Small-business computing Archive

Expecting your printer to be the home or small business printing press? What does it need?

This is an updated version of the article I had published in February 2012

Most small organisations such as micro-businesses and other small businesses will place an expectation on desktop-style computer printers to be used as an “organisational short-run printing press”.

HP OfficeJet Pro 8600a Plus all-in-one printer

HP OfficeJet Pro 8600 Series – a desktop multifunction printer that has been pitched as something that can turn out flyers and brochures

This expectation has been brought around through the availability of software with varying levels of desktop-publishing functionality at prices most people and small business can afford. This ranges from software in a typical office-software package offering elementary desktop publishing functionality like Microsoft Word and PowerPoint, through to dedicated mid-tier desktop publishing software of the Microsoft Publisher class that is at a price most people can afford and is easy to understand.

The same expectation has been underscored by the various printer manufacturers with their recent desktop-printer designs, especially with the high-end business models of their product range like HP’s OfficeJet Pro lineup. Here, they are bringing printing abilities, output speeds and document quality associated with workgroup-grade freestanding printers to this class of printer with such examples as Brother offering business-grade desktop inkjet multifunctions that can turn out A3 documents.

It has been underscored in the advertising that these printer manufacturers provide and is more evident with Websites and, especially, TV commercials that are run on prime-time TV which reaches most consumers more easily. Examples include a recent Canon TV commercial for their PIXMA printers, HP’s website for their OfficeJet Pro inkjet printers highlighting their prowess with turning out brochures, or Brother underscoring their business printers’ prowess with desktop publishing through a series of TV commercials.

What features does it need to have?

High-yield printing

HP OfficeJet 6700 Premium front-load ink cartridges

The printer should have separate colour ink cartridges and be able to accept high-yield cartridges

It should be feasible for customers to purchase high-yield ink or toner cartridges as an option for the printer alongside the standard-yield cartridges. Some vendors like Brother are known to offer “super-high-yield” cartridges for some of their printers alongside the high-yield and standard-yield cartridges. This is more important for inkjet machines because the ink cartridges are typically very small and aren’t able to hold a lot of ink.

It is worth noting that most of the equipment pitched at business users like the HP OfficeJet Pro 8600 will typically have the larger-capacity ink or toner cartridges even for their standard-yield variants and have a higher duty cycle therefore being able to do this kind of work.

As well, you should prefer to use an inkjet printer that uses individually-replaceable ink tanks for each colour. These printers also become more cost-effective to run because you only need to replace the colours that you run out of when you run out of them.

The print mechanism has to be able to support large print runs without failing mid-job. This includes having it perform advanced printing functionalities like auto-duplex or use of anciliary trays. It also has to work reliably with jobs that are based around media other than regular paper.

Automatic duplexing

This brings me to automatic duplexing. An increasing number of home-office printers and small-business printers are being equipped with an automatic duplex mechanism so that the unit can print on both sides of the paper. This is usually to permit you to save paper but people may find this function useful for turning out booklets, brochures, greeting cards and the like where they want to print on both sides of the paper. For that matter, most of these printers have a “booklet printing” function built in to their driver software where they can use the duplex functionality to turn out booklets such as a four-page booklet on one sheet of paper. Similarly, automatic duplexing may come in handy for making flyers and signage that is to be seen on both sides such as a sign that is fixed to a window, or a sign used in a freestanding sign holder.

Brother MFC-J5720DW colour inkjet printer

A Brother desktop printer that can print on A3 paper

A common problem with some of these mechanisms is that they don’t print to the narrow edge of Letter or A4 paper during a duplex print run especially if the paper size determined in the driver software or print job doesn’t match the paper in the printer. The problem has been more so with most Hewlett-Packard inkjet printers except the OfficeJet Pro 8600, which was pitched as a brochure-printing machine. This can cause problems with registration shifting or a requirement to have large margins on the document. Some Canon printers such as the PIXMA MX-870 have improved automatic duplex mechanisms that can work to the edge of the paper.

In the same case, you may find that some automatic duplexers may have problems with page registration. That is where the page is lined up properly on both sides of the paper and can be of concern if you are turning out work like luggage tags, door hangers or bookmarks where it is critical to have the back of the document lined up with the front of the document. You can work around this by allowing a margin on both sides of the design.

Another problem is that there is a time penalty of up to 15 seconds per page with inkjet printers when they use automatic duplexing with this happening when the front side of the document is being printed. This is to allow the ink to dry on the front side of the paper before the printer draws the paper in to print on the back and is being reduced with newer equipment that uses quick-drying ink.

Another limitation that I have found with automatic duplexers is that they don’t handle card stock or similar paper easily because they have to turn the paper around one or more rollers. Here, you may have to use manual duplexing where you reinsert the work in the machine with the other side facing the print head to print it double-sided.

Issues concerning use of the printer

Special printing media requirements

Plastic-based media

Plastic-based media like overhead-projector transparencies, back-print film and vinyl stickers / decals have special requirements when it comes to printing them on your printer.

They range from being able to “hold” ink that is sprayed on to them by the inkjet process or passing through a heat-based printing process such as the xerographic process used in laser and LED printers.

