Know When to Hold ’Em, Know When to Fold ’Em:
Is It Time to Upgrade Your Technology Systems?

The wisdom of our somewhat illustrious Editorial Board as collected and edited by Jeffrey Allen.

Every once in a while we get the bright idea of using some of our space to allow our Editorial Board to get together and share with you the wisdom that they have accumulated through their work, experience, and analysis. We had that brainstorm again with respect to this issue of the magazine. We asked our Board members to respond to four of the burning technology questions of our day: (1) When should I replace my computer? (2) Can I safely switch from the dark side and come into the light—that is, buy a Macintosh? (3) What are the “sweet spots” for new computer hardware? And (4) What in the !@#$%^%*^ world do I do about Windows Vista?

As you will discover, our contributors have more than a single mind and a single opinion on some of these issues. We hope the discussion will give you better insight into the decisions you need to make for your own practice.

 

The Participants

Jeffrey Allen, the principal in the Graves & Allen law firm in Oakland, California, is the special issue editor of GPSolo’s Technology & Practice Guide and editor-in-chief of the Technology eReport.

Wells H. Anderson, J.D., provides live and online training to lawyers and staff and consults with firms to implement practice management software.

Daniel S. Coolidge is a recovering large-firm lawyer, now a patent attorney with Coolidge & Graves, PLLC, in Keene, New Hampshire.

Bruce L. Dorner is a solo practitioner with a primary office in Londonderry, New Hampshire, and remote offices wherever he finds a place to connect to the Internet.

Alan Pearlman, a practicing attorney in Chicago and the surrounding suburbs, is the author of the nationally syndicated column The Electronic Lawyer.

Nerino Petro Jr. is the practice management advisor for the State Bar of Wisconsin.

jennifer j. rose is editor-in-chief of GPSolo magazine, list manager of Solosez for the past ten years, and secretary-elect of the GP|Solo Division.

J. Anthony Vittal, the former general counsel of Credit.Com, Inc., and Identity Theft 911, LLC, is in private practice in Los Angeles, California.

 

When Do I Replace My Computer?

Vittal: Conventional wisdom in the IT community calls for replacing hardware every three years. If you are at the end of a three-year cycle and running Windows as your operating system, you probably still should wait until Vista is stabilized and the newest versions of your applications are certified as Vista-compliant. In some instances, that may not occur until the third or fourth quarter of 2007, or even later.

On the other hand, if you don’t need to have a Windows-based PC, you have all the options in the world. You can choose from a variety of Apple’s Mac OS-based systems or any of the various systems running on Linux.

Petro: Rather than using an arbitrary benchmark, such as the passing of a specified period of time, I recommend that you answer two primary questions: (1) Do your existing computers run the most recent versions of the software that your office relies on? (2) Do your computers do so without impeding the productivity of your staff?

If you answer both questions in the affirmative, you may have no pressing need to update your hardware. A potential downside to this approach is the fact that when the time does come to replace your computers, you may have to replace all of them simultaneously.

If you have a number of computers, a phased replacement approach that allows you to update computers on a regular basis may work better for you. That way you avoid finding yourself in a position of having to replace all of your computers at the same time. I know of offices that have a policy of replacing a computer every six to 12 months.

Coolidge: I replace a computer when it no longer supports something important I want to be able to do. Most often, that is video performance for playing games. For most applications lawyers use, a 386 would still be suitable!

Faster and faster used to be what drove us to buy the next generation of computers. But there comes a point where fast is fast enough. I can’t get the Internet to run faster by getting a faster computer. Word processing doesn’t require more power than most lawyers already have on their desks. If you do a lot of graphic design, the most important element for speed is the video card.

The old three-year rule no longer applies as far as I can tell. It was based primarily on speed considerations, and after a 3 GHz computer, what greater speed do you require? (Understand, I love being the fastest on the block, bleeding-edge adopter and all that, but these are not requirements for practicing law, they are ego feeds to which I succumb.)

rose: Dan, your New England thrift and reason are showing. Reason and good sense have little to do with the decision to buy a new computer. After all, there’s the “kewlness” factor to be considered. Even if you’re working at home in your bathrobe, would you really want to be caught dead using last year’s computer?

All right, what drives me to replace a computer is the availability of funds. If I have the money, I’ll buy a new one. And that’s generally every three years. That said, I’d like to see myself using Vista sometime around a year from now.

