GPSolo Magazine - December 2003
So! You think it’s time the office got a new PC, eh? Think you can guide yourself through the forest of gigahertz, RAM, D-RAM, and bytes? What about color depth? And do you want active or passive matrix? How much memory should you have on your video card? An Nvidia chipset? Celeron? Processor cache?
Relax. If you’re already comfortable with all of these terms, you likely don’t need this article. If you’re looking for some down-to-earth explanations and recommendations, however, you’re in the right place.
Foremost in your mind should be one question: What do I need the computer to do? The decision will be vastly different if you’re looking for a machine to back up your office computer than if you occasionally work at home and run lots of your kids’ latest hi-tech games. Tempting as that sounds, this article focuses on choices that will work best in your legal practice and ignores issues of the ideal game machine.
Hardware basically presents three initial choices: desktop, notebook, or portable PDA or tablet. The choices are not mutually exclusive. The choice between a desktop and a notebook computer is not as easy as it used to be; now you can effectively replace your desktop model with a notebook that will knock your socks off for less than $3,000. Desktop PCs are running as low as $600 for a bare-bones machine, and for $1,200 you can get something really impressive.
Which to choose?
The old standby—inexpensive (relatively), easy to upgrade, easy to repair. With the high speeds and low prices available today, you hardly can go wrong no matter what you choose. In fact, you easily might overspend, and you want to avoid that. Here are some guidelines.
1. Basic configuration. Look for a computer that, at a minimum, comes preconfigured with sound capability, networking (i.e., an Ethernet connection), and at least two USB 2 ports (these are the little holes you plug peripheral devices like the printer and mouse into—more is better). All of these capabilities should be built right into the motherboard, which is the computer’s main circuit board. Unless you intend to run a lot of high-end games or complex computer animations, you won’t need to supplement this basic motherboard with additional “daughterboard” inserts, such as video cards. (You can always add on later.) The PC also should have a CD reader and burner and at least 60 gigabytes (GB) of hard drive space. Floppy drives and serial ports soon will be a thing of the past, and many computers no longer supply them.
2. Speed is overrated. At any point in time there’s a sweet spot for pricing, somewhere between the price of the latest and greatest (and most expensive) item and the now-out-of-date ones that are going at bargain-basement prices. If what you want is to be able to do basic office functioning (run a basic operating system such as Windows and a small host of applications for word processing, spreadsheet, time and billing, and the like), getting the newest, highest speed processor is not worth the money; you’d be better off going for the sweet spot—currently about 1.8 to 2 gigahertz machines. (A gigahertz—abbreviated GHz— is a measure of processor speed.) This will be fine unless you’re doing some serious number crunching, and I know of no current office applications that require that capability—not even voice dictation. Faster is better, but watch the cost. And don’t worry—whatever you buy, you’ll inevitably see a faster and sleeker computer the following week. Live with it—processor envy is an ugly thing.
3. Pentium 4? Celeron? AMD? Unless you’re trying to beat a speed record, the processor doesn’t make much difference to law office applications as long as it’s something relatively current. (An old 286 would be a serious impediment to getting work out the door!) If you’re an ardent gamer, some of the best games can tax any computer, but you’re running a law office, right? The current heavy hitter is the Intel Pentium IV, running at speeds of 1.8 GHz and up (and “up” means more money). The Intel Celeron is a slightly crippled version of the Pentium but is still very fast compared to the standard only three years ago. AMD offers a line of Intel-compatible processors that generally are a little less expensive than the equivalent Pentium chip, and some argue are faster than the equivalently rated Intel chip.
I would suggest you start with a Pentium IV at the “sweet spot” speed of 1.8 to 2 GHz, and then comparison shop to see whether a lesser processor is worth the savings. But remember—if you can save $500 on a Celeron 1.4 GHz machine and money is your prime criterion, go for it. Your competition will get their mistakes out slightly faster than you (measured in nanoseconds), but you’ll feed the family.
4. You’re getting older—get more memory. You can never have too much memory or too much hard drive space. With prices as low as they are, a bare minimum memory configuration is 256 megabytes (MB), and 512 MB is even better. More memory equals better performance. Why? Cause Microsoft planned it that way. If the computer you want does not come standard with at least 256 MB, have your vendor add more. And don’t be confused by all the acronyms by which memory is named (e.g., RAM, D-RAM, etc.). Ask the vendor which one goes in your machine and have it installed. If you’re really frugal and not afraid to install additional memory yourself, you can buy it less expensively online (for example, from www.crucial.com, which even offers instructions on how to install it).
