Volume 18, Number 4
Buying a Laptop
By Jeffrey M. Allen
Considerations for buying a laptop computer pretty much mimic those involved in buying a desktop but present some very different issues. Buyers consider such things as size, speed, power, connectivity, memory, monitor size and resolution and, of course, price. Laptop buyers may attach different significance to each of those considerations than desktop buyers. Laptop buyers also are concerned with two things that desktop purchasers do not care much about: weight of the computer and battery life.
This article will not tell you what laptop to buy; it will help you make a good decision about what to buy, based on your needs, uses, and bottom line.
In making a decision about a laptop purchase, evaluate how you will use the machine. Common and important considerations include the following points.
Will the laptop serve as your only computer, or will it supplement a desktop machine? Generally, if you use the laptop exclusively, you will require more from it than if it supplements a desktop machine. Accordingly, expect to pay more for it. You will probably want a larger screen (at least 14 and preferably 15 inches) or alternatively a separate monitor (at least 17 inches). The one-computer practitioner will require more connectivity, more features, and more power than the lawyer who uses the laptop to supplement an office machine.
Will you use the laptop primarily at home, travel with it, or both? The more you move the laptop around, the more likely it will end up lost, stolen, or broken. Ruggedness, therefore, is a factor. And, the more the laptop travels with you, the more its weight and communication capabilities become important considerations.
What type of transportation will you generally use when you travel with the laptop? If you fly a lot as opposed to drive, the issue of weight is really important. If you plan to work on the plane, consider the size of the screen and the configuration of the computer. The size of airplane tray tables and the angle the seat in front assumes when reclined often make it difficult to open large-screen laptops if you fly coach (generally not a problem in business or first class).
What type of work will you do on the laptop? Why do you want a laptop? Do you need it for word processing, timekeeping, and e-mail? Do you plan to use it for trial presentation as well? How many programs will you normally have open at one time? What hardware requirements do each of those programs have? Issues include processor speed, pieces required in addition to the basic computer configuration, and the amount of memory required. The heavier the demands you make on the computer, the more computer you need. If you plan only to do some word processing and check your e-mail, you don’t need tremendous computing power. If you will produce multimedia presentations, you will need much more. If you plan to use the computer to entertain yourself by playing games and/or playing music CDs and/or DVDs, you will need more memory, a faster CPU, and better graphics (you will, of course, also need a DVD drive and software).
How much weight can you comfortably carry? That darned weight issue again. A case with wheels can go a long way toward mitigating the impact of weight.
A Word about Cost
As a general rule, laptops cost more than desktops of similar configuration. You pay premiums for portability and for technology that condenses the size and weight of a desktop computer’s functionality to that of a laptop. As with desktop models, you also pay a premium for new technology, such as the DVD recording devices offered recently, and for speed (an 600 MHz processor will cost much less than an 800 MHz processor, which, in turn, costs less than a gigahertz CPU). For example, you can get a reasonably good, functional (but pretty much bare- bones) desktop computer for around $1,000. Plan on paying about $1,500 or so for a reasonably good quality, functional (but no-frills) laptop computer. You can spend less, but you will probably wish you had not. You can easily spend more as you move up the ladder to more sophisticated, newer, and faster computers. Prices in the $2,500 to $3,000 range for a fully decked-out, state-of-the-art desktop computer package should not surprise you. Prices of more than $3,000 for a fully decked-out state-of-the-art, Golly-Gee-Whiz laptop should not shock you.
Most lawyers do not need the newest, hottest, fastest, sleekest, most powerful (and most expensive) laptop. Many may want such a machine, but few have any real need for it. If you do not concern yourself about price and/or you just want that new model you saw in the ad, then buy it, by all means. Knock yourself out. "Go for the gold." "Just do it." If "image is everything," and you think that having the Golly-Gee-Whiz model makes the image, then run, don’t walk, to the nearest computer store, find a salesperson, and show him or her the money! Just remember that this month’s hot model will evolve to old news within a few months, history by the end of the year, and ancient history (in the computer world) less than a year after that. Interestingly, unforeseen damage, theft, or breakdown aside, the computer will still work just the same then as it does today. It will still do exactly the same job at about the same speed.
A series of newer computers featuring faster CPUs and different features and models may look substantially different. For example, in the last few years we have seen the super-expensive level progress from around 300 MHz CPUs to a gigahertz. USB has all but replaced serial interface ports. More and more laptops come with built-in ethernet ports (almost a standard feature), screen sizes have grown from 12-inch to 15.1-inch diagonals, and battery life has increased by 200 to 300 percent. Weight has steadily decreased, as has the thickness of the machines—many of the newer models weigh less than six pounds and measure an inch or less in thickness. As for appearance, translucent colors have been added to the long-established shades of beige and gray. For the very latest in hip, take a look at the new Macintosh G4 titanium case. That computer has so much appeal that I have talked to a number of Windows users who think they might buy one and get Virtual PC from Connectix to run Windows emulations for programs that do not have Macintosh versions. Give it a few months, and you will likely see Windows laptop vendors offering their own titanium cases.
