Out-of-the-box is just the beginning for new federal PCs
- By Cynthia Morgan
- Sep 04, 1995
Most of the time, government PCs work properly from the first
power-on. But they'll probably see at least one upgrade before the first user lays a
finger on the keyboard, according to federal readers who answered GCN's exclusive survey
on PC reliability.
It's normal to customize a standard PC bundle; all but two respondents had added at
least one item to their orders. Extra memory topped the list, followed by network
interface cards, CD-ROM drives and fax modems. More than half substituted a larger hard
drive or added a second drive, sometimes a removable one.
The readers told us they've stopped planning buys for 486 PCs. Most will specify
Pentiums for their purchases this year.
"We're completely Pentium," said Bennett M. Brady of the Nuclear Regulatory
Commission. The PCs largely run office applications, he explained, but "software just
keeps demanding more and more, doesn't it?"
"We've about decided that from now on we'll buy only Pentiums," said Salvador
F. Lara, senior systems analyst at the Air Force Military Personnel Center, Randolph Air
Force Base, Texas.
GCN's survey showed that, on average, about 15 percent of new federal PCs were dead on
arrival or had problems requiring immediate repair. Often there was more than one bug.
"Our preinstalled software was incorrectly installed, and the Plug and Play options
didn't," one user noted.
"One in five PCs worked when it arrived," said H.F. Kiefer, a cost estimator
with the Army Corps of Engineers in Hoboken, N.J. "The motherboards crashed. We got
floating-point errors and lost memory chips."
Those surveyed considered systems from Dell Computer Corp., Gateway 2000 Inc., IBM
Corp. and Compaq Computer Corp. the most reliable. Although few bought Apple Macintosh
machines at work, many cited the Mac's ease of setup and infrequent failures.
"I'm embarrassed to admit it, but some of my best friends are Mac users,"
said Donald E. Reichert, program manager for the Army's drug and alcohol program in
Washington. "I guess when you're the only company that makes a [particular] computer,
you make sure everything fits."
Craig Buma, an air traffic control specialist with the Federal Aviation
Administration's Systems Requirements Branch, has a Mac at home and a Windows machine at
work. "You pull [a Mac] out of the box, plug it in and that's it," he said.
Factory-installed PC bundles gave the greatest satisfaction out of the box.
Do-it-yourself hardware installations, especially if ordered after initial system
purchase, brought the biggest headaches.
"The software was preloaded, but the tape drives weren't," wrote Russ
Battaglia, a budget officer with the Air Force Reserve Finance Office. "We had
conflicting configuration statements and hours of grief."
A NASA LAN administrator said, "Headquarters used to tell us it cost more to buy
plug-and-go PCs, but once they looked at the on-site costs, [they agreed] bundled systems
definitely were cheaper."
On the other hand, bundles can be a nuisance for high-end users of computer-aided
design, geographic information systems and advanced data manipulation tools. They often
find what's built into the PC too slow or inefficient.
"We use a lot of workstation-level devices like accelerated graphics and really
fast disk I/O that you can't find on these boxed systems," the NASA administrator
said. "It's difficult to find a manufacturer who doesn't build video and disk
controllers into the motherboard. That means we buy things we can't use and waste time
disabling them so we can install our own equipment."
Whether they bought a standard configuration from a large federal contract, small bid,
General Services Administration schedule or the open market, the respondents complained
that component uniformity often is a myth.
"We specified four identical, high-powered machines to make sure they were easy to
support," Reichert noted. "Two of them had different motherboards that the
company finally had to replace because they had so many compatibility problems."
Lara said Air Force Desktop IV contractor Zenith Data Systems has switched internal
memory configurations over the life of the recently extended contract.
Some of the 750 Desktop IV systems ordered by Randolph Air Force Base in the last 12
months accept two single in-line memory modules (SIMMs), others take four. A ZDS
representative confirmed the change, saying it was prompted by Energy Star requirements.
"If you've got just two slots and you need 16M, a 4M RAM [SIMM] is
worthless," Lara said. "We have to open each box and see what the slots look
like before we order memory for it. It's a waste of our time."
Memory upgrades for computers and printers were a potential nightmare, many others
agreed. Some pointed out that a procurement specialist who understands the differences
between memory chip classes and configurations is rare indeed.
"Unless we're very specific, our people will order the cheapest memory they can
find. We've had to return printer memory three times before they finally got it
right," Lara said.
"Recycled memory chips give us a lot of problems," said a federal contractor
supporting a NASA site. "Vendors will take old 1M or 4M SIMMs apart and stick them on
a new 16M module to save money. But they're too slow and have lots of memory parity
errors. The new 72-pin chips are vastly superior.
"Recycled is cheaper, so naturally that's what they keep buying for us. I wish
someone would tell these procurement people that buying cheap is too darned
Paired memory modules, common in new Pentium PCs, complicate the RAM upgrades.
"You have to install them in twos, which means you can't just install one 16M SIMM,
you have to buy another to go with it," Lara said. "You wind up with 32M, and
that gets pretty expensive. But if you go for 8M SIMMs, you might fill up your available
memory slots. Down the road when you need more memory, you'll wind up throwing out
perfectly good SIMMs."
The configuration data:
The biggest complaint about software was the lack of diskettes or documentation with
preconfigured machines. "We had to copy the programs onto 14 disks" to get a set
of master diskettes, grumbled C.J. Savona, a program analyst with the Navy's Office of the
Supervisor of Shipbuilding.
Fewer than 30 percent deleted games such as Windows' Solitaire and Minesweeper to
comply with federal rules. "Although we were instructed to remove all games, I left
Solitaire and Minesweeper, because they're essential for teaching mouse skills and
maintaining my sanity between reorganizations," wrote a Defense Department
"Management hasn't told us specifically to remove games, so it's left to
department heads to police their own people," Lara said. "My boss asked me to
remove them in this department, because if a customer sees you playing games, it looks