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Posts Tagged ‘IT Productivity’


The Benefits of Laptop Docks and At-Desk Peripherals

Tuesday, March 21st, 2017

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With a little bit of effort, your staff can reap all the benefits of a laptop, and many of the perks of a desktop, with a little bit of planning and some additional hardware. It’s a common perception that laptops lead in portability, while desktops specialize in expandability. But improvements in peripheral device connection standards including USB 3.0, eSATA, and Thunderbolt have reduced (if not eliminated) the performance differences between external and internal devices. The main caveats of using external devices to enhance laptop capabilities include the need to physically haul extra pieces of hardware around, which defeats the portability perks.

If your business is looking to boost productivity and improve business continuity, it’s worth looking at configuring employee desks to work as laptop extension environments through docking stations and peripheral hubs.

Docking Stations

Docking stations are devices that connect to laptop computers to convert them (more or less) into desktop computers.

Docks feature a wide range of ports and may include built-in augmentation components like extra storage. The user can connect all their peripheral devices to the dock in advance and utilize them simultaneously just by connecting the laptop to the dock. This supports business continuity for employees who are often in and out of the office, eliminating the need to use two different devices for the same tasks.

USB and Thunderbolt Hubs

Advances in peripheral port bandwidth have made devices like USB and Thunderbolt hubs viable alternatives to docking stations that function as a “choose-your-features” option.

Hubs are essentially a collection of ports that can be used to connect several devices to computer through a single port.

This means utilizing all the hub devices is as easy as connecting a single cable to the laptop. Hubs can also be self-powered so the laptop is no longer limited by powering external devices.

Peripheral Rundown

  • External Monitors: One or more external monitors can be added to docks or hubs to suit employee needs. The worker may prefer a singular, larger monitor, using multiple external screens or using an external display as an extended desktop. Employees may find having more viewable space than a laptop offers a productivity booster.
  • Additional Storage: Attaching external storage devices to the dock or hub serves two primary purposes: It acts as a backup solution for the “three copies” strategy, and it lets employees store extra data that would be a burden on the laptop’s built-in storage. This is a big help when it comes to disaster recovery; in the event that the laptop is damaged, destroyed, or stolen, you’ll have a recent backup on hand.
  • Keyboard and Mouse: Adding a keyboard and mouse to the dock or hub not only helps boost productivity, but also improves ergonomics by allowing employees to position devices where they are most comfortable. Employees who prefer a mouse over a touchpad and want to add a number pad to a laptop that doesn’t carry one will find this solution helpful.
  • Wired Network Connection: Hubs and docks can be configured to connect to the local network via Ethernet. This is a great option for offices already wired for connections that have inconsistent Wi-Fi.
  • Speakers, Webcams, and Microphones: Docks and hubs can also connect to external versions of the laptop’s audio/video devices for an enhanced experience.

The IT and productivity assessment experts at MPA Networks are ready to help your business find a hardware configuration that works best for you. Contact us today.

Digital Sticky Notes: A Time-Saver for Your Entire Team

Wednesday, February 15th, 2017

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It’s a familiar sighting in the workplace: the employee with half a dozen sticky notes attached to their computer monitor. While not the most confidential or elegant solution, these employees are on to something.

Fortunately, technology has stepped in to embrace this practice and increase productivity through digital sticky notes. Teaching your staff how to use this feature helps keep your office not only more organized, but also more secure.

Boosting Productivity and Security

Like their physical counterparts, digital sticky notes have countless helpful applications: They can serve as reminders, cheat sheets, and to-do lists, to name a few.

Employees can create and destroy as many digital sticky notes as needed without wasting any paper. And digital sticky notes actually work better than making notes in a Word or Google doc, because they are continually accessible/viewable when switching between tasks.

Digital sticky notes have the following advantages over physical versions:

  • Content on the notes can be rearranged, edited, and erased at will. Reworking the list does not mean drafting a new note.
  • They serve as excellent interactive to-do listshelping employees stay organized.
  • No physical waste is created when the sticky note is no longer being used.
  • They are more secure because they’re not visible when the screen is off, the user logged out, or the system locked.
  • They come with theoretically unlimited space. Digital sticky notes allow for scrolling when more space is needed.
  • They offer an easy place to store login credentials that all employees in the workplace can access.
  • They provide a simpler platform to manage important, frequently used links than an ever-expanding bookmark list in a web browser.
  • Employees can use simple copy-and-paste commands between programs to add to the sticky note.
  • The notes facilitate email communication between devices and people.
  • They won’t fall or get knocked off the screen.

