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CD-ROM and multimedia: the tax professional's hardware planning guide.

Tax professionals installing new computer systems or updating existing hardware should consider the importance and utility of multimedia (i.e., sound, pictures and graphics) systems. The purpose of this article is to provide the necessary hardware overview for tax professionals to make informed decisions as they upgrade or purchase new multimedia systems. Information will be provided on the many ways to connect compact disc-read only memory (CD-ROM) to a desktop or laptop personal computer (PC), key decisions to be made before purchasing a CD-ROM drive, and the type of monitor, speakers and data bus needed. Recordable CD-ROMs are becoming more widely available. Even if a practitioner does not want to invest in a full-fledged multimedia system, hardware currently purchased should meet minimum standards so that future upgrades and system expansions can accommodate a multimedia system.

Virtually all the tax research vendors (e.g., CCH, RIA, Matthew Bender) now have CD-ROM products. Today, tax professionals can find on CD-ROM interactive tax planning or training software, Federal, state and local tax forms, the AICPA NAARS database, financial information, U.S. business and residential phone numbers and U.S. street maps. The Bureau of the Census offers population, housing and demographic data.

The State of CD-ROM Software

Today, CD-ROM software includes tax research-based products that require search software; some of the software is user-friendly and may soon be available in Windows interfaces. Most offer the ability to search and save by project or client name, and allow cutting and pasting to a clipboard, saving to a word processor format or printing segments to disk. Most are tied in with an on-line service (either the vendor's own or that of a specialty vendor) for daily update information. This series of products is a prime candidate for multimedia search and retrieval interactions. The following is a preview of a small CPA practice office.

Assume that the practitioner has access to a six-disc reader or is on a network with six drives daisy-chained(1) together at the server. Labeling these drives E-J, the E and F drives have tax preparation, forms and planning software, while drive G has the practitioner's favorite tax research product, and the remaining three drives have the archival discs with cases, rulings, etc. Tax returns are prepared from data taken from the client interview form (or interview floppy disk). As the return is being prepared, a dialog box pops up from the planning CD-ROM and raises points for future discussion with the client. The questions and proposed answers are saved and printed along with the prepared tax return. If, during return preparation, an unfamiliar form is encountered or a question arises as to why the software took a particular approach on a form, a copy of the form and its instructions can be printed. There may also be access to help in the form of video clip and/or sound file explanations.

If further research is needed, the function key brings up the research software and a key word search can be implemented. All search results are saved and printed with the completed tax return. Archival discs allow for the retrieval of "significant authority" (e.g., the Code and regulations) to aid in decisionmaking. An on-line interface (with a modem) covers time periods before and after the stamping of the archival discs. Some of this technology is available right now, while some is imminent.

Archival CD-ROM software primarily contains cases, rulings, procedures, regulations, general counsel memoranda and actions on decisions, and is usually updated quarterly. Most rchival data discs (e.g., Board of Tax Appeals cases) have to be updated only when the search software is updated. These services may also be tied to an on-line service for current updates during the key-word search process. This type of tax CD-ROM product does not seem to be suited to multimedia enhancement.

However, tax planning and preparation software appear to be excellent environments for the use of graphics, animation, sound clips and other multimedia enhancements. Voice, graphics, animation and realtime interaction by the user would make the products much more effortless and fun to use. Voice help files would make the user more comfortable with new tax law changes every year.

Voice help files would also aid in using instructions to forms. The user could point to a line on a little-used form and the computer would explain the information that needs to be included on that line. Or, the user could retrieve a form and ask for instructions on how to prepare it, or for any new law changes affecting the form.

Making the Connection

There are at least three ways to connect a CD-ROM drive to a PC. Previously, the connection was made by placing a SCSI card in an open slot in the PC, resulting in a direct bus connection to the PC motherboard. An external drive could be connected via an external data cable; an internal drive could be connected via an internal ribbon cable connected to the SCSI card (much like a hard drive is connected to the controller card in the PC). The SCSI-2 interface is now the standard (a SCSI-3 specification is on the horizon), and is supposed to be more compatible across a greater variety of drives and computers. Users of the original SCSI interface had reported interconnect problems. One of the more valuable aspects of the SCSI bus interface was supposed to be the ability to daisy-chain up to seven devices, with the SCSI-2 card at the first position. Now, all devices must be SCSI-2 compatible.

