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Computers are as essential to the practice of law as legal precedent, but unlike some case law that stands for decades, your computer may only be current for a couple of years at best. If you’re a solo practitioner or an attorney in a small firm, the task of buying a new machine may be as welcome as fulfilling your mandated CLE credits for the year. But don’t fret. With a few simple guidelines, your next technology purchase should be as easy as entertaining an important client and maybe even less expensive. The good news is that just about any computer you purchase today will do the job. There are fast computers, slow computers, laptops, desktops, mini-towers, name brands, off-brands and build-it-yourself models. But the bottom line is that anything will do the things you want it to do. Nonetheless, you still need to be aware of some essential differences. MAC VS. PC While certainly not as old a discussion as creationism vs. evolution, the PC vs. Mac debate is almost as heated. The Apple Macintosh offers some great features, cool colors and flashy graphics, and the latest operating system, OS 10.2 (known as Jaguar), is very stable. But for the novice attorney user, the answer is simple: Avoid the Mac. I know I’ve probably turned off some readers right now, but the fact is more lawyers (and the rest of the public) use PCs. More legal software is available for the PC, and PCs are generally less expensive. So if you use a Mac, great. But since you do, you are already an experienced user, and you don’t need this column. But if you are just starting out, choose a PC, since most of your colleagues use one, too. If you want to ask someone a question about computer use, you want to be a member of a large club. OPERATING SYSTEM One of the key ingredients of your computer is its operating system. The operating system controls the functions of your computer, but you don’t have to worry about how it works. Just know which one you have. Most new PCs come with Windows XP, the current operating system supplied by Microsoft. But it’s important to know which version of XP you have, Home or Professional. This is a vital distinction. You need XP Professional. Professional has a number of features that improve networking and support. I’ll go into those in a future article. The bottom line is just make sure you have XP Professional on the PC you buy. Close-out models may still have Windows 2000, Windows ME or even Windows 98 operating systems on them. Of those, steer clear of ME or 98. While there is nothing inherently wrong with PCs with those operating systems, they are models that tend to be designed for home use. Windows 2000, on the other hand, is a very stable operating system designed for the business professional. It has fewer bells and whistles than XP, but in many ways that is a good thing. You can probably get a good deal on a PC with Windows 2000 on it as well. If you are a maverick, you can also use the Linux operating system. This is an “open source” operating system, which means its code can be modified by anyone. But if you want to play with Linux code all day instead of advocating for your clients, perhaps it’s time to switch careers. SPECIFICATIONS While most PCs being sold today are very robust, there are still a few things you should look at to differentiate one model from the next: Processors: The Intel Pentium 4 is the standard processor out there today. Intel also makes a Celeron processor, but avoid that. Celerons are a less expensive chip made by Intel to compete with other manufacturers on price while still allowing the computer manufacturer to lable the PC Intel Inside. It’s also a signal the machine may be designed more for the home than the office. An alternative to a Pentium 4 chip is the AMD Athlon processor, a competitor to Intel. Speed: Speed on computers is a relative phrase. What was once called a Screamer is now on the junk pile. Nonetheless, you want to look for a PC with at least a 1 GHz of speed. Many models are at the 1.5, 2.0 or higher levels. Memory: Memory in a computer allows smooth work on a number of different applications or documents at once. A minimum amount of memory is 256 MB SDRAM, but if you are planning to do more involved database applications, spreadsheets, or video, graphics or music, 512 MB RAM or more is preferred. (MB, by the way, stands for megabytes). Hard Drive: It seems as if we just can’t store enough data on our hard drives. Fortunately, as data consumption mushrooms, so does the space available on hard drives. While a 40-gig hard drive is more than adequate, you might as well look for something twice as large. That way, if your practice is successful, you won’t have to keep coming up with data storage solutions to maintain all of your client files. Another key element to a computer’s speed is the speed of the hard drive. While 5400 rpm is standard, you really want to go with a 7200-rpm drive. It will give you a faster response CD Drive: All computers come with a CD drive, but what you really want is a rewritable CD burner. Burning your own CDs is essential for backups and storage of client files. LAPTOP OR STAND-ALONE? Only you can decide whether you want a laptop or a stand-alone computer. If you travel a lot, want to work on the train, at home or in the client’s office, a laptop may be your best bet. The downside is that they aren’t quite as fast, are more expensive, and the display is not always as clear. You also need to be more concerned about backups, as they are apt to be damaged or get lost or stolen. A good idea may be to have a desktop for your office and then a complementary laptop for your portable needs. WHERE TO BUY Where you buy your computer is as important as what you buy. While heading to the local Big Box electronic store is an option, you may not want to trust the sales advice to your next-door neighbor’s slacker offpsring, who usually populate the sales force of these chains. It’s important to establish a relationship with a technology vendor, whether it be a specialty computer shop in your business neighborhood or an online service. Major manufacturers of computers also provide great customer service and after-sale support, as do large online vendors of computer hardware and software. Talk to these vendors first before you buy, see if you can get your own account representative, and establish a good working relationship because you will need to trust their advice over the years. PERIPHERALS These are the basics of what you need to buy your computer. Notice we didn’t discuss essential peripherals. All computers these days come with sound cards, video cards, modems and speakers. While important, these are not necessary to the practice of law. What comes with the machine should be satisfactory. However, if you plan to be using animation, graphics, video and the like for presentations or courtroom testimony, you should pay more attention to this area. The best advice is to make sure these cards are separate and not built in to the motherboard of the computer. That makes it easier to upgrade and troubleshoot. Brian R. Harris is the database administrator for the American Lawyer Media Pennsylvania division and the former editor-in-chief of The Legal Intelligencer.

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