5. Name brand or clone? Desktop PCs are nothing if not made of fungible commodity parts. Desktops provide a lot of latitude here. However—hardware margins are very thin these days. Both options have their benefits and pitfalls:
Name brands basically are machines assembled from off-the-shelf parts (for the most part) with a name-brand sticker on the outside. For example, Dell buys motherboards and hard disk drives and assembles them into a Dell case. You’ll pay a little more for the machine, but you’ll get a warranty from a company that is likely to still be in business when you need service or questions answered. Just beware of the bait-and-switch approach at the company’s website: “Buy a 47 Terahertz FooBah with 12 Nanobytes of high-speed RAM starting at only $1.29!” Go to the website and configure a real machine (i.e., one that has a case, a power supply, etc.), and the price rises dramatically. You also might want to check hardware reviews in PC Magazine and similar industry rags and avoid the companies whose service is rated “stinko.”
Clones are assembled from industry-standard and fungible parts by your local computer dealer—the guy operating out of his trailer or basement. They have everything but the national label on them but generally are built from essentially the same parts. Although buying a clone used to save a few hundred dollars per machine, nowadays basic machine prices are very close. The advantages of clones are that they’re usually made from industry-standard parts; you can specify exactly what you want (if you know how); they’re easy to service and upgrade; and buying one supports your local dealer, who may come in handy in a crisis. The disadvantage is that the warranty is only as good as the company standing behind it: Fred’s Computers and Garden Produce might not be around next year to back the warranty. If you can find someone to give you support and maintenance, there’s nothing wrong with a clone—your neighborhood nerd could be just who you need. If you’re entirely useless with a screwdriver and can’t find someone who knows which end to use, a national brand may be a better choice.
6. Display devices. Monitors come in two types, CRT and LCD. CRTs are cheaper and usually larger—basically a TV set on your desk. Flat-panel LCD screens have come of age but still are relatively pricey. A 17-inch CRT runs between $100 and $200, while the same size LCD is nearer to $300 to $500. The essential difference is power consumption (CRTs use more) and size (CRTs take up nearly three times as much room). Both are fine from a utilitarian perspective.
7. Should I get a combination CD recorder and DVD? DVD players combined with CD-RW (read and write) are relatively inexpensive. Going the next step to a DVD recorder will cost a bit of money, between $200 and $300 as I write. A DVD is like a CD on steroids. Whereas a CD can hold about 700 MB of data, a typical DVD can hold about 4.5 GB. A word to the wise: The industry has yet to settle on a standard format for DVD (do you remember the “Beta versus VHS” battle in the early days of videotape? Or am I dating myself? . . .). No one really knows which format will eventually win out. Fortunately, a number of vendors offer machines that will read and write both formats. I opted for that for my office.
8. A note about keyboards. A keyboard is something you will use every day, and it should be comfortable and suit your preferences and needs. I have been using the Microsoft split keyboard for a few years now; although it was awkward at first, I’m now a complete convert. It’s worth a visit to your local computer chain to try a few different configurations—most retail at about $20 to $50.
9. Pointing device (aka “mouse”). You may get a mouse with your computer if you buy a name brand. At a minimum it should have a scrolling wheel so you can control page-up or -down from the mouse. I switched to a trackball mouse with a scrolling wheel, programmable buttons (so I can click right to my mail program), and a trackball a little larger than a golf ball. Because the ball moves instead of the whole unit, it takes up less space, and I no longer suffer from mouse elbow. Sample these, too, while you’re shopping.
10. Sound system. You’re on your own here. Get whatever turns you on. Cheap equals tinny; for about $100 you can get decent speakers with a woofer and listen to music while you work. A lot of programs come with audio and video tracks, so some type of speaker system is essential—low-end models run as little as $15. Listen before you buy. Unless you’re a super audiophile, the sound system already built into the motherboard should do fine.
11. Service. Get this worked out before you buy. Figure out who will provide the service and how fast they guarantee turning your machine around, and consider having a spare machine—just in case. (You might keep that old PC around for emergencies.) Remember, too, service means they’ll fix the hardware—not that they’ll make WordPerfect run with another application. Servicing software is a whole other ballgame.
You want a snazzy notebook computer, huh? First, think about why. They’re not really upgradeable like a desktop, must go back to the factory for service, are more delicate than a desktop, and cost a lot more. If all you want is to be able to take work home with you, two desktop PCs well may be cheaper and more effective than a notebook. If you travel frequently, need to be able to work wherever you are—airport, hotel, courtroom—and you spend the equivalent of one day a week outside the office, then a notebook may be just the thing.
Almost everything said above about desktop features applies to notebooks as well. Here are a few specifics to consider:
1. Name brand or el cheapo? No question here: Go with name brands—they’ll be around for service and upgrades, and you will need service, most likely at some crucial juncture in your practice during which the loss of your notebook computer means you’re not only likely to be disbarred, but also serve jail time. Some name brands I’ve used and can recommend: Toshiba (www.toshiba.com), Winbook (www.winbook.com), Dell (www.dell.com), HP (www.hp.com), and IBM (www.ibm.com). If you buy an off brand, don’t be surprised if it’s hard to find service.