Sticky Notes with a PC

Windows calls its digital notation program “Sticky Notes.” It behaves similarly to program windows and can be accessed via the Start Menu. Searching for “Sticky Notes” in the search bar may locate the program faster.

Accessing the application will expose all existing notes; if there are none, it will create one. Users can drag and expand these digital notes to any size they deem appropriate. Click the “+” icon on an existing note to make additional notes, and click the “X” icon to delete unwanted notes. Notes can also be color-coded via the “right-click” menu. Power-users may like the available keyboard shortcuts as well.

Sticky Notes with a Mac

Macs also support a built-in digital sticky note solution called “Stickies,” which can be accessed via the “Applications” folder. Users can drag and drop the Stickies to any desired locations and resize the windows by clicking and dragging the corner icons. Employees can customize individual note colors through the “Color” menu and can add shortcuts to media files by dragging and dropping icons over notes as well.

Mac OS even features a handy keyboard shortcut to create a sticky note from highlighted text: “Command + Up Shift + Y.”

Both of these applications are free and included with the computer your employees are already using. Some employees may find digital sticky notes an incredibly valuable tool—but, if nothing else, they will help your team create a cleaner, more secure workplace. If your business is looking to boost its productivity through stronger IT practices, contact the experts at MPA Networks today.

Troubleshooting Step 1: Reboot

Wednesday, October 12th, 2016

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While modern computers are much more stable than their ancestors, trying to get work done on a slow, malfunctioning computer is still a business world rite of passage. Troubleshooting bad behavior on your work computer can, of course, be a tedious process—so wouldn’t it be nice if there was one magic button that could solve around 90 percent of your IT problems?

Good news: There is! It’s called the restart button, and your computer already has one.

We know you’re probably not excited to close every open window and application each time something goes wrong, but the truth is that restarting or rebooting resolves the vast majority of performance problems.

Here’s the how and the why:

Rebooting: Always the First Step

Whenever there’s a problem, try rebooting your computer before anything else. Face it: You’re better off not leaving this as a last resort, since your IT support is going to recommend it as soon as you call. What you’ll find is that, more often than not, a simple reboot solves the problem.

Consider the alternative: Your IT staff could spend hours digging in to an isolated problem that’s causing your computer to malfunction—hours of lost productivity, all to gain insight into an issue that may never come up again. Instead, take a shortcut and simply restart.

Why Rebooting Works

According to consumer technology expert Kim Komando, rebooting helps resolve computer issues because it allows the system to start from scratch and reset active glitches that have built up during program use. She describes it like the computer losing its “train of thought” while running software. Rebooting, then, lets the device return to a known functional state.

This makes regular reboots a great way to increase (or, at the very least, maintain) productivity. The more opportunities you give your computer to start fresh, the less time you’ll spend waiting for programs to load—and to recover after a crash.

Not Just for Computers

Restarting your device isn’t just “one of the most powerful methods for troubleshooting” computers; this method works for all electronics. Smartphones and tablets benefit from a reboot just as much as laptops and desktops. Handheld devices are just as likely to experience problems with background apps stealing resources from active apps, for example—but these issues don’t always manifest in obvious ways. Network hardware like routers, Wi-Fi access points, and modems can gradually slow down over time as they encounter problems. Restarting these devices occasionally is a good place to start in finding a solution.

While rebooting resolves a massive share of potential hardware problems, that other 10 percent requires substantially more IT expertise. Whether your business is looking for IT consulting or a managed service provider to help with troubleshooting, contact the experts at MPA Networks today to help keep your office running smoothly.

How To Select a Second Monitor

Wednesday, August 24th, 2016

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Secondary monitors have incredible potential to increase productivity in the workplace. It might not seem like much, but minimizing, maximizing, and arranging application windows on a single computer monitor can take up a significant amount of time.

Adding a secondary monitor increases the screen space an employee has to work with by allowing them to display more windows simultaneously, and reduces the time they spend shifting between them.

