A Lawyer's Guide to Buying a Laptop (Part 2)

By Barron K. Henley posted 03-06-2017 08:45


Memory, Hard Drive and Screen Options, Operating Systems

In the first part of this three-part series, I reviewed the types of laptops suitable for lawyers, what you need to know about processors, and graphics and display adapters. In this part, I review laptop memory, hard drive options, screen options, and operating system considerations.

Memory or RAM

For normal business usage, I would recommend 8 GB of RAM. If possible, get the memory on one memory chip. Most laptops have two memory sockets on board, so if you get all of your memory on one chip, you can easily add another one later as an upgrade. If you get 8 GB comprised of two 4-GB chips, to upgrade your memory you'll have to discard half of what you already have. You may want to consider upgrading to 16 GB of RAM if you will be doing video editing, often have many applications or browser windows open at once, work with really large documents, or use speech-recognition software. If you're wavering on the amount of RAM to buy now, remember that it's usually an easy do-it-yourself project to upgrade your RAM later. Companies such as Crucial make it exceedingly easy to upgrade RAM. Crucial's website allows you to determine exactly what type of memory your computer requires, and its prices are very competitive.

Hard Drive Options

Types of Drives: There are three kinds of hard drives: mechanical hard disk drive (HDD), solid state drive (SSD), and solid state hybrid drive (SSHD). This PC Mag article provides a good overview of HDD and SSD and explains that the traditional spinning HDD is “the basic nonvolatile storage on a computer. That is, information on it doesn't "go away" when you turn off the system, as is the case with data stored in RAM.” Hard drives are essentially metal platters with a magnetic coating. That coating stores your data, whether that data consists of weather reports, a high-definition copy of the Star Wars trilogy, or your digital music collection. A read/write head on an arm accesses the data while the platters are spinning in a hard drive enclosure.

That article also explains that an SSD functions similar to an HDD, but instead of a magnetic coating on top of platters, the data is stored on interconnected flash memory chips that retain the data even when there's no power present. These flash memory chips differ from the flash memory in USB thumb drives in the type and speed of the memory. That's the subject of a totally separate technical treatise, but suffice it to say that the flash memory in SSDs is faster and more reliable than the flash memory in USB thumb drives. SSDs are consequently more expensive than USB thumb drives for the same capacities.

It should also be noted that HDDs have a speed rating in terms of rotations per minute (rpm). This refers to the speed with which the magnetic platters inside the drive rotate. The faster they rotate, the faster your computer can access information. You should avoid 5,400 rpm drives because they're too slow. Instead, look for a drive that is 7,200 rpm or faster.

A hybrid drive combines a very small SSD with an HDD in the same device. They're far less expensive than SSDs and offer modest performance improvement. Having said all of that, you definitely want an SSD if it's available. They cost a lot more, but they're worth it. SSDs are much faster than mechanical or hybrid drives, they use less electricity, generate less heat, and have no moving parts so they are less likely to crash. Ultrabooks, described in Part 1, require an SSD.

Size: For most legal users, we recommend a 256-GB or 500-GB SSD. If you store almost everything on a server, the smaller size should be fine. If you have larger storage needs, you might be forced to go with an HDD rather than an SSD. It's easy to find 1-TB (1,000 GB) or larger HDD options in a laptop, but more difficult to find them with an SSD.

Screen Options

Screen Size: What size screen you choose is really a matter of personal preference. My current laptop has a 13.3" screen, which is extremely popular among laptop manufacturers, and I like it. I have migrated over the years from a 15.6" screen to a 14" and now a 13.3". Even though my eyes are not as good as they were when I was younger, I have no problem seeing things on my 13.3" screen. Many models offer a 15.6" screen, but I wouldn't recommend going larger than that. Remember that a bigger screen generally means a heavier laptop and shorter battery life, but that may be worth the trade-off depending on your usage.

Resolution: If you have a choice of resolutions on the screen, choose a higher resolution option if you intend to plug external monitors into your laptop and use it primarily in that arrangement. Higher-resolution screens mean that everything will be sharper, but also smaller. As such, it does little good to get a high-resolution screen that renders everything so small that you can barely see it. If you are connecting to an external monitor, this typically is not an issue because the external monitors are so much larger. The native resolution on my Dell XPS 13 is an amazing 3,200 x 1,800. However, it made some things so small that I could barely see them. I reduced the resolution to 1,920 x 1,080, and I could see things much better.

Touch: Many laptops now offer a touch screen. Even if you don't think you'll use it, there's no reason to avoid one of these. It's actually pretty handy when you're reading a document or scrolling down a webpage. Currently, no Apple laptop offers a touch screen, but all of its competitors in the Windows world do.

Recommendation: I recommend a 13.3" or 14" touch screen if your eyesight is good enough to see things easily on a smaller screen.

Operating System Considerations

Windows PC: If all of your software is certified to work with Windows 10, you should definitely go with Windows 10 Pro (not Home), 64 bit.

Mac PC: There are no operating system choices to make.