Dorner: I think that computers, like cars, will have problems at the most inconvenient times. We used to say “buy a new machine every three years.” Components have become more stable and I push that out to the three-to-five-year range, with the caveat that if you start getting any flaky behavior from the machine that you can’t fix in an hour, buy a new one!

Allen: You should replace your hardware when (1) it breaks and the repair bill comes to a good part of the cost of a new computer; or (2) when you want to run software that your computer cannot handle; or (3) when you really want the newest, hottest computer and simply cannot resist the temptation (we all have a right to some goodies from time to time). The last trigger derives from my unwavering belief that happy lawyers work more productively. If it makes you happy to get some new gadgetry for your office and you believe that it will make you more productive, then you should get it; chances are it will make you more productive.

Many go by a set rule of three or four years; I have never felt that made a great deal of sense. Why replace a computer that works well for you just because it is X years old? Why hold on to one that doesn’t do what you want because it is not “time” to upgrade?

Pearlman: The simple answer to this for me is: When I can no longer do what is necessary to run my office with my existing computer system, then it’s time to start changing the equipment!

 

Can I Leave the Dark Side? (i.e., Go Macintosh)

Allen: Without a doubt! I have used Macs to run my law office since 1985, and I am still doing it. People have debated the question of whether to go with a Macintosh computer or a Windows-based PC for the last 20 years. Historically, the choice made a bigger difference than it does today. The debate still continues, but it has lost some of its fervor. Part of the reason for that, of course, derives from the fact that Macintosh computers and Windows-based PCs now, largely, use the same microprocessors. Apple switched first to Intel’s Core Duo and then the Core 2 Duo as its primary processor. With that processor on board, the Macintosh computer can run Windows as a native operating system and then run virtually all programs requiring Windows.

With Parallels and/or Boot Camp, you can run both the Mac OS X and Windows XP or Vista on your Mac. In fact, I tried installing Vista as an upgrade on three computers, and the only one that had no problem with the upgrade was my MacBook Pro running a virtual machine through Parallels. I have had no problems running the Windows programs I have tried on the MacBook Pro, and they seem to run comparably as fast as on other Windows machines.

In truth, I do not spend much time using Windows programs. I have found software built for the Mac that does just about everything I need for my practice.

Anderson: Yes, you certainly can switch to an Apple Mac computer and still use your MS Windows programs. The new Macs can run both Windows and Mac software, even side by side. Almost everyone considering switching to MS Vista will need to buy a new computer, so it is a good time to consider buying an alternative computer.

Would you be happier with a Mac than a PC? To answer that question, you need to weigh a number of factors. Are you willing to pay more to get more? A Mac may be for you. The Apple marketing people do a great job of explaining the advantages of a Mac. For a list of reasons to switch, go to www.apple.com/getamac.

rose: Would I succumb to the siren song of Mac? Definitely not. Sure, Macs are a lot sexier than PCs, but (1) they cost more, and (2) where I live [Mexico] is just not Mac territory. Making the switch is just not in my vocabulary.

Pearlman: I have always been a Microsoft guy, since its inception. I don’t think that Mac would ever be an option for me. I just don’t think that there is enough software around for it and for my purposes. They try to tempt me with sexy new products, but I won’t give in!

 

What Are the “Sweet Spots” for a New Computer Purchase?

Vittal: There is no hard-and-fast answer. It all depends on what you need the computer to do. Someone handling only word processing and e-mail has different needs from someone manipulating large amounts of data, generating complex trial graphics (including 3-D renderings), and performing other tasks requiring a lot of computing and video-card capability and a lot of disk storage space.

I think of computers like cars. You need a different car to haul the kids to soccer games and band practice than for long-distance freeway commuting, and neither is the vehicle you would have if you also haul feed for livestock. Of course, some of us like keeping a Ferrari in the garage for those rare opportunities when you can satisfy your “need for speed.”

Dorner: I believe that you earn no points for being the attorney with the fastest computer. You earn points for getting quality work out the door on a consistent basis. The productivity bottleneck does not come from your processor or system. It’s how well you have systems designed to capture data and produce work product. Remember, no matter how fast your computer, or how fast your fingers are on the keyboard, you can’t get the paper out the door any faster than your printer can print it.

I support the purchase of mid-range processors and lots of memory. With Vista using significant resources, I support 2 GB of RAM.

