Maximize Return On Investment On Your Digital-Imaging Equipment

These are clearly troubled economic times, especially for the owners of small businesses who are disproportionately struggling to stay afloat.  The way I see it, if you don’t have a squadron of lobbyists beating the bushes in D.C., you’re floating downstream towards the abyss without a paddle.  Consequently, we take this opportunity to help you with some ideas that may help you save a few bucks and maximize the current and future Return On Investment (ROI) from your digital-imaging equipment.  Regardless, all is not lost and we hope that you don’t need to resort to this.

That said, this article is all about PCs and operating systems.  Although you may not think of PCs and software as digital-imaging equipment, how would you create and/or send digital documents to your printer or MFP without them?

Before we begin, here are some questions that you should ask yourself:

  1. With Microsoft Windows Vista virtually off the map and Windows 7 fast approaching, are you willing and able to bear the considerable expense of upgrading or replacing your Windows 2000 and XP PCs and/or skipping right over Vista?  Let me tell you that if you have been an (unwilling) user of Windows for as long as I have, you are only delaying the inevitable.
  2. Are you willing and able to bear the considerable expense of an operating system upgrade?
  3. Are you willing and able to bear the considerable expense of software application upgrades that may be required as a result of an OS upgrade?
  4. Are you sick and tired of being extorted by the “Anti this and that” third-party software vendors whose constant in-your-face reminders keep reminding you that you are the next victim unless you pay up?
  5. Are you sick of hearing “my PC is too slow” from your employees and family?
  6. Is your favorite and formerly state-of-the-art laptop or PC struggling with all of that expensive software that you have installed?
  7. Do you have an inventory of old, slow, lame, unloved or unused (are you talking to me?) PCs and laptops that make you sick every time you see or think about them?

If you answered yes to any of the above, now is the perfect time to consider a change to the Linux Operating system.  In case you don’t already know, there are tons of Linux distros (distributions) out there from a variety of vendors.  However, we can save you the worry over what is the best distro because as a bona fide tech head, I spend my free time messing around with technology instead of watching the mindless blather on the boob tube (or YouTube for that matter).

Distros that I have tested:

Debian Linux (Debian), OpenSUSE (Novell), Ubuntu (Canonical), Kbuntu (Canonical), Damn Small Linux (“DSL”-various contributors) and Puppy Linux (Barry Kauler).

Desktop sShot (Small)
Ubuntu Desktop with Gnome front-end

Linux distro that I currently use and why:

Ubuntu 8.10.  I started out with Debian on an old and beloved Fujitsu Lifebook P1120 ultra-portable touch-screen laptop.  Tired of the Spartan looks of Debian, I tried the Debian-based Kbuntu with a beautiful KDE front end that has lots of pizzazz.  However, the pizzazz proved a bit too much for the Lifebook’s fixed 256 MB of RAM and 800 MHz Crusoe processor, even though it was still considerably faster than when it was running Windows XP.  Finally, I switched to Ubuntu (Debian-based with a Gnome front end) and have been continually impressed ever since.  Ubuntu 8.10 now runs faster on the little Lifebook than Windows could ever dream of, and was much more stable than Kbuntu in terms of networking (a biggie) and touch-screen support.

My current favorite rig is a discarded 400 MHz! 512 MB RAM Dell Inspiron 7500 lappy that has a fast SCSI hard-drive interface and gorgeous 1,400 x 1,050 screen resolution.  You wouldn’t believe how efficient this rig is in spite of its horribly outdated 400 MHz Pentium M processor.  In fact, it is amazing how responsive this rig feels compared to my other Windows lappies that are equipped with far more horsepower.  For example, when something is running in the background (e.g.: copying and downloading files, auto updating, yadda, yadda yadda), the cursor and User Interface are still responsive, while my Windows lappies in similar situations have me clicking away trying to figure out why the “Start” menu won’t open.  On the downside, video playback performance is choppy, so you digital video aficionados may need something with a little faster processor (umm, maybe like a 900 MHz Pentium II).  I’m not too worried about it, but I have been eyeing bruised and broken 700 and 800 MHz Inspiron 7500s on ebay that can be had for less than $50 (shipping included).  That $50 investment would be a ton ‘o fun for me as I could spend a couple of hours ripping two laptops apart and swapping out the processors (or possibly the motherboards if the CPU is not removable)!

 old pcs 001
Ubuntu transformed this tired old Dell Inspiron 7500
into a snappy lappy and this makes me a
happy pappy!  Note EDUP 802.11b wireless PCMCIA
NIC sticking out on the left ($7 on ebay).
It is Broadcomm based and the drivers are
included in Ubuntu.