Laser printers and special media
Brother HL-L8350CDW colour laser printer

Brother HL-L8350CDW colour laser printer

If you use a laser printer, you need to use laser-optimised media for plastic-based media and stickers. This is because the printed documents have to pass through “fuser rollers” that are heated at a very high temperature in order to melt the toner on to the media. This can be a problem with the adhesive and plastic backing associated with stickers or the plastic media melting inside the machine and causing damage that is costly in both money and serviceability terms.

It also can extend to glossy or silk-look “presentation / brochure” paper which uses some form of glazing to provide the sheen, and this can cause problems with different printers.

So you have to use special media that is designed for laser-printer or xerographic photocopier use. This media is designed to work at very high temperatures so it can pass through the hot fuser rollers without damaging the printer.  Some of the media that is made by particular printer manufacturers is designed for the printers made by that manufacturer and, in some cases, printers based on a certain print-engine type. This is due to the manufacturer knowing the operating temperature for the printers in question.

But there are some kinds of special media that is made by third parties and pitched at a range of printers offered by many different manufacturers. Some of these also may be available under the private labels that different stationers and office-supply stores use. For example, Avery make a large range of laser labels that are compatible with most laser printers that are in circulation nowadays.

Inkjet-compliant plastic media

To get best results out of inkjet printers with plastic media, you have to use inkjet-optimised plastic media that has a rough surface on the printed side. This is to catch the droplets left by the inkjet printer as part of its printing process and avoid the ink smearing over the medium as it passes through the printer or is handled by the user.

As well, you will need to set the printer’s driver software to work with “overhead transparencies” or “back print film” when you print to plastic media. This is to allow the printer to optimise its printing process for the media such as slowing the print-head action so as to make sure the ink ends up properly on the medium.

When you load the media, you have to make sure that the rough “printing” side faces the print head as it feeds through the printer. This may be harder to understand with Hewlett-Packard and Brother printers because they use a U-shaped paper-feed path and eject the printed document above the paper storage trays. Here, you would have to put the media in with the rough side facing down when loading the printer.

Card stock, art board and similarly-thick media

Brother HL-L8350CDW colour laser printer special-media tray

“Manual-bypass” special media tray in a colour laser printer

Another medium that may prove itself to be difficult for desktop printers is art board, card stock and similarly-thick papers. Most of these papers can cause problems with printers that implement any paper path that has a U-turn in it like most desktop printers.

Here, you may have to use a “straight-through” paper path on them for these papers to work properly and use manual duplexing if you are printing on both sides. Most inkjet multifunction printers have a rear-mounted multifunction tray where you load this paper while laser printers will require you to use a “manual bypass” tray or slot at the front as the loading tray and have a drop-down door at the rear as the output tray.

Increasingly, budget and some midrange printers will have a limit on the number of sheets of paper that you can load through this way with some of them even requiring you to load one sheet at a time in to the printer.  This can be an inconvenience to you if you are turning out multiple copies of the same document.

Use your printer or outsource your printing for that print run

HP LaserJet Pro 400 Series colour laser printer

HP LaserJet Pro 400 Series colour laser printer

The main question that a lot of users will end up asking will be whether to have the print runs made by an outside printing house or print the documents with their printer. Some of you may prefer to outsource your printing rather than use your printer especially with public-facing documents like brochures and flyers. This is because the print shop that you use has better equipment than what you would have and it is increasingly true of large office-supply chains like Office Depot, Officeworks or Staples who provide on-site printing and copying facilities.

I have talked with two men who pastor churches with medium-sized congregations about this issue through the time I was reviewing the Brother MFC-J5720DW desktop inkjet multifunction printer. This is a class of user who could be tempted to use one of these printers to turn out flyers and tracts as a way to make the offering dollar go further. One of these men, who happens to be my pastor, raised the issue of output quality from outsourced work versus work turned out on one of these printers and remarked that the outsourced work is of much better quality. The other pastor raised the fact that these printers wouldn’t work well for turning out large print runs like what would be expected for promoting an upcoming special event at the church.

Brother MFC-J6720DW A3 inkjet multifunction printer

Brother MFC-J6720DW A3 desktop inkjet multifunction printer

One factor to consider is how many copies you will be eventually needing for your design. If you are turning out up to 20 to 40 copies of your design at a time, you can get by with using your machine. If you end up running more than that, you would need to outsource your printing. This is because of the cost of ink and paper involved in the large print runs, the costs associated with the wear and tear on your machine and the time it takes to run the large print jobs on the typical home-office or small-business printer. This last factor will be of importance with fax-enabled printers serving as fax machines that have to be ready to receive faxes or printers that are required to turn out hard copy as part of business processes.

Another factor worth considering is how often your design is likely to change. This also includes situations where you want to adopt a “print-as-needed” policy such as to run a small-enough quantity of flyers for an appearance like a house inspection. If the design is likely to change frequently or be suited to an occasion, you may have to use your printer for the short runs or outsource larger runs to a print shop that supports quick-turnaround printing such as a copy shop that relies on inkjet or xerographic technology or a printing house that uses digital presses.

Examples of this may include a café, restaurant or bar turning out menus or drinks lists that are centred around particular food and drink specials, a church or funeral home turning out an order-of-service for a particular occasion or an estate agent or auctioneer running flyers about the property that they are auctionning to hand out to customers.

Other factors worth considering include the printing cost per copy if you are intending to use a premium paper stock like coated paper, glossy paper or art board when you are wanting that special look for your public-facing documents.It also includes using finished-document page sizes and forms that are out of the ordinary document-paper sizes like A4 or Letter.  Here, you may have to factor in any extra handling that you our your staff may have to do for manual duplexing or cutting to small sizes.

