Back to Top

Best Laptops & Desktops for Lawyers: A Computer Buying Guide

In general, lawyers in our Lawyerist Insider and Lawyerist Lab communities spend way too much time worrying about getting the best laptops for lawyers. You can run a law practice just fine on a $400 Dell desktop (but you shouldn’t).

You don’t need to waste time and brainpower obsessively comparing specs or agonizing over whether to get a Mac or PC. You can just get 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 could think about if you want to put more work than strictly necessary into buying a computer.

Mac or Windows?

It doesn’t matter.

If you need to validate your decision to use one over the other, you’ll find plenty of proponents of both systems. But the bottom line is that you can practice law just fine on either. Use what you like.

However, it’s worth debunking a couple of common misconceptions.

Law Firm Computer Specs

First misconception: price. If you want a cheap computer, there are plenty of Windows hardware manufacturers that will be happy to sell you one. While Apple does not sell cheap computers, you should not buy a cheap Windows computer. Good-quality Windows PCs are usually priced in the same range as an equivalent Mac.

Second misconception: performance. People often switch to Mac because they are unhappy with their cheap Windows PCs. But if you buy good-quality Windows PCs, they won’t feel any slower than an equivalent Mac.

In short, you shouldn’t buy cheap computers. I’ll give you a ballpark budget below, but the point is that good computers aren’t cheap, and you should buy good computers.

Third misconception: compatibility. The days of worrying about incompatible software and hardware are mostly over, as well. Microsoft Office works perfectly well on both, and since a lot of the software you use is almost certainly in the cloud, you can use it on anything with a web browser.

However, sophisticated users of Microsoft Office will be quick to point out features that are not available in the Mac versions. And users of legacy practice management software may also find that a Mac is not an option. If those exceptions apply to you, then Windows will obviously be a better option. (Mac diehards can certainly use Parallels or Fusion to run Windows apps on a Mac, but that is an imperfect solution, at best.) If not, then use what you want.

For the record, I don’t think it matters at all 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.

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

However, many complaints about Windows are overblown. Windows “just works” just fine if you set it up properly.

So 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. But whichever you choose, get decent hardware.

What About a Chromebook?

Chromebooks run Google’s Chrome OS instead of Windows or MacOS. Chrome OS is similar to using the Chrome Browser. Not exactly, but close.

For lawyers, there are basically two use cases for Chrome OS:

  1. You use the web for everything. All your files are in the cloud (probably Google Drive, OneDrive, Dropbox, or Box), and you use G Suite or the Office web apps for all your documents, email, calendar, etc.
  2. You just need secure remote access to your computer, whether it is sitting in your office or in the cloud.

If either of those use cases describes your need, Chrome OS has some real advantages. The operating system is extremely lightweight, so Chromebooks don’t need to have high-end specs. As a result, Chromebooks tend to be thin and light with all-day battery life, but inexpensive.

Chrome OS is also very secure. Your data stored on a Chromebook is encrypted, and there are various safeguards against malware and other malicious hacking.

On the other hand, most lawyers need access to local software—Microsoft Office if nothing else—making a Chromebook an inexpensive option for a second computer at best.

Laptop, Desktop, or Tablet?

If you only want to have one computer, you should get a laptop or tablet (with keyboard). If you buy a desktop you will also need something portable that you can take home, to court, to board meetings, etc. You need to be able to get work done and access your client files no matter where you are.

Many lawyers use a laptop or full-featured Windows tablet like the Surface Pro as their primary computer. Others have a desktop at the office and an ultralight laptop, Surface, or iPad Pro for everywhere else. There are also a multitude of laptop variations such as the Lenovo Yoga line.

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 laptop, with a docking station at the office for connecting to a monitor, full keyboard, and trackpad or mouse.
  • iMac or Dell Inspiron desktop 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 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 poring over spec sheets, you can use price as a rough proxy. Price is not perfect, but most computers have similar hardware at similar price points, so you should 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.

Best Laptop Brands for Lawyers

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.

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.
  • 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 2016-02-16. Republished 2019-11-06.

Fujitsu ScanSnap iX1500 Document Scanner Review

The Fujitsu ScanSnap iX1500 is the newest in the line of impressive ScanSnap scanners we’ve reviewed and recommended for paperless law offices over the years and replaces the iX500.

The ScanSnap line, including the new iX1500, are the scanners we most recommend for small law firms and paperless office management.