Anderson: Rather than upgrade your current computer, seriously consider replacing it with a Windows Vista computer. That does not mean you need to rush out any time soon to buy the new computer, unless you have an important software program that gives you a big advantage in its Vista version. Prices will continue to drop, but the next year will see the steepest part of the price-drop curve for Vista-strength hardware.

It used to be that law office computers did not need the latest and greatest processors and video cards, and they still do not. Yet Windows Vista makes great use of strong video cards, so expect to pay $350 or more for this part of your new computer. If you scrimp here, you will regret it later.

A Core 2 Duo or equivalent is the right chip to run Windows Vista. In addition to buying 2 GB of RAM, you will be glad you bought a PC with four memory slots. The first thing to limit a computer as time goes by is the amount of RAM it has. Prices on RAM keep dropping, but you may have to pay premium prices to put big RAM modules into an older computer when it comes time to beef up your machine to run new software.

Buy a video card with at least 256 MB of RAM and preferably 512 MB. Even those numbers will look meager down the road. You need the power of a good video card to drive Windows Vista and handle the new applications well, especially when you work with dual monitors.

The best hard drives for use with Windows Vista are hybrid drives, especially for notebook PCs. These drives have flash memory in addition to traditional metal platters, so your PC can start up faster and retrieve frequently used data faster.

Allen: I have to concur with Wells’s comment about replacing rather than upgrading. Generally that has proven to be good advice, although I had relatively little difficulty upgrading to the Windows XP platform. Vista is proving to be a more difficult upgrade. Additionally, because Vista demands so many resources, many computers will slow down considerably after a successful Vista installation. If you choose to go with Vista, upgrade your RAM to at least 2GB. Think seriously about waiting until you are ready to buy a new computer before moving to Vista. Don’t let Vista be the driving force for getting a new computer. All the signs indicate that it lacks the dependability and reliability of XP at the present time.

In terms of the hardware configuration of a Windows machine, the standards for laptop or desktop machines look fairly similar (except for monitors and keyboards). I have a strong preference for the Core 2 Duo processors. The Core Duo processors are also quite decent, and you can find them at good discounts now. While you can get computers with Pentium-class processors at even deeper discounts, I would be disinclined to buy one now, as they are already two generations out of date. That said, they are excellent processors. They do a good job. If you have a computer that uses a Pentium IV or Pentium M processor and it runs the software you want to use, you may have no compelling reason to run out and buy a new computer.

As for hard drives, get the biggest that is readily available and reasonably priced. I remember when I thought a 10 MB hard drive was a big deal. The last computer I bought came with a 500 GB hard drive!

I would get a powerful video card, even if I did not intend to do a lot of graphics. From what I understand about Vista, this will help you out in the long run. Get two or more gigabytes of RAM over and above what your video card requires.

As far as optical drives go, you should look for a DVD read/write drive.

Your new computer should have built-in wireless capabilities. Look for computers compatible with the new “N” standard (much faster than, but backwards compatible with, the soon-to-be-out-of-date “G” standard).

Screen standards have not changed much recently; stay with an SXGA screen. I prefer wide-aspect screens. The size of the screen will dictate size and affect weight of the computer if you are talking about a laptop. Screens smaller than 12 inches will prove difficult to work with unless you have exceptional vision. Screens bigger than 15 inches will tend to make laptops heavy and less easily transported. If you plan to use a laptop as a desktop replacement, you can look at a 17-inch screen and possibly avoid a separate monitor, or get a laptop with a smaller screen for portable use and buy a larger monitor for desktop use. I have found 19- to 20-inch monitors excellent for desktop work.

If you want to come in from the dark side and buy a Macintosh, I strongly recommend the 20-inch iMac running a Core 2 Duo processor with a 500 GB hard disk and 2 GB of RAM. If you want a Macintosh Laptop, the MacBook Pro gives you all the features you need, including an Express 34 slot for expansion. If you do not need the Express 34 slot, you can save money by getting the smaller, lighter, and almost as powerful MacBook. Both run on the Core 2 Duo processor. Opt for the largest available hard disk and the maximum installable RAM (3 GB in the MacBook Pro and 2 GB in the MacBook). If you plan to run both the Macintosh OS and Windows concurrently, go with the MacBook Pro as you will need the 3 GB of RAM to do that successfully.

rose: I find it cheaper to replace than to upgrade. When buying new, I tend to buy just one notch down from the top end of whatever Dell’s offering. I figure that buying the top end is overkill, but I also want to get the most for my money. That’s overkill in some areas and just right in others. The one aspect in which I don’t even think about economizing is the monitor; and that’s not just for cosmetic reasons. Having the fasted video card on the block just isn’t as important to me as what I see right in front of me.

