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EARLY CHOICES ABOUT HARDWARE AND SOFTWARE AFFECT WHAT YOU DO WAY DOWN THE LINE

TECHNICAL & PRACTICE

You are starting up your own practice. You feel that the auguries must be good. You have some teaching lined up. Your bank has a lien on your car, your flat, your Bose hi-fi, the repro Barcelona chair and everything you own. You have that vital first commission.

Two, in fact. You feel really uncomfortable, even hidden away in your back-bedroom office, with the concept of an inexpensive drawing board, stand and parallel motion.

So your first big IT decision is like choosing between Celtic and Rangers. Is it Mac or is it PC? And, like answering the Scottish football problem, it is a fundamentally religious issue.

In a practice's early years, when decisions tend to be taken ad hoc, there is not necessarily a lot of thought given to future IT strategies. 'Far too early to think grand business strategies, ' you say.

Maybe it isn't. Because early choices about hardware and software affect what you do way down the line. And the chances are that your gut feeling about the essential beauty of everything associated with current Macs and the crassness of PCs may be no more than the consequence of the snobbishness of your non-practising architecture-school tutors. Your hatred or delight in a particular PC CAD application may reflect the persuasiveness of software salesmen offering free or nearly-free student versions of the real thing. It is difficult because there is so much mythology, hidden persuasion and snootiness involved.

And there are other factors. New practices are likely to be most influenced by the fact that they still have, ahem, copies of free or virtually free CAD software from college times. It was free because the software houses know perfectly well that, having learned a CAD package, young architects are going to need serious reasons for not continuing to use it. But you have to ask, is it going to be your application of choice five or 10 years hence?

The AJ has been very critical of AutoCAD's methods of purchase, renewal and leasing. But however hateful its management and however over-priced it may be, it is the CAD program most used in the construction industry. It has become the de facto standard. Remember that there is also a lite version.

Rival CAD applications, many of which are at least as good as AutoCAD, claim that their file format is compatible with AutoCAD's. But none can claim to do this seamlessly every single time. As Pero Maticevic, IT director of Fletcher Priest, says: 'There is often something lost in translation: your colours may change or the print layers don't happen. You can waste an awful lot of time being hassled by output problems which you needn't have.' So, says Maticevic, there is a powerful case for standardising on AutoCAD, even in your back-bedroom office. He says: 'Practically every client we have has a copy of AutoCAD - even if it is just to read drawings. Personally I think Microstation is 10 times better but you can see why we go with AutoCAD.' None of this will sit well with happy non-AutoCAD users or with vendors of totally brilliant non-AutoCAD software. Nor will the concomitant that PCs should be the preferred hardware platform please devoted Mac congregants. Maticevic says: 'I go into the Regent Street Apple store and want to buy everything.

But if I am buying for the office the choice of Mac software is so limited. You have to follow the market. If you are an architect it's a no-brainer because of the software - and because the staff who apply to us for work come trained on PCs with PC software.' It is odd that the hi-tech-leaning architects originally joined the Mac camp - when the Mac represents a closed-system philosophy and PC hardware is quintessentially modular. You clip the motherboard you choose into a case with standard internal fittings, plug in your processor of choice, ditto memory, connect up hard and optical drives, slot in a graphics card, wire up a printer, network, speakers, maybe a digitising tablet, a £2 mouse, a £3 keyboard and off you go. Or you can get practically any computer firm to assemble a kit to your specification. Here is Priceian appropriate technology at its best. Interestingly, these same hi-tech practices are, mostly, in the process of re-equipping with intrinsically cheaper PC hardware and software.

Start-up PC buyers need to remember that word - appropriate. With all that credit provided by banks there is the temptation to buy the best kit and the best software. Don't bother.

First, current prices for appropriate cards and drives are astonishingly low but still high for very high-end items. Second, in the PC world what was best when you thought of buying kit is generally history a month later. The thing to remember is that a £5,000 PC is likely to be faster than a £1,000 Dell. But probably not much faster! You would be better off putting the money towards a client-entertainment budget.

BUYING GUIDE:

? If you have ever built Lego, it is easy enough to build a PC yourself. As usual everything is in a state of change. So seek advice - or get your local computer shop or Dell or any of the stores to assemble one for you and test it. Magazines such as Personal Computer World and PC Plus run pages and pages of ads from national suppliers (Dabs springs to mind) and two internet stores I have used for several years are Aria (www. aria. co. uk) and eBuyer (www. ebuyer. com). Don't expect too much help from the latter of course. But do read the very frank readers' reviews of their products.

? Get a motherboard which takes an AMD central processor unit (cpu) chip of the equivalent of about 3GHz rather than Intel Pentium cpus: AMD chips are a lot cheaper. Don't bother about dual core or 64-bit chips - the software will take two years to catch up. And by then you will need a new computer.

? You can pay about £400 for a top-end graphics card. Don't.

They are optimised for games. A £100 graphics card based on the FX6600 chip, such as the GEForce 6600, is currently reckoned to be of an appropriate speed and price. In the meantime, most motherboards have a built-in graphics socket so, strictly speaking, you could leave out the graphics card until you can afford it.

? With 19-inch flat-screen monitors costing as little as £175 why not get two? These days most graphics cards can run two monitors - but do check.

? The most respected site for motherboards, cpus, memory and video cards is Tom's Hardware guide at www. tomshardware. com

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