25 May 2004

Portable Computers

The issue of staff using portable or laptop computers instead of desktops is still not resolved.

Last year in the TSU Report 13 May 2003, the issue of portable versus desktop computers was raised. Executive referred the issue to the University Information Management Systems Committee (UIMSC), which referred it to the OH&S Office for comment. PVC Research and Information Management has reported that the UIMSC is following up the issues in relation to a University policy on portable computers.

Following is last year's report on portable versus desktop computers, updated with current configurations.

Traditionally, the Division has supplied staff with desktop computers. On application some staff with specialist needs for a portable computer have had their desktop computer swapped for a portable. Lately there has been an increase in the number of requests for portable computers in place of desktops, and the following comparisons may help Executive decide whether to make portables more widely available in place of desktops.

The standard configuration for the Division's new computers currently [May 2004] is:

  • Dell PC or Apple Macintosh
  • 512MB RAM
  • Combo Drive (reads and writes CDs, reads DVDs)
  • 15" Flat Panel Display

The Hard disk size is not really a consideration for desktops since it is expected that desktops will use Network Attached Storage for saving data. 30GB is usually the minimum available for desktops, which is generally more than enough for most users in the Division. Standard configurations vary from 20GB [Dell portables] up to 80GB [Macintosh desktops]. No floppy or Zip drives are supplied.

Monitor size for Desktops is 15", giving a display usually of 1024x768 pixels.

Monitor sizes for portables are usually 14", capable of displaying 1024x768 pixels (same as the desktops, although overall the screens themselves are slightly smaller in size so the text and graphics look smaller).

Prices (ex GST) range from about $1,800 for a Macintosh portable to almost $2,400 for a Dell portable. Desktops are around $2,000.

Note that PC and Macintosh portables are available for short term loan from the CRC for conferences and other uses.

Some points to consider in comparing portables to desktops:

  • Our experience with users who are using portables is that they often request additional mice, keyboards, monitors, risers and sometimes docks for their office so they can more comfortably use the portable at work. Normally we will also purchase a carry case of some sort to better protect the computer when it is being transported. Each such item increases the cost of the portable over the standard desktop.
  • The ergonomics of using portables compared with desktop computers may also have OH&S implications that need to be considered.
  • Connecting computers outside the campus to the campus network is currently the responsibility of the user, so any staff member with a portable (as with any computer they want to use from home or anywhere off-campus) will have to make their own arrangements with a private ISP if they wanted to connect to the Internet from outside the campus.
  • Portable computers are also by their nature less secure than desktops, although so far none of the Division's portables has gone missing.
  • Using a portable is also more technically complex for the user, coping for example with online vs offline access to email and web browsing, printer connections, proxy settings and so forth which vary depending on whether the computer is on the university network or not. We have a number of helpdesk requests from users of portables for support for issues of this sort, and given the immediate need these users have for assistance it is often stressful for the staff of the helpdesk to be able to respond in a timely manner.

Also since writing the above Wireless or WiFi access to the University network is being actively developed; and malware (virus, worms, Trojans and other malicious software) has become a bigger issue for PCs, particularly through the connection of infected portable Windows PCs being attached to the University network (wired or wireless) when infected elsewhere.

Update 29 July 2005: The Division’s new laptop policy has come into effect.