Simple ways to do more, faster, with older PCs

Slow and outdated PCs can waste time and reduce end-user efficiency, however, there are easy and cheap ways to upgrade staff computers

Many people have the misfortune to use PCs that are years past their sell-by date, and waste far more time than they are worth. However, most PCs can be improved with a few simple changes.

First, upgrade the memory. Having run Windows XP in 128Mbytes, I now think it is crazy not to have 1Gbyte. Cost? About £85. If you can find £165, XP flies in 2Gbyte. The extra responsiveness really does make a difference.

We used to joke that IBM stood for Install Bigger Memories, and it is a lesson that has survived at least 40 years.

Second, get a bigger screen. There is plenty of research to show that information workers are more productive if they have more workspace, and LCDs now mean almost everyone has enough room for at least a 19-inch screen.

There are plenty of options for less than £200, although you might want to pay £250 for an ultra-sharp model.

Some users have already moved to 24-inch or even 30-inch LCDs, while others think it is better and/or cheaper to have two or even three 20-inch screens instead. It all depends the type of work employees are doing.

Third, add more storage, particularly for e-mail. The biggest aggravation in some offices is created by pressure to reduce storage space, and it is a terrible drain on productivity. Hard drive space costs about 40p or less per gigabyte.

It really does not make sense to have people spend half a day saving 10p worth of disc space, no matter how badly they are paid - apart from the fact that random e-mail deletions mess up your audit trail.

I have already seen one generation of IT managers lose their users: we just went out and bought our own PCs. Some of the current generation of IT managers are also losing their users because now they are defecting to Googlemail and other online applications which are free.

Fourth, upgrade the browser to one that offers page zoom, such as Internet Explorer 7, Opera, or Firefox with an extension.

Most web pages seem to be designed by people who are between 12 and 25 years old, which means many people over 40 will find them hard to read. Many web pages use tiny text that is often printed on confusing backgrounds.

Clicking the bottom right corner of IE7 lets you blow the whole page up to a legible size. Unfortunately it does not actually blow up the designer.

Fifth and last, install some kind of desktop search utility. Most people waste huge amounts of time trying to find files, and desktop search makes it simpler.

Windows Vista is a useful upgrade from this point of view, but Yahoo's X1 is a free download for the more technically aware, and Google Desktop Search is a killer application for millions.

Maybe these tips do not apply, but we have all had the same fundamental problems for decades: cannot find stuff, cannot see stuff, cannot read stuff, cannot keep stuff. They are all productivity killers, so there is a real payback if you can improve them.

Jack Schofield is computer editor at The Guardian

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