Other PC platforms that I have tested:

Discarded Dell Dimension 9100 that runs any Linux distro I’ve tried like a champion.  It is currently running OpenSUSE on a Sony Bravia LCD TV connected via VGA and running in wide-screen mode.  Neglected IBM ThinkPad 760XL–I found out the hard way that this once king-of-the-hill laptop’s paltry 64 MB of maximum memory couldn’t run Damn Small Linux and could barely run Puppy Linux.  The ultimate killer was lack of a NIC and a proprietary PCMCIA system that wouldn’t recognize my old Xircom IIps PCMCIA NIC (with requisite dongle–do you remember losing/breaking one or more of these things back in the day?).  Abused and neglected Toshiba Satellite S1135 laptop-SWEET until the AC power port pulled off of the motherboard.  Cannibalized AOpen BookPC–installation of Linux rejuvenated a conflicted NIC, the reason it had been cannibalized.  It is now running Ubuntu on a Panasonic Bravia wide screen LCD TV connected via HDMI and running in wide screen mode.

Due to the nVIDIA’s ongoing commitments to driver updates and backward compatibility, I have found that several ancient nVIDIA video cards (how about that 8 MB GeForce 2!) work perfectly on my wide screen TVs and that several old ATI video cards and SIS video subsystems that worked perfectly on VGA monitors had problems with this.

old pcs 002
Discarded old Dell on right runs OpenSUSE like a champ
and is connected via VGA to a Sony Bravia
wide-screen LCD TV.

Other concerns that you may have:

Legacy hardware support-One of the best things about all of the Linux distros is legacy hardware support.  This means that you can cannibalize components from one or more old PCs to build your own monster.  For example, old Nvidia and ATI graphic cards that I have used work brilliantly.  If they have 3D graphics, you can use it to jazz up the UI with 3D effects.  Our older Hewlett-Packard PhotoSmart 2510 MFP was discovered on the network and the print AND scan drivers were easily installed WITH NO ADDITIONAL SOFTWARE OR DISKS REQUIRED.  In contrast, the Windows version of the software required for this printer is a ~380 Mb download from HP and the resident software it installs was a bloody pain from day 1.  I’ve since abandoned its use in Windows and only use a simple print driver.  When used on my Mac Mini, the software download from HP was only ~90 Mb networked MFP and everything works like a charm with Mac OS X (Tiger).  The required software for Ubuntu was a 0 MB download, has no resident software and also works like a charm.

New Hardware Support-Ubuntu handily supports DVD/CDROM burning, digital cameras, boot from USB devices, mobile broadband, DSL, etc.  While support of brand new hardware developed for Vista+ may be a bit sketchy, chances are you’re not going to nuke a spanking new Vista+ PC and install Linux instead.

Security-All Linux distros are far superior to any version of Windows, even when you install all of the “Anti this and that” software that your Windows box is always whining about.

Automatic Updates-All Linux distros have a built-in software update functionality so that, unlike with most versions of Windows, you can actually use your PC during an update because there is a minimal performance hit.

Support-You can pay for Windows support or use free online resources.  Most small business can’t afford to pay for Windows support and must rely on online and peer support.  I can personally attest to the quantity and quality of Linux’s effective online support.  I rarely find a solution for a Ubuntu problem that doesn’t show up by the second page of a carefully-worded Google search.  If you feel more comfortable with paid 24/7 technical support, vendors such as Canonical and Red Hat offer these services.

Stability-All the Linux flavors are remarkably stable and the OS itself has never crashed on any of my PCs.  Misbehaving programs can easily be terminated with Force Quit (just like a Mac) without all of the contortions required of you with Windows Task Manager.  Additionally, unlike Windows, my Linux boxes can run for months on end without difficulty.  In fact, it’s extremely rare to even have to reboot a Linux box (just like a Mac).

I am the boss.  I don’t have the skills or the time to mess around with PC Operating Systems-Based on the PC skill levels of the bosses that I’ve worked with over my career, this is a legitimate concern.  Here are a couple of alternative solutions:

  1. Have a computer-savvy teenager at home?  Chances are that he or she would relish the opportunity to learn some cool new technology and may be able to get that old lappy up and running again.
  2. Nearly every office has a PC “go-to guy” that gets your printers working, sets up e-mail accounts, etc., etc., etc.  Give that person a mission and the time and resources to investigate whether Linux is viable for use in your organization.