The new SCSI-2 interface allows the interconnection of peripherals without the earlier problems. As is discussed below, many PC professionals suggest the use of a separate SCSI-2 card for the PC instead of the SCSI-2 interface provided on some sound cards. However, if the PC has few bus slots on its motherboard, the SCSI-2 provided on the sound card may have to be used. Some CD-ROM and sound card manufacturers provide proprietary interface boards for their drives; most PC professionals suggest staying away from such boards.

Tax professionals who want the flexibility to port the CD-ROM drive from one machine to another (e.g., for use with laptop, notebook or other protable PCs) have at least two options. One is the parallel port connection. A parallel port drive without a disc caddy is used; the disc is placed in the drive's slide-out drawer. Although caddies cost about $7 each, they provide protection from scratches, soiled fingers and dust (some packaged software include caddies). The drive connects directly to the parallel port via a data cable, and has a parallel port on its rear to connect a printer. With a multimedia PC level [2.sup.2] (MPC-2) compliant PC (i.e., a 486SX), this drive meets the MPC-2 standard of a 300 kilobyte (K)/sec. data transfer rate (DTR).

Another possibility for use with a parallel port is the SCSI-2 adapter, for which two speeds are available. The faster speed is a bidirectional model, but the computer must have a bidirectional printer port to use it. Further, the top transmission speed for the parallel port is lower than the bidirectional model speed, so the MPC-2 standard data transfer rate is not met.

The final possibility for connection of a CD-ROM drive is via a Personal Computer Memory Card International Association (PCMCIA) slot. This type of slot, usually found on notebook computers, complies with the PCMCIA's specifications. The PCMCIA has denoted three card size specifications--Type I, II and III; the larger the number, the thicker the card (the cards are about the length and width of a credit card). A Type III slot will accept one Type III card, two Type II cards or one Type II and one Type I card. Many computer devices are available on these cards, such as hard drives (over 100 megabytes (MB) on a Type III card), modems (Type II cards), various types of memory (e.g., random access memory (RAM), ROM and flash memory), local area network connectors and SCSI-2 interfaces (Type II cards). For example, a user could plug a 68-pin Type II SCSI-2 card into a Type III slot on a notebook and plug a 14,400-baud modem into the remaining portion of the Type III slot. The SCSI-2 provides a connector for the CD-ROM drive and the modem would provide the modular jack for the telephone line. The tax professional could stay current with on-line updates, e-mail or on-line services, and do unlimited research on CD-ROM.

The PCMCIA slots are also available to fit in a 5 1/4[inches] or 3 1/2[inches] drive bay for a desktop system. If a drive bay is not available, a separate box with power supply is available to house the PCMCIA slots. This setup allows the user to interchange the PCMCIA cards between his notebook and desktop PCs.

Some notebook manufacturers offer SCSI-2 ports on their machines, others offer built-in CD-ROM drives and still others offer a docking station (a box in which a notebook PC sits in and plugs into to provide a driect hookup to the motherboard (and motherboard slots)). The docking station has a built-in SCSI-2 interface as part of the package. Finally, Ethernet and SCSI-2 can be purchased on a single chip.

Buzz Words

The specifications for CD-ROM drives are as follows. Originally, the MPC-1 standard for the CD-ROM drive included a seek time of 1000 milliseconds (ms) (most hard drives today are in the under-20 ms range) and a sustained DTR of 150K/sec. In 1993, MPC-2 emerged, with a CD-ROM requirement of a maximum seek time of 400 ms and a sustained DTR of 300K/sec. (referred to as "double-spin drives," because they double the earlier standard). A number of drives now available have a seek time of just over 200 ms; some even boast a seek time of 40 ms with the use of a 256K on-drive disk cache (data buffer) and the Smart-Drive utility included with DOS 6.2.

At least two vendors offer a "quadraspin" drive that spins at a 600K/sec. DTR. In addition, the drives use six-disc magazines, much like home audio players. These drives are available in single (six discs) or triple (18 discs) magazine players and are under $1,500 and $2,500, respectively. Each disc is configured as a drive with its own drive letter. One hundred-and 200-disc jukeboxes are also available (without drive letters). Third-party vendors offer software to assist in these types of systems. Sixty-five gigabytes (GB) (i.e., 65,000MB) of information can be stored on a 100-disc jukebox. A large tax practice could put its entire library on a network accessible from anyone's office. Some of the circuit courts have daisy-chained drives to allow easy network access to tax research media via a desktop PC in a judge's office. This technique allows 10 discs to always be loaded and reduces disc swap time. Different users on a network can access different discs at the same time (due to the multiple drives).

