Computer Buying Guide for Lawyers


How to Set Up Your New Windows Computer

A brand-new Windows PC, fully updated and unsullied by crapware, is a wonderful thing. Sadly, very few people ever get to experience it—but you can!

In general, people spend way too much time worrying about which computer to buy. You can run a law practice just fine on a $400 Dell desktop. (Not that you should.)

Obsessively comparing specs is a waste of time and brainpower. Just something from Microsoft or Apple and it will do the job. (Lenovo and Dell are also good choices.)

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.

Mac or Windows?

It doesn’t matter.

For many people, the choice between a Mac or Windows 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 Mac because they are unhappy with their cheap, crappy Windows PCs, when they would probably be equally happy with a better-quality Windows PC.)

But despite what I said in the first paragraph, you shouldn’t buy cheap computers. 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 generally won’t save much 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 a lot of your software is in the cloud, which means you can use it on anything with a web browser.

So buy what you want. I don’t actually think it matters very much whether you buy a Mac or a Windows PC. Both will allow you to practice law just fine, and despite what some 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, the nearest Apple Store is a pretty friendly place to get tech support.

On the other hand, Windows has always “just worked” just fine for me. If you set up a Windows computer properly it will “just work” just fine. Tech support matters, too, so buy carefully. Things break, and people break things. Lenovo, for example, has outstanding tech support, but that is not the norm for Windows PC manufacturers.

So while I tend to recommend Macs, I used Windows PCs happily until a couple of years ago, when I switched more or less on a whim. Let’s call it a wash. If you are a long-time Windows user and you are perfectly happy with Windows, 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, Desktop, or Tablet?

Portability is essential in most law practices. You can’t easily take a desktop to court with you. Or home with you. Or on the road with you. You need to be able to get work done and access your client files no matter where you are.

Many lawyers just use a laptop as their primary computer. Others have a desktop at the office and an iPad for everywhere else. Increasingly, tablets that run full Windows, like the Surface Pro and ThinkPad Tablet, are becoming primary computers for many. There are also hybrid laptops that fold up to become tablets, or the screen can detach or whatever.

When deciding on your setup, consider where and how you need to be able to get work done. Here are a few common setups to consider:

  • MacBook Pro or ThinkPad T-series, with a docking station at the office for connecting to a monitor, full keyboard, and trackpad or mouse.
  • iMac or Dell Inspiron at the office, and an iPad or Chromebook for mobile computing.
  • Microsoft Surface Pro with Type Cover, for everything.

Whatever you do, avoid the temptation to get a big, heavy, powerful laptop. If you need desktop power, get a desktop computer. If you need portability, get a lightweight laptop. Don’t mix the two. You’ll regret it every time you hoist your briefcase or bag with your 7-pound laptop in it.

How Much Do I Need to Spend?

Instead of giving you a list of minimum specs and features, I’m going to use price as a rough proxy for a spec sheet. It’s not perfect, but it’s a pretty good way to make sure you get what you need. 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. If you are buying a desktop, spend a minimum of $750, not counting the monitor.

Those really are minimums. I usually spend closer to $1,500 on laptops, and around $1,200 on desktops.

If 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 a bit more disk space and memory than OS X).

So if you are shopping for a laptop, use the 13″ MacBook Pro specs as your baseline. 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 (SSD), don’t get a traditional hard drive on your Windows PC.

I think it’s a good idea to upgrade the processor and memory from the base configuration 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 and tablets, 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, the parts aren’t as likely to break, and the parts aren’t all that expensive to replace (on Windows PCs, anyway; Mac desktops can still be pricey to repair). I figure that by the time a hard drive fails or a graphics card burns out on a desktop, 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, go to the Apple Store or shop Apple’s website online. The prices are the same, and the shipping is free. If you want a Windows PC, avoid Best Buy and shop on the manufacturer’s website, where you can customize your computer and get the best deal. If you want a fairly standard configuration, you may be able to find a better deal on Amazon or NewEgg. It doesn’t hurt to look, anyway.

The point is, make sure you get what you need, not just what happens to be on the big-box store’s shelves. Retailers generally carry only one or two configurations: the cheapest one and the most expensive one. If you want to max out the memory but you don’t care to pay for the top-of-the-line processor and a bunch of hard drive space you won’t use, you will probably need to order online, from the manufacturer.

