Volume 18, Number 4
I Feel the Need...for Speed!
Shopping for a New Computer
By J.Anthony Vittal
A re you getting tired of computing on your old clunker while your friends and colleagues,and
perhaps even your kids,are blazing away on their spiffy new Pentium III or 4 machines?You just
collected that big receivable,took care of the bills,gave your assistant his long overdue bonus,
and have something left over.Maybe now,you think to yourself,is the time to get a spiffy new
machine of your own!Which one should you get?What options should you trick it out with?Here
are some guidelines.
What Do You Use It For?
If you commute two miles each way to and from the office;make the occasional trip to the
courthouse;and shlep the kids to soccer practice,music lessons,and the orthodontist,you
wouldn ’t do it in a Ferrari —much as you might cast wistful looks every time you see one.The
same principle applies to computers:first,analyze what you do with yours.
If all you do is prepare legal documents,keep time records,create the occasional spreadsheet,
surf the Web,and the like,you don ’t need to spend your hard-earned dollars on a superfast dual-
processor Pentium 4 with Rambus RAM.However,if you are manipulating large databases,
creating and showing large-scale trial graphics presentations,and participating in high-volume
listserv groups,other considerations come into play.These factors will help shape your system
If you spend a significant amount of time working at multiple locations,in whatever
combination of office,home,client offices,courtrooms,on the road,at the beach,etc.,you may
want to consider getting a desktop replacement notebook with identical docking stations for home
and office.At least that way,you will never have to curse yourself for leaving the files you need
on your "other " computer.
Another alternative is to invest in a self-powered external hard drive for all your data,and
simply move the data from place to place.(Of course,you will need to keep your external drive
backed up,as you would any other magnetic storage device.)The drive typically connects via a
PCMCIA card.With storage capacities of 8 to 10 Gigabytes (GB)or more in a package about the
size and weight of the original Palm Pilot,1 it provides convenience and portability.If you don ’t
need that much storage for your data files,consider a microdrive —now available in sizes up to 1
GB (the equivalent of ten 100 MB ZIP disks).These drives not only connect via a PCMCIA card,
they fit in the card.You can carry your data around in your shirt pocket!
Whatever you decide to do,compare price and performance before you buy.Both CNET and
ZDNet offer comparison features and other reference resources on their websites.2 Check both
to get the best results.
Computer box .Before jumping in to buy the fancy new "box " at your dealer,consider how many
peripheral devices you plan to connect to the system.Most modern off-the-shelf units have a
built-in floppy (1.4 MB)drive and two externally accessible bays,one with a CD-ROM drive.That
leaves just one externally accessible bay for your other devices —which may force you to get an
expansion "box " to accommodate them.3 Other systems have three or four externally accessible
bays,which may better suit your needs.4 Custom-made boxes can provide as many as five
externally accessible bays,but they may not fit under your desk or return.
CPU.Although Intel has released the Pentium 4 and AMD has released the Athlon,both with
very robust capabilities,you probably don ’t need so much computing power to warrant the
additional expense of buying the most advanced CPU,particularly because the Pentium 4
requires Rambus RDRAM memory,which is very fast but relatively expensive.For all but the
most power-hungry "power users," an Intel Pentium III running at a clock speed of 850+
Megahertz (MHz),or its AMD equivalent,should suffice.However,if you get a system using a
motherboard with a Rambus system bus,you will need RDRAM rather than SDRAM even if
you ’re running a Pentium III.
To help you determine what processor you need,the CNET website (www.cnet.com)offers a
Buying Adviser on its website that describes the various processors on the market;click
Hardware Reviews/Desktops;under Buying Advisers,click Top Picks by Processors.
RAM. As applications become ever larger and more memory hungry,and as users keep more
applications open simultaneously,the need for RAM increases.You should have a bare-bones
minimum of 128 MB RAM —256 MB to 512 MB if you can afford it.To take advantage of the 133
MHz bus speed of the motherboards in most new computers,RAM should be able to
communicate at that speed.Again,unless you are a power user,SDRAM should suffice.
