A PC can be a black hole for money. Once you buy your initial system, there are all sorts of add-ons you can get, not to mention shelves full of software to make it work and books to explain how to use it.
PC peripherals can add a lot to your productivity, but they can also make your machine more expensive and more complicated to use. Some, like a printer, modem and backup system, are all but vital. Other peripherals such as scanners, digital cameras, card readers and label printers may or may not have a place on your list of essentials.
Let’s start with the basics. Just about everyone needs a printer. Your decision is whether to go with a laser printer or an inkjet. Laser printers, in general, produce crisp black copies, but only the very expensive models can print in color.
Most inkjet printers can now give you reasonably crisp black text as well as color. Color might seem like a frivolous feature for a home office, but you’d be surprised at how handy it can be for report covers, for creating overhead transparencies or for adding emphasis to a written document. Good laser printers start at about $400. Inkjet printers start at about $200.
Most PCs these days come with a modem, but if you’re in the market for a new one, be sure it operates at 33.3 kilobytes per second or faster. You’ll also hear about 56-Kbs modems. There are two competing standards and it’s not yet clear which will win. Online services and Internet providers generally support one or neither of the standards, so before you invest in a 56-Kbs modem, see if you can find a service that supports it.
Backup systems aren’t as ubiquitous as modems and printers, but they should be. If you’ve ever had your hard disk die or just lost a critical file, you don’t need me to convince you.
Tape systems like the Colorado Memory 3.2-gigabyte T3000 (about $200 for the unit and $35 per tape) are economical ways to back up an entire hard disk. A tape costs about $34.95. It can take a few hours to back up an entire hard disk, but the tape is cheap and reliable.
Cartridge systems are much faster but more expensive per megabyte of storage. Iomega’s popular Zip Drives (about $150) store 100 megabytes per Zip disk. Iomega also makes a 1-gigabyte Jaz Drive ($400), which is about as fast as a hard disk. At $100 a cartridge, it’s an expensive backup system, but it’s very quick.
Since I did an initial backup of my data files, it takes me less than a minute a day to update my backup. Syquest, a pioneer in cartridge systems, competes with Iomega with its 230-MB ezflyer ($199) and SyJet 1.5-gigabyte ($500) removable disk system.
Speaking of backup, if the power fails while you’re working, you’ll lose anything you haven’t saved to disk. That’s why they make uninterruptible power supplies, which keep your equipment operating in a power failure. The under-$100 units, such as the Back UPS 200 from American Power Conversion Corp. (https://www.apcc.com) will keep the equipment running for six to 12 minutes--enough time to save your work and turn off the computer. These UPS systems also provide surge protection for your PC.
There are several types of scanners on the market, but before you pick one, consider whether you really need it. Scanners can be used to import graphics--including photos and drawings--or typed or printed documents that can then be turned into computer text by using optical character recognition (OCR) software.
If you think you’ll use a scanner on a regular basis, it’s probably worth the investment. But for occasional use, you may be better off going to Kinko’s or other service businesses where you can use their scanners for a modest fee and bring back your image on disk.
Optical character recognition sounds great, but it has its drawbacks. OCR software can be slow and it’s rarely 100% accurate--you’ll need to proofread and correct the documents. Plus, a lot of information is already in digital form. Rather than scan newspaper or magazine clippings, it’s probably easier to search for the article on the publisher’s Web site, where it will already be in electronic form.
If you need a scanner for high-quality images, you’ll want to spend about $400 for a high-resolution flatbed scanner such as the Hewlett-Packard ScanJet 5P or the Umax S6e. If you just want to capture an occasional photo, you can, for under $200, get a desktop photo scanner like the EasyPhoto Reader from Storm Software. The small device, which scans photos up to 5 by 7 inches, plugs into your PC’s parallel port or Mac serial port and comes with software to catalog and edit your photos. You wouldn’t use a scanner like this for a photo that will appear in a glossy brochure, but it’s fine for those you might want to post on a Web site or use in a handout.
For less than $200 you can also buy a compact sheet-fed scanner such as the black-and-white Visioneer PaperPort MX or the Umax PageOffice, both of which come with OCR and image-editing software. These gray-scale scanners can typically be used for news clippings, letters and even business cards.
To save desk space, Visioneer’s PaperPort ix integrates a black-and-white scanner into a standard keyboard. Umax also makes a color version of its PageOffice scanner. When buying a scanner, be aware of how it is installed. SCSI is great if you have a Mac or one of the rare PCs with an SCSI connector. If not, you’ll find installation much easier if you get a scanner that plugs into your PC’s parallel (printer) port.
If you collect lots of business cards, you could integrate all that information into a database by using the $149 Seiko Instruments Smart Business Card reader. This small device, which plugs into the serial port, is able to, in theory, scan a card in less than 15 seconds and insert the text into a database. I tried one and got varying results depending on the way the card was printed. Frankly, I find it almost as fast--and a lot less frustrating--to type in the information.
Seiko Instruments and CoStar make label printers that I do find useful. Seiko’s Smart Label Printer and CoStar’s LabelWriter XL Plus both print small black-and-white labels for envelopes, file folders, floppy disks and just about anything else that needs a label. Of course, you can print sheets of labels in a regular inkjet or label printer, but these devices print one label at a time. The units start at about $139, and a roll of 250 labels costs about $9.95.
Lawrence J. Magid can be reached via e-mail at email@example.com. His World Wide Web page is at https://www.larrysworld.com