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May 2002
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Small & Home Office

Starting Fresh: Building a Home Office From Scratch

By Loren D. Jones

Starting Fresh: Building a Home Office From Scratch ONE OF THE best things I remember about college and law school was the almost euphoric feeling at the start of a new semester. Everything else was behind you and a fresh, clean start lay ahead -- a clean slate; a new beginning.

I had similar feelings, along with some twinges of trepidation, as I recently set out to create a new law technology consulting practice after several years of life in corporate America.

The first step was a "clean slate" approach to my "small office/home office" technology. Being a technologist (okay, "geek") at heart, there was no shortage of technology in the house to begin with, but it was definitely time for some upgrades.

The first step was a notebook computer. If forced to choose between a desktop and a notebook PC as my only computer, I'd forego the desktop in a heartbeat and live solely on a notebook. I make that choice both because I travel frequently, and because I like flexibility while in the office. As I write this, I'm relaxing on the couch with the notebook in my lap while connected to the Web via wireless network. In the summer I often work from the deck, but need to be connected to the network.

I chose a consumer level Compaq Presario 1720 notebook after a fairly brief search, mostly because of local availability and price. The basic features I required were a reasonably fast (1GHz Pentium III Mobile CPU) notebook; a minimum of 256M of memory; at least a 20G hard drive; a DVD/CD drive and USB ports. That's almost exactly what I got, although I bumped the memory up to 512K shortly after purchase. Two highly-desirable "bonus" features for me were a combination DVD/CD-RW and a FireWire port, both of which it included.

The 14.1-inch TFT Active Matrix display is the biggest you can use comfortably in coach class seats. The 15-inch displays are great, but the units end up being too big to fit many carrying cases. Even the 14-inch makes my favorite carrying case stretch a bit in order to accommodate it.

The display has a resolution of 1024x768 (XGA), my personal minimum for suitable content display on the Web.

What I didn't get that I wanted was a "joystick" style pointing device located in the middle of the keyboard rather than the touchpad. I've lived with the rubber eraser-head pointers for more than eight years and find they are the most intuitive of the pointing devices, especially for a touch-typist, since your hands never have to leave the "home row" to move the pointer. After two months with the touchpad, I remain more convinced than ever, but such is life.

Some of the little "gotchas" I discovered after the fact were interesting. For instance, it has no LED indicating hard drive activity. In 20 years of PC computing I've never had a computer that didn't show me hard drive activity, so it never occurred to me to check for it. It's not there. Not that you can't work without it, its just I've gotten used to having a quick way to see if the computer was "busy" doing something with the disk, which is usually the bottleneck in most PCs.

The other gotcha came when I went to hook up my BlackBerry wireless e-mail device, another necessity in my life. Where did they hide the serial port? I looked everywhere, finally realizing it had none. Again, that is something easy enough to check for, it just didn't occur to me to look because every PC since my first 1981 IBM PC came with serial ports standard.

The silver lining on that cloud was it forced me to discover the Keyspan High Speed USB Serial adapter, which gave me a serial port with almost twice the speed of a standard serial interface. Being Plug-and-Play compatible, I plug it in only when I need to synchronize my BlackBerry.

Software

For software, I went with Microsoft's latest, and purportedly greatest --but that's another story -- Windows XP Professional and Microsoft Office XP Professional. Unfortunately, it was impossible to find an off-the-shelf notebook with XP Professional. All of them came with XP Home, requiring the XP Professional upgrade to be purchased and installed. Trust me: You will want XP Professional for your business desktop. I also added Adobe Acrobat Writer to this mix for creating PDF documents, both scanned documents and Word-created documents.

Peripherals

Next on the list were a printer, scanner and fax. I already had an older, power-hungry Hewlett-Packard LaserJet printer, a separate, low-end HP scanner and an older OfficeJet (ink jet) fax that made marginal quality faxes and copies. In the interest of conserving office space as well as energy, I opted for the all-in-one approach and consolidated all these functions in a Brother multi-purpose device that was Energy Star compliant.

The printer easily matches the quality of my previous HP printer and the fax quality far exceeded the OfficeJet, not to mention offering a much more reliable sheet feeder. In addition, I got a decent photocopier/ scanner out of the deal.

This printer is connected to an existing desktop PC I already had in my office and is shared so I can print to it from the notebook when connected to the network.

Networks

Speaking of the network, I've had a network in my home since 1984. The current network is a 10/100 switched Ethernet, which sounds fancy but only requires a $150 unit these days. To that network I've added a DSL/Cable modem router to allow all PCs on the network to access the Internet. It also performs the job of automatically handing out IP addresses to the PCs on the network, while providing a modicum of firewall protection from the Internet.

While the same thing can be accomplished using a dial-up Internet connection and the Internet Connection Sharing feature within Windows, a serious home office deserves some form of broadband Internet access, whether DSL, cable modem or satellite. It is the difference between using the Internet as a novelty versus an integral part of your practice.

Starting Fresh: Building a Home Office From Scratch The final piece in the networking puzzle was to add wireless networking to this mix. I've been using the 802.11b (WiFi) networking for almost a year and love the flexibility of working on my notebook anywhere around my home.

However, WiFi networks use the 2.4GHz radio frequency range and can interfere with cordless phone systems that use that same frequency. I know, because mine would regularly get into a catfight with my recently acquired Siemens cordless phone system.

The easy fix was to upgrade to the newer 802.11a products which have just hit the market. They use a much higher frequency (5.2Ghz) while providing up to five times the bandwidth (54Mbps vs. 11Mbps) for only marginally higher cost.

I now enjoy wireless computing while using my wireless phone system without interference.

Phones

Speaking of telephones, they are another critical piece of the SoHo setup. I bought the Siemens Gigaset system. It's a two-line system with integrated answering machine, caller ID, dialing directory, line conferencing, etc. all located in the main handset unit or base station. The base station will sup port up to eight additional cordless (2.4GHz) extensions, giving any handset access to either line and all the features. Each handset has its own cradle and charger unit so they can be located throughout the house.

In terms of "way cool" features, it lets you return a call or update the internal dialing directory off the Caller ID feature. You can also transmit the directory to the other handsets, so you're never hunting for a number, regardless of which phone you pick up. Access to the Caller ID list is likewise available from any handset. Brightly lit buttons advise you of lines in use, messages waiting or calls missed on Caller ID.

I have mine set up with my primary telephone line as Line 1 and my fax line as Line 2, which also serves as my DSL line. One of the benefits of DSL is it is "always on" and the phone line is completely useable for voice or fax calls while you continue to use the Internet. Thus, I have two phone lines for voice calls most of the time, with one doing triple duty as voice, fax and Internet access.

Finally, the BlackBerry wireless e-mail device completed my setup. While not a requirement for a SoHo, it's a real bonus for me because my practice takes me on-site with clients a great deal of the time. Being able to send and receive email without being tied to my notebook is the ultimate in liberated communication.

I'm using the BlackBerry Internet Edition which works with standard POP3 e-mail services. All e-mail messages, except those I choose to filter, i.e., list serve messages and newsletters, are automatically forwarded to my BlackBerry. Messages I send from the BlackBerry are likewise sent back to my e-mail account, so my "Sent Mail" folder in Outlook reflects all my messaging activity.

This SoHo was put together on a modest budget of $4,000 but provides capabilities that not too long ago would have been beyond the reach of the average small firm.

Loren D. Jones is a lawyer/technologist based in Prior Lake, Minn.

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