Last-minute deals

Time is running out on the peak buying season, but federal agencies still have a few last-minute deals officials might want to consider.

And although the technology bargain bin isn't exactly overflowing, a few product categories are attractively priced.

Thinking small: USB thumb drives

USB thumb drives, which are small portable storage devices, are on the short list of popular products for late-season buying. Officials at Apptis Inc. and PC Mall Gov Inc. are among the resellers who say the technology is attracting government buyers.

Prices have fallen and capacity has surged. A couple of years ago, a 256M device cost about $200. Today, a 1G Cruzer Mini flash drive from SanDisk Corp. is available from PC Mall for $175.

SanDisk is representative of a number of suppliers riding the price/performance edge of personal storage devices. Max Peterson, vice president of federal sales at CDW Government Inc., said lower prices and increasing capacity characterize a number of flash drive, flash memory and desktop storage products.

"Data storage prices are very attractive right now," he said.

Thinking big: Enterprise storage

That trend also holds true for enterprise storage products, such as tape cartridges, tape drives and Advanced Technology Attachment disk arrays.

"Disk is less expensive," said Ken Grimsley, vice president of strategic sales at CDW-G, adding that declining prices have inspired customers to pursue disk-to-disk backup.

Joanne Woytek, program manager for NASA's Scientific and Engineering Workstation Procurement contract, said feedback from one vendor indicated that disk and tape storage units — particularly disk/tape/software bundles — are especially affordable.

Living larger: Flat-panel displays

Bigger monitors with better resolution for graphics and presentations are on some government users' shopping lists. For those buyers, flat-panel LCD displays — although far from cheap — are becoming less expensive.

Nineteen-inch displays can cost less than $500. For example, CDW-G offers Acer Inc.'s 19-inch AL1912BM display for $478.75. A few months ago, prices in excess of $600 were common for displays of that size.

Price cuts in recent months have been the most significant for 17-inch displays, according to Erick Petersen, vice president and general manager of Planar Systems Inc.'s Commercial Business Unit. He said that earlier this year, 17-inch models surpassed 15-inch displays in unit shipments, and he expects dramatic growth in this area during the next few months.

Seventeen-inch displays from Planar and Acer are available for less than $400 from resellers such as CDW-G.

Overall, some observers expect flat-panel prices to decline by 20 percent or more a year. That is quite a turnaround from late last year, when tight supplies led to price hikes into 2004.

"There was a lot of price volatility in LCD monitors early on this year," Peterson said.

"A lot of people were surprised by the price increase," Planar's Petersen added.

But the supply situation has since eased. "Now's the time to jump back in," Petersen said.

In addition, CDW-G's Peterson said large-format LCD monitors will continue to improve in price and availability. LCD projection units, meanwhile, are becoming lighter, brighter and less expensive, he said, adding that high-end, auditorium-style projectors can be bought for $5,000, compared with earlier prices of $7,000 to $8,000.

Display pricing has even contributed to reductions in notebook prices at Dell. "We recently passed along component cost reductions on notebook products," a Dell spokesman said. For example, the company has trimmed prices for the Latitude D800 corporate notebook line. A high-end D800 with a 15.4-inch, wide-aspect UXGA display and an Intel Corp. Pentium M 755 (2 GHz) processor fell by $180, the spokesman said, and a notebook with an XGA display and a 1.4 GHz Pentium M was reduced by $100.

Sticking to a budget: Value-priced desktops

A number of options exist for buyers looking for reliable, affordable office computers. Desktop PCs equipped with Intel's Celeron processors or earlier-generation Pentium 4 chips provide enough computing punch for many workaday applications, market watchers said, although such computers may not be suitable for power users.

Sharon O'Connor Ennis, director of business development at PC Mall Gov, polled company sales representatives to get their input on the best values in PCs.

"They mentioned that some of the low-priced, small form factor desktops with Celeron processors, while not desired for power users, offer a good value for a basic-use machine," she said.

Machines running 2.8 GHz Pentium 4s are available in the $450 to $700 range under various government contracts. According to Grimsley, CDW-G priced a recent order for a 2.8 GHz unit with a large hard drive and plenty of RAM at less than $650.

Cutting the cord: Wireless technology

Kevin Curran, director of federal sales at 3Com Corp., cited security-based Network Interface Cards as hot items. "Everyone is looking hard at wireless, and the big question has been security," he said.

Company officials are promoting wireless products in the federal market. 3Com's 802.11a/b/g Wireless PC Card with XJACK antenna, for example, offers Wi-Fi Protected Access using the Advanced Encryption Standard.

Curran said 3Com officials have been concentrating on the federal sector during the past 18 months, adding that buyers will "see our name out there more than they did last year and the years preceding."

Also in wireless, Hewlett-Packard Co.'s nx9010 notebook PC, which ships with integrated wireless local-area network capabilities, has surfaced on a few government contract vehicles. The product is available from CDW-G under the Army Information Technology Enterprise Solutions contract for $1,080

Moore is a freelance writer based in Syracuse, N.Y.

Sources of savings

USB thumb drives: Personal storage devices have declined in price but grown in capacity.

Tape drives/Advanced Technology Attachment disk arrays: Shrinking data storage costs have reached the enterprise market.

Desktop displays: Nineteen- and 17-inch displays are dropping in price after an uncharacteristic increase earlier this year.

LCD projectors: High-end projectors are getting less expensive as they become lighter and brighter.

Wireless technology: Up-market wireless access points are dropping in price, but not to the level of already inexpensive low-end wireless PC cards and access points.

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