Five Hidden Costs of Computing

From lost productivity to health problems to end-of-life expenses, computers can take an unexpected toll on end users and businesses alike. Here's how to minimize the impact on your wallet -- and time.

You've been talking about it for months, and now you've finally taken the plunge and bought yourself a shiny new home computer. Or perhaps you're an IT manager who's just upgraded the systems for an entire department. Well, don't put your wallet away, because you've just started shelling out for all the things you'll need during the life of these computers.

The thrill of getting a new machine, or the relief of outfitting a business with a fleet of computers, can mask an elemental truth about the purchase. "People don't always think about what they're getting into when they buy a new computer," observes Geoff Butterfield, director of information technology projects at the George Lucas Educational Foundation in San Rafael, Calif.

Whether at home or in the workplace, computers really are the gift that keeps on giving, and not always in a good way. Applications; supplies such as printer ink and paper; wasted time; and health issues are among the many costs you'll encounter during the life of your computer.

And just wait until you try to get rid of the thing. Michael Corleone's lament in The Godfather: Part III comes to mind: Just when you thought you were out (of the business of paying computer-related expenses, that is), they pull you back in.

But you don't have to just sit there and take it. While you can't avoid the costs associated with owning and using computers entirely, you can reduce them. We'll provide tips for minimizing the damage.

Five hidden costs of computing

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Applications

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Getting the computer to do something useful

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When you get a computer, it usually comes preloaded with several applications: a basic text editor or two, a media player, some games and more basic tools. All of which you will outgrow very quickly. Yes, WordPad will open a Word document, but will it do so with all of Word's functionality? Of course not.

So you'll end up buying additional software -- personal finance packages such as Quicken, some more advanced games, maybe an office suite (usually Microsoft's). You'll find that software can be quite expensive. And that's before you try to get things like spreadsheets and check registers to work together, only to find that you're spending a lot of time fighting the urge to tear out your hair. If you're an IT chief for a business, you can multiply that roughly by the number of employees you have.

"Getting applications to play nice with each other takes up a lot of our time and budget here," says Paris Finley, director of information technology at the Daily Hampshire Gazette in Northampton, Mass. "People are constantly needing to shift data around different applications, and very few apps make it easy for users to do that."

"The training time when someone changes their system or a key application is huge," says Michael Crowley, director of networking at Mount Holyoke College in South Hadley, Mass. "They're used to what they have, they rely on it and then they get the new application -- or even just a new version of their old one -- and it doesn't behave the way they're used to."

Crowley points out that the shift to a new operating system often comes with the purchase of a new computer: "Every IT director deals with version control issues, whether it's the shift from Mac OS 9 to OS X, or now what we're seeing in some places where they've decided to make the jump from [Windows] XP to Vista."

For home users, that switch is essentially enforced. If you buy a new machine today, you're also getting the newest version of the operating system for that computer. Applications that you've been using without a hitch may not work as smoothly under the new operating system, and anything that's more than a few years old is in danger of not working at all. Those Windows 98-era games you've loved to play for years? Better keep an old machine around to have something they'll work on.

What you spend on the computer itself can determine how much you'll end up eventually spending on software. "A lot of people go for the cheapest computer, and they end up with Microsoft Works preloaded on it," says Peter Yared, chief technology officer at ActiveGrid Inc., a Web applications company in San Francisco. "When they find out how limited that is, they end up buying the whole Microsoft Office suite anyway -- and at the retail price, instead of the OEM discount they would have gotten by getting it in the first place."

Planning is key to avoiding spending a lot on software. Whether in the home or in business, knowing what you need ahead of time and looking for compatible packages (often in the form of bundles or suites) can save you a lot of expense down the road. Also, look for add-ins that may bring good software along for the ride. "Sometimes, if you opt in for a webcam or a DVD drive, you end up getting some decent software in the bargain," says Yared. "A $40 DVD drive might come with a really good DVD editing package."

And don't forget to investigate free software options. Even for commercial platforms like Windows and the Macintosh, you can find plenty of solid, well-tested apps -- such as Thunderbird or Eudora for e-mail -- that are free or safely ad-sponsored.

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