude to wireless networks. Right now the technical disadvantages, plus their lack of a proven track record, seem to outweigh the advantages.


Another technology to watch is the portable pen-based computer - a slate-like screen addressed not by typing, but by writing with an electronic pen. More than a dozen products reached the market in the past few months and more are on the way. United Parcel Services drivers are already using such devices, designed like clipboards, for recording shipment data.

Some of the latest designs can read carefully printed handwriting with reasonable accuracy, translating them into computer type on the screen. Editing is performed by touching first a target word or number with the pen and then a menu that offers a variety of commands: move, delete, copy, etc. Navigating a pen is a lot easier than developing dexterity with cursor keys or a computer mouse.

Later this year a pen-based spreadsheet program is scheduled to be introduced; if it works as well as the manufacturer claims, it will make spreadsheet exercises as convenient as jotting calculations on the back of an envelope - but with full computer spreadsheet power.

While portable pen-based computers are still relatively primitive, accountants are beginning to look at the technology, considering places it may make their work more efficient. One immediate potential application is by auditors who must deal with huge checklists, often examining inventories in remote locations.


The speed at which new technology is being converted into new products may leave accountants, among others, awed, if not a bit confused. An overwhelming danger of this rapid turnover is the notion, expressed by some users, that they need the latest technology and they can't work with obsolete equipment. That sort of thinking can be very expensive if an office tries to keep apace of each major technological upgrade. While there's no doubt that new and more powerful computers will be introduced in the years to come, the current batch of 386s and 486s, available at bargain prices, are quite adequate for most applications and can be long-term workhorses.


* NOW IS THE TIME to upgrade computers. Prices are low and today's machines perform with record power and speed.

* CPAs WOULD BE wise not to skimp on random-access memory (RAM) or the size of hard-disk drives. Memory size is the key factor in whether some applications can be run. The rule of thumb is install at least twice what will be needed immediately.

* NEW DATA COMPRESSION programs are one way to effectively double computers' data-storage capacities.

* SOME COMPUTERS are being designed with swappable components, allowing the user to unplug obsolete components and replace them with the latest technology.

* LAPTOPS ARE revolutionizing the way people use computers. Some CPAs are even considering eventually replacing most of their desktop models with portables.

* THIS YEAR the big laptop improvement is color screens. Other improvements include software and cable components that make the transfer of data easy and fast; removable hard disks; fast rechargeable batteries and power-conserving circuits and software that extend the working time of laptops.

* NEW BACKUP techniques also are available: minicassette and digital audio tape systems, Bernoulli drives, mirroring and magneto-optical disk drives.

* INTEREST IS HIGH in wireless networks and pen-based computers, but most CPAs are taking a wait-and-see attitude toward these new technologies.


The first popular personal computer was built around a microcircuit whose production code was 8088. Many of those machines, with XT and AT suffixes, are still purring away in many offices - reliably, accurately, but very slowly.

In the mid-1980s the industry introduced a circuit that was much faster and more powerful than the 8088 - the 80286. In time, references to the first two digits of the code were dropped, and it became just the 286. Almost immediately thereafter the 80386 was introduced, a circuit so superior to the 286 that most buyers ignored 286 machines. As a result, many 286s are still in stock, selling at bargain prices.

The 386 comes in two versions: a 386SX and 386DX. The SX is the slightly less powerful and cheaper of the two. When referring to the full-power 386DX, the suffix often is omitted.

Last year the 486 was introduced - again with the SX and DX suffixes. The 486SX probably is not an economical buy. Its speed advantage over the 386DX is too small to be worth the premium. If high performance is the goal, the full-strength 486DX, rather than the 486SX, is the clear choice.

What's next? The 586 will be introduced within the next year and there's no doubt that further?86s are already on the drawing board.



Computer technology continues to race along like a juggernaut, creating new opportunities for making accountant's work more efficient and effective. Here are some of the emerging technologies:

* Flash memories. These new circuits, built into credit card-sized memory cards, will make it possible to build a powerful laptop computer costing about $200, weighing less than two pounds and able to run on batteries for as long as 200 hours. Flash memories are tiny circuits used for memory storage. Unlike hard-disk drives, they have no moving parts, weigh just a few ounces, consume little electricity and are crash-proof.

High prices and limited memory size are restricting their use to unique applications. Once those two hurdles are overcome - and there seems little doubt of that - they probably will make hard drives obsolete.

* Parallel or distributed processing. This is a method of linking several computers and distributing a task for them to work on in their "free" time.

Do computers really have free time? Consider this: During tax time, accountant's computers usually are running at top speed, but that is a relative term. During a typical workday, even busy computers actually are computing only a tiny fraction of the time. For example, a computer is idle for the fractions of seconds between a typist's key strokes and while waiting for commands.

With new parallel-processing programs, a large problem is broken into segments and the parts are sent to machines with free time. When the job is done, the program assembles the answer and transmits it to the computer that initiated the computation. Individual terminal users wouldn't know whether a calculation was done on their computers or was shared by several other machines in the office. Either way, the result is a much more efficient use of computers.

Right now the technique is in the laboratory stage; it's unclear how quickly it will be introduced to the market.

* Disk arrays. Most computers have one hard disk; since it is vulnerable to failure, prudent users back up data regularly. Soon to be introduced to the market is a data-storage device that uses an array of hard disks for simultaneous storage. If one or even two fail, others in the array stand ready to take their place with no loss of data. Such a device typically would be used for a large network in which backups are hard to perform.
COPYRIGHT 1992 American Institute of CPA's
No portion of this article can be reproduced without the express written permission from the copyright holder.
Copyright 1992, Gale Group. All rights reserved. Gale Group is a Thomson Corporation Company.

Article Details
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Title Annotation:includes related articles; accounting
Author:Zarowin, Stanley
Publication:Journal of Accountancy
Date:Apr 1, 1992
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