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Purchasing a PC

Like thousands of other shop owners, you’re probably thinking it’s time to buy a computer. You’ve no doubt seen reports on television and read articles in magazines about the advanced capabilitiesof the current generation of computers, and it’s gotten you thinking,
“Maybe a new computer could improve my shop’s workflow and speed up our estimating and billing processes”.

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If such thoughts are on your mind and you’re looking for more
information to make the right computer purchase, look no more.

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Meeting Your Needs

We’ve all heard about the great things a shop can do with the
help of computer software. On a typical shop day, a technician
can speed the estimating process by utilizing a computer program,
converse with the insurance company to get repair authorizations,
get background on repairs on-line and e-mail a manufacturer for
answers to difficult service questions.

But your shop is more than a repair facility; it’s a small business
that can use computers to complete the company payroll, keep the
books, print checks, balance accounts, print invoices, create
ads, access on-line services and more.

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Here are a few examples of how a computer can help you in the
front office:

  • Word processing – Typing letters on a typewriter has
    been replaced by word processing. With a word-processing program,
    you can type a letter, view it on the monitor, check your spelling
    and punctuation, and format its size and shape. After everything
    is perfect – and you’ve thrown out those crusty bottles of correction
    fluid – you can print it. Instead of retyping it when you need
    it again, you can save the letter electronically for future use.
    If you need to make a few changes, you simply edit the file, print
    it and save it again. You can even create form letters that will
    replace the address and greeting on each letter from your data
    base of customers.
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  • Spreadsheets – Set up like a ledger sheet with lined
    rows and columns, a spreadsheet program is simple to use. You
    can define formulas and calculations that the program will perform
    on the data in the rows, in the columns or in individual cells.
    If you change a number anywhere, the spreadsheet can instantly
    recalculate the numbers. Sure, you could sit there and add up
    column after column, row after row with a calculator, but it would
    take a lot longer. As with the word-processing program, you can
    save the data to use or modify later.
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  • Additional capabilities -Inexpensive software and hardware
    add-ons, once installed, will allow you to print bar-code labels
    for inventory control, as well as read bar-code labels from other
    manufacturers and suppliers. You’ll also find that your computer
    can answer the phone, direct calls to voice-mail boxes and send/receive
    faxes. You can use scheduling software to schedule your appointments
    and your staff, as well as to keep maintenance schedules.

    Choosing a System

    Now that you’ve discovered all the tasks a computer can perform
    and concluded that your shop needs one, the next questions will
    more than likely be: "What type of computer do I need? Should
    I buy an MS-DOS PC compatible computer or an Apple Macintosh computer?"

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    This question has plagued computer buyers for years. To give you
    some background, MS-DOS-based machines compose about 90 percent
    of the business desktops in the United States, while Apple Macintosh
    holds just under 10 percent. The Macintosh is a quality computer,
    but because of cost and market-share issues, it doesn’t have the
    range of available software programs the MS-DOS PC compatible
    computer has. Be sure to examine each option before making your
    final purchase; the computer that works for Joe’s Auto Body may
    not work for Dave’s Collision Repair.

    Now Featuring

    Lets talk about some of the features you’ll find in desktop computers:

    • The Central Processing Unit (CPU) is the main processing
      chip the computer is built around. Moving from slower to faster,
      MS-DOS CPUs are labeled as 286, 386, 486, 5×86, Pentium and 6×86.
      CPUs in the 286 and 386 series are outdated, and many contemporary
      software programs will not even run on a CPU from these series.
      Some 486 series chips are also considered outdated. If you’re
      buying a computer today, you should purchase a 5×86, 6×86 or Pentium
      CPU. Within each of these series, there are different versions
      with different clock speeds measured in MHz. Within a series,
      the higher the clock speed, the faster the CPU performance. For
      instance, a 150 MHz Pentium CPU is faster than a 75 MHz Pentium
      CPU.
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  • Though it’s easy to compare CPUs within series, conflicts
    arise when you try to compare 150 MHz 5×86 CPU to a 150 MHz Pentium
    CPU. In this case, you’ll find that one CPU does slightly better
    at one thing while the other does slightly better at something
    else. Either will perform well, so you need to make your CPU decision
    based on other machine features.

  • A hard drive is used by your computer to store files and programs.
    Drive capacity is measured in bytes – a term that refers to a
    certain amount of computer memory. One million bytes equal one
    megabyte (MB), and 1 billion bytes equal one gigabyte (GB). It’s
    very easy to use up hard-drive space, so try to get 1.2 GB to
    start with. The absolute minimum you’ll be happy with is 540 MB,
    but try for a larger hard drive if you can afford it.
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  • Random Access Memory (RAM) is the storage computers use to
    hold and run programs. RAM allows your programs to run faster
    and enables you to have more programs open at the same time. RAM
    prices have dropped this year, so purchase at least 16 MB.

  • A video card and monitor allow you to see output displayed
    by the computer program. The video card is installed in the computer
    and then connected to the monitor. Video cards contain their own
    memory, and you should look for one with at least 1 MB installed.