If you need a document scanner, this is still the one you should get, and it remains the top pick in our buyers guide for scanners. Here’s why.

fujitsu-scansnap-ix1500-photo

Fujitsu ScanSnap iX1500 Price and Features

The iX1500 is about $415 on Amazon.

There are less expensive desktop scanners that will get the job done, but the ScanSnap iX1500 is substantially better than any of them, and it has a lot more to offer, feature-wise. 

The iX500 scans 30 double-sided pages per minute. It will automatically detect and remove blank pages, although this is conservative and you will probably find plenty of blank pages in your scans. It is also good at detecting when two or more pages get pulled into the scanner at the same time. When this happens, the iX1500 will stop to let you separate the pages before it continues. With the ScanSnap Connect app for iOS and Android, you can scan wirelessly to your smartphone or tablet.

With ScanSnap Cloud, you can scan directly to almost a dozen cloud services, including Dropbox, Box, OneDrive, Google Drive, Evernote, and more. ScanSnap Cloud is by far the easiest way to use the iX1500 for normal, day-to-day scanning. For longer documents or more complex scanning jobs, you will want to use ScanSnap Connect with your mobile device or ScanSnap’s management software with your computer.

Hardware and Design

As far as scanners go, the iX1500’s simple new white and black form looks pretty nice on a desk. It is unobtrusive without being unattractive. Not that style should be a major concern when scanner shopping.

Inside the scanner is a processor that helps speed up image processing and handle processing when the iX1500 is not plugged into a computer. It even handles optical character recognition, which means you’ll spend less time waiting for OCR to finish than you would with other scanners (or older ScanSnaps).

Like most document scanners these days, the iX1500 has an ultrasonic multi-feed detector. And to reduce the chances you will need it, there is a new Separation Roller setup for paper picking.

The feeder is 9″ wide, so it can handle pages that are just a bit wider than standard US letter or A4 paper. On the opposite end of the spectrum, you can scan teeny-tiny receipts, although you might have to move them around to make sure the scanner can tell there is a piece of paper in the feeder. You can also scan thicker documents, like drivers licenses and passports. Credit cards and drivers licenses go through this scanner just fine. Passports are a tight fit, but you can get them through.

One great improvement with the iX1500 is the addition of a full-color touchscreen interface to navigate the scanner’s menus and connectivity.

But it’s worth pointing out that if you are comparing the iX1500’s feature list to another scanner’s feature list, you are missing the point. The ScanSnap isn’t just a list of features, it is designed to make scanning easy, which is really important if you are going to use it all the time.

Bundled Software

What really makes the ScanSnap stand out is how easy it is to use. Manufacturers of competing scanners can’t seem to keep themselves from adding buttons, while the ScanSnap has a clean touchscreen interface. And unlike most of the competition, the ScanSnap scanning utility is simple, friendly, and easy to use. I think the ScanSnap management software is the most underrated feature of the ScanSnap line of scanners. Fujitsu didn’t just bundle its scanners with PaperPort (which was awful the last time I used it) or hack together an ugly-but-functional scanning utility. Fujitsu put in the time to design the user experience to make ScanSnaps easy to use without sacrificing functionality.

And it works really well.

Performance

The ScanSnap iX1500 is quick, reliable, and easy to use. Here it is in action:

Who Should Buy a ScanSnap iX1500?

If you are in the market for a desktop document scanner, the Fujitsu ScanSnap iX1500 is the one you should buy. There is really no question about it.

There is only one exception to that recommendation: if you know you need TWAIN, you should look for another scanner, like one of those I have mentioned above. If you don’t know whether or not you need TWAIN, don’t worry about it. I’m pretty confident that you don’t.

Summary

The Fujitsu ScanSnap iX1500 desktop scanner, the newest in the long line of ScanSnaps we love, is the scanner you should buy.

Rating: 5 (out of 5)

Originally published in 2013. Updated 2019. Republished on 2019-10-15.

Avoid the All-in-One Printer, Scanner, Copier, and Fax Machine

Lawyers often choose all-in-one solutions when buying hardware and software, probably because it feels cost-effective to get a bunch of things bundled into one package. But when it comes to scanners, printers, and copiers, it is better to buy dedicated machines. You can be more productive with a ScanSnap and a good laser printer than you can be with a typical all-in-one machine.

First, you probably do not need a scanner, printer, copier, and fax machine. You probably just need a scanner and printer.

