Hardware


Well, I finally got a netbook computer, after months of shopping and research. The Asus Eee 1000HE seemed like the best choice, with its 10 inch screen, latest Intel Atom CPU, Bluetooth capability, 9.5-hour rated battery, and generous ports (although it does not come with an optical drive). There is also an external monitor port, which is nice, a built-in microphone and webcam, 10 Gb of free online storage, and Skype software. So far, I am very pleased with my choice; in fact, I am using it to write this post.

The keyboard is fairly comfortable at 92% of a standard keyboard size, although I do not think I could recommend typing an appellate brief on it. The SD Card port allows me to upload photos from my camera for viewing and storage, while the headset port allows me to use it to listen to my music. I have yet to try out the Bluetooth capability with my cell phone (post to follow), but that would be great for backing up my phone data, including the pictures I take with it. The battery is holding up well and so far holding up its promise on longevity, but only time will tell.

The point here is that, although it is not a replacement for your main machine, it is a great, all-purpose workhorse for many tasks on the road, including:

  • More effective out-of-office web browsing than a smart phone (although naturally not as portable);
  • Access to music and pictures;
  • PowerPoint presentations off-site;
  • Access to files from anywhere when they are on Asus’ online storage server;
  • More effective document editing than on a handheld device (although nothing that long term or involved); and
  • Video conference calls using Skype for VoIP.

The only criticism I have so far is that it did not come with a trial version of antivirus software to keep me safe until I can download and install something else. Also, I was hoping to be able to use a USB external CD-ROM drive I have for system recovery, but the rescue disk that came with the machine was a DVD. Oh well. I can still use it to install software from CDs.

The bottom line is that a mobile lawyer can certainly use this machine to be more effective while out of the office. It does not replace a full-blown laptop, but it does act as a smartphone on steroids. Asus is a good company that makes solid products, which are certainly worth a look.

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One of the first posts I wrote for this blog talked about the new HP laptop I had purchased (an HP dv9000t), and the advantages of the widescreen computer.  However, as I have used the machine since then, and in looking at netbooks over the last couple of months, I realized that I had not set my priorities right when I had bought it.  This is something that everyone shopping for a laptop should do.

In essence, what I bought was a desktop replacement machine, when what I really needed was something more portable to enable me to work from anywhere.  The machine is great.  It has a 17″ widescreen and a keyboard with a conventional numeric keypad, which is terrific for my bankruptcy practice, where I am constantly entering numeric data.  It had lots of RAM, a roomy hard drive, a good video board, and a fast processor.  However, when I said in that post that it was “a better portable office than machines with smaller, conventional screens,” I must say I was wrong.

A portable office has to be portable, and lugging around a heavier, bulkier machine just makes it more difficult.  If you are just going back and forth from office to home, this may well not be a big deal; but if you are traveling by air or trying to be more productive during downtime in court, a smaller lighter screen would be much more practical.

As for netbooks, although they are far more portable, I would not necessarily recommend them as a primary laptop.  Although they are great for web access, e-mail, and short term keyboard usage, real work needs to be done on a larger screen and a bigger, more comfortable keyboard.  Look for a machine with a 12-14 inch screen to keep the weight and bulkiness down.  Also consider how much work you are going to do away from a power outlet, as batteries with longer lives are bigger and heavier.

Just get what you need.  Avoid the hype for features such as larger hard drives, more than 3 gigs of RAM, or video boards.  Get a good, fast dual core CPU.  Also, whatever you do, wait for Windows 7 to come out.  Most of what I am reading about it is that it is a big improvement over Vista and does not have the heavy hardware resource demands.  Even Ubuntu Linux fans like Sam Glover over at the Lawyerist are saying it is worthwhile.

Lawyers need to work from anywhere in order to be more productive and more competitive.  This means portability.  If you want the laptop to be your primary machine, consider a docking station.  This will give you the portability, along with the larger screen and more conventional keyboard and mouse that you are used to in the office.  In this way, you get the best of both!

I have been reading a lot about netbooks in the blogosphere recently both in terms of the “next big thing” in hardware and whether Windows 7 will cure Microsoft’s woes in the market.   For those of you yet unfamiliar with the term, a “netbook” is a laptop that is typically about 3-lb in weight, with a 9-inch screen, wireless Internet connectivity, an Intel chip, running either Linux or Windows XP, and at a cost of less than $400.   A netbook, unlike a notebook, is more suited for accessing web-based applications and cloud computing, rather than running complex or resource intensive applications directly from the netbook itself.  As a portable device, it is basically a smartphone on steroids.