It is worth knowing that your machine would keep its worth in the equation as part of the design-approval process before you commit to having them printed. This is where you would be turning out proofs so you are sure they are what you want them to be; or to turn out short “test-runs” to assess the effectiveness of a design.

Your printer can also complement the print shop you use for outsourced printing by being able to provide short supplementary print runs of the final document on request. Here, you may want to:

  • do a preview run which you would give to special customers or partners while the main print run is being turned out;
  • turn out a short “infill run” of the documents when you find that you have run short of copies and you don’t want to commit to another large print run due to cost or turnaround-time reasons; or
  • want to keep some copies on hand and ready to distribute so you can get your campaign off the ground without waiting for the printing to be finished especially if you find that your print job has been delayed for some reason.

Conclusion

Here, small businesses can consider the use of a desktop printer as the “small-business printing press” if they know what their machine is capable of and they are using the right media for the job. This includes whether to work it hard on a large print job or assign the job to the local print shop.

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Product Review–Brother MFC-J5720DW Multifunction Inkjet Printer

Introduction

I am reviewing the Brother MFC-J5720DW multifunction inkjet printer which is the second generation of Brother’s landscape-printing A4/Letter inkjet printers. It still has the compact form factor of these printers and can be set up to print on A3/Ledger paper by you either using the feed tray on the back of the printer or elongating one of the paper drawers.

IMG_2398 Brother MFC-J5720DW

Print Scan Copy Fax /
E-mail
Paper Trays Connections
Colour Colour Colour / B/W Colour 2 x A4 USB 2.0
Piezoelectric ink-jet Resolution ID copy
Optimised book copy,
App-driven cropping
Super G3 Options Ethernet,
802.11g/n Wi-Fi
Auto-duplex Single-pass duplex ADF T.37, T.38, other email-based transmission and reception Multi-purpose tray – A3 IPv6 dual-stack

Prices

Printer

The machine’s standard price: AUD$299 Recommended Retail Price

Inks and Toners

Standard High-Capacity
Price Pages Price Pages
Black AUD$40.95 550 AUD$54.95 2400
Cyan AUD$26.95 550 AUD$31.95 1200
Magenta AUD$26.95 550 AUD$31.95 1200
Yellow AUD$26.95 550 AUD$31.95 1200

 

The printer itself

A highly compact printer

A highly compact printer

The Brother MFC-J5720DW and the MFC-J5320DW come across as being a highly compact printer that doesn’t take up much desk space. This is thanks to the landscape printing inkjet mechanism which works on the long edge of the sheet of A4 or Letter paper. It also lets them print on to A3 or Ledger paper which can come in handy with signs and other similar work.

The model I am reviewing is the MFC-J5370DW which has as its extra features a single-pass double-sided scanner as well as an extra tray whereas the cheaper MFC-J5320DW omits these features.

Setup

Up-front ink cartridges

Up-front ink cartridges

The printer is capable of being connected to a Wi-Fi wireless network with WPS setup or an Ethernet network and I chose the latter more for reliability and the fact that it is better to connect printers that are normally sessile to a network via a wired connectioni.e. Cat5 Ethernet, HomePlug AV or MoCA.

The printer, like other recent Brother inkjets, requires you to lift the lid to connect it to a computer or wired network. This can be confusing but allows you to have it tightly against a wall.

Everything about this printer was simple when it came to getting it going for the first time. This included installing ink cartridges which are located up front.

Walk-up functions

Loaded view - with document in ADF and printed output.

Loaded view – with document in ADF and printed output.

The copying function comes through easily because of the use of “one-touch” access to the common copying jobs. The copies come out very sharp and clear but you may miss a few millimetres at the edge and this shows up when I was doing a test ID-copy on a hotel keycard, and this can exasperate users who put documents to the edge to make sure they square up when copying off the platen. Even a duplex copy went according to plan with both sides coming through properly and quickly. Here it achieves the speed goal by scanning to memory before printing.

USB socket and SD card slot

USB socket and SD card slot

It has the card slots so you can quickly print from camera cards or USB thumbdrives if you just want that picture or document “there and then”.

It has access to mobile printing services like Google Cloud Print and Apple AirPrint along with the ability to print from online services like Dropbox, Evernote and Facebook. This is through an interface that Brother has set up for these devices and it allows you to have multiple accounts of the same service set up.

Computer functions

The driver software installed properly as long as you specified the model that was being installed and there was the “at-a-glance” layout for driver settings. They also use the ControlCenter scanner software which could benefit from the ability to reorder pages when you are scanning multiple documents or creating a “document-of-documents” PDF file.

Brother still maintains the ability to load ink cartridges from the front of the printer like they have done with most of their inkjet printers. This makes for an easy-to-use printer. The only let-down is that they are using newer cartridges which may be disappoint people who are upgrading from previous generations of Brother inkjet printer but have extra cartridges for their older equipment..

The multipurpose tray was a bit hard to use because of the effective availability of two trays as part if this tray. This can confuse anyone who wants to use the multipurpose tray to print a few sheets of paper.

Print Speed and Quality

I had this printer turn out a large report on both sides of the paper and it didn’t falter through the print job which is an example of a typical office print job. The landscape printing was able to help with improving the printing speed.

