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Computer Counselor - November 1999

How to Buy a New Desktop Computer
Lawyers can expect lowerprices, but budgets and knowledge matter

By Daryl Teshima
Daryl Teshima is a practice systems attorney with Gibson, Dunn & Crutcher. 

The most amazing technology trend of the last three years has been the drop in the price of computers to bargain-basement levels. Since 1996, computer systems have not only increased in power but also dropped-by an average of 65 percent-in price. For the first time in years, the computer industry's traditional motto-newer, bigger, faster-can include the word "cheaper." For law firms, the era of sub-$1,000 computers has made purchasing desktop work stations much easier. Besides price, the most welcome change is how computers are purchased. In the past, computers were sold only by local, specialized vendors, which often meant bad service, terrible selection, confusing advice, and English as a second language (after technospeak). 

Today, computers can be purchased almost everywhere, from an office supply superstore to a computer manufacturer's Web site. The Internet, in particular, has revolutionized computer shopping. Price-comparison sites, including CNET (www.shopper.com) and Roboshopper (www.roboshopper.com) allow consumers to locate the best price in seconds. In addition, many computer vendors (Dell and Gateway, for example) allow users to buy computers built to custom specifications. 

These developments have made purchasing a computer easier than ordering coffee at Starbucks. The biggest challenges are setting a budget and deciding what components are worth the money. The dramatic drop in computer prices does not mean that setting a budget is now any easier, especially considering that some system manufacturers (including NetZero, Emachines, and Free-PC) are giving computers away for free. Even premium-priced vendors such as Compaq and Hewlett-Packard now sell complete Pentium-based systems that, for approximately $600, can adequately run most law office desktop applications. 

The old adage-you get what you pay for-still rings true. Companies that sell these budget computers can afford to charge less than $1,000 by requiring the purchaser to subscribe to an Internet service provider for a predefined period of time. Unfortunately, the cost of the Internet account (typically $21.95 per month) will, over the span of the commitment, erode any initial savings. To make matters worse, the advent of affordable cable and DSL Internet connections will make a two- or three-year term seem like a life sentence. Before accepting these arrangements, a potential purchaser should read the fine print and do the math. 

Another problem with low-budget computers is that typically they have little left in the gas tank. While hardware that is cheap or even free may be fine for most law office applications today, do not expect it to run tomorrow's operating system or handle a word processing upgrade. Computers should not be evaluated solely on price. For most attorneys, the real cost of a system is the time and effort required to operate and maintain the computer. A good rule of thumb is that a system should last for three years. Budget PCs are usually last year's model, and in computer years, that's close to middle age. Having to go through an upgrade cycle every other year, coupled with the slow performance of an old computer, means downtime and lost billable hours for the firm. These hidden costs often make the cheaper computers more expensive than higher-end systems. 

On the other side of the spectrum, buying the latest and greatest computer is not cost-effective for most law firms. Bleeding edge systems typically command a premium price and come loaded with enough multimedia extras and graphic firepower to produce the next Star Wars sequel. Purchasing the best means the system will have a longer life span, but do not expect the special added features to run core legal computing functions appreciably faster. 

The sweet spot for most attorneys is somewhere between these two extremes. Mid-level systems give law firms the best of both worlds: above-average performance that will handle law-related computing tasks for several years and a price tag that will not break the bank. In today's marketplace, budget anywhere from $1,200 to $1,800 for a complete work station. 

Accessorizing the Computer 

Most computer vendors also give computer shoppers the ability to customize various system components. These customization decisions are often an exercise in compromise and require law firms to examine how employees actually use computers in their day-to-day activities. Despite the subjective nature of these choices, most components can be categorized into three groups-critical, standard, and optional. 

Critical components are what are needed to interact with a computer. Monitors usually last up to six years and will be used with the computer you buy in the next upgrade cycle. When selecting a monitor, remember that size matters. The current standard is 17 inches, measured diagonally. The current gold standard is 21 inches, which costs almost as much as an entire system (approximately $1,000) and occupies an enormous amount of desk space. The new LCD flat-screen monitors take up little space but consume large amounts of money. The sweet spot today is 19-inch monitors (average price, $500). They are worth the extra dollars, especially if you spend more time looking at your computer screen than your family. 

Two other critical components are the computer's keyboard and mouse. Keyboards come in two basic models: the traditional Dvorak keyboard and the split, ergonomic keyboard (as pioneered by Microsoft's Natural Keyboard). Mice, on the other hand, come in all sorts of shapes and sizes. Which is best depends largely on taste. Before purchasing, be sure to test-drive different keyboards and mice to determine which ones suit your preferences. 

Standard components are those that all firm work stations need. Most of these components connect your computer with other work stations in the office and the world. In addition to network connections, computers must have some physical means of receiving information. Most computers today include a diskette drive or two, the inboard hard drive, and a CD-ROM drive. Make sure that the necessary disk drives are included on the new computer, even if the firm uses local area networks (LANs) to share data among users. When networks go down, the only way to share information may be those old-fashioned diskettes. 

An Internet connection should also be standard on all the firm's work stations. If your office does not have a shared network Internet connection, you will need to purchase a modem. The computer world has finally settled on a standard for 56 Kbps modems called V.90, which makes purchasing a modem easier. Buy an external modem (approximately $100) if you are given the choice, since they are easier to troubleshoot and can be easily removed when your firm upgrades to a faster Internet connection. 

Another standard component is some form of portable data storage. Today's storage needs typically exceed the capacity of the computer's local drives. The de facto standard for portable storage is Iomega's Zip drive, which can hold either 100 or 250 MB of data. For approximately $100, most vendors will install an internal Zip drive. An arguably better alternative is a CD recorder, which lets you burn a CD-ROM that can hold 640 MB. The cost of a blank CD-ROM is about $2-much less than a Zip disk, which costs about $20-and almost every computer can access the data on a CD-ROM. A CD recorder, however, costs approximately $400, and the recording software can be difficult to use. Nonetheless, CD-ROM recorders make a lot of sense for many law firms and are worth the investment. 

Finally, another standard item is some form of backup. The portable storage device (either a Zip or CD-ROM) can often double as a backup if you remember to archive critical data regularly. If you are part of the 99 percent of users who forget to back up, consider adding a tape drive. These devices back up critical data automatically and without user intervention. Buy a tape drive that uses a SCSI or IDE interface ($250 to $300), because these interfaces are much faster and more reliable than the alternatives. 

The Cool Stuff 

Finally, consider the optional components. These perform specialized functions that may not be needed by every law firm. Sound cards and speakers, for instance, come standard in most personal computers. For the majority of attorneys, these devices are purely recreational. However, if you utilize speech recognition software, then you will need to upgrade your sound card (and the accompanying microphone) to the highest grade possible. Since most recognition software still is not ready for prime time, it is advisable to wait until this technology matures. 

The same holds true for DVD drives. At present, there is no reason to purchase a DVD drive except to watch DVD movies on a screen much smaller than the average television. Until a must-have application that is available only on DVD format appears, do not bother with this technology. 

Scanners are another option to consider. Sheet-fed scanners such as the Visioneer Strobe ($179) can be a great tool for turning paper into data. More powerful flat-bed scanners have also dropped in price, making it more feasible to make your office paperless. If you find yourself swimming in paper, consider adding this option. 

No matter what components or configuration you choose, recognize that the upgrade clock will begin ticking the minute your new system enters your office. The continuing increase in purchasing outlets and decrease in system prices, however, should make tomorrow's upgrade an easier and more affordable task than today's. 

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