Video card. Video cards process the information to be displayed on your screen and handle
the display.Even if you don ’t play video games,the almost universal use of graphics-intensive
content and the increased use of full-motion video on the Web demands better video processing.
You will want an advanced graphics processor (AGP)video card,preferably with 32 MB of
internal memory.Consider the Matrox G450 32 MB 4x AGP (dual monitor capable)or NVIDIA
Corp.’s 32 MB GeForce2 MX (or GTS)4x AGP cards.
For even better performance,check out the NVIDIA Quadro2 Pro 64 MB 4x AGP card or
something comparable.ATI Technologies fired a major salvo with its new Radeon graphics
processor,which powers the company ’s Radeon 64MB DDR graphics card (MSRP $399),
arguably the fastest graphics processor on the market as of March 2001.
Monitor. A flat-panel display (notebook display in a stand-alone case)looks great,but still is
relatively expensive and has angle-of-view and resolution limitations.Unless you have space
constraints that warrant the increased expenditure,buy a conventional monitor.5
As we spend more and more time in front of the computer,anything that reduces eye strain is
an advantage and well worth the additional expense.The flatter the screen,the better,because
less curvature means less distortion.Minimum display dimensions should be 17 inches from
corner to corner —19 inches is preferable.Bare-bones resolution should be 0.28 mm dot pitch or
less.Maximum resolution capability should be at least 1280x1024 pixels,and the monitor should
be able to handle at least XGA,if not SXGA,signals.
You don ’t have to spend an outrageous sum to buy a Sony Trinitron monitor in order to get
outstanding performance.ViewSonic monitors (www.viewsonic.com)are one example,with the
mid-range Graphics Series and the top-of-the-line Professional Series.For large-screen monitors,
check out the ViewSonic P220f 22-inch (20-inch viewable)PerfectFlat monitor ($850 to $870);or the ViewSonic Optiquest Q115 21-inch (19.8-inch viewable)monitor (about $665).Most 17-inch
monitors will run under $300.
Keyboards and mice.Accomplished touch typists should consider getting an ergonomic
keyboard (the curved one);these were pioneered by Microsoft and now are made by a number of
manufacturers.Also,if your box has only a single port for these external I/O devices,you will
need a keyboard with a built-in port for your mouse.
A variety of mice are available,ranging from the old-fashioned mechanical mouse with a ball in
the base to the newer optical mice (no need to clean internal contact wheels).Be sure to get a
"wheel mouse "—one that permits you to scroll from the mouse.Microsoft ’ s Explorer optical
mouse with four programmable buttons is about $49;Logitech offers one with three
programmable buttons for about $25.
Finally,if you like the touchpad device on most notebook computers,you can get one of these
to use instead.Move your finger lightly across the touchpad to position the cursor on the screen,
tap once to click,twice to double-click,or use the buttons on the device to do so.Scroll the
screen by lightly moving your finger up or down the right edge of the touchpad surface.
Sound card/speakers.Once again,how you intend to use the system should determine the
sophistication of the sound card and speakers you get.Will you be playing DVD movies on your
computer?If so,you probably want a high-end sound card and an Altec-Lansing ADA885
amplified five-speaker surround-sound system (complete with Dolby digital and LucasFilm THX
decoders).6 At the other end of the spectrum,you may find that the speakers embedded in your
monitor (if your monitor is so equipped)suffice.Between these extremes,the selection of external
speakers available for computers is almost as broad as that available for your regular system.
For incredible sound from a small package,look at Sonigistix Corp.’ s Monsoon line of amplified
planar transducer multimedia speaker systems at www.monsoonpower.com.Planar transducer
speaker technology was once reserved for expensive home entertainment systems.Now,
Sonigistix makes this technology affordable for the desktop.Planar Focus technology directs the
sound at the listener,minimizing reflections from the desktop and monitor sides.You hear crisp,
powerful sound,including the positionally accurate 3D effects possible from today ’s games and
multimedia applications,even if the effect happens behind you,from just two speakers and a
woofer.Prices range from $99 for the MH-500 to $199 for the MM-1000.