Regular documents came out of the Brother MFC-J5720DW with the same sharpness that is expected for office documents and this didn’t matter whether the printer was working single-sided or double-sided.

It comes across with the saturation for business graphics but could do a bit better when working with plain paper. This was from what I observed with a “carols by candlelight” bulletin for the church I go to and I showed my printout of that same bulletin to my pastor who had colour printouts of it done by a local Officeworks and he reckoned that it didn’t have the same as what they provided.

I printed out some test photographs on Kodak paper and had still noticed proper contrast, brightness and definition. But it still came across with a yellow tinge which may not play well with some pictures which may impair colour fidelity. This is although there is the strong colour saturation which may be desireable to make marketing materials “pop”. In my opinion, it is getting closer to the HP OfficeJet Pro 8600 Series but doesn’t overthrow it when it comes to a business inkjet printer that has marketing-collateral printing prowess.

Compared to the previous generation of Brother landscape-printing inkjet printers, the MFC-J5720DW and its peers have made better strides in print quality for photos and other similar material.

Limitations and Points Of Improvements

There are still some improvements that Brother could apply to the MFC-J5720DW and its peers.

One would be to improve the colour fidelity so that photos don’t come out with a heavy yellow tinge but come out with a proper amount of yellow. As well, Brother could still keep up the work with optimising their colour inkjet and laser printers to turn out the quality needed for them to become the short-run printing press for small organisations.

The mechanism can be improved by the use of an output shelf that isn’t integrated in to the paper cassette. This can allow for improvements like a self-retracting output shelf or one that comes out when a print job is being turned out.

Similarly, Brother could implement in to their business inkjet printers an A4 paper cassette which has a mezzanine shelf for 4”x6” paper like photo snapshots or index cards.

As for the on-machine user interface, it doesn’t come up to the standard of the MFC-L8850CDW colour laser multifunction which has a screen that is very large and useable or the HP business inkjets with their large touchscreens. Here, Brother could improve on this with a large LCD or OLED touchscreen for their inkjet printers. For that matter, printer manufacturers could try implementing OLED display technology on their printer’s control surface in a similar manner to what is being used on a lot of Android smartphones.

Conclusion and Placement Notes

I would consider the Brother MFC-J5720 multifunction inkjet printer as a all-round office printer for a home office or other small office. It can even satisfy short-run promotional printing needs very easily like turning out proofs or small infill jobs. If you want to save money and can do without the duplex scanning or second paper tray, the MFC-J5320 can satisfy your needs.

Update – Further conversation with a fellow user

After this review was published and I had promoted the review on LinkedIn, a church pastor had let me know that he had bought this same printer for his home office before I had run this review. I had subsequent conversation with him about his experience with this machine and he has enjoyed using it and took advantage of its A3-printing ability to turn out notices for his church’s noticeboard.

He found that it is of better value to use the higher-capacity cartridges especially if you are turning out a lot of A3 material. He also reckoned that the A3-printing feature would end up suiting small community organisations who need to print up material for their noticeboards.

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InFocus released newer cost-effective projectors for small-budget users

Article – From the horse’s mouth

InFocus

Press Release

Product Page

IN118HDa (3000 lumens, standard throw (104.6” / 2.7m distance for a 70” / 1.8m image), USD$649)

IN118HDSTa (2700 lumens, short throw (34” / 0.9m distance for a 70” / 1.8m image), USD$749)

My Comments

A small church that runs on a hairline budget

A small church that runs on a hairline budget

InFocus have released two new cost-effective projectors that are pitched at small businesses and non-profit organisations who are thinking of equipment that is cheap to buy and run. Here, the applications I think of would be something like a projector that is used in a café, bar or similar place for showing TV or video content from a Blu-Ray player or pay-TV set-top box, or a projector used in a small church to show song lyrics and video content during worship.

These units run with a 15000:1 contrast ratio and 3000 ANSI lumens for the standard-throw IN118HDa model or 2700 lumens for the short-throw model. They both will have a 10,000 hour lamp life if used on the “Eco Blank” mode and are operated properly.

What impresses me about them is that they implement a 16:9 native aspect ratio with Full HD resolution which satisfies their use with currently-issued video and computer equipment along with currently-produced video content.

The main connection on these projectors is an HDMI 1.4 socket which is a connection type that is being expected of currently-issued video and computer equipment. There are also the legacy connection types like the VGA connection and component, S-Video or composite video connections. The projector has its own amplifier and speakers for the legacy audio connection and a built-in digital-analogue audio converter for the HDMI connection. This latter option comes in to its own with achieving a simplified setup if you have a stereo amplifier and speakers or a PA system located near the screen because you can connect the amplifier to the projector’s audio output and run one HDMI cable between your laptop and the projector.

Personally, I would like to see these units implement the HDMI-CEC functionality so as to allow a person to use the projector’s remote controller to navigate content held on suitably-equipped consumer video equipment like most of the Blu-Ray players.

But what I see of this is the ability to provide projectors that can work with today’s video content and equipment at reasonable prices for this kind of user group.

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HP brings BYOD device management closer to small business

Article

HP’s BYOD service protects mobile devices and PCs | PC World

Samsung Galaxy Note 4 press picture courtesy of Samsung

Small businesses now have the ability to manage their smartphones and tablets like their big brethren

From the horse’s mouth

Hewlett-Packard

HP Touchpoint Manager

Product Page

My Comments

A trend that is coming to reality is the concept of “Bring Your Own Device” where employees are bringing in their own computing devices to use as part of their work. This is working alongside the concept of “mobile-first” computing where business computing is primarily focused around client devices that use mobile operating devices.

