Upgrading your farm computer can be easy PC
Buying a new computer system? Dont get fooled by special deals and free software – take time to consider what you need and how long you want it to last
CHOOSING a new farm computer, or one to replace your existing machine, can seem fraught with danger. Will you get the right machine, the right software, will it be out-of-date in a year and will you pay over the odds?
Those are all legitimate concerns, but a little planning can ensure mistakes are avoided.
Machine life is a key issue. Computer hardware manufacturers often suggest a three-year maximum life-span, but most farmers will run the same hardware for up to six years, says Nigel Parsons of farm computer specialist Landmark Systems.
"There are some machines on farms that have been operating for 10 years and are still doing the job they were bought for."
Developments in computer technology are largely driven by communications and games, he adds. Upgrading will be of little benefit for simple farm accounts and crop recording.
According to DEFRA, around 80% of farmers now own or use computers and 50% use the internet.
Guidelines issued at the recent Agriknowledge roadshows suggest growers should spend at least £1200 on top specification hardware. A lower specification machine, which should be fine for office software and internet access, will cost around £700-800.
Mr Parsons agrees with the costs, but believes three specifications cover most farming needs. "First decide what you are buying it for. Is it an introduction to farm computing, a family machine or are you a professional user?"
All come with a built-in modem, letting the computer connect to the internet and a Microsoft Windows operating system.
"At entry level, look for a machine with a Celeron 900 processor and 128Mb of RAM," Mr Parsons advises. "The hard disk should be 20Gb, it should have a modem of 56K and a 15in monitor." This type of computer will cost £700 plus VAT and is fine for office use and running enterprise management software.
"Mid-range models, which will cost £850 plus VAT, have a Pentium 3 processor running at 1GHz," he says. "They can handle more demanding jobs and you get extra storage space, more RAM and a bigger monitor."
At the top end, for the professional user, look for a Pentium 4 processor at 1.5GHz and be prepared to spend £1100 plus VAT. "This is the sort of machine you will need to run demanding software, like large-scale mapping programs. They are often the best choice where the family is also going to use it."
"An all-in-one printer, which can fax, photocopy, scan and print, is a good idea where space is at a premium, and they only cost £200-350," says Mr Parsons.
Zip drives, used for back-up purposes, are now £60-70, and can be an internal part of the machine, he adds.
"Think about a flat screen too, as you get better clarity and fewer emissions," he suggests. "They can be fitted to any machine and cost under £300."
A laptop or notebook computer can be a very good choice in a farm situation. "Again, the prices have come down and one of these will only be an extra £200 over the equivalent desktop model."
When deciding what level of support you need, consider your actual requirements. "If the machine is in an isolated farm office and used twice a month, there is no great rush. But if the computer is used every day for receiving orders, you need peace of mind." *
1Specification Decide what you want the PC to do before buying.
2Cost Be prepared to spend £700-1200 on hardware, with a 15% price variation between suppliers.
3Lifetime You can often get six years out of a machine, despite what manufacturers say. Some systems last for 10 years.
4Upgrading Expect some disruption, especially where multiple programs used.
5Supplier Cheapest deals are from direct mail and computer supermarkets, but help and support may be lacking. Specialist suppliers can provide hardware and software.
6Quality You get what you pay for. Cheaper machines built with cheaper components.
7Operating system Microsoft Windows is the standard, all home machines now come with Windows Millennium XP.
8Extras Look at all-in-one printers, flat screens and zip drives. Consider future needs, like linking to a Palm Pilot.
9Maintenance Two types of contract available, so know what you want before committing to a three-year deal.
10Free software The kids may like it, but it is irrelevant when making choice.