This type of device can be very useful for the road warrior attorney who mainly needs to check e-mail, surf the web, access web-based applications like Google Docs, and the like.  It sure beats lugging a larger, heavier laptop through an airport!  The price is also so low that it makes sense to have one as an extra machine just for travel.  This is what makes it the “next big thing,” and certainly worth looking into if you travel quite a bit.

As for  Windows 7, netbooks present a bit of a quandary for Microsoft.  As mentioned above, these machines usually run either Linux (many manufacturers are using the Ubuntu distribution) or Windows XP.  This is because of the scaled down CPU (most use the Intel Atom chip), smaller RAM allocations (many have 512Mb to 1Gb), and smaller screens.   This is because these specs do not present enough resources for Vista, and even early beta testing on Windows 7 is showing it would not be a practical option as well.  This is one reason why Microsoft is continuing to license XP on lower end machines like netbooks.  Unfortunately, Microsoft can’t extend its support for XP indefinitely; it has to come out with a newer OS that will run on this hardware.

Redmond is apparently trying to find some middle ground on this through a proposed version of Windows 7 for netbooks, Windows 7 Starter edition.  The problem with this version is that it can only run up to 3 apps simultaneously!  At least one tech blog has claimed this to be a “fatal flaw” in the OS for netbooks, and uses it as another reason why Linux may well come out on top on these devices, since it is an OS that runs much leaner and meaner than Windows.

On the other hand, the Wall Street Journal has reported that Microsoft will offer an upgrade to the Starter version that will not have this restriction, although no price has been set yet.  Even if the full version of Windows 7 would run effectively on a netbook, the upgrade cost would take away somewhat the inexpensive nature of the netbook option.  Linux proponents argue that this makes their OS a much more logical candidate for this hardware.  It is free (thus not impacting the overall cost of the machine and, if anything, lowering it) and is far more feature-rich than a stripped down version of Windows.

My overall recommendation is that if you are thinking about a netbook as an additional PC for travel, you should seriously consider one that runs Linux rather than Windows.   Since netbooks focus on web-centric app solutions that run within browsers, software compatibility is not an issue.  At worst you would have to learn your way around an open source browser like Firefox or e-mail client like Thunderbird.  Google apps would run just as well.  You would also get a more secure, stable OS.  Having been a user of Windows for close to 20 years, I found that using Linux was not all that difficult in a GUI environment.  You can always judge for yourself by getting a LiveCD (a self-contained version of Ubuntu Linux that runs from the CD when you boot the machine from it) and giving it a test drive.   I think you will find that Linux makes more sense for these devices.

I have posted before about Microsoft’s Windows Home Server (WHS) as a server in the small law office, along with Network Attached Storage (NAS).  Many of you might be asking why they should invest in something like WHS when a less expensive NAS might do the trick.  What makes WHS worth the extra money?   Well, Microsoft has posted a good article on its WHS blog that provides a checklist of features that may help you decide whether WHS is worth the additional investment.  Check it out!

In a post on PC World‘s site, several good tips were given on choosing a new desktop PC for your office. These are interesting ideas to keep in mind and can save you money in the long run.

The first tip addresses the question we have been asking for the past year or so: Should I go with Vista? This is where the so-called “XP Downgrade” option can come in handy. As the post explains,

“You’re essentially buying Vista, but getting XP for free, and obtaining an upgrade disk for Vista when and if you want it. If you buy the Vista Business edition, models and makers that support this option will impose no additional charge; if you buy a cheaper Vista version, you may have to pay additional fees, or an XP downgrade may not be available.”

Wow, the best of both worlds! You get the Windows XP stability and compatibility, while investing in Vista for when you are ready for that step. This can be done at no additional cost if you buy the right system. Dell has been doing this for awhile.

“Dell‘s arrangement is typical: by choosing its “bonus” edition of Vista Business or better, you can opt to have the factory install Windows XP and include an upgrade DVD for that flavor of Vista. Dell offers support through the computer’s lifetime warranty for both XP and Vista. You can even downgrade back to XP if you choose.

Since most businesses haven’t standardized on Vista, you’re unlikely to have problems with coworkers or other companies you work with if you stick with XP; operating systems rarely affect compatibility, either, only tech support.”