Need to access two full-screen applications at the same time? Both laptops and desktops support dual-monitor configurations on PC, Mac, Linux, and Chromebook platforms.

Best of all, the typical cost of a second monitor is in the range of $100 to $200, so it’s easy to recoup the upfront expenses via increased productivity.

Compatibility

According to Consumer Reports, the first step to take before adding a second monitor is to make sure the device has ample free connection ports. You’ll be looking for an unused HDMI, DisplayPort, DVI, VGA, or Thunderbolt port. Modern desktops usually support at least two screens, and nearly every laptop has some sort of video-out connection. Desktop computers that don’t support multiple screens can add this functionality with a graphics adapter upgrade.

The next step is to shop for a monitor that is compatible with the same connection type the computer uses. In many cases, you can easily convert between standards like HDMI-to-DisplayPort or HDMI-to-DVI.

Screen Size

The second display’s size and aspect ratio are dependent on the user’s preferences. In most cases, it’s good to start with a monitor that has the same dimensions as the current one. Some people will gladly embrace a second, much larger screen, while others find different sized monitors disorienting. Laptop users may want a much larger second monitor to compensate for their mobile device’s smaller screen real estate.

Desk space is another major factor in selecting a second screen: Both displays need to fit within the available workspace. Viewing distance is usually not an issue with computer monitors, but it can be if the person sits far from a smaller screen. This tool can be helpful in determining comfortable screen sizes based on viewing distance.

Layout and Orientation

Some people prefer a monitor that can be configured in portrait display mode as opposed to the traditional landscape mode. This seems to be the case especially for employees who often work with images and text content that are more dependent on height-based than width-based screen space. Portrait configurations can also be helpful when working with limited desk space.

Keep this in mind while shopping, as not all monitor stands support this feature. Depending on the user, you may end up with a double landscape, double portrait, or hybrid configuration. 

Regardless of your company’s needs, our team of IT consultants can steer you in the right direction. Get in touch today for more information.

Looking at Data Storage Longevity

Tuesday, August 2nd, 2016

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Not all storage devices were built to stand the test of time, so it’s important for every business to ensure its data is backed up on a reliable platform.

If you’ve ever needed to reference financial records or court cases from a decade ago, you’ll know how much easy, reliable access to data can boost productivity.

All the work that goes into your storage solution could turn out to be a waste if that 17-year-old CD-R no longer works. But don’t worry—we’re here to help you decide which storage medium is right for you.

USB Flash Drives

Flash drives can last for decades. Their lifespan is determined in read/write cycles instead of in years since manufacturing. If someone backs up data to the USB drive once, stores the device in a safe location, and uses the drive ten years later, the data will still be there. However, it is important to note that flash drives are not a viable storage option when exposed to extreme temperatures, humidity, dust, contaminants, frequent re-writing, and/or improper disconnection.

Optical Discs (CD, DVD, and Blu-Ray)

Optical disc-based storage can be a mixed bag because manufacturing quality varies wildly. Cheaper, off-brand discs are notorious for degrading over just a few years—so, in big picture terms, you’re looking at a lifespan range of between 2 and 50 years. (Not very helpful, to say the least.)

Higher-quality discs made with gold or silver instead of aluminum are much more resistant to corrosion, and can last as long as 300 years. If your business has important data stored on aging, lower-quality optical discs, it’s a worthwhile investment to move that information to a more reliable medium. According to NPR, leaving discs in climate-hostile environments (like in a car over the summer) can contribute to significant wear and tear, so it’s important to keep the discs stored in a cool, dry room away from intense light exposure.

Hard Disk Drives and Solid State Drives

HDD and SSD lifespans are measured in usage versus time since manufacturing, so the devices work well indefinitely for long-term storage as long as they are not used too frequently. According to a widely referenced BlackBlaze study, around 26 percent of HDDs fail within a four-year high-use testing period. Using a server or NAS-based drive to perform constant backups can wear down the device, but both formats work well for periodic backups. One option is to save backup data to an external HDD until it’s full, then put that device into storage until you need to access the data.

No matter which platform you use to back up data, multi-site redundancy remains important. Many businesses opt to use both a Cloud backup and a local, physical backup. Reliable long-term data backups are an important part of the disaster recovery process—and the experts at MPA Networks can help your business devise a long-term data backup strategy that caters to your unique needs.

