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Ah, springtime, when a geek’s thoughts turn to upgrading. I took a lunchtime walk recently on one of the first warm days so far this year, and did something deeply unfashionable: I went computer shopping. It’s not that I actually need a new one. A lot of people don’t these days, which explains why PC makers are in the doldrums (with the notable exception of Dell) and tech stocks are tanking. You don’t need to upgrade if the computer you’re using right now does everything you want it to do. If you can compose legal documents, run a database, an accounting or billing program, surf the Net and communicate via e-mail, what’s the rush? But those crafty software and hardware makers are laying plans to make us less satisfied with what we’ve got. Within months, both Microsoft and Apple will have spanking new operating systems, which will require brawnier systems. (Apple’s is out already, but it’s shrink-wrapped for installation by early adopters and is not in widespread use yet.) And if you’re like most non-tech brotherhood people, you’ll probably want a new machine with it preinstalled. Microsoft’s already beta-testing its Windows XP, which unites the professional-strength 2000 (with its hefty system requirements) and the consumer-model ME. While endowed with familiar interface elements such as a “Start” button and a task bar, XP has a new sheen that’s miles ahead of any of its predecessors. It resembles Apple’s OS X (which demands, if not requires, a fast G4 processor and tons of RAM to work effectively). For this roundup, we’re not going to go slumming. Forget about the shop around the corner with the guys putting together a system from some circuit boards and tower cases. For your crucial work, you need a standard configuration that’s easily serviced, comes with a good warranty, and that bears no surprises. Besides, the higher-end stuff is just more interesting than the anonymous boxes — sort of like the difference between a Kia and a BMW. So here’s what to look for, and what’s out there. Buy as much RAM as you can afford. The barest minimum these days is 64 MB, but do not walk out of the store with less than 128 MB. Hard drives fill up quicker than you think — again, the bare minimum is 20 GB. You want a rewritable CD burner. It’s not just for Napster youth. You can burn back-up CDs of your important files, and you can make copies of simulations and presentations you need to use elsewhere or give to someone. The computer press and bulletin boards are abuzz with debates over the relative merits of Intel Corp.’s Pentium III or 4 processors. Many testers were shocked to find that in many cases the 4 actually is slower than its predecessor. The new kid plays certain games and multimedia faster, but that’s not what most of you buy computers to do. Still — and I offer this advice with a grain of salt — if something doesn’t have a use at this moment, it soon will. There are some additional twists, to suit our broadband, networked era. Don’t buy a computer without a network card — you can’t get DSL and cable Internet service without them. (You can add one on later, but why not start with everything you need?) The recent revolution in PC-outside devices connectivity means that you want USB ports and IE 1394, or Firewire ports. Why? The USB is for the slow stuff, like digital still cameras and scanners, and the IE 1394 interface for high-speed connections like digital camcorders. That will come in handy next time you want to import a simulation video into your case management system. Most high-line PCs from the big makers like Hewlett-Packard, Sony, Dell and IBM have these features. So most of the differences are stylistic. It may sound trivial, but think of the image your office decor conveys. The style leader among Windows machine makers has to be Sony. Its VAIO Slimtop PCV-LX900 Pen Tablet Computer is beautiful — and contains some pretty nifty practical features, too. It’s not cheap, though. The LX900 lets you “write” on its flat LCD screen, like on a Palm or other tablet computer. Sony also puts memory stick slots in its computers, as well as IE 1394 ports for quick connections to digital camcorders and cameras. Sony markets this as an artist’s machine, but think about it next time you’d like to draw a map or a diagram and had to rely on dragging a mouse around a screen. Following close behind is IBM, which has basically abandoned retail sales. Still, from its Web site, you can buy a space-saving but still powerful X40, if you’re willing to settle for a Pentium III. For some more cash, pop for the Pentium 4-based A60 series. Even Dell, a leading maker of putty-colored anonymous boxes, has seen the light. Its Dimension 8100 series comes in silver and dark gray. But it’s no brawn-free style statement. Its system bus (which moves data between the hard drive and memory) says even more, moving at a scorching 400 MHz. H-P markets its Pavillion 9000 series, with Pentium 4 processors and CD-RW, as digital hub lifestyle machine. Besides the Napster-friendly CD burner, it comes with all the expected bells and whistles. For you Macistas out there, Apple’s still installing the old Mac OS on its computers. Come July, the industrial-strength, Unix-based OS X will come preinstalled on machines. Right now, the heftiest Macs are 733 MHz G4 towers, but the rumor mill has it that entirely new machines will debut soon. Hey, maybe the slowdown, or whatever it’s called these days, will be over by then and we’ll be freer with our computer budgets. It’s nice to know that progress, whether we like it or not, hasn’t stopped. Anthony Paonita is a senior editor for The American Lawyer and a contributing editor of Law Technology News.

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