(more…)

On July 26, 2007, I posted an article on Microsoft’s Windows Home Server (WHS) and how it presents a good server solution for the small firm and solo practitioner. Since then, servers have been sold by companies like HP which released their MediaSmart Server EX470 and EX475. One of the big advantages of these home servers is its expandability. The HP servers come with either two (EX475) or three (EX470) empty bays into which additional hard drives can be installed. This provides for the great ability to back up not only all the workstations on the network, but the server itself by using dual hard drives to create data storage redundancy. In addition, the server can grow with your firm as you need more storage space.

Unfortunately, Microsoft announced on its support Knowledge Base (KB) that “when certain programs are used to edit or transfer files that are stored on a Windows Home Server-based computer that has more than one hard drive, the files may become corrupted.” They state that they are aware of only a very small percentage of users that have been confirmed to have this problem and that “most users are unlikely to be affected.” Apparently this occurs with the use of specific programs that access data on these servers. Those most likely to be used by lawyers would be:

  • OneNote 2003
  • OneNote 2007
  • Outlook 2007
  • Microsoft Money 2007
  • SyncToy 2.0
  • QuickBooks

Microsoft is working on fixing it, with a final version currently planned for June 2008. In the meantime, they suggest the following to avoid a problem:

“Do not use applications to directly edit or change files that are stored on the Windows Home Server-based computer. Users may consider setting Shared Folders on Windows Home Server to read-only and avoid using media management programs, such as Windows Media Player, to import files to the home server. They may also want to avoid redirecting applications to access files that are stored in the Shared Folders because some applications may change the metadata of a file without explicit user action.”

I can’t help but think that this basically makes the product useless as a server. If you cannot edit or change files on the server, why keep them there? If folders are read-only, you can’t change or add the files. This was first posted to the KB in late December, according to a post on the Windows Home Server blog. So Microsoft expects people using this product to wait at least six months for a fix to this!

What does this mean for you? Well, the problem as reported does not affect WHS systems with one hard drive, so if you have one of those and have enough storage for the foreseeable future, you should be fine, according to Microsoft. Even if you have a system with more than one hard drive, they state that “most users are unlikely to be affected. ” If you are thinking of purchasing one for your office, I would get the largest hard drive you can to be assured that it will be safe to use until the problem is fixed. If you are looking to get a second drive, or purchase a WHS with more than one, I would hold off until the problem is confirmed to have been fixed. Even if it only happens in a small percentage of users, why take the chance? If you lose a few pictures or music files at home, it is one thing; if you lose files from one of your cases, that is quite another!

In many of my posts on new products I have cautioned against early adoption, mainly because most new products need some time to work out the kinks. In the case of the iPhone, early adopters can be hurt economically as well. Barely two months after its release, Apple dropped the price of the 8Gb iPhone $200 to $399. In an open letter to early purchasers on the Apple web site, which attempts to explain this, Steve Jobs starts out by saying that the “technology road is bumpy.” I guess that’s his way of saying, “Life’s tough in the big city.” He goes on to say,

“there is always someone who bought a product before a particular cutoff date and misses the new price or the new operating system or the new whatever. This is life in the technology lane. If you always wait for the next price cut or to buy the new improved model, you’ll never buy any technology product because there is always something better and less expensive on the horizon.”

Huh? So is he admitting that early adopters often get screwed, while at the same time urging people to buy what is new when it comes out (and risk being screwed) rather than take a “wait and see” attitude, because those who do that will never buy anything? Or perhaps hes is hoping that you won’t notice that “life in the technology lane” is also about an industry that does lower prices on technology as it gets older in the market. Robert Scoble notes in his blog that this is often the case, while stating that the higher price is what you pay to get the latest toy first. But I think what hurts most about what Apple did is how soon they did it. Terrence Russell points out in his Wired blog just how he believes Apple blundered in this, and he makes some interesting points (four of them to be exact).

To add insult to injury (in my opinion) Jobs offered, to those “who [are] not receiving a rebate or any other consideration,” a $100 credit at an Apple Retail Store or the Apple Online Store. Not a $100 rebate, but a chance to give it back to Apple by buying something else from them! Can you say”Consolation Prize”?

Bob Scoble is right: paying more for something is the price you pay for getting the latest technology first. However, one should always do that with the full understanding that what happened with the iPhone can happen with any product, and it should weigh in your buying decision for any tech product. In other words, is there extra value in having it right away rather than waiting? Only you can make that decision, but in light of what happened to early iPhone purchasers, it is something that should not be overlooked.

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