Q: What Computer Should I Buy?

A: In general, people spend way too much time worrying about which computer to buy. While I don’t necessarily recommend it, you can run a law practice just fine on a crappy hand-me-down Windows PC. My current Dell desktop cost me $300 when I bought it new five years ago, and I’m only now getting around to upgrading it.

Obsessively comparing specs is a waste of time and brainpower. Just get something from Lenovo, Dell, or Apple, and it will work just fine.

Not satisfied? Okay, here are a few things you maybe should think about, if you want to make buying a computer harder than it really needs to be.

Apple or Microsoft?

It doesn’t matter.

For many people, the choice between a Mac or a Windows PC comes down to price. Apple doesn’t sell cheap computers. If you want a cheap computer, there are plenty of Windows hardware manufacturers that will be happy to sell you one. (And plenty of people who switch to Macs because they are unhappy with their cheap, crappy Windows PCs, when they would probably be equally happy with a better-quality Windows PC.)

But, you shouldn’t buy cheap computers. (Before you cry Hypocrite! after reading about my cheap desktop, I bought it when I decided to hire a law clerk, and I’ve had to upgrade its components several times to keep it usable.) I’ll give you a ballpark budget below. The point is, if you spec out most Windows PCs to the same level as a Mac, you won’t generally save much, if anything, by sticking with Windows.

The days of worrying about incompatible software and hardware are mostly over, as well. Microsoft Office works perfectly well on both, and if you rely on Windows software that has no native OS X version, all you need is a copy of Parallels or VMware Fusion to run it on your Mac, anyway.

So buy what you want. I don’t actually think it matters very much whether you buy a Mac or a Windows-based PC. Both will allow you to practice law just fine, and despite what various gurus may say, neither will make you a better lawyer.

I usually recommend Macs because they generally result in fewer headaches for lawyers who are their own tech support. And if your Mac breaks down, an Apple Store is a pretty friendly place to get tech support.

On the other hand, Windows has always “just worked” just fine for me. I know that is not everyone’s experience; it takes a bit of advanced know-how to set up Windows properly and keep it running smoothly. And while tech support from Lenovo is pretty outstanding, it is not the norm for Windows PC manufacturers — and even Lenovo’s tech support is not as friendly or convenient as visiting a nearby Apple Store.

So while I tend to recommend Macs, I have always used Windows PCs myself. Let’s call it a wash. If you are a long-time Windows user and you are perfectly happy with it, stick with it. If you are in love with Apple’s smooth aluminum slabs, get one. There is no objectively compelling reason to use one or the other. Conversely, there is no compelling reason not to use one or the other. Use what you like.

Most importantly, whether you choose Apple or Microsoft, get decent hardware.

Laptop, ultrabook, or desktop?

Whether you get a laptop, ultrabook, or desktop does not really matter in terms of speed. It’s all about portability. If you want to carry your computer around, get a laptop. If you want to take it with you everywhere you go, get an ultrabook. If you want to have a dedicated place to work, get a desktop.

For years, I have had a desktop and a laptop. That way, I can use a nice, big monitor (or two) and full keyboard in the place I work most often, but I still have a computer I can take to the coffee shop, court, or a board meeting. It is a good setup, as long as you have a way to access your files from both PCs. (Don’t worry about this now, though; it’s easy, and I will get to it in a later FAQ.)

If you only want one computer, get a traditional laptop with a set of peripherals (monitor, keyboard, and mouse) for when you work at your office. Even if it is usually going to sit on your desk, you will eventually want to take it with you. You can run your practice from an ultrabook instead of a regular laptop, if you want to, but I think that if it is your only computer, a big more power is in order.

If you are willing to spend more money, get a desktop and an ultrabook (if you aren’t sure what an ultrabook is, think MacBook Air and its Windows-based clones). It is a heckuva lot easier to slip a sub-3-pound ultrabook into your bag than a 5-plus-pound laptop. Lawyers who frequently need to carry a computer will be much better off with this setup.

What size should I get?

For laptops and ultrabooks, the 13- or 14-inch form factor is the ideal balance between portability and the number of powerful components that can be squeezed into a slim case.

For desktops, the size of the CPU — the box — doesn’t really matter; it’s the size of the monitor that matters. A 21.5- or 22-inch monitor is about the smallest you can get that will fit two full pages on the screen at the same time. For a little more room, get a 24- or 26-inch monitor. I just picked up an ASUS VE248H, a 24-inch backlit LCD for about $190, and while I would love to have something even bigger, 24 inches seems like a good compromise between size and cost.