Are “Bandwidth Hogs” Slowing Your Network?

Tuesday, July 26th, 2016

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Last time, we talked about several handy do-it-yourself online tools to measure your office broadband speed. If your online connections aren’t quite as fast as you expected from your service provider, don’t be afraid to show them the “hard numbers” and ask for a solution.

But what if those speed tests appear quite acceptable, even though many of your workgroup’s essential functions—VoIP phone calls, videoconferencing, remote file access, and more—are still plagued by spotty quality and annoying lag?

The problem may actually be a hardware issue on your end—one or more networked devices that regularly consume heavy shares of precious wi-fi bandwidth. In that case, it’s time to go hunting… for bandwidth hogs.

It Starts at the Router

Your first step in isolating bandwidth-hogging devices is auditing your wireless router’s bandwidth distribution—to literally see “what’s going where.” Most newer name brand routers come bundled with their own quality-of-service (QoS) firmware enabling you to easily track every active client on the local network (identified by their IP or MAC address). In many cases, you can mitigate bandwidth issues by manually configuring the router to devote more bandwidth resources to high-priority uses (VoIP, streaming media) while limiting traffic for secondary needs (routine software updates, web browsing).

If you can’t locate your router’s QoS app, another option is DD-WRT, a popular downloadable open source (not-for-profit) router monitor compatible with many brands. While installing and customizing DD-WRT “from scratch” can be tricky for a non-IT person (we’d recommend against it), many affordable new router models come with DD-WRT pre-configured. Similar free utilities include GargoyleNetworkMiner, and Capsa.

Tracking Down the Culprit(s): Troubleshooting and Tweaks

Once active connections are audited at the router, it’s fairly easy to pinpoint obvious bandwidth bottlenecks. What immediate steps can you take to alleviate choke points within your local network?

  • Terminate any unauthorized wireless connections (neighbors or other bandwidth “pirates”).
  • Free up local wi-fi by hardwiring as many devices as possible via high-speed Ethernet connections.
  • Position essential wireless devices as physically close to the router as possible.
  • Determine which devices can operate on 5GHz versus 2.4GHz. While the 2.4GHz channel has a longer local range, devices sharing the 5GHz channel generally encounter less interference.
  • For individual workstations that inexplicably gobble up huge chunks of bandwidth, check Windows Task Manager and Resource Meter for strange high-volume connections that may be bots—malware used by hackers to discreetly send hundreds of spam emails per day.

At the end of the day, your expanding company may be simply outgrowing its current broadband bandwidth limits—and it’s time to look toward the future. For more ideas on getting the most out of your network resources, talk to us.

Windows 10 Free Upgrade Window Comes to an End

Tuesday, May 24th, 2016

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Those “Upgrade to Windows 10” notifications seem to be showing up everywhere, even in the middle of a weather forecast on Iowa television. What would’ve otherwise been an embarrassing interruption turned into a watercooler moment that anyone who used Windows 7 and 8 over the previous year can relate to (check out the clip on YouTube).

Despite being an annoyance, those alerts are serving an urgent purpose now: Microsoft has announced that they are discontinuing the free Windows 10 upgrade offer on July 29, 2016.

The good news? Those pesky alerts are going to stop bothering hold-outs. The bad news? If you hold out any longer on your upgrade, you won’t be able to do so for free.

Advice for Windows 7 Users

We previously recommended that Windows 7 users should wait as long as possible to upgrade to Windows 10 to give Microsoft more time to iron out launch issues. With the free upgrade window coming to a close, however, those of you who planned to upgrade eventually should consider biting the bullet.

There are still valid reasons to hold off, if you prefer. Windows 10 is new and still receiving major post-release updates, whereas Windows 7 is mature and exceptionally stable/secure. Windows 7 remains an excellent operating system, and you’re going to be fine if you ignore the upgrade. Moreover, Microsoft will continue to support Windows 7 with security updates until January 14, 2020. So if you’re planning to replace your computer between now and then, you’ll move on to Windows 10 without incurring extra costs anyway.

On the other hand, if you’re planning on keeping your Windows 7 devices for more than four years, you’re likely better off upgrading now to avoid the fees. Upgrading after the free period may be cost-prohibitive for your IT infrastructure, so now is the best time to make the transition.

