2003 Tech Buying Guide

Market Report

Businesses are sinking their thinning tech dollars into desktop and PC replacement first and foremost. Laptops are enjoying particularly brisk sales, with the number of units shipped during the third quarter of 2002 increasing 18% over third-quarter 2001 figures, according to market researchers at International Data Corp.

Prices continue to fall. A well-equipped, businessworthy laptop such as the Toshiba shown below has a street price of about $1,500 -- a 50% reduction from three years ago. Despite this favorable turn of events, you need to account for this technology expense. While PCs which meet certain IRS guidelines can be written off in one year, a computer is generally depreciated over a five-year period -- longer than its likely lifespan, especially when discussing laptops. When allocating dollars, figure on a three- to four-year lifespan, says Keith Waryas, an IDC research manager. He says this is more typical for small- to medium-size businesses.

For business users, the principal dilemma remains portability versus functionality: "There are tradeoffs. Ultraportables [typically 4 pounds or less] are superlightweight, but don't have any drives," says Waryas.

Toshiba's Satellite 2435-S255 [$1,700 base price; shop toshiba.com] comes with a 2.4GHz Pentium 4 CPU, 15-inch display, and combo DVD/CD drive -- this provides your shop with more than adequate insurance against obsolescence for at least two years.

Sure, the Apple PowerBook G4's [$3,299 and up; www.apple.com] 17-inch display is the largest in notebook history, and its keyboard is backlit. But forget using it comfortably in coach. Think of it as a superior desktop PC alternative for the casual traveler.

51% of Inc.com poll respondents figure they'll keep their laptops "up to two years."*

It's true, Dell's powerful Pentium 4M-based, 6.5-pound Inspiron 8500 [$2,300; www.dell.com] is a little portly. But all is forgiven after viewing the expansive 10- by 16-inch rectangular display -- a boon to nomadic PowerPoint freaks.

Sony's VAIO PCG-GRV680 [$2,500; www.sonystyle.com] will appeal to your inner film director -- even if your magnum opus is a video tour of your new manufacturing plant. Its 2.6GHz Pentium 4 processor, 16-inch display, and multi-format, rewriteable DVD make it a portable video editing studio. Bring in video from your camera via the fast iLink port, edit on screen, and burn onto a DVD. That's a wrap.

What to Ask

  • How much do i travel?
  • What features can I "lose" for portability?
  • Do I need a big screen?
  • Will I find more essential software on a Mac or PC?
  • Should I buy extra tech support?
  • How long does one battery charge last?

Case In Point

Noel Lee
"Head Monster"
Monster Cable

THE NEED: Monster Cable is appearance-conscious. The sales force of this consumer-electronics accessory manufacturer markets equipment to retailers, studios, and musicians. Salespeople make frequent presentations to potential customers using many types of applications, from PowerPoint and PhotoShop to MP3 files, says Noel Lee, self-described "Head Monster" at his Brisbane, Calif., company. "My desktop system is really just backup," he explains.

THE SOLUTION: An Apple PowerBook G4. "We've been Mac users right from the start and carried original Macs around in bags to use even when they were not portable."

FEATURES CONSIDERED: Lee was determined "not to be overwhelmed by the speed of a computer. It's much more how well you are using it. Speed is overrated, but simplicity is crucial." A light weight and a large, easily viewed screen counted, too.

A LITTLE HINDSIGHT: He would like to see more products on the Mac platform. "Also, I've learned to deal with [inadequate] battery life, but I don't like it," says Lee. And while the Mac is plenty fast enough for Lee's needs, it's "almost as if it has two chips and two operating systems," he explains, characterizing its uneven performance. While Lee expects to stick with the Mac platform, he notes, "I'm not anti-PC and when it comes to laptops, productivity is productivity."

JUSTIFYING THE COST: "You may spend $3,500 to $4,000 on a PowerBook compared with $1,000 for a PC, but you have to look at the productivity increase over the lifespan of the unit, and that far outweighs the higher price," says Lee.

DON'T FORGET TO ASK: How long will it keep going and going? "Since we're always pushing the amount of memory, we push at the limit of battery life," says Lee.

... But are Tablets the Write Stuff?

It's easy to be seduced by tablet PCs.Their sleek, decidedly nongeek designs leave most other laptops in the dust. But with market-watcher Dataquest projecting a meager 1% share of the notebook market for these upstarts in 2003, is there something not readily apparent here?

"Yes," says Matt Sargent, director of research at market-intelligence company ARS, Inc. "The keyboard is still the preeminent input device. Sure, PDAs can work with a stylus, but they're not about content creation," he adds. On the face of it, tablets doubling as conventional notebooks with built-in keyboards, such as the inexpensive HP Compaq Tablet PC TC1000 [$1,700; shopping.hp.com], would seem to offer the best of both worlds. (Depending on how you pivot and flip its screen, you can either type or jot.) However, Sargent thinks otherwise: "It appeals to a very narrow band of vertical users. You can get an equal performance Compaq [conventional] notebook for much less."

Not everyone is as pessimistic about the tablet PC. A.J. Girth, technology spokesman at retailer Computer Discount Warehouse [ www.cdw.com], says that tablet PCs are accounting for roughly half of his company's ultralight (less than 4.5 pounds) PC sales. "It has particular use in medical and factory-floor environments," says Girth, because these tend to be intensive note-taking environments.

On that point, Sargent agrees. "The tablet makes sense for those with very vertical needs -- medical companies, insurance adjusters, form fillers." But they're not going to be using standard Windows software to do those things, adds Sargent.

Microsoft is aggressively encouraging tablet software development [see tabletpcdeveloper.com]. Still, don't expect a full range of releases for at least the next year or two.

*Results from "What's Your Technology Plan," an Inc.com technology strategies poll conducted between February 11 and 21, 2003.

2003 Tech Buying Guide
Cell Phones
Wi-Fi Networks
Digital Cameras
Videoconferencing Setups
Shopping Tips

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