Computers: Desktops and Laptops

By Jeffrey Allen

The computer is one of the most advanced pieces of equipment in the practice of law and also one of the most basic. The quality and power of computers have grown phenomenally in the last decade, while the price has correspondingly decreased. The computers we now carry around in a briefcase have more power than those used to run major businesses 20 years ago. Instead of costing tens or hundreds of thousands of dollars, computers now cost around $1,000 to $3,000 (depending on the bells and whistles you want), and you can buy very powerful desktop machines for even less than their portable counterparts.

In the best of all worlds, even if you are a sole practitioner who works without a secretary, you will have at least two computers for your work, a desktop model and a laptop model. If you only have one computer and it breaks, your ability to work pretty much stops until you can repair or replace it. If you have a second computer, you simply continue to work, using the other. That said, many attorneys have chosen to use a laptop as a desktop replacement computer. That can work very well, but I still recommend having the second computer, even if it means two laptops.

Your computer should have the ability to read and write to both CD-ROM and DVD-ROM disks. It should have an Ethernet port (hardwired) or at least the ability to connect wirelessly to networks and the Internet. If you buy a new computer today, look for one with wireless capacity using the “N” standard. The N standard, although still in draft form, has more or less stabilized and provides significant speed and coverage benefits in comparison to older standards.

Increased RAM (random access memory) provides real and readily observable benefits to computer users. Larger amounts of RAM enable the computer to handle data more quickly. Increased RAM also enables the computer to run more programs concurrently. Some programs and operating systems require a great deal of RAM to function well. For example, on the Windows© side, Vista® requires much more RAM to work well than does XP. You can get by with 1 GB of RAM if you run XP Professional®, but I would suggest installing even more. Vista, on the other hand, really needs at least 2 GB to work well; again, more works better. On the Mac© side, you can get by with 2 GB if you intend to run only Mac OS X® or if you intend to run Windows only via Mac’s Boot Camp (in which case the RAM will serve only one operating system at a time). If you plan on running Windows using virtualizing software from inside of the Mac OS, you need at least 3 GB to run XP and at least 4 GB to run Vista well from that configuration.

Hard drives have grown larger in capacity, faster in speed, and smaller in space. You can readily find 250 GB drives for laptops and more than 500 GB for desktops. When it comes to hard drives, size matters, and the larger the better. No matter how big they make the hard drive on a laptop, I eventually find that I run out of space. On the other hand, I got a 500 GB drive for my desktop and have not yet filled it up. Note that software developers have produced larger programs that fill more space on your drive. In the not-too-distant future, the process of electronic discovery for your cases may routinely dump vast quantities of information in digital form onto your computer. Moving from the paper paradigm to the electronic file paradigm will also increase your need for storage space. The more you plan on adding audio files, podcasts, digital photographs, and movies to your hard drive, the more space you will need. As the computer evolves into a primary business and a primary entertainment tool, your storage needs will multiply.

In terms of monitors, you will want a plasma or LCD display (most likely LCD, as they remain less expensive). Both provide excellent images and resolution. You will probably prefer a larger one to a smaller one, both because it has increased functionality and because you can read it more easily. I have gone to a 24-inch display myself. Do not get less than a 20-inch display, or you will end up wishing you had gotten a bigger one. Although I have not done so myself, I know that a number of attorneys have gone to dual monitors and like that setup very much. If you work on the Mac platform, one of the software features built into Mac OS X 10.5 (Leopard®) allows you to run virtual multiple desktops and switch between different desktops showing different applications. If you plan to use a laptop as a desktop replacement, you probably will want to supplement it with a larger LCD monitor and a separate keyboard and mouse.

If you plan to use your computer as a media center or simply to play music or DVDs once in a while, consider getting a decent set of speakers or invest in a good set of headphones. Options abound and most computers (especially laptops) come, in my opinion, with relatively poor built-in speakers.

If you intend to use your computer for video conferencing and it does not come with a good camera, get one. Expect to pay around $100 for a decent USB camera. If you are on the Mac platform, the Mac laptops and iMac desktops all come with Apple's built-in camera, which will work just fine.

Biometric security devices now come built into some computers. If you like that sort of thing, go ahead and get it; they do work. I do not consider them essential to computer security in the office or out, but if you get one, it certainly won’t damage security as long as it has an over-riding password (most of the new ones I have seen do).

With respect to laptops, the basic requirements now pretty much equal those of desktops. With laptops, expect slightly slower processors, somewhat smaller hard disks and screens, and somewhat more cramped keyboard and mouse/touchpad/touch point arrangements; otherwise, look for the same basic features.

Although I think that the ultra-light laptops certainly have their place in the market and are often quite useful and convenient, I do not consider them viable as desktop replacements; they have notable limitations owing to the compromises necessary to make them so small and light. To conserve space and weight, many ultra-lights have fewer connection ports than standard laptops or desktop computers. To improve battery life, they often have less RAM, slower processors, and smaller and slower hard disks (the latter also reduces weight and size). For example, Apple’s ultra-thin, ultra-portable MacBook Air® comes with only 2 GB of RAM (not upgradable to 4 GB as are Mac’s other portables), an 80 GB hard disk (not upgradable as are its other portables, but swappable for a 64 GB flash drive at a substantial $1,000+ price increase), a 1.6 GHz or 1.8 GHz processor (in comparison, the MacBook Pro goes to 2.5 GHz), no onboard CD/DVD drive, no card slot, no Ethernet port, no modem port, no FireWire port, and only one USB port. All connectivity comes through the built-in wireless card or the lone USB port.

A few other considerations with laptops:

  • Most laptops come with built-in Ethernet and accept hard-wired or wireless Ethernet connections. (Note, however, that with the MacBook Air, you must use an Ethernet-to-USB adapter, taking up the laptop’s sole USB connection).
  • Many laptops still come with modems allowing for dial-up connections; however, computer manufacturers have started to build computers without modems. If you get one that lacks a built-in modem and you need one, you will have to acquire an external USB 56K modem.
  • Most laptops accept PCMCIA cards, allowing you to add functionality, including a wireless cell card that can give you broadband Internet connectivity in major metropolitan areas. Some laptops use an Express 34 slot instead of the PCMCIA. The Express 34 has some advantages over the PCMCIA in terms of form and function, but it will require that you get new cards or a USB adapter for your older PCMCIA cards. Some computers offer the best of both worlds by working with both types of cards.
  • The USB cellular modems offer the best approach for mobile wireless high-speed connectivity. One cellular modem and one account will work with virtually any laptop on the Mac or Windows platform. (It will also work on a desktop, which could come in handy if your normal connection goes out.) A swappable USB cellular modem gives you a much more economical approach than a separate account for each computer. If you travel regularly and buy Internet connectivity at hotels, you will find the card quickly pays for itself and its service connection. Some laptops have built-in cellular capability. It works better in some than in others. I would try to avoid that feature, if for no other reason than it limits you to the provider chosen by your computer's manufacturer.

Jeffrey Allen is the principal in the Graves & Allen law firm in Oakland, California. A frequent speaker on technology topics, he is the Special Issue Editor of GPSolo’s Technology & Practice Guide and Editor-in-Chief of the Technology eReport . He holds faculty positions at California State University of the East Bay and the University of Phoenix and is a member of the Law Society of England and Wales and a Solicitor of the Supreme Court of England and Wales. He may be reached at .

Copyright 2008

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