  • For your system, you’ll need a VGA or Super VGA color monitor.
    VGA and Super VGA are terms that refer to display capabilities
    of the monitor. Another important factor is the monitor dot-pitch
    size (dpi). Remember, a smaller number means a clearer picture,
    which will be easier to see. The best dpi is 0.28. With any larger
    than 0.32 or 0.41, writing on the screen gets difficult to read.
    Finally, choose a 15- or 17-inch monitor. Smaller monitors may
    seem more practical for your desktop, but you’ll quickly grow
    unhappy with the size.
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  • ISA, VESA and PCI refer to channels the computer uses to communicate
    with peripherals (sound cards, modems, video cards, etc.), which
    can be added into the computer. ISA is an older standard protocol;
    VESA is about twice as fast as ISA; and PCI is about twice as
    fast as VESA. You should look for a computer with about three
    open ISA expansion slots and two open PCI expansion slots. Today,
    many peripherals still use the ISA standard, although PCI is the
    new and enduring standard.

  • A fax modem card allows your computer to connect to the telephone
    system. Modem speeds range from 1,200 BPS (baud per second) to
    28,800 BPS. You don’t want anything slower than a 14,400 BPS,
    which is the current standard. If you expect to access on-line
    services often, you may want to use a 28,800 BPS modem. They’re
    a bit more expensive, but they’re faster.
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  • A CD-ROM drive is a good investment with the business computer.
    Though many people still think of CDs as music only, a lot of
    software programs are distributed on CD. It’s a great way for
    software companies to provide programs since a single CD can hold
    as much information as 100 floppy disks.

  • The speed at which a CD-ROM drive reads is commonly measured
    at 2x, 4x, 6x and 8x. A 2x CD-ROM drive is sufficient, but for
    a little more money, you can get a faster 4x CD-ROM.

    The Price of Technology

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    As you look at what a computer will cost, consider what software
    comes with the computer, what features it includes and what sort
    of warranty, service and support is provided. Also, remember you
    can buy a system off the shelf or mix and match parts – just like
    at a car dealership. Look around, there are many computer outlets
    where you can purchase systems and software. If you don’t like
    what they offer, see what the mail-order vendors have.

    Though price is always a consideration when purchasing new equipment
    – a system that includes the programs and features discussed in
    this article will probably cost you about $1,750 to $2,900 – be
    sure to include the features and software you’ll need to operate
    the system. You don’t want your technician downloading on-line
    information for a repair only to find that the modem is too slow.

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    It’ll take time to determine just what system and components are
    right for your shop and your budget, and it’ll take even more
    time to learn the software. But, once you do, you’ll do business
    in ways you never thought possible.

    Writer Patrick Calfee, a computer consultant, is a programmer
    and systems developer from Akron, Ohio.

    Check It Out

    Before buying a computer, know what hardware, software and features
    you want so you can purchase the system that best suits your
    needs.

    Hardware:

    • MS-DOS-based machines compose about 90 percent of the business
      desktops in the United States, while Apple Macintosh holds just
      under 10 percent. The Macintosh doesn’t have the range of available
      software programs the MS-DOS PC compatible computer has.
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  • Features:
  • The CPU is the main processing chip the computer is built
    around. If you’re buying a computer, you should purchase a 5×86,
    6×86 or Pentium CPU.

  • A hard drive is used by your computer to store files and programs.
    Try to get 1.2GB to start with. The absolute minimum you’ll be
    happy with is 540MB.

  • Random Access Memory (RAM) is the storage computers use to
    hold and run programs. RAM allows your programs to run faster
    and enables you to have more programs open at the same time.

  • A video card and monitor are allow you to see output displayed
    by the computer program. Video cards contain their own memory,
    and you should look for one with at least 1MB installed. Also,
    you’ll want a VGA or Super VGA color monitor with a dot-pitch
    size around 0.28 dpi.
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  • ISA, VESA and PCI refer to channels the computer uses to communicate
    with peripherals (sound cards, modems, video cards, etc.). Look
    for a computer with about three open ISA expansion slots and two
    open PCI expansion slots.

  • A fax modem allows your computer to connect to the telephone
    system. You don’t want a modem slower than a 14,400 BPS, and if
    you expect to access on-line services often, you may want to use
    a 28,800 BPS modem.

  • A CD-ROM drive reads at speeds commonly measured at 2x, 4x,
    6x and 8x. A 2x CD-ROM drive is sufficient, but a 4x CD-ROM will
    provide quicker reads.
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    Software:

    • Word-processing software allows you to create letters, view
      them on the monitor, check spelling and punctuation, and format
      the size and shape – all before printing.

    • Spreadsheets are set up like a ledger sheet with lined rows
      and columns and allow you to define formulas and calculations
      the program will perform on the data.

    • Inexpensive software and hardware add-ons can allow you to
      print bar-code labels for inventory control, read bar-code labels
      from other manufacturers and suppliers, schedule your appointments
      and your staff, and send/receive faxes.

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