If you would rather not get a bargain monitor, like I usually do, you can’t do better than Apple’s monitors, although Dell’s high-end UltraSharp monitors reportedly use the same components in a package with a friendlier price tag.

How much do I need to spend to get decent hardware?

Instead of focusing on what specs you need to get (i.e., “decent hardware”), let’s use price as a rough proxy for a spec sheet. It’s not perfect, but it’s pretty good. And while specs change quickly, prices tend to stay fairly constant for a given tier (i.e., entry-level vs. graphics workstation).

Here — with a fair amount of arbitrariness, I admit — is what I think you should spend on a computer you intend to keep for 3–4 years before you upgrade. If you are buying a laptop, spend a minimum of $1,000, or $1,200 for an ultrabook. If you are buying a desktop, spend a minimum of $750, not counting the monitor.

Those really are minimums. I usually spend closer to $2,000 on laptops, and around $1,200 on desktops.

If a price alone is not enough detail for you, consider using Apple’s base Mac configurations as a minimum-standards guide. Apple doesn’t sell a computer it doesn’t consider capable of giving a first-rate computing experience. That means the specs of its cheapest computers in each category are a good guide to the minimum you ought to get (although keep in mind that Windows, as a rule, will use more disk space and memory than OS X).

So if you are shopping for a laptop, use the 13″ MacBook Pro (non-Retina) specs as your baseline. For an ultrabook, use the 11″ MacBook Air. If you are shopping for a desktop, use the base Mac Mini as your reference point. Don’t get a Windows PC with a slower processor, less memory (RAM), or a smaller hard drive (and if your Apple reference point has a solid-state drive, don’t get a hard disk drive on your Windows PC).

I think it’s a good idea to upgrade the processor and memory (RAM) no matter what you get, but even if you don’t, you will be in pretty good shape by following either my price guidelines or the Apple spec sheets.

Should you get a warranty?

For laptops, yes. For desktops, maybe.

I always buy a three- or four-year warranty on my laptops that includes accidental damage. Laptops are meant to be portable, and I take mine everywhere. They have the scratches and dents to prove it, and sometimes a hard-enough whack will put even a ThinkPad out of commission. I think a three- or four-year warranty that includes accidental damage is a must for any laptop you intend to carry around.

Desktops are a different story. Since all they do is sit in one place, there are few parts likely to break, and fewer still that will be expensive to replace. I figure that by the time a hard drive fails or a graphics card burns out, I’ll be just as happy to upgrade that part, anyway. Skip the parts warranty.

However, depending on how often you find yourself calling tech support now (whether that means Geek Squad or your niece), you might want a warranty that includes general support. For example, if you sometimes get hung up getting a printer or scanner to work properly, or you get lost when you accidentally hit a key combination that closes a panel in Outlook, you might want to get something like Dell’s Enhanced Support or Apple’s AppleCare. With these, you can just pick up the phone and call someone who can help you solve your problem.

I’m perfectly happy using Google to answer most of those kinds of questions. If you aren’t, it may be worth spending a couple hundred bucks to add a basic warranty.

Where should you buy your computer?

It depends. If you want a Mac, it doesn’t matter. Go to the Apple Store if you want, or shop online. The prices are the same, and the shipping is free.

If you want a Windows PC, keep in mind that consumer-electronics stores like Best Buy are catering to consumers, not businesses. For desktops, that’s fine. As long as you follow the spec guidelines above, a consumer-grade desktop will work.

For laptops, you should really be shopping for the business-grade options, which are rarely well-represented at consumer electronics stores. They don’t look as cool sitting next to all those flimsy, glossy-lidded ASUS and Compaq units, but a business-grade Lenovo or Dell will have better-quality components, more-comfortable keyboards, more-durable hardware, and often better warranty service.

My personal prejudice, born from my need to customize the specs on whatever I buy, is to only buy from the websites of the brands I trust: Lenovo, Dell, and Apple. That goes for laptops and desktops. If you want to try before you buy, then visit a store if you can find one with the computer you want to buy.

Either way, narrow down your options before you go to a store. Browsing for a computer and asking a sales clerk for help aren’t a great way to get a good computer. Once you know what you want, if you can find it at a store, go ahead and get it there. If not, or if you prefer to shop online anyway, buy direct from the manufacturer.

What brands should I get?