Other specifications to look for include multisession readability, Kodak Photo CD readability and CD-ROM XA (extended architecture). A CD-ROM disc should be able to read from any session recorded on a disc (older drives fail this standard; multisession readability did not become popular until Kodak started putting 35mm film on CD-ROM). Photo CD-ROM drives have to be multisession in order to read photo CDs. Other types of multisession recording on a CD-ROM may include data, graphics, sound and video in different sessions.

CD-ROM XA is a specification that provides guidelines for audio compression and allows the drive to read discs that have the audio, video and other digital data interleaved. The need for such a drive will increase as more CD-ROM XA software becomes available.

A disk cache of 256K is extremely important in lowering the average seek time; a buffer of this size is not hard to find. However, some drive manufacturers offer no cache; caveat emptor.

Finally, the buyer must decide whether the drive should be internal or external. An external drive should be portable; take it for a "test drive." The performance of the drive (i.e., drag on the central processing unit (CPU) when files are sought and recovered) is very important. A drive may look good on paper, but perform badly in actual use. Some double-spin drives outperform triple-spin drives in sustained data transfers.

Other Components of the Multimedia System

Before sound cards, speakers, monitors and video cards are discussed, the specifications of MPC-2 should be reviewed. The video requirement provides for a Super VGA display (640x480) capable of 64,000 colors. The audio standard requires an audio sound card capable of 16-bit digital sound (audio CD quality). There are no specifications for speakers or microphones. A hard disk drive should have at least 160MB of storage.

The specifications further require a minimum 80486SX processor running at a clock speed of 25 megahertz (MHz). The motherboard should contain at least 4MB RAM.

What kind of data bus is needed on the motherboard? One possibility is the Video Electronics Standards Association (VESA) Local Bus (VL-Bus). Instead of ordinary expansion slots on the motherboard, the VL-Bus allows a direct-to-the-CPU connection that quickens video transmission. The video card must be a VL-Bus card. Today, VESA is working on an updated local bus specification to compete with the Peripheral Component Interconnect (PCI). This faster local bus motherboard is supposed to outperform the VL-Bus motherboard and provide for much easier connection of computer peripherals. Both buses move data with 32-bit-wide data paths. PCI still must gain broader industry acceptance as a local data bus, but does appear to be easier to use to interconnect peripherals. Users of older systems without local data buses can use either VL-Bus or PCI.

Architecture of the motherboard is also very important. Generally, Industry Standard Architecture (ISA), Expanded Industry Standard Architecture (EISA) and Micro Channel Architecture (MCA) are available. MCA was promoted by IBM in many of its earlier machines, but is less desirable today. The ISA bus interface is only 16-bit, while the EISA is 32-bit, so that the latter is generally more desirable. EISA motherboards generally have at least two ISA expansion slots, to accommodate non-32-bit devices (e.g., modems, sound cards). Further, the ISA bus interface is only 16-bit, while the CPU is 32-bit, so that video and hard drive speeds are bottlenecked. As a result, the VL-Bus and PCI were designed to overcome problems with the ISA architecture. If the buyer can afford an EISA motherboard, there is no need for a PCI or VL-Bus, because the data interface and CPU are both 32-bit; thus, there is no need to go locally (directly) to the CPU. However, until more card devices are built in 32-bit format, the EISA boards still require ISA 16-bit slots that conform to VL-Bus or PCI, so they can run at 32 bits directly from the CPU.

Video capability encompasses two considerations: the monitor and the video card. For multimedia, the entry-level monitor is 17" with 1024x768 pixel resolution; the VL-Bus video card should be loaded with 2MB RAM. If the video card will support 1280x1024, all the better.

If full-motion video (as opposed to clips) is desired, it will not be inexpensive. One minute of uncompressed full-motion (30 frames/min.) video requires 270MB. Video processor boards compress and decompress the video signal so that up to 70 minutes of full-motion video may fit on one CD-ROM. Video clips (short versions), usually done with video capture boards, appear to be the most useful multimedia video use today.