Pearlman: There is no real need to buy at the top, or as noted above, one notch down will work sufficiently for most legal needs. Get the largest hard drive that you can. In the long run, if you get a machine that will do what you want for your office and get the work out the door, then it matters not if it’s the latest or the greatest.

 

When Should I Move to Windows Vista?

Vittal: In my view, the real question is whether your key non-Microsoft applications work with Vista. If not, wait until they do. If you absolutely need to have a new Windows-based PC and use key non-Microsoft applications that are not yet Vista-compliant, seriously consider getting one with Windows XP Professional (Service Pack 2), but with sufficient hardware capabilities (RAM and hard disk size) to handle a “clean installation” of Windows Vista at a later date.

Pearlman: I would seriously consider waiting about eight months to a year before you purchase Vista or try to run it—by that time the third or later version with fewer bugs will or should be up and running.

Dorner: A year from now the novelty of Vista will have worn off and all new machines will be running Vista. Yes, it’s a big shift from comfortable XP, but there are benefits in security—primarily avoiding self-inflicted injuries. Is Vista more complicated than necessary? Absolutely yes! Is there a learning curve? Yes! Is Vista a requirement for law office computing in the small office? Not in my opinion. The vendors of other legal-specific software have not yet generated fully compatible programs. As an example, we’re eagerly awaiting an update to Adobe Acrobat 8 Professional to mate with Vista. I’m betting that law office shopping at the end of this calendar year will result in the purchase of numerous Vista-equipped machines. By then the primary applications from other vendors should be able to mate with Vista.

Petro: Compatibility of your key applications is the a important aspect when considering moving to Vista. Many legal-specific programs are not yet Vista compatible, and there is no set time line for when they will be compatible. You will also lose the investment that you have made in your anti-virus, anti-spyware, and anti-spam programs and have to purchase the new versions, if they are even available. Device driver compatibility on existing computers, especially with video cards, also may create problems.

A general, anecdotal rule of thumb for upgrading to a new Microsoft operating system is to wait until Service Pack 1 (SP1) is released. Additionally, from reports in the technology press, there have been some issues with upgrading an existing computer to Vista, and many of these writers are recommending doing a “clean” install—that is, wipe clean the entire hard drive, install Vista, and then reinstall all of your programs. You also need to be aware that when you upgrade to Vista, it terminates your Windows XP license.

There are definitely some very nice features appearing in Vista. If you want to experiment with Vista, I recommend doing it at home or on a non-mission-critical computer.

The release of Microsoft Vista also poses a potential hurdle to overcome even if you don’t plan on switching to Vista in the next 12 to 18 months. Many attorneys have bought or are buying additional copies of Windows XP Professional to install on future systems rather than using Vista. However, at some point in time, Vista will make its way into most offices, and any computers you buy today should meet Vista’s hardware requirements.

Coolidge: I have one computer installed with Vista, and have to say I am sorry I do. The extra security features are massively intrusive, the incompatibilities with existing software abound, and the benefits of Vista seem primarily in the eye candy department. I won’t even consider upgrading any other machines until my applications are all Vista certified—especially such critical ones as Adobe Acrobat and Dragon Dictate. And having experienced Vista, I certainly feel no imperative to migrate to it. I’ll stay with XP unless and until a real reason to migrate presents itself. So far, I haven’t seen one.

As far as buying a new machine goes, I would accept the Vista that comes with it, then install XP and save the Vista until a later date. Or have the manufacturer provide the machine with XP rather than Vista, something many are still willing to do.

Dorner: I haven’t found a “must have” feature in Vista that requires me to drop everything and update my office. I do see lots of interesting features and the potential for a Microsoft-centric law office tying Vista, Office 2007, Office Accounting, and Outlook 2007 together. However, I think that I’ll wait until the end of this year to see how well Vista establishes a footing in the legal market. Just because it’s “pretty” doesn’t mean it’s required!

If one of my computers died today, I’d probably go with Vista so I could have more hands-on time to learn the nuances of the software, but if everything in my office remains stable, I’m holding off for several months.

Copyright 2007

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