Part 1: Types of Laptops, Processors, and Graphics
If you've shopped for a laptop computer lately, you already know that it can be pretty confusing, particularly if you're looking for a Windows machine (where the options are nearly unlimited). This blog series will explain what to look for, what to avoid, and how to make an informed decision. (I am specifically not taking sides on the Windows versus Mac PC debate—this article should be helpful regardless of which operating system you prefer.) Further, the term PC as used here refers to either a Windows or a Mac computer. PC stands for personal computer, which is defined as a computer designed for use by one person at a time. Although Apple's advertisements seem to declare that its computers are something other than PCs, they are not (all MacBooks and iMacs are PCs).
This article is not going to help you find the cheapest possible laptop. If your laptop is the primary tool you use to produce work product, it's probably the last thing you should be cutting corners on. (Check out this compilation of the best budget laptops if that's what you're looking for.) The following recommendations prioritize power, portability, and reliability.
Laptop configurations and models change constantly, so there's no point in identifying a particular model and configuration to buy. Instead, I'm going to describe what I would look for in a new laptop (component by component) and endeavor to explain each part of the PC so you'll understand what you're buying.
In this first of a three-part series, I review the types of laptops suitable for lawyers, what you need to know about processors, and graphics and display adapters. Here we go!
Type of Laptops Suitable for a Lawyer
I'm not going to explain every possible classification here because many of them are inappropriate for a law office (such as gaming laptops). You want a laptop designed for a business user (rather than a home user). Business models tend to have longer product cycles and offer tried-and-true configurations that have been thoroughly tested. They typically offer better warranties (on-site service and accidental damage protection), physical durability, and built-in security.
You may also have heard of an "Ultrabook" as a laptop category. Ultrabook is actually a specification for a laptop promulgated by Intel. Briefly, an Ultrabook is a very thin, light, and powerful laptop with great battery life, touchscreen capability, and advanced security. Of course, many manufacturers offer business Ultrabooks. An Ultrabook may take the form of a traditional clamshell laptop, or a 2-in-1 hybrid or a 2-in-1 convertible. Good examples of traditional Ultrabooks are the Dell XPS 13 and the Lenovo ThinkPad X1 Carbon. A hybrid 2-in-1 is a laptop where the screen can be detached from the keyboard base and used as a touchscreen tablet (a Microsoft Surface Pro 4, for example). The screen on a convertible 2-in-1 doesn't detach but can be flipped back, swiveled, or slid into a position so that it can also be used like a touchscreen tablet (an HP Spectre x360, for example).
What to Know About Processors
3/5/7 Designations: In a nutshell, an Intel i7 processor is more powerful than an i5, and an i5 is more powerful than an i3. There are also m3, m5, and m7 processors in addition to the i series. The m processors allow manufacturers to create notebook PCs that have no cooling fans (resulting in thinner, quieter devices), and the m processors provide longer battery life than the i processors. However, the i processors are faster. So if you value performance, look for i processors, and if you would prefer longer battery life and aren't as concerned about the fastest possible performance, the m processors should be on your shopping list. For a great explanation of the differences between m and i processors, see Avram Piltch's article Intel's New Core M CPU: Everything You Need to Know.
Generations: Intel has released seven generations of the 3/5/7 processors, so the current release is creatively called "7th gen." If you're buying something new and it doesn't indicate that the processor is 7th generation, make sure you ask. You can also tell what generation a processor is by looking at the first number following the 3/5/7 designation. For example, a configuration that includes an i5-6570 processor is 6th generation. The number 6 that begins the four-digit number following the i5 is the indicator that it's a 6th-generation processor. If that number was a 4, it would be 4th generation. Every generation of processors gets a little faster and adds various other benefits. For the full rundown on what the 7th generation processors provide, see New 7th Gen Intel Core Processor: Built for the Immersive Internet by Navin Shenoy.
Processor Recommendation: If you use your PC only for e-mail, Internet browsing, and light applications such as word processing, an i3 would probably be fine. If you're using more taxing applications (such as case management systems, document management systems, or legal accounting programs), consider a 7th-generation m/i5 or m/i7. Most manufacturers have 7th-generation offerings out at this point, but there are a lot of new computers out there with 5th- and 6th-generation processors. It makes sense to look for the latest generation processor unless you really want to save money by buying an older one. Between the 5 and 7, an i5 or m5 is suitable for almost all lawyers. If you have more demanding applications such as photo or video editing or speech recognition, you may want to consider moving up to an i7 or m7. While it may be true that “[f]or most users, the extra features and processing power of the Core i7 won’t be worth the cost difference between the two tiers," I've never met anyone who regretted choosing more power.
Graphics or Display Adapter
The graphics adapter is the part of a computer that processes the images so they can be displayed on the screen or monitor. There are two basic architectural approaches for a graphics adapter: integrated and discrete. Integrated means that a computer's display circuitry is located in the chipset on the motherboard rather than on a separate plug-in card. Discrete graphics adapters are typically a separate circuit board inside the computer and are more powerful than integrated adapters. Integrated graphics adapters are usually sufficient for legal users since they typically do not use demanding graphics or video applications. However, you may want to consider a discrete graphics adapter if any of the following apply to you: (1) you want to connect a large external monitor (greater than 27 inches), (2) you want to connect to two or three monitors simultaneously, (3) you need to engage in video editing, or (4) you run graphics-intensive applications such as computer-aided design (CAD) programs or games. You can do all of the foregoing with integrated video, but the computer's performance may suffer.
Having said all of that, the model of computer you choose may offer you no choice in display adapter. If it's a business computer, it will likely offer only integrated video. I have two 24-inch monitors connected to a laptop with integrated video and it's fine. However, if I had a choice between integrated and discrete, I'd go with discrete because of the external monitors I connect to my laptop. Again, no one ever regrets better performance. Below is a screenshot of a configuration from Dell. The Nvidia GeForce 830M is a discrete video option. UMA (in the second option) stands for unified memory architecture, which means integrated video. In my opinion, the extra $68.31 for the Nvidia GeForce is definitely worth it.