Hard disk drive(s). Applications get bigger and bigger.If you use Microsoft applications,your
data files are disproportionately large.When added to files of accumulated e-mail,this translates
to the need for large quantities of disk storage,although it was not so long ago that we wondered
what we would ever do to fill a 40 MB drive.7 Fortunately for us,hardware technology has kept up
with the demands of the software folks.Large hard disk drives (70 to 80 GB)are available,
although they probably are overkill for most users.8 Consider,instead,a 40 GB drive,and add
another if and when you need it.
The next question is,what "kind " of drive or connection should go between your drive and the
motherboard in your computer.There are two types of drives —EIDE (enhanced integrated device
electronics)and SCSI (small computer system interface,pronounced "scuzzy ").Table 1 shows
the breakdown,with aliases and associated maximum data transfer rates (the higher,the better).
TABLE 1:TWO TYPES OF DRIVES
ATA-3 (EIDE,Fast ATA)16.6 MB/sec
Ultra SCSI 20 MB/sec
ATA-4 (Ultra ATA,UDMA/33)33.3 MB/sec
Wide Ultra SCSI 40 MB/sec
ATA-5 (Ultra ATA [DMA ]/66)66.6 MB/sec
Wide Ultra2 SCSI 80 MB/sec
ATA-6 (Ultra DMA/100)100 MB/sec
Ultra3 SCSI 160 MB/sec
Ultra320 SCSI 320 MB/sec
Most commentators recommend that you avoid buying any drive that has a maximum transfer
rate below 70 MB/sec.For a desktop system,I personally prefer SCSI because it is faster and up
to 15 SCSI devices can be chained together on the same controller card (including devices
installed in an external add-on box).Devices can be more expensive;considering that (if there is
no SCSI controller on your motherboard)you would have to use only one of the PCI card slots on
your motherboard for the controller to handle up to 15 devices,the marginal cost difference might
be well worth it.
DVD/CD-ROM drive. Even if you won ’t be playing movies on your computer,you should get a
DVD drive because it plays not only DVD movies but also CD-audio discs and reads CD-ROM
and DVD-ROM discs.As applications become ever larger,they will likely be distributed on a
single DVD-ROM disc rather than multiple CD-ROMs.DVD drives will handle all these types of
CD-RW drive. Unlike the DVD/CD-ROM "read-only " drive,a CD-RW drive will read and write
to a write-only CD-R disc and to a re-writable CD-RW disk.This provides the equivalent of more
than 450 diskettes or 61 /2 100-MB ZIP disks.The drive also will play CD-ROM music and data
The same drive will write 700 MB CD-R discs for permanent data storage.You can pick up
CD-R discs in packages of five,with jewel cases,at 79 cents each (writable at 10x)or 99 cents
each (writable at 12x,currently the maximum write speed of the drives).You also can buy them in
bulk (spindle of 50,writable at 8x,without jewel cases)for 39 cents each.
ZIP drive. Internal ZIP drives now are available in both 100 MB and 250 MB sizes.They are
useful to transfer "briefcase " files from computer to computer (or to take files to your local Kinko ’s
for special processing and/or printing)and to use as a bootable "rescue " disc for system recovery
in the event of a serious system crash.
Backup drive. It is absolutely essential that you have a backup drive appropriate to your
system,and that you routinely back it up.Although the newest versions of Windows include a
"restore " function,this will not protect you against a catastrophic hard disk failure,virus infection,
or loss of your system in a fire,earthquake,or theft.Once you have the rest of your system
configured,you will have an idea of the backup size you require.If you operate on a network,you
may want to get a backup system capable of backing up the entire network,which could require
one or more tape drives,or even a tape array,to permit unattended backups.Make sure you
have appropriate backup software to run the backup hardware you select,such as the award-
winning ARCServe applications published by Computer Associates
Network card. Whether your computer is one node on a network or you plan to connect to a
DSL or cable modem for Internet access,you need a network interface card (NIC).Get at least a
10/100 card to ensure that you will connect to all network devices at the fastest speed possible.
Depending on your environment (i.e.,whether or not you are already or can be cabled for a
network),you may want a wireless network card (requiring another wireless network card at the
other end of your network or even on all of your networked devices).