You have other choices that can directly impact cost. Larger displays cost more than smaller displays. A 15.1-inch display will cost about $100 more than a 14.1-inch one that, in turn costs more than a 12-inch display. Pentium III processors cost more than Pentium II processors. All Pentium processors cost more than non-Pentium processors, such as the Celeron or the Athelon processor. Smaller hard drives cost less than larger ones (bad choice), and less RAM costs less than more RAM (also a bad choice). Generally, if two machines have substantially identical specifications but one weighs less, the lighter one costs more. Just to give you an idea of what to expect, I looked at ads from computer resellers Comp USA, Best Buy, Office Depot, and Circuit City in the San Francisco Chronicle and Oakland Tribune in early April. Laptop prices ranged from $1,000 to $3,000. The following typified the ads:
1. $1,000 for an HP Pavilion with: a 13-inch display, Intel Celeron Processor running at 650 MHz, 10 GB hard drive, 56K v.90 data/fax modem, 24x CD-ROM, 64 MB RAM, and Windows ME (weight not provided).
2. $1,600 for a Toshiba Satellite with: 14.1-inch display, Pentium III Processor running at 700 MHz, 10 GB hard drive, DVD-ROM drive, Ethernet port, and 128 MB RAM. Weight with lithium ion battery: 7.4 pounds.
3. $2,199 for a Toshiba Satellite with: 14.1-inch display, Pentium III processor running at 800 MHz, 20 GB hard drive, 8x DVD-ROM/CD-RW drive, Ethernet port, and 256 MB RAM. Weight with lithium ion battery: 5.6 pounds.
What to Look for in a Laptop
Laptop computers come in a variety of sizes, shapes, and configurations. Today’s machines generally offer more for less money than machines at the top of the heap a few years ago.
The most basic laptop configuration includes a central processing unit (CPU), some memory, hard drive, keyboard, pointing device, viewing screen (monitor), and some type of data input device(s) including one or more of the following drives: floppy disk, DVD-ROM, CD-ROM, CD-R or RW (CD burners), Zip, and LS120 (sometimes a "superdrive" that reads and writes to both floppy and LS120 disks). These data input devices come in both internal and extrernal versions, depending on the laptop model and your personal needs and desires. Other devices normally included in a laptop computer include a modem, network card, additional memory (the factory rarely installs enough), and docking station.
If the laptop will serve as your only computer, you want to make sure that it has or that you can add to it all the devices that you expect to need. To satisfy this need, you can buy a larger, heavier machine that has many of the devices you want built in and mate it to a docking station for connectivity to the rest of the devices you need or want. Such machines are often referred to as "all-in-one" or "desktop replacement" units.
The small, lightweight computer offers another option. Most of the so-called lightweights have dropped unseemly poundage by dropping devices such as CD/DVD-ROM units, floppy disk drives, etc., which are available as "add-ons" that can travel with you when necessary but remain attached to a docking station at your office most of the time. If you buy such a laptop, recognize that you will want a docking station to attach all the extra devices to, so that they remain immediately available on your computer when you nest it in the docking station. If you go this route, you will almost certainly want to acquire a full-sized keyboard and a larger monitor (at least 17 inches diagonally) that remain connected to the docking station at all times.
Alternatively, you can try for the best of both worlds by getting a laptop that splits apart (by design), such as the Compaq Armada 300. The Armada 300 divides into a base unit housing a floppy disk drive, DVD-ROM drive and a number of connection ports; and a computer unit containing the CPU, hard disk, screen, keyboard, pointing device, internal 56Kbps modem, built-in network (Ethernet) connector, and battery.
The larger, heavier, "all-in-one" laptop will probably have a good-sized screen (14 or 15 inches or larger); smaller units such as the Armada will likely have a 10-inch diagonal screen. With the larger screen, you will not need and may not want a separate monitor. With smaller screen models, you will probably want to invest in a separate, larger monitor if you plan to use the computer heavily at the office or at home.
When choosing your laptop, get one with XGA resolution (1024 x 768). The XGA resolution is crisp and sharp. Generally, an XGA monitor can also display at lower resolution. (See the comments about monitors in "I Feel the Need for Speed" for more information.)
The power and speed of the newer laptop units make it reasonable to consider the purchase of a single computer that functions both as a laptop and as a desktop replacement. I do not advocate such a purchase at the present time, although I have many friends and colleagues who do. In a recent discussion, one such advocate (who just happens to be Tony Vittal, the author of "I Feel the Need for Speed" in this issue) argued that the advantage of the single purchase affords him the opportunity to stop worrying about synchronizing multiple computers. He has only one set of data on one computer, and it goes with him wherever and whenever he needs a computer. I do not find the synchronization of data files so burdensome. I back up my data daily on a couple of Zip disks and can easily move it intact from one computer to another to keep all of my computers synchronized. I believe in redundant systems when the system has a vital role in your operation. I have identical desktop computers for my use at my law office and my home office, and one laptop. If my desktop at work fails (and computers have a nasty habit of doing that every once in a while), I have the option of working at home, swapping the desktop units between my house and my office pending repair of the broken computer, or simply working off of the laptop. If I used the laptop as an all-in-one computer and it broke or someone stole it, I would have nothing to work on until I could get the broken computer repaired or replaced or the stolen computer replaced.
