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Two-year PC replacement saves cost, raises productivity

IT pros debate whether companies should replace PCs every two years instead of following conventional wisdom of three to four years. In today's world, one size doesn't fit all, and a two-year cycle may work in some cases.

PC prices continue to sink even as their power increases, leading some experts to think a two-year replacement cycle makes sense for compute-intensive jobs.

A recently published study, Replacing Enterprise PCs: The Fallacy of the 3-4 Year Upgrade Cycle, revealed productivity gains and cost savings based on tests that map computing performance with typical job roles in the enterprise.

Machines that are more than 2 years old make people less productive than workers who use newer machines, said Jack Gold, president of J.Gold Associates, an IT consulting company in Northborough, Mass.

PCs should not be viewed as a pure cost, he said. "It's a tool you can provide your users to make them more productive," Gold said.

The study bucks today's conventional wisdom, in which enterprises typically refresh PCs every three to four years. And it's not surprising that some IT directors are not buying the study's logic wholesale.

"Unless you move to leasing, it's a tougher buy for enterprises to move from three years to two years," said Brian Katz, director of mobile innovation at a large pharmaceutical company based in New Jersey.

Katz did say he believes the study makes a compelling case for enterprises to move to a two-year PC replacement cycle in situations where employees need more powerful devices for their jobs.

Keeping devices beyond three years past the manufacturer’s warranty encourages [the company] to be in the break-fix business.
Ira GrossmanCTO, MCPc Inc.

The study, which was published earlier this month, used the SYSmark 2012 application benchmark for six job test scenarios, including Web development, office productivity, media creation, data/financial analysis, 3-D modeling and systems management. Each test ran on a 2-year-old notebook, the HP EliteBook 8570P, and the newer HP ProBook 650, with the main difference being the faster processor.

The research weighted the time workers spend on the computer in a typical workday, mapped the benchmark tests to job roles and accounted for the average salary of those employees. The roles included office worker, engineering, administrator, business analyst, Web developer and IT staff.

Results showed productivity gains ranging from 3.6% for data/financial analysis to 20.1% for 3-D modeling. In jobs that used the new computers versus a 2-year-old machine, engineering saved enterprises $13,103 -- the most annually -- followed by a Web programmer at $11,151.

With the annual savings, the study also calculated the average number of equivalent workdays gained per job role, with the lowest being 11.12 days for a business analyst and the highest being 27.3 days for an engineer.

Will the study's results become reality?

IT pros doubted that a two-year replacement cycle would fly in the enterprise.

"The test results are interesting but the conclusion is not applicable to most companies," said Mike Drips, a longtime IT consultant in Houston. Two years ago, Drips upgraded a global company consisting of 100,000 employees with added RAM and video cards rather than new PCs.

Bring your own desktop (BYOD) programs also play a factor in whether companies choose to adhere to a two-year replacement cycle.

Many companies support BYOD to save on hardware costs. However, enterprises still must control the assets, Drips said.

In some cases, a two-year PC replacement cycle might work, depending upon the job function and the company's IT environment.

Keeping devices more than three years past the manufacturer’s warranty encourages the company to be in the break-fix business, said Ira Grossman, CTO of end user and mobile computing at MCPc Inc., a large system integrator in Cleveland.

While businesses may be able to extend the life of a PC for a task or data-entry worker where downtime is not critical, power users will need updated systems, and IT needs an accelerated refresh schedule for them. Engineers and developers might require high-performance computers compared with office workers, but cost is a factor before enterprises replace PCs or laptops every two years.

Other PC replacement factors

As enterprises add cloud computing, IT will need to spend less time upgrading machines and applications, the study said.

Not all IT professionals agree.

"The cloud will not have an impact," Drips said. He stressed that the two-year PC replacement cycle is more dependent upon a worker's function.

Meanwhile, capital costs and how long it takes enterprises to transition from one PC to another also weigh into the debate over a two- to three-year PC refresh rate.

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Do you think a two-year PC replacement makes sense for your company?
From my experience, I firmly believe a two-year PC replace makes absolute sense. Under a two year plan, it would allow users to be more productive while eliminating upgrades too.
No mention is made about the downtime to move user programs, data and settings every two years.  Most users dread this process because they configure their systems to make them most productive. This can involve a lot of settings and programs (not just data) and make it a big pain in the a** to do every two years from the users perspective (along with the associated downtime.)  What I'm saying is just doing a financial analysis give an incomplete picture.
There's really no need to force a change to a 2 year cycle from a 3 or 4 year replacement cycle if that's what's already established at your organization.  You could simply give the newest, more powerful units to the staff that have the need for more power to stay productive, and hand-down their two year old unit to someone that has a lesser need, but would still benefit from a slightly used machine. 
@samdonny -- Thanks. You make a good point as end users don't always want to give up their systems because of downtime since it takes away from their productivity.
@TMBoylan - You're right about only updating workers who need the highest performance to do their job. The study makes a good case for the two-year cycle but in reality, not everyone needs the latest and greatest system all the time. It really depends upon your job role in the company.  
Well it may make sense for those professionals who need to work on high performing machines especially in the areas of design / high graphic enabled work streams but for most work areas, I think 5 years would be an ideal period.  
I'd agree that while a two-year replacement would be important (and welcomed) for some, the faster update cycle would be a potentially unnecessary burden on IT. The challenge would be to decide who gets the replacements and who doesn't, and make sure employees aren't disgruntled by what could be perceived as preferential treatment. 
Since we're (mostly) a collection of independents, most people will generally set their own upgrade schedule which has far more to do with software than hardware. In the field where our work depends on the programs we use, many programs demand updated hardware. That puts some people's hardware on an annual update schedule. Yet back in the office where our needs are far less demanding, it's not unusual to see far older machines functioning exactly as needed.