Law Office Computing
Buying a New PC
Its been a while since I offered my suggestions for buying a new PC. A large part of the reason was that prices were dropping rapidly and operating system changes were coming fast and furious. We have now reached a period of stability, however, that allows me to make the following suggestions about buying a new computer.
First and foremost, let's talk about price. You can buy a computer with the features that I am going to recommend for under $1,000, and the big question is whether or not you should spend another couple of thousand to upgrade to a faster, more powerful computer. For a few thousand dollars more than the computer that I recommend here, you can get a state-of-the-art machine that is twice as fast, with twice as much storage capacity and full multimedia capabilities including video. If you like to play video games or do other graphics-intensive work, the bigger, more powerful machine is probably the way to go. But this column is about office computers and there is no need in the standard office situation to have more than one or two computers that do more than an under $1,000 machine.
Brand-Name or Not?
There is no reason to not buy one of the top brand-name computers such as IBM, Hewlett-Packard, Compaq, Micron, Gateway or Dell. All of those companies provide outstanding service with wonderful quality and extended guarantees. No computer is immune to breakdown and the speed and quality of the repair service is absolutely critical to your satisfaction. You don't need to take a chance with some unknown brand because the machines from the above companies are very competitively priced and widely available both by mail order and at your local superstore. Every year when I had this conversation with the students in my IT classes, I find out later that some have rejected my advice. Now that is not remarkable by itself, but typically, I find out about that rejection because they come to my office seeking advice about what they can do to force the retailer or manufacturer, as the case may be, to do what they promised to do up front. It is almost always so that in those situations, the students wish they had spent $100 more than they spent in order to get a high-quality machine with high-quality service. There are literally hundreds of other brands of computers, some you have heard of and many you have not. The guys who build the ones you haven't heard of will always give you a line about why they are able to undercut the major manufacturers because they get parts cheap and they use illegal labor but that line is almost always just a sales pitch. The computer industry is plagued by price cutting and distressed inventory. The big guys can afford to take an actual loss on that inventory and there is no way that a person who builds cheap, custom computers can provide the same quality at the same price. Most importantly, they can't provide the kind of next-day, on-site service that is now common to the major manufacturers. That said, let's talk about the technical features.
The Jargon You Need & How To Use It
The first question you have to answer is the kind of processing chip that you want. The first requirement is that the chip have MMX capabilities. I always buy Intel chips because my nephew works there and I have long admired Andrew Grove and the company he built. That's not to say that some of the other chips that are available at a very competitive price are not good. But it is true when you are buying a lower level Pentium chip there is not an awful lot of difference in price. You should be able to get at least a 233 megahertz Pentium MMX chip in one of these under-$1,000 machines. But that is not really the determining factor.
While the chip speed is important it is not nearly as important as the amount of RAM that you buy. RAM is pretty cheap right now, so get lots of it: no less than 32 MB and more if you're going to do lots of multimedia applications, or if you like to multitask in Windows. Windows 98 runs like a charm with 64 MB or more and Windows NT, which will be your next operating system, requires a minimum of 64 MB of RAM.
The other kind of memory that you should buy in large quantity is hard disk space. Again, the cost of hard drives has dropped very rapidly and you should be able to buy a machine for under $1,000 with at least four gigabytes of hard drive space. You want to check and make sure that the machine that you buy has got room to put in another hard drive because there is not any doubt that in a short period of time you are going to buy another four, six or eight gigabytes of hard drive to install in your machine. This is the consequence of what is called "application bloat " in Windows. Modern Windows programs continue to demand more and more hard drive space as do graphics files, video files and sound files. When you start to digitalize video and sound you need more hard drive space than you can even imagine and even if you cannot imagine yourself digitalizing video it will happen in a courtroom near you in the next year. So prepare for that future with space to upgrade your storage capacity.
Of course, you are going to need a modem and if you live in an area where US West can supply you with a DSL line you should get a DSL modem. If you are one of the unfortunates in Arizona and your exchange does not support DSL, then you should get a 56k modem that supports the new V90 standard. There should be virtually no difference in cost between a 56k modem and a slightly slower one and therefore no reason to buy a machine with the slower modem.
Make sure you get decent speakers but don't allow yourself to be sold on theater quality boxes. You don't need a woofer or a sub-woofer or a tweeter or any other fancy device unless you spend an inordinate amount of time listening to music on your PC. If you are one of those folks then the sky is the limit, but I suggest that the money you are going to spend on a PC, can buy a dynamite stereo system. If all you want to do is sit around and listen to music then that is what you should do-with your new stereo. Don't worry about the speed of the CD-ROM drive as long as it has a rating of 12x or better you will be fine. Make sure you get a machine that has a couple of USB ports in the back for all of the reasons that I listed in my column a few months ago. Some of the machines come with higher-capacity floppy disk drives like ZIP or the new drive from Imation. These things are useful but certainly not required for living of the full cyber life.
There are other little things like built-in scanners that are nice but hardly necessary and maybe even dumb. Remember that each of these additional features can add $50 or $100 apiece to the price of your machine and suddenly, instead of spending $750, you're spending $1,250 on the basic computer. Then you have to buy a monitor and if you have spent $500 on "Gee whiz" additions to the basic box you will be more disinclined to accept the advice that I am now giving you: buy a 21-inch monitor.
Most of my friends and associates suffer from severe monitor envy. They walk into my office and they see my 21-inch Panasonic monitor and gasp and gurgle. Now the truth of the matter is that a 21-inch monitor is about twice as expensive as a 17-inch monitor of the same quality. But that four inches does make a difference. If you are over 40, or spend a lot of time in front of your computer, the expenditure of that extra $600 or $700 will make your life enormously better and allow you to retain your eyesight for a few extra years. Moreover, if you are a multi-tasking fiend, the way I am, the larger screen allows you to put up-at one time-substantially more applications than you can effectively use with a smaller screen. Besides all that, the big monitors are just gorgeous and the colors are rich and vibrant. If you haven't blown $400 or $500 buying insignificant add-ons you can afford to spend $1,200 or $1,300 for a 21-inch monitor without breaking your budget. There is no reason in the world why you ought not to be able to find and put together a very high-quality system with a 21-inch monitor for under $2,000. You may have to shop to make that benchmark but it can be done. Remember this in addition: when you buy your next computer in a year or 18 months, you will not have to replace the monitor and so a higher investment there is spread over a much longer period of time than is the computer itself. Even if you can't contain yourself when you're buying your basic computer and you end up spending $1,200, $1,300, $1,400, I still strongly urge you to buy a 21-inch monitor. The real truth of the matter here is that, unlike most other things we care about, bigger IS better.
Well there you have it. If you buy a high-quality computer from a brand-name manufacturer in the $700 or $800 range, you will be able to take advantage of the tremendous advances in computers that have occurred in the last year. Your big investment in the 21-inch monitor will remain smart and you won't have to replace it for a while. But in a New York minute, you will be able to buy for $1,000 a machine that will cause that monitor to sing and dance. Next time, we will talk about the peripheral devices that you need to make your computer a virtual office. Hope to see you at CLE by the Sea in July.