But these setups require the use of a management system to protect the integrity and security of the business data. Typically a lot of this software was costly, hard-to-use, and only suitable for large businesses which had an integral IT department.

But HP have answered this problem by releasing a Web-based remote-device-management system that is expressly pitched at small and medium businesses. Here, they focus the pricing on affordability for businesses and organisations with up to 500 staff with starting costs of US$2 per month for a basic setup and US$10 per month for a more advanced system.

This system can work with devices that are based on Windows, iOS or Android operating platforms and don’t yet support Blackberry or Macintosh platforms.  The baseline functionality includes a user and devices list and the ability to check on the state of the device’s battery and secondary storage. Pay more and you could benefit from features like finding lost devices, resetting passwords or wiping data remotely on these lost devices. There is functionality like the ability to restrict access to the data if the device is outside a particular location.

Another benefit that HP clawed for in the design of this software is for it to be “radically” easy to use, typically to cater for the small business or organisation where one person effectively is the “chief cook and bottle-washer”. Here, they implement a simplified user interface which is centred around a Web-based dashboard to make it easier to “get at what you want”.

There are some other gaping holes in the functionality like lack of geofencing and data backup but these may be offered later on either as extra functions for different levels of service or as options you can “buy on”. As well, HP even are integrating this service in to their current lineup of business-grade laptops like the Elitebook range. In this particular range, there is the ability for the computers to provide geographic location even if they are turned off.

What I like of this is the way HP has provided an easy-to-manage secure BYOD device management solution that is focused towards the small business or community organisation.

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Ruckus now runs a range of Wi-Fi access points for small-time setups

Article

Ruckus Announces Affordable AP Line | SmallNetBuilder

From the horse’s mouth

Ruxkus Wireless – XClaim Wireless range

Press Release

Product Page

My Comments

Ruckus Wireless have launched a series of business-grade access points that are pitched at independent IT contractors, “enthusiast-grade” home networks and small businesses.  They are offering this series of access points under a new “sub-brand” called XClaim Wireless which is totally focused on equipment and solutions pitched at and priced for the small-time user who doesn’t have their own IT staff.

Unlike a lot of business-tier access points, these aren’t bound to a particular controller appliance provided by their vendor. Rather, they can be managed by the Harmony mobile app which is user-friendly enough for this class of user. In some cases, it could appeal to a few “big-time” setups where an extra access point with “enterprise abilities” may come in handy for troubleshooting, temporary setups, new locations or similar activities before committing to expand a controller-based setup.

But they do have the business-grade access-point “tricks” like client isolation (essential for a properly-designed public wireless network),channel and band management, amongst other things. This also includes the multiple-VLAN / multiple-SSID functionality that allows the same physical Wi-Fi network to serve multiple networks such as a dedicated VoIP network and a general data network or Wi-Fi in a building lobby serving the building’s tenants’ networks and a public-access Wi-Fi service.

The series comes in the Xi-1 a dual-band single-radio 802.11n dual-stream (N300) variant, the Xi-2 which is a simultaneous-dual-band 802.11n dual-stream-per-band (N600) variant and the Xi-3 which is a simultaneous-dual-band 802.11ac dual-stream-per-band (AC1200) variant of the Xi-2 access point. There is also an outdoor model of the Xi-3 802.11ac unit, known as the Xo-3 which has the weatherproof requirements that make it fit for outdoor use. They all support 12-volt power from a supplied AC adaptor or can support power from a standards-compliant 802.3af/at Power-Over-Ethernet setup.

For that matter, the Xi-1 was called at a list price of US$89 while the Xi-2 was called at a list price of US$149 which underscored how they were to be positioned to the small business and similar users. The fact that these worked independent of a controller appliance had me think of them as appealing to small-time independent IT contractors who would be deploying or optimising small wireless networks using enterprise-grade abilities but without being required to sell controller appliances or be tied to a particular vendor.

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A NAS could appeal as an alternative to the old XP-powered file server

Article

Replace Your Outdated Windows XP File Server With Network Attached Storage | Lifehacker

My Comments

ASUSTor AS-204TE 4-bay NAS with WD Red 6Tb hard disk

ASUSTor AS-204TE 4-bay NAS – “Data central” for a small business

Some of you who run small businesses may be trying to get that last bit of mileage out of that beige-coloured “white-box” computer that is running as a file server. Typically the old computer may be running Windows XP Professional as its operating system which is approaching end-of-life and you may find that many components, especially the mechanical ones, are starting to wear down.

Today’s small-business desktop NAS units are about the size of half a loaf of bread for small units or the size of a large toaster or a toaster-oven for the larger units, and are built from the ground up to work as data servers for a small workload. They are even engineered to be able to run reliably for a long time without issues concerning overheating or vibration. As well, most of today’s small-business NAS units are even optimised to run the fans and hard disks on an as-needed basis to allow for quiet operation and reduced energy needs.

