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Perhaps more feared for a solo practitioner handling his or her own IT needs than a statute-of-limitations deadline are the endless upgrades for hardware and software being pushed by the computer industry. But by following a few guidelines, a decision can be made on whether an upgrade is beneficial, instead of just blindly following the industry’s constant forward march. Upgrades can take the form of either software patches or complete redesigns of the program, and hardware upgrades can make PCs the proverbial bigger, better and faster. When considering an upgrade, the first component to check is the operating system. Windows XP Service Pack 2 is the current standard for Windows-based PCs. Users running XP should check to make sure that this latest release is installed. To verify that, make sure the computer is connected to the Internet and click to the Windows Update button on the Start Programs section of the computer, or visit http://windowsupdate.microsoft.com . When connected, allow the site to download the latest Windows Update software, saying “yes” to any questions regarding security. Once the latest update software is installed, it will give you the option of “express” or “custom” updates. I prefer using the latter, because it provides options on what is being installed and the ability to decline certain updates. Make sure all high-priority or critical updates are installed, as these are usually for security holes or design flaws in the Windows operating environment. Optional software items are not vital to system security or operations but are generally worth installing, as these include updates to programs such as Windows Media Player. Optional hardware files are driver updates to hardware that is installed on the machine. I often ignore these, as I have found that the upgrades may actually prevent certain hardware components, such as video cards or network cards, from working. On the other hand, if you are having a problem with one of these components, installing these updates may resolve the issue. All of these Windows updates are free, and are they important for the healthy and efficient operation of the PC. One word of caution, however, with service packs: Since they are not released very often, I suggest waiting a month or so after release, as compatibility issues may arise with certain hardware or software that could disrupt operations. Owners of computers still running Windows 2000 should also check to make sure they are running Windows 2000 Service Pack 4 with all of the latest patches. Here is where an upgrade to Windows XP may be considered, but also where you may need to weigh the pros and cons. Windows XP Professional has many features not on 2000, including system restore points, remote administration, a firewall to help prevent intrusion and a security center to better manage security settings. But the bottom line is that if a machine is still running Windows 2000, it is probably over three years old. Which means instead of spending the money to upgrade to XP at this late date, it might be better to stay with 2000 as long as everything is running properly and security flaws are updated, and save the $200 toward a new machine. Another factor when considering this decision is that Windows XP needs more memory than Windows 2000 to function at peak form. If the computer targeted for upgrade has less than 256 MB RAM, an additional memory module would be needed as well, which makes the upgrade more expensive. Beyond the operating system, many other software products have similar no-cost live-update features, and it is a good idea to stay current with these features. But when considering upgrading to the next release of the software, compare the features offered in the new update to what you currently have. Most manufacturers will post on their Web sites the features in their new upgrades. Check through these, and if you see something that is important to you, then the upgrade probably makes sense. But before purchasing it, make sure the upgrade won’t need additional machine support, such as memory. If it does, then factor the memory-upgrade cost into your decision. One software component that should be upgraded annually is the antivirus/security system. New security threats are unleashed almost daily. Most antivirus software has an automatic update for virus definitions, but these usually expire after a year. While you can renew the automatic update for another year, it is usually better to purchase the new product, as the improvements made from the previous year will help defeat new security threats, such as spyware or other malicious activity. When it comes to hardware upgrades, the most common areas to improve are the memory and hard drive. Additional memory will help graphics-laden programs work better, and a new hard drive can exponentially expand storage space. Depending on the computer model, a 512 MB RAM memory module would cost in the vicinity of $150, and a 250 GB hard drive would cost approximately the same. So if shelling out $300 for improved performance makes sense to you, then that is a good choice. However, before doing so, check out some new computers that have the same specs as the upgraded model would have. It may make more sense to get a new machine rather than throw resources into something that will soon be considered obsolete, albeit functional. BRIAN R. HARRIS is the database administrator for the American Lawyer Media-Pennsylvania division and the former editor-in-chief ofThe Legal Intelligencer . Harris can be contacted at [email protected].

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