If you feel like you need to try out the keyboard first, by all means visit a store that carries the brand you want. Before you do, though, use the manufacturers’ website to configure your computer the way you want it and to check the price. That way, if you find what you want at the store at a reasonable price, you can just get it there and take it home the same day.

What Brands Should I Consider?

The Microsoft Surface Pro is the best Windows tablet, hands-down, and it may be the best Windows hardware, period. In fact, if you are considering a Windows laptop, you should probably try the Surface Pro with a Type Cover, first.

If you want a Windows laptop and the Surface Pro isn’t for you, Lenovo makes the best Windows laptops: the ThinkPad T- and X-series. ThinkPads are fast, rock-solid, and have the best keyboards you can get on a laptop. The ThinkPad X1 may be the best ultrathin Windows laptop you can buy. Lenovo also has some of the best customer support you will find outside of an Apple Store.

If ThinkPads aren’t your thing, check out the Dell XPS laptops. The XPS 13 may be the best traditional laptop you can buy. It is thin, light, and well constructed (but not as thin and light as the ThinkPad X1). The hardware itself rivals the MacBook Pro for design and build quality.

For Windows desktops, Dell is usually the best value. There is nothing wrong with Lenovo desktops. They just tend to be more expensive. Dell makes solid, reliable desktops at good prices. Dell’s UltraSharp displays are also some of the best monitors you can find anywhere. Add one to your order and your eyes will thank you.

There are lots of other Windows computer manufacturers out there, but Microsoft, Lenovo, and Dell are the ones that have produced consistently high-quality machines for many years.

If you want a Mac, you should obviously get it from Apple.


  • 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.
  • Order online, or decide what you want before you go to a store.
  • Spend at least $1,000 on a laptop and at least $750 on a desktop.
  • Buy from Microsoft, Lenovo, Dell, or Apple.

Originally published 2012-11-12. Revised and republished 2016-02-16.

Iakov Filimonov /


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  • Andrew Mays

    No dual monitor recommendation for your dedicated workspace?

    – Andrew

    • 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!

        • 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.

          • Scott Bassett

            Whether you need dual monitors depends on how you work. I do appellate work. The way I write briefs requires dual monitors. I have two 27 inch monitors. The right monitor is equally divided between my brief in Word and the opposing brief in Acrobat.

            The left monitor is equally divided between my browser (usually Chrome) with my research service (usually Lexis Advance) open and the trial transcript in Acrobat.

            When on the road, I still like dual monitors and will connect an AOC 16 inch external USB monitor (a cheap $65 Woot purchase) to my Surface Book (not a cheap purchase). I probably need to upgrade the external USB monitor. There is a considerable mismatch between the Surface Book’s screen resolution and that of the cheap AOC monitor. Having a higher-resolution USB monitor would make working with dual monitors on the road easier.

            I used to use my 4th Gen iPad as an external monitor with my prior laptop (a ThinkPad X220) via an app and Wi-Fi. It was laggy and often not worth it. There are now apps allowing a USB connection that reportedly work much better. Since my iPad is currently under-utilized, I may give one of those apps a try. The iPad is much smaller to pack than the 16 inch external monitor.

            • Eric B.

              I would agree with the above poster that 2 monitors really work great on appeals or cases with a lot of documents. On bigger cases, it is handy to have a casemap index on one screen and all your discovery on monitor two.

          • buzzbruggeman

            I was recently with a friend who has the new Samsung 32″ concave monitor. Sitting at it was a magical experience. It felt a bit like being on star fighter. Brilliant device. Runs about $450 at Amazon. Made my 2 24″ monitors feel like a very cheap and second class experience.

  • 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.

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

  • 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.

  • Simpleman

    My firm is phasing out PCs in favor of Macs. Macs are the best hardware out there, and they are stable and fast. They present the fewest problems of any computer we’ve used.

    But there are pluses and minuses to everything, and there are some downsides to using Macs that lawyers should know up-front. Mainly, almost everyone else in law uses PCs, and sometimes we receive files in discovery that are formatted for PC only. Dealing with that is a real headache. Also, some software- such as special software to view medical images, as well as many standard case management softwares, are only available for PC. These problems are not as big as they would have been 20 years ago, but they are still there. So I’d say the safest route is going to be using a PC, if you are worried about compatibility.