Although the news article focuses on Synology equipment, it can hold true of similar devices offered by QNAP, WD, Seagate, NETGEAR ReadyNAS, ASUSTor and the like. Most of these are increasingly running multipurpose operating environments that the manufacturers build on Linux or, in some cases, licensing Windows Server 2012 Essentials Edition from Microsoft. As well, they have a lot of the essential server applications like database servers, Web servers and the like that you can install from the vendor along with the essential file servers and can even work with Microsoft ActiveDirectory setups. This can make for some small-business NAS systems that can be truly multifunctional like some properly set-up file servers.

Western Digital Sentinel DS5100 Windows Server NAS

Western Digital Sentinel DS-5100 Windows Server NAS

The advice about considering a NAS as an upgrade path for your small-business’s old “white-box” file-server computer may not apply to those of you who have a lot invested in this style of “regular-computer-based” server system, especially where an application server is concerned, and have kept it up to date with new hardware and software. But it can be of use for those of us who are heading towards a more efficient computer setup for the small office..

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In some areas, a court case may be necessary to encourage innovation

Article

US judge makes Avaya give access to maintenance commands on some PBXes | PC World

My Comments

A recent US District Court (New Jersey) ruling was handed down requiring Avaya to expose maintenance commands for their business phone systems after the jury who heard an antitrust case concerning this company found that they unlawfully prevented maintenance access to these systems for their owners or independent third-party service contractors.

This case was about who can perform repair or maintenance work on IT systems especially where they are becoming more software-defined. The article even mentioned that this is heading out beyond the IT scene towards the maintenance of cars, “white-goods” and similar products especially as more of them have their functionality driven by software.

For example, I know of two friends who have had technicians look at their 30-plus-year-old ovens and the technicians have preferred to keep them going rather than replace them with newer ovens. This is because of issues like continual availability of parts for these stoves and the way that they can be repaired.

Here, it was about who can continue to perform service on the equipment concerned and the availability of the equipment’s owner to gain access to independent experts to keep it going. I see this also opening up doors for third-parties to continue to offer innovative software or other solutions that enhance the equipment or shape it to a user’s needs. This will extend to encouraging the implementation of “open-frame” designs for hardware and software which will push forward a culture of a level playing field and, in some cases, a longer service life for equipment.

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Spotify to run a music playout service for businesses

Article

Ex-Beats, Spotify Execs Form Soundtrack Your Brand To Sell Spotify To Businesses | TechCrunch

Spotify-based service puts an end to lousy coffee shop music | Engadget

Previous Coverage

Make Spotify and Shazam work with your favourite bar or cafe

From the horse’s mouth

Soundtrack Your Brand

Product Page

My Comments

Spotify - to be available as a legitimate business music service

Spotify – to be available as a legitimate business music service

Spotify is now moving in on the commercial-music-playout game by working with a firm founded by the founder of Beats Music to offer businesses access to the Spotify music library for a subscription.

The main issue that was being considered an obstacle for Spotify to enter this game was copyright implications concerning playback of music in a commercial setting like a bar or a shop. This involved the concept of making sure musicians, composers and record labels got their public-performance royalties when music is used this way and has been sorted out in Stockholm before the service went to launch in that market.

They want to offer features like scheduled music so you can have particular music to set a venue’s mood for a particular time of day; along with offline play so that slow Internet connections don’t impact on music playout. This also allows Spotify business customers to establish their presence on the Spotify service which may, hopefully, allow either a “take it home” service for the music or the ability for regulars to influence the playlist and is part of allowing that business to cement their position on Spotify like they can do on other social media.

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Purchasing and Specification Journal–A new playout computer for our church

New desktop comptuer at church

New desktop comptuer at church

As I had mentioned in a previous article, I had moved to a new church congregation and, a few services later, my new pastor had approached me for advice about specifying a new computer for the church. This was because the then-existing computer that was being used to show the song lyrics during worship and to sometimes show video material during a service or similar church event was nearly on its way out.

A risk I often identify with non-profit organisations of any size is where they could end up buying capital equipment that is undersized for their needs or is very likely to fail too frequently. They are also likely to fall for purchasing mistakes where they buy from a vendor who offers the goods for cheap but doesn’t offer good-quality after-sales service and support. In a lot of cases, these organisations are likely to source goods from a “friend of a friend” or “my friend’s boss” where they are not likely to get the best deal and this can place a toll on friendships and relationships.

Identifying the application

I identified that this computer is to be used for AV playout during services and other church activities. One activity that this church also engaged in very regularly is a concert outreach with band members playing the appropriate Christian songs as part of this concert. In these concerts, it would earn its keep with playing out video material or backing tracks for the performances.

These requirements placed an emphasis on multimedia work thus requiring a computer that can handle this kind of work very smoothly. As well, we were moving towards a newer media-playout practice which is to handle file-based media that is provided on a “transfer now, play later” method. This means that the pastor or one of the church elders can receive the media via an Internet path or create the media themselves at home and transfer it to a USB stick to take to church. Then they copy it to the computer’s hard disk for playback and work from the file that is on the hard disk when the time comes to play the material.

The existing system was an orthodox “tower-style” white-box desktop computer that was running Windows XP but was underperforming for today’s requirements due to small RAM and hard-disk space. This is connected to a local screen at the sound desk for cue/monitor purposes as well as a “front-of-house” video projector for the congregation to see the material.

For that matter, a “white-box” computer is a computer, typically a desktop computer, that is built by a value-added reseller or independent computer store using components that the reseller purchases. This can be a custom-built system or a package that is available “off-the-rack” for a known price like this computer.. It was infact the way most small businesses and home users bought their personal desktop computers since the 1990s.