Modem. Even if you connect to the Internet with a DSL or cable modem,you also should have
an "old-fashioned " modem.Make sure the modem you get complies with the new v.92 protocols,
permitting up to 56 K/sec.for both upload and download.
Internet connection. In order to avoid the "great time sink " of surfing the Internet on a slow
connection,plan for and get the fastest connection you can,a DSL or cable modem or,if neither
service is available in your neighborhood,an ISDN modem.Failing all of those options,consider
a broadband wireless connection using a wireless ISDN modem.9
If you are operating on a network and you want to share your broadband Internet connection
across the network,use a Linksys Cable/DSL Router (four port or eight port)next to your DSL
modem.10 The router includes a 10/100 switched hub and firewalling via NAT (Netware Address
Translation).The four-port version retails for about $160.
Operating system. As much as you may abhor the Microsoft monopoly,if you run PCs (rather
than Macs)in a law office environment,the applications are designed to operate on a Microsoft
operating system.Unless you have a large network (ten-plus nodes),you won ’t need Windows
2000,which is designed as a network operating system.Windows Millennium Edition
(WindowsME)—the most recent version of the Windows 9x series —works nicely and allows you
to establish a peer-to-peer network,although it is not as stable as Windows 2000.
Linux is a reliable Unix-based operating system alternative to Windows,but it still suffers from
a relative lack of applications written for it.If you do mostly word processing,spreadsheets,
database management,and graphics presentations,Corel makes a version of its WordPerfect
suite for the Linux operating system.If you need to use Windows applications,consider Win4Lin,
published by NeTraverse,Inc.(www.netraverse.com)($89 boxed or $59 downloadable),a set of
Windows device drivers plus support code that lets Windows run on top of Linux in a Linux
window.The Windows applications then run inside the Windows window (see figure 3).Until
Microsoft succeeds in its ongoing efforts with Mainsoft to port its Windows applications to Linux,
workaround applications such as Win4Lin are the answer.
Anti-virus software. An absolutely essential component of any computer is anti-virus
software.Have it installed on your system,keep it running "in the background " to trap viruses on
the fly,and keep the virus definitions up to date.Most anti-virus software can be set up to update
itself automatically via your Internet connection.
I have used Norton AntiVirus for years and find it utterly reliable.Symantec (which acquired
Peter Norton ’s company some years ago)offers Norton AntiVirus as a stand-alone product or as
a component of several of its other products,including Norton SystemWorks.A competitor,
McAfee,also offers a popular anti-virus application.
System tools/utilities. Although Windows comes with a selection of system tools and utilities,
they are not the best on the market.Consider getting a copy of Norton SystemWorks,which
includes hard disk and Windows maintenance utilities and Norton AntiVirus.
Lease versus purchase. Depending on other equipment purchases you make during the year,
you may be able to get tax advantages by buying the equipment and deducting the expense in
the current year (if you qualify for the deduction).Check with your tax advisor before spending
If your firm is in a growth mode and you want to fix your equipment costs on a per-person
basis,consider a leasing program like Evolution,offered through Legasys Legal Systems,Inc.
.www.llsi.com).The Evolution program equips you with Compaq hardware and software of your
choice,provides for automatic upgrades of software as released,can include full tech support
services,and allows you to replace the computers with new ones at the end of each lease term,
all for a fixed per-unit monthly price.www.llsi.com
Brand name versus generic. Because computers have become more like commodities,with
most manufacturers selecting component parts from the same group of vendors,branding is less
of an issue.Buying a name-brand system from a manufacturer with a track record in the
marketplace for reliability and service can give you a comfort level you may not have from a
generic " manufacturer.A brand-name manufacturer (e.g.,Dell,IBM,Compaq,Gateway,HP,
Sony)commands purchasing power that allows it to utilize volume pricing and pass those savings
on to the consumer.However,brand-name manufacturers incur substantial advertising costs that
erode those savings.A trustworthy local "wirehead " may be able to assemble an equivalent
system,using the same components,designed and equipped exactly the way you want it,for
about what you would pay for a brand system.Color coding contemporary components makes
assembly a snap (green plug into green socket,orange into orange,etc.).