Oh, and one more thing: If you’re sticking with Windows 7, do yourself a favor and install the “Never 10” program to cut off those pesky alerts prior to July 29th.

Advice for Windows 8.1 Users

Windows 8.1 users have little reason to pass on the free update. The much-maligned operating system doesn’t offer any usability benefits over Windows 10 and doesn’t share Windows 7’s usability perks, so moving up makes practical sense. Additionally, IT departments are extremely unlikely to support Windows 8.1 as a standard. Microsoft plans to support Windows 8.1 until January 10, 2023, which puts the “end-of-life” date beyond the expected lifespan of any system currently running it.

Advice for Windows XP and Vista Users

Microsoft has already ceased support for XP, and Vista’s end-of-life date is on the horizon: April 11, 2017. Once the support period is over, using these operating systems is a substantial security risk. Unfortunately, these operating systems are not grandfathered in like Windows 7 and 8, so an upgrade to Windows 10 won’t be free in any case.

Windows 10 has the same requirements as Windows 7—so if you’re going to upgrade, either option will work as long as the computer’s hardware can handle it. However, XP and Vista users with older hardware are probably better off putting the $120 upgrade fee towards a newer device.

Not sure which operating system is right for you? Get in touch, and we’ll help you out.

How To Choose a Desktop Monitor

Tuesday, May 17th, 2016

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Let’s talk about desktop monitors. In many companies, large or small, an onboarding employee gets whatever display hardware might already reside in their assigned cube—no matter how old it is. But like most computer products, the technology is always improving, while costs for newer models are dropping.

But while those prices are falling, monitors have never been something to skimp on. As the old saying goes, “Cheap becomes expensive”: a poor-quality monitor will cause eye strain and other frustrations for the everyday user before, probably, conking out in an early death. By the same token, the prestigious top-end manufacturers (Sony, Apple) charge a premium price for their logo below the screen.

Bang for Your Buck

While there are plenty of reputable mid-level brands of flat-panel monitors out there, each offers several models with a wide range of features.

Before shopping for your company’s next monitor, here are a few important areas to consider:

Size: A 22-inch widescreen is acceptable for general office tasks, while hogging minimal desktop space. 24-inch or larger is better for users who prefer viewing multiple open windows.

Resolution: The standard for today’s monitors is 1,920 by 1,080 pixels, equivalent to 1080p Full High-Definition video.

LCD or LED? Light Emitting Diode (LED) technology is considered an improvement over the Liquid Crystal Display (LCD) used in the original flat-panel monitors. A different method of “backlighting” offers sharper contrast and a richer color range. While LED monitors tend to be a little bit pricier, they’ll consume significantly less energy than conventional LCD monitors, making them more cost-effective over the long haul.

Connectivity: Those “old school” VGA ports—with their cumbersome screw-down plugs—have largely given way to several superior connection options, such as HMDI, DisplayPort, and DVI, enabling easy plug-in to a desktop or laptop PC. A built-in USB hub (ideally located on the side of the monitor, not the back) is convenient for users who frequently use thumb drives or similar peripherals.

Multimedia: Built-in speakers and webcams are essential for desktop videoconferencing, but may be a distraction for employees who can’t resist YouTube videos or their personal Skype account. The sound quality of most monitor-mounted audio still pales in comparison to a decent pair of peripheral stereo speakers.

Ergonomics: Avoid low-end models which don’t offer a full range of physical adjustments: height, tilt, and swivel. The top edge of the monitor should always match the user’s direct horizontal line of sight.

Quality Is King

How does your company choose monitors? You can decipher specs in a catalog, or trust the clerk at the “big box” store, or just buy whatever’s on sale. A quality monitor is a vital part of every employee workstation, and our team of knowledgeable IT Consultants can steer you toward the best options. To learn more, contact us.

IoT Devices: Security Holes?

Tuesday, March 15th, 2016

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Hackers can take advantage of a newer technology prevalent throughout your business to break into your network and compromise security: Internet of Things devices. Your business may have never considered that the handy new Smart Thermostats throughout the building or the Smart TV in the conference room could actually be used by a hacker to piggy-back onto other devices on your network.

Fortunately, a managed service provider can stay on top of your IT security, installing the latest updates on every computer and all network hardware, and minimizing the risk of experiencing productivity-draining malware and hacks.