In any case, it is helpful if a working, Internet-connected PC is at-hand in order to research any possible problems that they may encounter during the Linux installation and set up.  We also recommend that you start with Ubuntu 8.10 first,.  We have found it to be considerably easier to install and set up than any of the other Linux distros that we have evaluated.

A selection of “critical” business Linux apps vs. Windows apps:

Windows

Ubuntu 8.10

Comparison

Internet Explorer Firefox Does everything and more (yes, including YouTube)
MS Office OpenOffice Transparently works with MS Office Apps
MS Outlook Evolution Mail MS Exchange compatible
Adobe Photoshop Gimp Provides virtually the same feature set
Adobe Acrobat Built-in PDF capability Not quite as powerful as the full version of Acrobat
Adobe Flash Adobe Flash Has exactly the same functionality
Adobe Acrobat Reader Adobe Acrobat Reader Has exactly the same functionality
Google Gadgets Google Gadgets Has exactly the same functionality
Multimedia Codecs Multimedia Codecs Handles all multimedia content (MP3, MPEG, etc.)
Minesweeper Mines Has exactly the same functionality
Solitaire FreeCell Solitaire Has the same functionality and more

 

File Browser and Writer sShot (Small)Gimp sShot (Small)
File Browser and OpenOffice Writer                              Gimp

XSane and DSearch sShot (Small)Rhythmbox and Firefox sShot (Small)
Xsane Network Scanning                           Firefox and Rhythmbox

Cost/ROI calculations based on estimated or online pricing of common business PCs and applications:

Component

Windows Cost

Ubuntu 8.10 Cost

PC $500 Free
MS Vista Business $300 Free
MS Office Pro $400 Free
Adobe Photoshop $200 Free
Adobe Acrobat Full $100 Free
AntiVirus/Malware $80 Free (not necessary)
Security Subscription $35/year $0 (not necessary)
First Year Cost (per seat) $1,580 $0
Five-Year Cost (per seat) $1,755 $0


Other things that you should know before you take the plunge
:

This article is not a blatant Linux endorsement.  It is written in a manner that is highly unbiased, as I have been trained to be so over a 30-year period as an independent product evaluator.  I do admit that I have not been satisfied with Windows for quite some time, but made the most out of every Windows box I have ever used.  Finally, yes, I currently own and use five PCs running Windows XP SP3.

Just like Windows, don’t expect your Linux distro to work right the first time.  Some fiddling may be required.  I can tell you this though:  the time it takes to install and update Ubuntu takes considerably less time than a fully updated Windows 2000 or XP installation.  That’s only for the OS itself.  You also don’t have to install the equivalent of MS Office, Acrobat, etc., and you DON’T have to enter registration codes or register/verify each individual piece of software online.

Since security was a priority that was built into Linux, security is virtually not an issue.  Thankfully, Linux NEVER NAGS YOU to update constantly or nags you about every conceivable existing and potential security breach under the sun.  It also does not CONSTANTLY NAG YOU to take out your credit card and renew some third-party “Anti this and that” software.  Have you ever used Vista?  I have and was appalled at the constant “Are you sure you want to do this” questions that accompanied almost anything I did (or didn’t do for that matter).  As far as the paranoid nagging about lagging subscriptions and potential threats lurking in the digital darkness, you can fuggetaboutit with Linux.

It’s easiest to perform a Linux installation using a Live CD with a wired internet connection.

Why you may need to soldier on with Windows on one or more PCs:

  1. If you rely on professional content-creation tools like those found in Adobe Creative Suite
  2. If you rely on digital-scanning and distribution- or document-management solutions
  3. If you rely on accounting systems such as QuickBooks
  4. If you rely on third parties to provide solutions for legacy applications, Operating Systems or hardware

What you need to do to take the plunge:

  1. Download the Linux distro of your choice.  Burn the ISO image onto a CD (alternately, you can install from a USB flash drive)
  2. Install it on any old PC with a CD drive (or the ability to boot from a USB flash drive), a NIC (preferably wired) and a minimum of 256 Mb of RAM.

With Linux, it is easy to turn just about any discarded or sluggish old PC into a snappy Web-browsing monster.  Additionally, the use of Linux can prevent many, many old PCs from becoming landfill–and that’s great for the environment.

In the end, if you find that you aren’t satisfied with Linux functionality or compatibility for business use, you can give the Linux PC (especially old laptops) to your kids.  Then, sit back and enjoy the spectacle as they are unable to destroy and/or contaminate the OS–like they can do with Windows in a matter of hours with the inadvertent installation of the spyware and malware that is invariably included with most child-related online software.

Happy reading!
Terry Wirth

 

 

 

 

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