Tony’s response is that he regularly backs up his entire hard drive, not just his data. If the all-in-one breaks or is stolen, he simply replaces it and loads the information into the replacement from his backup system. Everyone should back up data daily, but if you opt for the all-in-one, you really need to take a leaf from Tony’s book and back up your entire drive on a regular basis. Remember, you can lose whatever data you don’t back up; if you don’t back up the entire drive with all programs installed, you will have to use the disks to, reinstall all the software and reestablish all your preferences and settings.
You can save yourself quite a bit of money if you’re willing to use older laptop versions. It seems as though the clock speed on CPUs doubles about every 18 months. All that speed sounds really impressive; but as a practical matter, eventually you get to the point where the extra processing power the speed represents really makes no observable difference to most lawyers—except to their bank balances. Hardware requires software to run; until the software can make good use of hardware advances, the advances really don’t offer much to lawyers.
If you want a computer simply for word processing, legal research, e-mail, timekeeping, and billing, a Pentium II or Pentium III CPU running at 500 MHz or faster should serve you quite nicely. If you use the Macintosh OS, either the G-3 or G-4 Powerbook running at 400 MHz will do just fine. If you use voice recognition software, a faster CPU will help. If you do heavy-duty graphics work, a faster CPU will help a lot. You can save yourself a reasonable amount of money and achieve as good or, in many cases, better performance by buying a laptop with an upper-mid-range clock speed CPU and investing part of the savings in additional RAM. You should have an absolute minimum of 128 MB RAM in your laptop (without regard to the word processing program you run). RAM is one area where more really is better, and 256MB offers a significant performance enhancement over 128MB. If you opt for the Macintosh and intend to run both the Mac OS and a Windows system through software such as Virtual PC, you should plan on a minimum of 256MB and allocate 128MB to the virtual machine created by the Virtual PC program. Respecting hard disk drives, consider 10 GB as a minimum. You will find larger capacity a real asset.
For those of you who prefer the Macintosh but also want to run Windows programs that have no Macintosh counterparts (such as CaseMap, TimeMap, NoteMap, or LiveNote), Connectix Virtual PC 4 software does an excellent, effective, and efficient job.
While you travel, you will undoubtedly want to go online either to get e-mail or to do some research. For that reason, you want a modem. Many laptops come with internal modems; others require that you purchase the modem separately. If you have to purchase the modem separately, go with a 56 Kbps PCMCIA card V90 modem, the current industry standard. You can probably find a slower modem for less, but why would you want to do that? You want the fastest possible communications that you can obtain, particularly if you intend to download information from the Internet. Most hotel hookups do not allow a 56kBd modem to operate at 56 Kbps. You might also give some thought to getting a modem that works with both a hard line connection and a connection to your cell phone, to expand your ability to connect when you want. However, although wireless connectivity has improved, it leaves much to be desired in terms of reliability and speed.
If your laptop does not come with a built-in Ethernet connection, consider adding one, either through a PCMCIA card or through adaptors that connect to a USB port (if your computer has one). They do not cost much but can make life much better on the road. Many hotels already offer broadband high-speed Internet connections to their guests for a fee (usually around $10 per day). This connection goes through an Ethernet port, so if you don’t have one, you cannot use the service.
You will need to back up your work on the road. Zip drives are available for internal bays on some computers. External Iomega Zip drives now available are small and sleek, particularly the 250K USB version of the drive. It takes up little space, adds little weight, and gives you plenty of backup power. I take a Zip drive with me wherever I take my computer.
You will want to have a CD or DVD disk reader or a CDR/RW (burner). Again, you may have the choice of built-in, swappable internal bay device or external device. If you use the laptop as your only computer, you want the CD burner. If not, you can do without it on the laptop and add it to your desktop, so that you have it readily available to you during your workday.
Before you buy your laptop, give some consideration to your level of expertise and the likelihood that you will need technical support from the vendor. Look into the vendor’s support policy and the times during which it is available. If most of your travel takes place between Monday and Friday, the fact that the vendor provides no technical support on Saturday or Sunday may not be a major problem. If you travel a lot on weekends and think that you will need technical support available to you, it becomes a more significant issue.
One final suggestion: buy at least one extra battery! Keep it charged, and take it with you whenever you travel.
Jeffrey M. Allen is a principal in the law firm of Graves & Allen with a general practice that since 1973 has emphasized negotiation, structuring and documentation of real estate, loan and other business transactions, receiverships, and bankruptcy. He is the special issue editor of GPSolo ’s Technology and Practice Guide issues.