Your business could be vulnerable to a major security breach by leaving IoT devices unpatched and running old code.

The Elephant in the Room

In December of 2015, the security experts at TrendMicro identified approximately 6.1 million devices in use, including IoT devices, running software with an unpatched code execution attack security hole. The catch is that the security hole was identified and fixed all the way back in 2012, meaning these devices are still putting their owners at risk. Code vulnerabilities aren’t limited to device firmware, as the security hole TrendMicro found came from a code library found within apps.

A study by HP showed that upwards of 70 percent of all IoT devices are in some way vulnerable to an attack—and according to ZDNet, IoT devices are problematic for business security overall because they lack much of the security sophistication found on devices like laptops. For example, the home IoT market is facing major privacy and security concerns over Baby Monitor hacking. Your company may be concerned about home IoT devices as well if you have employees that work from home.

Plug, Play, and Forget

Hackers aim to exploit the common “set it and forget it” mentality toward IoT devices. Not only are IoT devices prone to security breaches, they are also often neglected as points of concern. When the manufacturer issues an update to patch security problems, your staff may not include IoT devices alongside regular updating practices.

There is plenty that an MSP can do right now to protect your business from IoT security holes, even when security apps and firmware patches aren’t an option. In addition to keeping the device’s operating software up to date, it is also necessary to keep all installed apps updated. Many IoT devices lack a clear interface to implement patches, making the process cumbersome. Security apps work well on devices that support them, but IoT products that lack security app support are a bit trickier to work with.

Another way an IT consultant may suggest to keep IoT devices from impacting the rest of your business’s security is to create a second isolated network for smart devices that can’t directly access your main network. WiFi makes the process relatively inexpensive and straightforward.

Keep your business running productively by taking preemptive action against IoT security faults with a local MSP. You’ll be glad you did.

The Death (and Second Life) of a Replaced Business Smartphone

Wednesday, March 2nd, 2016

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When it’s time to upgrade employee smartphones, your business needs to worry about backing up data, clearing the memory, and figuring out the best way to get rid of the old devices. According to Business Insider, the average smartphone upgrade cycle reached 22 months in 2012. This time frame could continue to increase as carriers drop subsidized plans.

With such a brief window of use, it’s likely your business will end up with a stockpile of functional but unused devices.

Those old phones may still have some life in them—and you may want to consider repurposing them instead of dumping them in an electronics recycling bin.

Backing It Up and Clearing Your Data

Regardless of what’s going to happen to the smartphone, your first task is wiping the data off of it. This usually means backing up all the information on the device and performing a factory reset to erase any confidential information. Android phones can back up data a few ways: via Google’s Cloud, backup applications, and connecting to a computer to manually copy data. iPhones, on the other hand, can rely on the iCloud backup process.

Once you’re backed up, remove any SIM and microSD cards the phone supports, and then run a factory reset to clear any and all data. CNET recommends connecting the wiped phone to a dummy account and wiping the device a second time to further protect your information.

Repurposing Old Smartphones

Your business can extract some extra value by giving old devices a second life. Keeping an older device or two around the office in a shared area as a social media access point is a great way to provide content for your company’s social media accounts. If your company is doing something newsworthy that your audience would be interested, snap a photo of it on the phone and post it to Facebook and Twitter. Employees can also use the device to respond to questions posed on those social media accounts.

Smartphones can break fairly easily. A new device can easily run $400 to $700, while replacement plans on devices can get pretty expensive. Be your own device replacement insurance policy, and consider keeping a few of the two-year-old phones around to replace lost or damaged devices to hold employees over until the smartphone can be properly replaced. While using a two-year-old phone lacks the “new and shiny” feeling, it’s more manageable than a shattered screen. The software and hardware on the slightly older device may not be cutting-edge, but it’s probably far from obsolete.

Alternatively, there’s a second-hand market for smartphones to replace broken devices and avoid paying a premium on new devices.

With a little effort, a smaller business can resell the unused devices on sites like eBay to recoup some of the value to put towards replacements. If your business doesn’t want to repurpose the phone internally, Mashable recommends donating the device to the troops, domestic violence victims, or another charity like the One Fund for Boston Marathon tragedy victims.

Questions? Get in touch with your local MSP.