What can benefit this application

For this application, I have identified certain key features that are important. These are increased processor capability and speed along with a dedicated graphics subsystem so as to allow the system to work with the local monitor and the projector in a highly responsive way.

As well, I placed importance on a computer having as much RAM and hard-disk capacity as the church can afford with the minimum being 4Gb RAM and 750Gb to 1 Terabyte hard disk capacity. One of the computer dealer also recommended in to their quote the use of a solid-state drive which can give the computer some speed especially when loading the software such as during startup.

I made sure that the computer came with a legitimately-licensed copy of Windows 7 so that most of those in the AV ministry don’t need to learn new skills if Windows 8.1 was in place. This was assuming that most of the people were operating computers running Windows 7 on their home network or at work.

Obtain competitive quotes

Before any money changed hands, I made sure that the church obtained quotes from a few different vendors. This has an advantage of knowing how much a computer system of this standard was to cost and it also allowed for the pastor to use these quotes as a bargaining tool to get the best value for money.

I made sure that the vendors we had on our shortlist had a local “bricks-and-mortar” storefront because of the issue of service and support. Here, we would be able to talk with the vendor rather than an offshore call centre if the machine did break down. It also allows one of the church elders to put the computer in their car and take it to the store if it needed repairs.

The kind of vendors we went for were national computer-store chains or independent computer stores who were able to build a system to the specifications or have one that was already built. For that matter,smaller independent or local computer vendors are likely to supply a “shop-built” white-box system for better value with local support.

The new system in place

We purchased a small “white-box” system to the specification, installed the necessary software on to it such as EasiSlides and set it up for use in the church. As I was worshipping God through the first Sunday morning service after the computer was installed, I had noticed that there was very little “lag” with the song-lyrics display.

There were still a few issues with the operators getting used to Windows 7 on the new computer after being used to handling Windows XP on the previous computer which I found out after that service and is something that I notice when one is confronted with new equipment.

Conclusion

As I had mentioned in my previous article about purchasing technology for a small business or community organisation, it is important to spend some time “doing your homework” when purchasing the technology. This is to make sure you are buying the equipment that represents the best value for money and can serve you in the long run.

In this case, it involved defining a set of baseline specifications that you won’t go below along with a price range that suits your budget, then seeking different quotes on systems that meet the baseline specifications from a few different vendors for the best price within your range before buying the actual equipment. As well, placing importance on vendors with a local physical shopfront allows for one to be able to obtain prompt service and support if the equipment malfunctions.

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Fibre broadband passing your business? What it means for you

Article

Guest blog: Fibre broadband: what does it mean for your business? | Go E-Sussex

My Comments

A situation may occur for your small business where fibre-optic next-generation broadband passes your office (including your home). This is due to efforts in place to head towards the concept of this technology being made available in most places through progressive rollouts by differing companies.

In some cases, the next-generation broadband rollouts are public-private efforts with national, state or local governments putting money towards the efforts as a way of investing in their constituencies. It is very similar to improving infrastructure like roads, rails or utilities in a neighbourhood to make it worth investing or doing business in that area.

How could this benefit my business?

Use of remote storage and cloud services

One obvious application us the increased use of off-premises computing services.  Typically these are in the form of remote storage and backup services like Dropbox or Box.com, often marketed as “cloud storage” services. Some of these services essentially function as an off-premises data-backup tool or they can simply work as an invitation-only file-exchange service, whether between you and business partners or simply as a way to shift files between your regular computer and your mobile devices while “on the road”.

For organisations with a Web presence, this will encompass uploading Web content as you maintain your Web page or even backing up that Web page.

Even if a business implements on-premises storage technology such as a NAS or server, there is also an increased desire for remote “on-the-road” access to these resources. Similarly, it could be feasible for a business with two or more locations to have the ability to shift data between these locations such as storing data that is worked on at home using a NAS or server at the shop or caching data between two shops.

Another key direction is to head towards cloud-computing where the software that performs business tasks is hosted remotely. This will typically have you work either with a Web page as the software’s user interface or you may be dealing with a lightweight “peripheral bridge” for industry-specific peripherals. In some cases, various programs such as some business-grade security programs implement cloud computing in order to offload some of the processing that would normally be required of the local computing system. This is being pitched as a way for small business to “think like big business” due to the low capital-equipment cost.

The next-generation broadband services can improve this kind of computing by reducing the time it takes to transfer the files and allows for silky-smooth cloud-computing operations.

IP Telecommunications

A very significant direction for business Internet use is IP-based telecommunications. This gives businesses some real capabilities through the saving on operational expenditure costs while also opening up some newer pathways that have been put out of small business’s reach.

One application is IP-based videocalls using Skype and Lync technology – totally real, not science-fiction anymore. These technologies have the ability to provide for video-based real-time teleconferencing even to high-quality visual displays and some of them even allow for multi-party videocalls. The next-generation broadband services can exploit this technology by permitting smooth reliable videocalls with the high-resolution video display.

Another IP-telecommunications application appealing to small business is the concept of the IP-based business telephone system. This can be facilitated with an on-premises IP-based PBX server that is linked to the outside world via an IP-based “trunk” or a hosted IP-telephony system which is ran simply as a service. The phones that sit on the desks are primarily IP-based extensions or legacy phones connected via analogue-telephone adaptor devices with DECT cordless phones linked up to an IP DECT base.  In some cases, a regular computer or a mobile device (smartphone or tablet) could run a “softphone” application which uses the device’s control surface and audio infrastructure to make it become an extension.