    • solaric

      OS X has three solid client virtualization solutions though, and outside of intensive 3D or compute applications I’ve found that firing up Windows on demand within a VM is often more pleasant and convenient then running it directly on the metal. Management is straight forward, snapshots can be taken at any time and if there are problems the entire VM can simply be rolled back to a previous snapshot, and multiple versions of Windows can be kept on hand, isolated from the network, which is valuable since even under Windows sometimes there are breaks in compatibility. I personally keep a Windows 98, Windows XP, and Windows 7 image which lets me work with even truly ancient document backups or systems, and I don’t need to be concerned with breaks in compatibility ever, and can upgrade computers at will without ever losing what I’ve set up in Windows. Parallels and VMware offer commercially supported (and polished) paid solutions, and there is also the less polished but entirely free and partly open source VirtualBox, currently under management by Oracle.

      If you haven’t tried virtualization before, or even if it’s been a few years, it’s worth considering as the experience has gotten quite impressive. The only caveat is that you’ll need to take Mr. Glover’s recommendations in terms of specs and add some additional memory and possibly storage space to account for the VM. Processor/GPU isn’t a concern, any modern chip will handle that just fine, but making sure you’ve got at least 8-16 GB of RAM total and an extra 64-128 GB of storage of whatever you need otherwise (so probably at least 256-512GB) will help keep everything smoothly even if you’re running lots of other native applications at the same time. Fortunately these days that represents a pretty minimal premium. And as far as storage a VM can happily reside on a simple USB external drive too, or even on a network share.

  • Nancy Heller

    I know this is a software rather than hardware question, but I am wondering if anyone knows whether Windows 10 has encryption across the platform or only at a “premium” level as in Windows 7 and 8. I normally would never upgrade an existing operating system, but I might on my laptop if it will get me encryption.

  • Eric B.

    For a windows based laptop, I have had really liked the Toshiba satellite series. I think it’s better than dell in last 5 years from talking to colleagues.

  • Paul Spitz

    I’ve been very happy with my MacBook Air, which has a battery life of 12 hours. I’m planning on taking a 10-day trip overseas this summer, and while it’s a vacation, I feel that I should be able to do a little work if necessary (as a solo, if I’m not working I’m not earning). So I may get a really inexpensive laptop, maybe a chromebook, for the trip rather than risk losing my MacBook.

    • That is an excellent idea. On my last trip to NYC, I had my Samsung Chromebook stolen (the particular model I was using looked like a MacBook air from a distance). I very much preferred my $200 Chromebook being stolen than my $1,200 MacBook. I even went out and bought a new Chromebook about an hour or so after I realized it was stolen, which still came in way under the cost of purchasing a new Macbook.

  • bluvg

    ” If you want a Windows PC, avoid Best Buy and shop on the manufacturer’s website, where you can customize your computer and get the best deal.”

    Nooo, the manufacturers typically have a huge upcharge for commodity components like RAM, larger hard drives, and SSD options. Unless you’re buying a sealed-enclosure laptop (which many now are, unfortunately), you can save yourself quite a bit of money by ordering the minimum RAM and hard drive options, then buying the RAM and hard drives separately (have someone else install it if you’re not comfortable). There are warranty implications, but if your hard drive dies, you’re just going to get a replacement hard drive from the manufacturer (typically refurbished) anyway–you’re on your own to recover your data from backup either way.

    Pre-configured models–if they meet your spec requirements–can be a good deals, though. For example, look for Lenovo’s “Top Seller” models. These are *significantly* less for comparable configurable models, and you can sometimes find decent specs. And thankfully, Lenovo got burned with the Superfish crapware, and are finally bundling less of it. Better yet, buy a “Microsoft Signature Edition” laptop (from any manufacturer) from the Microsoft Store, and it will come de-crapified.

    • This is a website for lawyers, who are not generally the sort of people willing to crack open their PC to install extra memory and storage. Those who are, know to do so.

      Plus, increasingly ultralight laptops and tablets aren’t upgradeable after you buy. If you want more memory or storage, you have to get it from the manufacturer.

      • bluvg

        Agreed about the sealed enclosures as I mentioned, but I still find it silly to pay Dell a $200 surcharge for extra RAM or $400 for an SSD. I’m not suggesting everyone do their own installs (maybe hire a college student), but just be aware that you are definitely NOT getting the best deal from the manufacturer for most build-to-order purchases.