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USING OLD TECH OFTEN PROVIDES BEST RESULTS

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You know by now, if you read this column regularly, that we don't jump on fads.

We do test out every product produced to fan the fad. But until we think it's ready for real people to use, we sit on our test results. We'd rather not review something bad in print than have you remember the product's name and not that we panned it.As something gets close to being ready for the working world to use, we try to integrate it into our own offices and use it long-term. That's because, no matter how sophisticated a lab test is, it doesn't tell if the product really helps people with their work or play.

Often, those long-term use tryouts set us to teetering precariously on the bleeding edge of computer technology. Last week, our teetering led to several bumps and bruises.

To provide the context for our tale of woe: Our company recently started publishing a new newsletter for computerized accountants. For 10 years before that, we'd researched and edited a similar newsletter, but under contract to another publisher.

To publicize and sell CPA Computer Report, our new newsletter, we needed to enlarge our database of CPA firms. We researched to see what name-and-address lists are available online to database subscribers. One looked promising. We decided to download, via modem, a sampling of the names so we could test how useful they were.

We sat at our 386SX Sun Moon Star PC, which has 8M RAM, MS-DOS 6.1 and Windows 3.1 (both with the latest updates and bug fixes). For downloading, we used our US Robotics Courier v.32bis v.42bis modem and Relay Gold for Windows telecommunications software. The cost of logging onto the service and downloading from it came to nearly a penny per name.

Not bad. But business profits come from shaving even pennies. So on a hunch, we quit Windows and ran an old non-Windows version of Relay Gold. Using the same modem, same phone line, and same online database, we downloaded more names at close to a quarter-penny per name.

Forsaking Windows for old-tech MS-DOS turned out to be three to four times faster! That was only the week's first surprise. The second came when we sent our April issue to the printer.

We didn't use one of those downtown printers with printing presses and sticky ink. Not even a quick-copy center like Kinko's or Econoprint. Taking advantage of leading-edge technology, we started to print the newsletter using our Lexmark 4039 laser printer.

Why? Because we wanted each subscriber's copy of the newsletter to come off the printer already addressed to the right subscriber. Not only that; we wanted that subscriber's name printed in the footer of every page he received.

We figured it would impress the daylights out of the CPAs. And the high-tech software on our little 386SX (Word 6.0 in Windows 3.1) promised we could do it! Now, the Lexmark 4039 is some printer. It can feed from two paper trays, one holding up to 500 sheets. It can print both sides of a page in one pass. It prints 600 dots per inch, selecting either the latest Hewlett-Packard printing standard or the latest PostScript printing standard. It can feed envelopes faultlessly.

But we taxed its patience to the limit with our request. Our computer took 20 minutes to send it each formatted, illustrated newsletter plus a subscriber's name and address. At that rate, we could crank out only 72 newsletters in a 24-hour day! In sorrow, we abandoned bleeding-edge high tech. We printed the newsletter once to a file, not to the printer. Then we wrote a small program that added each subscriber's name and address and, with a simple MS-DOS command, sent the file to the printer. Our crude little program cut printing time to four minutes.

In other words, using old tech was five times faster.

If we refine the print file and the program, and add more memory to the printer, we figure we'll shave printing time to three minutes or less. We could have speeded up the Lexmark another way: by buying a faster computer. A 60MHz Pentium PC, for instance, would feed more names per minute and spew more pages per hour.

But while Frank calls it "the debt spiral" - this constant need for fancier hardware to support the appetites of powerful software - Judi calls it Catch 22 and balks about feeding it.

Our son who designs interactive software for a living owns the same computer Judi uses (an ALR 386DX). But he's out shopping for a faster PC right now. We asked him why.

He said, "I can wait seconds for my spreadsheet to recalculate. I can wait minutes for my latest program to compile. But when I'm playing games, I get distracted when my sword won't move smoothly across the screen."