These appeal to businesses due to access to low telephony costs especially for long-distance calls or, for that matter, free calls between multiple business locations through the use of a tie-line that the business doesn’t need to rent.

The next-generation broadband can allow IP-based telecommunications to take place while data is being transferred or the Internet is being used without impeding data-transfer speed or voice / video call quality.

IP-based video surveillance

Shopkeepers and other small-business owners would find greater justification to install an IP-based video-surveillance system or upgrade an existing video-surveillance system to IP-based technology. This could allow, for example, one to watch over another location from one location or permit backup video recording of the footage at another location whether it be a storage provider that you rent space on or a NAS installed at home or another business location.

This also allows for use of newer cameras that implement higher-resolution sensors and support on-camera video analytics. The increased bandwidth means that more of the video footage from these cameras can be streamed at once to a remote location.

Working from home

If you work from home, whether to telecommute or to operate your business operation from home, you will find that the next-generation broadband service is important for you. This is more so if you are dealing with graphics, CAD or multimedia content or even using a VoIP or videocall service as your communications technology.

As well, you benefit from reduced Internet-service contention with other household members when you have the next-generation broadband service. This is because the increased bandwidth could allow you to do intense cloud-based work computing or a large file transfer while they do something like engage in a VoIP voice call or stream video content.

Offering your customers or guests public Wi-Fi Internet service

If you run a bar, café, hotel or similar venue, you could offer your customers or guests a public Internet service and not worry that this service will cramp your business Internet style. In some cases, you could handle more customers’ data-transfer needs at once  which would happen at “peak occupancy” or allow for them to engage in high-bandwidth applications like business data transfer, videocalls or enjoying online video content and have the best experience with these activities.

To the same extent, the public Wi-Fi Internet service is being seen by mobile telephony carriers as an “offload” service to increase their mobile network capacity. As well, some mobile carriers are even implementing femtocells which are mobile base stations that cover a small area like a home or business premises as a method of improving indoor mobile coverage in a particular premises or increasing mobile capacity in a popular location.

Is your small business’s network ready?

There are some things you would have to do to get your small business’s network ready for the next-generation-broadband service.

Your router

One would be to make sure you have a small-business router that is optimised for next-generation very-high-speed broadband. One critical feature it would need is to have an Internet (WAN) connection with Gigabit Ethernet. This would allow for use with an optical-network modem that provides for the high-speed throughput these networks provide. As well, having Gigabit Ethernet for each LAN Ethernet connector and 802.11n/ac dual-band Wi-Fi wireless where applicable would be considered important for the local network side of the equation.

Most of the current-issue high-end or “small-business-grade” routers would cut the mustard when it comes to having this kind of connectivity and this goal could be achieved with the current network-equipment replacement cycle.

Your network

As well, you would need to bring your Ethernet infrastructure to Gigabit standard while also evolving your Wi-Fi wireless infrastructure to 802.11n or 802.11ac standard with simultaneous dual-band operation i.e. N600 or better. A HomePlug segment that you operate in this network could be brought to HomePlug AV2 standard preferably due to higher throughput and improved robustness than HomePlug AV500 or HomePlug AV.

Wireless hotspots

Those of you who run a wireless hotspot or similar public-internet service which is managed by a special router dedicated to this task may have to evolve it to a component-based system so you can implement high-throughput networking technology.

Component-based hotspot systems use a wired hotspot router with Ethernet connections as the only network connections. Then you connect a VDSL2 modem, optical-network terminal or similar appropriate device to your hotspot router’s WAN / Internet port and a dedicated 802.11n access point with a standard of at least N300 for a 2.4GHz single-band unit or N600 for a simultaneous dual-band unit.  This is also a good time to make sure you have optimum public Wi-Fi coverage across your business premises.

You may also have to make sure that the system has improved quality-of-service support for multimedia-based tasks especially if you business happens to be a hotel or similar type. This is because a lot of people are increasingly using smartphones, tablets and ultraportable laptops to engage in Skype videocalls or stream video content from catch-up TV or video-on-demand services and poor quality-of-service severely ruins the user experience with these services.

Considering the full-fibre option

Another issue that can be worth considering for small-business fibre broadband is the “full-fibre” option in a fibre-copper setup. This is being offered by some UK next-generation broadband services and is also being offered In Australia as an option under the Coalition’s preferred fibre-copper National Broadband Network setups.

Here, the same service provider who would normally provide a fibre-copper service like fibre-to-the-cabinet / fibre-to-the-node would also provide a fibre-to-the-premises service as an extra-cost option. A small business could opt for these services especially if they are using cloud services a lot or uploading data to online storage frequently.

Even a business using a fibre-copper setup could look at the feasibility of the full-fibre option as a long-term goal as they make more use of the Internet. As well, this would be a valuable option for premises that are underserved by VDSL-based fibre-copper services. 

It is also worth noting that when you have a “full-fibre” install to a premises, the sale or lease value can increase because of the availability of really high-speed broadband service at that location.

Conclusion

When fibre-based next-generation broadband passes your business, it would become a valuable business option to sign up to one of these services due to costs saved through the higher throughput available with these services. It also allows the business to “grow up” and adapt to increased data-throughput needs.

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