Copying is just scanning and printing without bothering to save the document in between. That is fine if you do not have digital files. But you should be scanning everything anyway. It will save time in the long run if you just scan documents and save them to your computer. Then you can print as many copies as you need, whenever you need to.

Fax machines, however, are not worth having any longer. Use an electronic fax service like HelloFax and you’ll never miss having a fax machine (or the cost of paper, supplies, and an extra phone line).

Those unnecessary functions are just bloatware. They add more things to the hardware that can break, and they add stuff you don’t need to to the software you use to operate the combo unit. What you’re left with is an okay printer and a not-very-good scanner.

If you are serious about going paperless — and it is hard to imagine why you wouldn’t be — you need a serious, dedicated document scanner. And while it’s all well and good to shop around, in the end there’s only one you should buy: the Fujitsu ScanSnap iX500. Once you use it, you’ll understand why your brilliant plan to save money with a printer/scanner/copier/fax machine is so misguided. It just isn’t very good at scanning, which is what you will be doing with it most of the time.

As for the printer, nearly any good laser printer will do — until you are trying to print out four copies of all your exhibits the night before a deposition or trial. Then you will wish you spent the money on a good laser printer. Any good workgroup printer will do; just don’t rely on a cheap laser printer unless you’ll never need to print large batches of documents quickly.

If you really want a copier, just get a copier. All-in-one machines aren’t really copiers, after all. They just scan and print without saving. Most document scanners have a “copy” mode that works the same way in tandem with your printer. Or just go to a FedEx Office store the very few times you will need one. (In fact, I cannot remember needing to make copies for any reason since I went paperless.)

The only real advantage to an all-in-one machine is the price. A good scanner and a good printer will probably add up to $800–1,000. You can get a laser all-in-one for under $200, and a decent one is still under $400. The problem is that even a good multi-function is still just an okay printer and a substandard document scanner. If you spend a bit more to get the right tools for the job, you will save a ton of time and aggravation in the long run.

Stay away from all-in-ones.

Originally published on 04-20-2011. Last updated on 08-19-15.

The Best Computer Monitor Setup for Lawyers

A monitor … is far more important than your computer’s processor’s clock speed.

Most people focus on the CPU — the box that sits on or under your desk — when buying a computer. You will find regularly-updated buying guides full of specs for processor speed, memory, storage, etc., just about everywhere. But most CPUs will handle a lawyer’s basic computing needs. Specs are not what make for a good computing experience. A monitor, for example, is far more important than your computer’s processor’s clock speed.

I used to work in an outdoor store selling canoes and kayaks. Customers regularly came in planning to buy a $2,000 kevlar kayak, then went straight to the cheap paddles and PFDs (life jackets, if you prefer). But it makes much more sense to buy a $500 paddle, a high-end PDF, and a cheap kayak than it does to buy a $2,000 kayak, a $50 paddle, and a $20 PFD. The paddle will be in constant motion, and your PFD will be shifting with every movement. Cheap products mean slower progress, fatigue, sore wrists, and chafing.

Similarly, you will spend nearly all your time staring at your computer’s monitor, not pushing its CPU to the limit. You can run Microsoft Word and whatever else you use to manage your practice on a five-year-old laptop (at least). But a fuzzy picture, poor contrast, and limited adjustment will ruin your eyesight and contort your spine. Get a good monitor and cut costs on the CPU, if you have to.

So what makes a good monitor?

Adjustability

A good monitor should be adjustable. When you place the screen about arm’s length away from you, the top should be at or slightly below your eye level, according to Ergotron (unless you use bifocals, in which case you should lower the monitor and tilt it back 30° to 45°). You should not need to tilt your monitor up and down, except maybe to reduce the glare from ceiling lights.

Many cheap monitors have stands that tilt, but few raise up and down. If your monitor’s stand does not let you raise and lower the screen, you will either have to be a perfect fit for it, or you will need to dig out your law school textbooks and stack them up under your monitor to adjust the height.

That does not mean you have to avoid inexpensive monitors. You can always get an aftermarket stand (Ergotron makes excellent ones), but you will generally save money overall by just getting a good monitor with an adjustable stand in the first place.

Size and Pixel Density

Size Matters

At a minimum, for legal work, your monitor should be able to display two full-width pages, side-by-side. The smallest size that works for this is about 22”. (Go ahead and take two 8.5” x 11” sheets of paper to the store and check my measurements.) However, more than two sheets of paper actually need to fit on the screen. There are sliders, window chrome, and all those buttons and task bars. Plus, room for margins makes everything easier to read. It’s nice to get an extra inch or two so that your margins are not too cramped by menus and scrollbars. After using several monitors 21.5” and up, I have found 24” to be about right.

