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HOME OFFICE SOLUTIONS

 

Let’s not beat about the bush, setting up a home or small office can be a pain in the neck, literally so if you choose your office equipment and furniture unwisely. There’s no shortage of advice and a bewildering array of equipment on offer, so where do you start?

 

Every installation is different and there’s no such thing as a one-size-fits-all solution so the best approach is to break it down into four bite-sized chunks, which come under the general headings of computers, communications, peripherals and comfort.

 

Modern PCs are generally quite reliable but irrespective of your intended application or type of business it would be foolish to rely on one machine. If your work files and records are all stored in one place then you are just asking for trouble and a hard disc failure could be disastrous for your business.

 

Any small office system should comprise at least two similarly specified PCs – even if you work alone -- and preferably a laptop or mobile device as well. It needn’t be an expensive, if your work is mostly concerned with word processing and shuffling data you don’t need the latest multi-gigahertz screamers and you can get away with a fairly modest spec, unless you’re using high-end graphics applications, but in any event never stint on hard disc storage capacity or RAM memory.

 

Two PCs and a simple backup strategy will protect you in the event of a major breakdown; the second PC -- loaded with the same key software as your primary PC -- can have you up and running again in minutes. Backing up your data regularly is vitally important and at the very least it should be to removable media, such as recordable CD (so add a CD writer to your PC spec wish-list), and don’t forget to store a copy of your irreplaceable data ‘off site’ as extra insurance against theft or fire damage.

 

When two or more PCs are together at the same location it makes sense to connect them together via a simple network, which brings us to communications.

 

Networking makes it easier to backup files by storing them in separate locations it also allows other users to share files, peripherals and resources, like a printer and an Internet connection. These days networking is easy; most new computers have a network interface card (NIC) or 10/100 Ethernet port built in, if not one can usually be fitted quickly and cheaply. Two PCs can be connected together for file and Internet connection sharing using a simple ‘crossover’ cable, but you should prepare for future expansion and connect your main PC or ‘Server’ – usually the one with an Internet connection – to a device called a ‘router’, which acts like small telephone exchange.

 

Until recently most PCs were networked using cables but it for SOHO installations it is often easier – though a little more expensive – to use wireless connections, especially if the PCs are in separate rooms. You’ll also be able to roam with your laptop, in the back garden, or connect to the Internet when you’re on the road, using a growing network of wireless ‘hotspots’ in public places like hotels, railway stations, airport lounges and cafes.  

 

The Internet is a core element in many office communications systems and unless you only expect to surf the web occasionally or send and receive a handful of emails an ‘always on’ broadband connection will quickly pay for itself. Not only can you download files ten times faster than a dial-up connection an ADSL modem frees up your normal phone line for calls and faxes but before you get too excited check the availability in your area, especially if you live in the sticks.

 

A single phone line needn’t be a disadvantage if you work from home and other family members use it. Nevertheless, a DECT cordless phone system makes more efficient use of one line with extra handsets so that calls can be transferred between them or it can be used as an intercom system. Options such as a built-in answering facility further reduce desktop clutter and a ‘distinctive ring’ feature lets you and other members of the family distinguish between business and personal calls.      

 

You will need a decent quality printer and if you add a scanner you can extend your PC’s faxing capabilities to include sending images, graphics and handwritten notes. Better yet consider a ‘multi-function device’, which combines printing scanning and faxing facilities in one box. MFDs are available with colour inkjet and high-quality laser printers; some models function independently and can send and receive faxes when the PC to which they are connected is switched off.

 

Although power cuts are comparatively rare in this country if one happens when your PC is saving files it can cause a nasty crash. An uninterruptible power supply or UPS uses a rechargeable battery to keep the PC running long enough shut down safely and with prices for basic models starting at around £50 it’s a small price to pay to protect your data.

 

If desk space is at a premium consider a flat-screen LCD monitor, they’re also a lot easier on the eye as there’s no flicker, nor do they emit any harmful radiation and they consume less power. Pay particular attention to your keyboard, in fact bin the ones that come with your PC and replace them with ‘ergonomic’ models, with contoured or split-field keys and wrist support, but always try before you buy. Finally, if you are going to be spending several hours each day in front of your PC you should choose your desk and seating carefully, both for comfort and to help avoid a wide range of work-related disorders.

 

SIDEBAR 1 – NETWORK KITS

 

Networking several PCs together needn’t be difficult or expensive but it can appear quite daunting to novices hence the welcome appearance of a number of networking kits. These contain everything you need to set up a simple cable or wireless network for file and Internet connection sharing. Note that most kits only include enough hardware for two PCs; extra parts are readily available though because of their proprietary nature of some of these systems it may not be possible to use them with generic (and hence much cheaper) networking components.

 

ACTIONTEC WIFI WIRELESS USB TWIN PACK, £75

Simple to configure USB modules for two PCs, for file, printer and Internet connection sharing

http://www.actiontec.com/UK/index.html

 

 

BELKIN USB DIRECT CONNECT, £35

Unusual USB based kit for connecting two PCs together, additional kits required to expand system.

http://www.belkin.co.uk/

 

 

BT HOME NETWORK 1200, £200

Home/SOHO networking via existing phone sockets, kit contains components for two PCs

 

BT VOYAGER 2000, £150

Wi-Fi kit including combined ADSL modem and wireless router plus one USB wireless adaptor, supports up to 10 PCs

http://www.bt.com/homenetworking/index.jsp

 

 

LINKSYS FESWSK5 ETHERFAST ‘NETWORK IN A BOX’, £42

One 5-port 10/100 Ethernet switch plus two network interface cards and cables, software and instructions

 

 

LINKSYS HOMELINK PHONELINE STARTER KIT, £60

File transfer and printer sharing using existing telephone extension lines, simple to setup – no wires – but relatively slow, compared with conventional cable and wireless systems.

http://www.linksys.com/international/defaulttest.asp?coid=6

 

 

NETGEAR FAST ETHERNET STARTER KIT, £45

Includes one 5-port Ethernet switch, two adaptor cards, cables plus software for Internet and printer sharing

http://www.netgear.co.uk

 

 

SIDEBAR 2 – REMOTE WORKING

 

It’s happened to most of us at one time or another; you’re on holiday or away on a business trip and you get an urgent request for a file or document that’s stored on your home or business PC… The facility to remotely control and access files on a distant PC is not exactly a new idea but with the growth of networking and the Internet it’s not only possible, but absurdly easy. On PCs that support a facility called Wake on LAN you can even boot up your PC remotely but to do any of these tricks you will need some extra software.

 

The best-known remote control software package is Symantec’s PC Anywhere. This sophisticated suite of programs gives a remote user, with the necessary permissions and passwords, more or less full access to a PC’s filing system, though many of the key features are designed to assist helpdesks and technicians track down faults and solve configuration problems.

http://www.symantec.com/pcanywhere/Consumer/index.html

 

 

A little known utility in Windows XP does a similar job to PC Anywhere. Remote Desktop, once enabled, and the necessary passwords entered, allows a technician to poke around inside a Windows XP PC, and a downloadable utility from Microsoft allows XP users to get similar access to Windows 9x machines.

http://www.microsoft.com/windowsxp/pro/

using/howto/gomobile/remotedesktop/

 

 

One of the simplest and cheapest solutions to remote working is a freeware utility called Virtual Network Computing or VNC. The program is fairly basic, with only limited security features but it allows full access to every aspect of the remote PC, including the facility to launch programs and change configuration settings, so it should be used with care. 

http://www.uk.research.att.com/vnc/

 

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Ó R. Maybury 2003, 2406

 

 


 

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