Sound cards should include, at a minimu, a microphone input jack, RCA stereo speaker jacks (and/or headphone jack) and software for manipulating sound files. As stated above, a 16-bit (over an 8-bit) card is needed. If the card has an SCSI-2 interface, there is no need to use an expansion slot on the motherboard. Some cards may play and record only Windows WAV format files. More file flexibility should be required of the purchased sound card. Microphones, speakers, speech recognition software and digital signal processors are also popular options packaged with sound cards.

As for speakers, the problem is that sound cards come with only one watt of power that has to be amplified. Thus, for high amplification, a patch cord can be used to send the low-level sound signal from the sound card through a stereo system. Another choice is a set of amplified multimedia loudspeakers; some speakers provide up to 40 watts of power. Bass and treble controls, auto on/off, volume and sound-shaping are valuable features. Separate subwoofer systems use less desk space. Most speaker systems come with magnetic shielding that avoids erasing magnetic media when discs are placed on top of the speaker. The system speakers should be "auditioned" with the sounds most normally used.

Recordable CDs (CD-R)

A few short years ago, a project to acquire a CD-R could cost $75,000 or more. Now, a double-speed writer/playback CD-R, with recorder software and a SCSI interface, can be had for as little as $3,500. The recordable media (discs) are as little as $14 each (63-min. recording time) and $15 per disc for 74-min. format. The 74-min. disc holds 640MB of information, and the 63-minute disc holds 540MB of information.

The sky is the limit as to the tax practice uses of a CD-R. In-house CPE courses could be comprised of firm experts explaining technical issues on video clips (full-motion video at normal VGA resolution requires too much memory, even with compression/decompression). With the use of full-page scanners and optical character recognition software, much of the firm's paper records could be placed on one or more discs. At 250,000 pages per disc, storage space would be freed up. If the CD-R has multisession capability (i.e., it can record more than one session on the same disc), data could be added to the same disc each year, decreasing costs. Client presentations are ideal for integration of video, sound, graphics and data, but require a high volume of disc space that will be costly and difficult to transport.

A multisession CD-R drive would allow a tax preparer to copy current-year tax preparation files onto a client's CD-ROM. Each client could have a separate CD-ROM. Audio files can be added if oral explanation of complex issues is desired. Client annual reports may also be produced on CD-ROM.

Conclusion

As the acquisition of software increasingly requires the installation of many disks, the need for a basic CD-ROM drive system is readily seen. Tax preparation, research and forms software seems to be making a move to CD-ROM, sometimes as an integrated product. Printed tax research and preparation tools are extinct at some firms that have instead armed their staffs with network preparation, research and forms software.

Even if the firm is not ready to eliminate all printed tax tools, the need for multimedia-ready PCs is evident. If the firm is going to purchase or upgrade equipment, at least MPC-2 standards should be met. Although speakers, a sound card and a microphone may not be desirable today, a compliant video system, double-spin CD-ROM drive and at least an 80486 33MHz PC are required. This basic system will allow for the later addition of speakers, microphone, sound card, video capture board and additional RAM memory.

The future of CD-ROM (and multimedia) seems to be maximizing use of the technology. Efforts are still being made to record information with greater compression. Blue light lasers might allow the same CD-ROM disc used today to hold 2.5 times as much data (1.6GB per disc). Currently, CD-ROMs are recorded and read with infrared lasers. Sony has already created a blue-green laser able to work at room temperature.

Over time, computers have gotten more technical and more difficult to install and use. Even those who shun technology must be informed of the basics. Hopefully, the preceding discussion will ease the transition to multimedia.

(1)Daisy-chaining is the ability to connect one device to a PC small computer system interface (SCSI) card and connect a second device (e.g., another CD-ROM drive, hard drive, tape drive, magneto-optical drive, or combination) to the first.

(2)MPC-2 was developed by the Multimedia PC Marketing Council, a group formed in 1992 to establish MPC standards. An MPC-3 standard is reportedly in the works.
COPYRIGHT 1995 American Institute of CPA's
No portion of this article can be reproduced without the express written permission from the copyright holder.
Copyright 1995, Gale Group. All rights reserved. Gale Group is a Thomson Corporation Company.

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Author:Price, Charles E.
Publication:The Tax Adviser
Date:Sep 1, 1995
Words:3396
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