Where to buy. Now that you have made the decision to buy and know what you want,where
do you buy your new system?If you can make do with a pre-configured off-the-shelf system,you
can buy your new brand name system from a local retailer as easily as from a direct-to-consumer
manufacturer such as Dell.If,however,you "want it your way," you probably should go to a
direct-to-consumer manufacturer or a custom systems builder.
The Internet has made custom buying almost effortless —and you never have to leave your
desk to do it.Just go to the website of the manufacturer you have selected,pick the model you
want,configure it the way you want it,and price it.Revise as necessary.Put it in your shopping
cart,add peripherals and software (unless you find you can buy them less expensively
elsewhere).Then,proceed to the check out (typically,a secure portion of the site),where you
either complete a lease application or charge your purchase to your credit card.If you prefer,you
can save your configured system to a file on the manufacturer ’ s website and then deal with a
sales representative to complete your purchase.
The ABA,through its Member Advantage program,sponsors discount programs with Dell and
IBM for products from those vendors (www.abanet.org/advantage/computers.html).
For ready reference,here is a selection of hardware manufacturers ’ websites:
Dell (www.dell.com)—Home &Home Office or Small &Medium Business
IBM (www.ibm.com)—Resources for Home/Home Office or Resources for Small Business
1.IBM Travelstar E-series drives;Maxtor also makes a line of large external (40 &80 GB external drives)
that connect via an IEEE 1394 "firewire " port..
2.Check out CNET at http://computers.cnet.com/hardware/0-1016b.html?tag=sb.Pick product type,filter
appropriately using the categories in the frame at the left of the screen,select up to five products by
clicking on the check boxes,and click Compare.The system will create a side-by-side comparison for
you and even will include price ranges for each product you have selected.To view ZDNet,go to
3.A disadvantage to an expansion box is the data transfer rate limitation imposed by the connection.If you
use a USB connection,the limited bandwidth of the USB will constrain the speed at which you can read
and write data,and you will have to equip the expansion box with USB devices.If you add a SCSI card
to your system,there will be less speed constraint,but you will have to equip the expansion box with
4.For example,Dell ’s Dimension 4100 series has a built-in floppy drive,plus two 51 /2-inch bays and two
31 /2-inch bays.Notebooks such as Dell ’s Inspiron 8000 circumvent the problem by having a universal
bay that allows the user to "hot-swap " devices —e.g.,floppy drive,ZIP drive,CD-RW drive,extra battery,
etc.—in and out of that bay.
5.Every once in a while,a real deal comes along.Last March,eCost.com offered brand-new,IBM-
built/Acer-labeled LCD flat panel 18.1-inch displays for $999 with free shipping —at a time when the
average 18.1-inch flat panel display was regularly priced between $2,500 and $3,500.
6.Warning:this sound system is so good that you may be tempted to hook your stereo into it —and you
can!An alternative is the new Sound Blaster Live!5.1 sound card,which not only handles the six-
channel analog output from a DVD but also introduces Dolby decoding right into the sound card drivers
to give you full SurroundSound capabilities.
7.On my new system,the Windows application folder takes up 1.44GB of disk space.The Program Files
folder (which does not contain all the applications on the system)takes up another 2.2GB,and the
Restore folder takes up another 2.31GB.Adding the other applications,more than 6GB is used by the
system before any data files are counted.
8.For EIDE drives,the IBM Deskstar 75GXP ($269-$319)has up to 76.86 GB of storage on a fast (8.5 ms
average seek time)single drive;the Maxtor DiamondMax,80 GB drive ($245-$311);Seagate ’s Cheetah
73 line has 73.4 GB 5.85 ms SCSI drives ($882-$1199).For really large drives,the Seagate Barracuda
has a 181.6 GB 7.4 ms SCSI drive.