Larger monitors do not really let you fit more than two pages. The aspect ratio is wrong. It would take a really wide (and relatively short) monitor to fit three pages. Although at around 30”, you can fit 6 pages at once, if you do not mind squinting a bit.

Some lawyers prefer to flip their monitors 90° to match the orientation of the page. This is a great idea, and it works best with multiple monitors. If you do this, 22”–24” is still about right.

Pixel Density Matters More

Consider these three monitors, all of which have the exact-same resolution:

  • 23” HP ZR2330w @ 1920 x 1080 (95.78 PPI)
  • 24″ ASUS VE-248h @ 1920 x 1080 (91.79 PPI)
  • 27” HP EliteDisplay E271i @ 1920 x 1080 (81.59 PPI)

PPI means “pixels per inch,” a measure of the size of the pixels. The smaller the pixels, the better everything will look — especially text.

I spent about a week with that 27” HP EliteDisplay, and my eyes were very happy to go back to my 24” Dell UltraSharp U2412M with its noticeably-better 94.34 PPI. And while my Dell is good, it is nowhere near as good as the 27” Apple Thunderbolt Display or the 27” Dell UltraSharp U2713HM, both of which have an awesome 108.79 PPI (I think they actually use the same screen component).

(All pixel densities calculated using the Pixel Density Calculator. Go ahead and use it yourself if you are shopping for a monitor.)

I’m pretty sure big pixels are one of the main reasons people do not prefer to read on a screen. When you ratchet up the pixel density, reading on a screen becomes tolerable, at worst. On higher-end monitors like the 27” Apple or Dell, it’s downright pleasant.

Multiple Monitors

There are good reasons to consider a second — or third or fourth — monitor. There are also some bad reasons to have extra screens.

In fact, at least one study found that a single 24” monitor was more productive than multiple (or larger) monitors.

Let’s dispense with the bad, first. It is tempting to use an extra monitor as a “dashboard” for your email and calendar (Outlook), or your social media, or whatever it is you think you might want to have visible at all times. This is a bad idea. There is no such thing as multitasking and all you will accomplish by keeping so many things visible at once is to distract yourself. In fact, at least one study found that a single 24” monitor was more productive than multiple (or larger) monitors.

If you can use your extra screens to help you work more effectively on one thing at a time, though, go for it. For example, it is harder to spread out more than one document if they are on your computer. If you can put two pages side-by-side on one monitor, you can put three or four together on two monitors — and so on. Or you can flip a monitor 90 degrees to see more of the document you are drafting or reading, or to zoom in and still see the whole page.

So, despite that study, if you are paperless and you frequently need to look at more than two pages at the same time, get a second monitor.

And if you are going to get multiple monitors, match them. Get two or three or four of the same one, instead of mixing and matching. Even small differences in pixel size will make the lower-density monitor look fuzzy. If you have ever plugged your laptop into an external monitor, you know what I mean. Most laptops have pixel densities that exceed all but the best desktop monitors, and it takes time for your eyes to adjust to the non-primary monitor. If you are trying to quickly look back and forth between two monitors, it is easier (and therefore more efficient) if they match.

If you decide to get two or more monitors, you probably don’t need to go as large as if you only have one, but you certainly can. Stick to a minimum of 22”, but go ahead and get two great big 27” monitors, if you want to and you have the money.

What to Buy

I still think the 24” Dell UltraSharp U2412M is the best overall bang for the buck. I recommend it over the 23” HP ZR2330w, even though the HP has higher pixel density, because the Dell is taller in relation to its width. That means you can fit more lines of text on the screen on the Dell, which is better for working on documents.

My recommendation is the same if you are going to buy more than one, or if you want to flip it on its side. (That said, you definitely will not be disappointed with the HP if you decide to save some money; it is still a great choice.)

If you want a bigger screen, get the 27” Dell U2713HM (or the 27” Apple Thunderbolt Display if you are a Mac user). You’ll spend a lot more — you could get almost three 23” or 24” monitors for the price of one 27” monitor — but if you prefer to have just one screen, or if you want the best monitor(s) for all-day computing, you cannot beat these two.

  • Last updated 2014-06-11.