2. Weight. There’s a tradeoff between weight and functionality. The ultra-light notebooks travel well, but you sacrifice keyboard and screen size, and some extra features, in addition to weight. If this is going to be your primary computer for both travel and office (which I do not advise), get a model you can live with for the long haul—eventually, the absence of certain features will frustrate you. I use a full-featured machine with a full-sized keyboard and a honkin’ big screen.
3. Screen. Bigger is better, but it also costs more, weighs more, and drains your batteries faster. Perhaps when you are in your office you can hook up to a big monitor (see note number eight on docking stations below). Below 15 inches is, in this geezer’s opinion, not worth playing with. My current laptop has a w-i-d-e screen for watching DVDs in letterbox format. Two additional points to consider are visibility and display mode.
Active or passive matrix refers to whether the screen is lit from behind or you must depend on ambient light to see it. Passive matrix is becoming obsolete, but avoid it in any case.
Dual display. If you will be using a secondary device such as a projector for the computer image, be sure the laptop screen will display the image as well (this is dual display). Again, it’s rare now to find a notebook computer that doesn’t do this. The drawback without dual display is that you have to look at the projected image to see what the audience is seeing—which may mean turning your back and speaking to the wall (generally considered bad form).
4. Keyboard. More than with a desktop, which notebook you buy may well depend on the keyboard: Is it noisy? A judge may not like this and tell you to stop using it. Do you feel cramped using it? Are keys other than the basic alphabet in locations that are natural and convenient for you? Make sure you get a keyboard you’re comfortable with.
5. Pointing device. Most notebook computers come with either a touch pad or a stick pointer (a little gizmo between the G and H key of the keyboard that acts like a joystick.) I hate both of them, carry an external full-sized trackball, and rarely have not been able to use it, even in the cattle section of the plane. You may be fine using the pointing device; if not, hook up one of the zillion alternatives on the market.
6. Hard disk. It’s generally pricey to upgrade a notebook computer (except for memory if you do it yourself). Get a notebook with a hard drive a lot bigger than you think you’ll need. Bloatware (programs with added features that grow exponentially in size) is ubiquitous, and you’ll need room for the family photos, your form files, whatever. An absolute minimum is 20 GB of hard drive space. Slick, external USB-connected hard drives for laptops are available for less than $300, but it’s way cheaper to get the bigger hard drive at the beginning.
7. Battery life. Generally, count on about two hours of battery life for most notebooks, maybe three for less power-hungry machines—more than that is generally wishful thinking. You might carry a spare battery or a power connector to that neat little outlet available only in first class (I flew it once).
8. Docking station. If you plan to use the notebook computer as a desktop replacement, you’ll likely want a docking station that sits on your desk, with all the cables to peripheral devices (printer, network, keyboard, external monitor, etc.) already plugged in. You just put your notebook into the docking station, and you’re ready to work. You can have one at the office and one at home, for about $100 each. Remember, you’ll still have to pay extra for all the peripherals, like the external monitor and keyboard.
9. Warranty service. Every year a number of PC-oriented magazines publish reviews of customer satisfaction with vendors’ warranty and normal service. Ratings change from year to year, but it’s well worth spending some time to discover who’s good and who’s not. I always opt for immediate service within the United States, overnight carrier both ways, because my notebook computer is a vital part of my tool kit. Such a warranty is vital if you use your notebook as a desktop replacement.
Pocket and Tablet PCs
Pocket PCs are souped-up PDAs—PalmPilots on steroids. Are they better? Well, they’re a middle ground between clunky, oversized PDAs and underpowered notebook computers. They have a lot of Wow! factor, but you pay for it. What do you really need outside the office? Calendar? Phone list? A few forms? You’d do well enough with a PDA like a Palm—which is cheaper, easier to carry and to synchronize with the office, and even capable of accommodating a fold-up keyboard if you need to do extensive typing. A handheld unit could be a viable alternative to a notebook. (For more information, see the article “PDAs” on page 48.) But if what you really want is Wow!, be prepared to buy new notebooks often.
Tablet PCs have a great Wow! rating and are good for taking inventory or running a warehouse, but they seem to offer no advantage to a practicing lawyer. (Some lawyers beg to differ, of course; see the sidebar “ When the Pen is Mightier than the Keyboard” on page 36.)
The (Biased) Decision
It’s hard to go wrong buying a desktop PC. Almost any model from a reputable vendor is likely to meet your needs—the differences are mostly in the bells and whistles and features you likely don’t need in an office. Notebook computers vary more—they’re harder to reconfigure than desktops and the ergonomics may be quirky. If you can, try before you buy, avoid hype, and don’t be snowed by the Wow! factors.
Daniel S. Coolidge is a recovering large-firm lawyer, now a patent and intellectual property attorney with Coolidge & Graves, PLLC, in Keene, New Hampshire. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.