9.Wireless ISDN modems use Metricom ’s Ricochet service (www.metricom.com),currently available
through Wireless WebConnect!(www.wwc.com)at 128 Kbps,which allows users to take advantage of
the freedom of wireless mobility on a nationwide basis.Check the website for lists of current and future
geographic availabilities.Metricom manufactures and sells the $99 Ricochet GS external wireless ISDN
modem (connects via USB or serial port).If you have a notebook with a USB port,you can Velcro it to
the lid and plug it into the USB port.It will power up and connect you to the Internet when you boot up
the notebook,wherever you may be.Other wireless ISDN modems are PCMCIA card-based and include
the Novatel Merlin ($299)and the Sierra Wireless AirCard 400 ($299).Richochet service is $74.95 per
month for unlimited access,plus a one-time $30 activation fee.
10.The four-port is model BEFSR41;the eight-port is model BEFSR81.They are almost "plug and play,"
come with a built-in firewall,and Linksys has very good customer support.
J.Anthony Vittal is managing partner of Vittal and Sternberg,a complex business and real
estate litigation boutique in Los Angeles,California.He is a member of both the ABA
Standing Committee on Technology and Information Systems and the Technology &
Practice Guide editorial board,and chairs the Solo &Small Firm Division ’s Technology
If you want to get really fancy,consider a ViewSonic P225 21-inch (20-inch viewable)monitor
with Shadow Mask technology,offering 0.21 mm horizontal and 0.25 mm diagonal dot pitch,a
maximum resolution of 2,048x1,536 (the highest in the industry),and a built-in USB hub allowing
you to connect four USB peripheral devices to your computer with a single connection.Then
there is the ViewSonic VPW420 gas plasma display —a 42-inch screen in a package only 31 /2
inches deep —that can be mounted on a desktop pedestal,hung on the wall,or suspended from
For the ultimate (for those of us who do dream of Ferraris),there is the new IBM display —the
world ’ s highest-resolution flat-panel screen —ten years ahead of schedule.For around $20,000,
this IBM screen is 4.5 times sharper than a top-of-the-line HDTV screen.With more than 200
pixels per inch (9 million total),images are as clear as an original photograph.
The Rebuild Option
When I was a kid,my friends and I were able to have cars that performed better than bicycles by
taking old clunkers and rebuilding them,often collectively working on one another ’ s cars.Some
ended up as really tricked-out street rods;others were stealth rods —powerful performance
vehicles in a dated,plain-vanilla wrapper.
After you analyze what you do with your computer —but before you run out to buy that hot new
number advertised everywhere you look —consider the option of building your own computer
stealth rod.Assuming you ’re running at least a Pentium II or equivalent CPU,you can enhance
the performance of the old beige box in a number of ways.(The following prices are based on
March 2001 newspaper ads in Los Angeles.)
Get more RAM .Egghead.com has 128 MB memory upgrade modules starting at $29.99.For
under $90 including tax,you can get two PC100 128 MB DIMM modules —a total of 256 MB
RAM,or two to four times as much as you can get in an off-the-shelf system.Be sure to get RAM
that meets your computer ’ s specifications.Kingston Technology is a major manufacturer of OEM
and after-market RAM.Its website (www.kingston.com)can help you locate memory specs based
on your computer ’ s model number.
Get another hard drive .Hard drives are relatively inexpensive and simple to install.For a
primer on do-it-yourself installation,go to the CNET help center
(www.help.com/cat/1/21/668/hto/123/1.html?tag=st.hp.cat.bb)and just follow the instructions.In
Los Angeles,you can get a Fujitsu 10.2GB Ultra DMA/100 drive for $79;a Quantum 40GB Ultra
DMA/100 drive for $119 after rebate;and a Western Digital 60GB Ultra DMA/100 drive (bundled
with an Intel Easy PC camera)for $199.95 after rebate.
Get a new motherboard .If you are more ambitious,you can replace your old motherboard
and CPU with a new one,sort of like dropping a new engine into your old car.You can pick up an
ABIT motherboard with an 800 MHz Pentium III CPU for $249,or one with a 1.1 GHz AMD Athlon
CPU for $379.Because doing so is much like buying a new computer,however,you will have to
consider replacing your video card,sound card,and RAM with newer versions designed to take
advantage of the higher (133 MHz)bus speed of the new motherboard.