For spending spree, the perfect desktop system is described

After enduring furloughs and budget uncertainties, some government employees now are
thinking about their summer vacations. But you're probably preoccupied by the annual
computer buying season.


You might like to know what items seem to be most coveted by federal buyers and users.


After exchanging several e-mail messages and phone calls, I've decided that government
users are getting more sophisticated in their choice of tools. Yes, I said tools.


Many of us have long believed that PCs are our only hope of combating the growing
workload from downsizing and budget cuts. But agencies have regarded PCs only as an asset
subject to depreciation. The more agile and well-managed agencies now see them as tools
for building a new era of smaller government and better customer service.


Competition is paying real dividends to government buyers. Have you checked the price
of RAM lately? I've seen 16M RAM upgrades offered for just $99 with a system purchase. Not
long ago, $180 was the norm for a 4M single in-line memory module. Now it's less than $80.


The decline of hard-drive prices has been just as dramatic: $250 or less for a 1G
drive.


One agency, enticed by falling RAM and drive prices, has decided not to buy any new
computer systems but just to add memory and hard-drive capacity to its 2- to 3-year-old
386 systems.


Good idea? I'll let you think about that one. Some near-future operating systems such
as Microsoft Windows NT 4.0 won't even run on a 386-class processor.


So what do average government users covet? The minimum desktop system appears to be at
least a 166-MHz Pentium with 25K cache, 32M RAM, 2M video memory, 1G hard drive,
quad-speed CD-ROM drive, 16-bit sound card and speakers and 17-inch color monitor.


Such systems usually come with Microsoft Windows 95, keyboard, mouse, 1.44M floppy
drive and office software suite such as Microsoft Office Professional or Lotus
Development's SmartSuite 96.


And what are government buyers paying? I have verified reports of minimum-level desktop
systems like that described above bought for about $2,700 per unit. With 16M RAM the price
drops to $2,600.


The trend in notebook computers is toward the slim and light with larger,
easier-to-read displays. The strongest interest is in models like IBM Corp.'s ThinkPad 560
and Digital Equipment's HiNote lineup. They sport 120- and 133-MHz Pentium
microprocessors, 800M to 1.2G hard drives, 8M RAM upgradeable to 40M, and 11-inch
dual-scan or 12-inch active-matrix color displays.


But notice that the price of RAM doesn't scale down for notebook computers as it does
for desktop machines. Notebook RAM costs more.


Typically, these notebooks weigh only about 4 pounds. For the weary federal traveler,
this is important.


The cost has dropped surprisingly, too. Over the last four years, the most desired
notebooks have tended to congregate in the $5,000-plus range.


One of my sources just ordered two IBM ThinkPad 560s with 120-MHz Pentiums, 16M RAM,
12.1-inch active displays, 810M drives, 28.8-kilobit/sec PC Card modems and detachable
1.44M floppy drives. With Microsoft Windows 95 preinstalled, they cost my source $3,720
each--a great price for top-of-the-line notebooks.


"But what about us?" scream some of my other sources--the Unix weenies.
Happily, Unix is alive and well in government circles. In fact, I'm seeing a much
increased interest in high-end workstations. My sources say the perennial leaders--Sun
Microsystems Inc. and Silicon Graphics Inc.--are getting the lion's share of government
business.


My interest was piqued when a couple of people indicated a fondness for the Digital
Equipment Corp. AlphaStation 500, a 333-MHz machine; I understand a 400-MHz version also
will be released soon.


The configuration they coveted--and bought--has 128M RAM, 4X CD-ROM drive, external 2G
quarter-inch tape backup, 4G Wide SCSI disk and Fast SCSI controller, 21-inch color
monitor and Digital ZLXp-L2 graphics accelerator with 24-bit Z-buffer (a $6,000 add-on).
For $38,700 and change, my sources insist this is a desktop machine to die for.


I guess their boss was seated when they made the request and didn't die before funding
it.


My closing tip is to put a copy of this column anonymously onto your boss's desk as he
or she struggles to spend computer funds this summer.


Charles S. Kelly is a computer systems analyst at the National Science Foundation.
You can e-mail him on the Internet at ckelly@cpcug.org.
  This column expresses his personal views, not the official views of NSF.


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