I’ve said it a few times, now, but there are three brands I buy: Lenovo, Dell, and Apple. I buy ThinkPad laptops from Lenovo, desktops from Dell, and if I’m buying a Mac, I’d obviously buy it from Apple.

There are lots of other manufacturers out there, but only the three above seem to have the ability to produce computers of consistently-predictable quality that I also like to use.

What should I remember from this?

Here are your takeaways:

  • It doesn’t matter if you want a Mac or a Windows PC. Get what you like.
  • Get a 13- or 14-inch laptop, or at least a 22-inch monitor for a desktop.
  • Get a warranty with accidental-damage protection for a laptop or ultrabook; skip the warranty for a desktop.
  • Decide what you want before you go to a store.
  • Spend at least $1,000 on a laptop, at least $1,200 on an ultrabook, and at least $750 on a desktop.
  • Get a Lenovo, Dell, or Apple.

And, of course, if you want more-specific recommendations, keep an eye on our Top Tech Upgrades.

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  • Andrew Mays

    No dual monitor recommendation for your dedicated workspace?

    - Andrew

    • http://lawyerist.com/author/samglover/ Sam Glover

      Nope. While there are some advantages to dual monitors, a single monitor big enough to display two pages at a time is nearly as good. And cheaper.

      Randall posted some thoughts on dual monitors and productivity, as well. You’ll find a now-dead link in the comments to a study that found a single 24-inch monitor was actually better than dual monitors for productivity. I suspect the reason is that two monitors encourages you to do productivity-killing things like leaving your email open on one monitor while you try to work on the other.

      • Dallas

        Randall’s previous post, the article from the comments you reference, and articles like one in February 2012 on NY Times “In Data Deluge, Multitaskers Go to Multiscreens” are anecdotal and should be taken with that in mind (though the NY Times article refers to industry sponsored studies). Each person works differently and wholesale dismissal of a an idea because it doesn’t work best for you is demonstrative of a superior attitude.

        In my experience, commentators’ issues with “distractions” seem to have focus problems rather than having an actual distraction because of having two screens. If they have an IPad, smart phone, yo-yo, are they also screwing around all day? Probably if that is what they do with their second monitor. Though I don’t fault these poor souls, each of us handles the barrage of information differently.

        I fall into the camp of “less paper” office where my 2 24″ monitors showing 4 full sized sheets of paper helps with doc review, research, version comparisons, ect. Outlook typically runs in the back without “pop-up” email warnings – probably the most distracting element of the program (in my opinion), just check it every 15 mins or so when I give my eyes and back a break.

        With respect to computers, I tend to go with the base model gaming units as their specs tend to be on the higher end and have lasted longer for me – have a 2001 Dell that (with RAM upgrades) still functions to run a new pneumatic robot/machine and corresponding graphics software. They do tend to run above the minimum prices you discussed, but the long life, in my experience, offsets that increase. They also have video cards that support both my monitors without extra adapters!

        • http://lawyerist.com/author/samglover/ Sam Glover

          I’m not trying to talk anyone out of a second monitor; I just don’t think it is strictly necessary. I’ve been paperless since 2005, with various monitor configurations, and I’ve been happy enough with each one. I’ve more or less settled on a single monitor, but I don’t often need more than a couple of pages onscreen at once.

          I think gaming PCs are another reasonable measuring stick for decent specs, though you can feel free to ignore the graphics card. Embedded graphics are fine for office work.

  • http://www.johnfosterlaw.com John Foster

    Good article. A few comments:
    1. I’ve had several HP desktops and have been happy with them.
    2. I’ve bought the desktops, plus monitors, printers, etc., from Amazon. With Amazon Prime, there is no additional shipping charge; and the equipment comes right to your door.
    3. My practice is such that I don’t have a big need for a laptop. A lot of tasks can be handled on my smartphone (Motorola Droid Maxx), e.g. email. For the other stuff I plan (when I get around to it) on getting a Chromebook, since most of my stuff is in the Cloud anyway.

    • http://lawyerist.com/author/samglover/ Sam Glover

      HP’s business lines seem pretty decent. I’m just put off by the cheapo glossy hardware I see in its consumer lines.

  • http://www.johnfosterlaw.com John Foster

    Granted. But since the CPU sits on the floor under my desk, I don’t much care about appearances. Good bang for the buck, and I’ve never had a problem with reliability. As long as the specs are good enough, I’m more concerned about the software. And since I am increasingly moving into the Cloud, even that becomes less significant.