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Common Computing Crises, Causes, and Cures( C5 )
by Joseph L. Kashi, M.S., J.D.
February 2005

I’ll be the first to agree that the title for this article is a descriptive but boring headline for those ubiquitous computing-related frustrations and outbursts that, under other circumstances, might be the basis for an insanity plea...or at least result in a 72-hour psychiatric observation commitment. My wife, a psychologist, quipped that modern computing remained “C to the Fifth.” “You need to plead the fifth,” she said, “to avoid admitting to what you said and did in front of your child during your computing-induced crisis blackout.”

We’ve been spoiled by computer hardware and operating systems that are far more capable and reliable than those of even five years ago. However, there’s one drawback - we’re more likely to overlook mundane computer system upgrades and maintenance that keep our systems healthy, user-friendly, and fast rather than degenerating into C3 ( Crashes, Chaos, and Crisis).

Not being content to reflect merely upon my own computing shortcomings, I did a thoroughly unscientific survey of three or four users and one computer store owner. Here are some thoughts about some minor and not so minor computing irritations that sap our productivity. Some of these can be corrected with a simple change in a system setting. Others require inexpensive hardware upgrades.

Caution: Some of the system tweaks can cause operating system or hardware damage if you don’t know what you’re doing. Don’t try them at home unless you know what you’re doing, have kept a good full system backup, and have the technical ability to get any errant system back on track! If you’re not sure, then ask an experienced computer technician to do them, if he or she believes them to be appropriate.

1. My computer runs too slowly:

A. Defragment your hard disk using the basic Microsoft Windows defragmenter found under Start, accessories, system tools, disk defragmenter. Hard disk file fragmentation (remember that?) still causes major degradation of system performance over time, no matter how fast your processor. In fact, defragmenting your hard disk will improve overall computer performance more than upgrading your processor and system board. Microsoft’s defragmenting program is inefficient, though. Try a Diskeeper download.

B. Check your Control Panel, System, Hardware, disk drives, to be sure that your hard disks are running in UDMA mode rather than the old, slow PIO mode. PIO is very slow compared to UDMA file access modes. If your hard disk doesn’t have even basic UDMA capabilities, then replace the hard disk. It’s probably old enough to cause reliability concerns.

C. Add RAM if your Windows 2000 or XP system does not have at least 512 megabytes. If possible, replace the DRAM complete with matched memory modules that are certified to be at least as fast the fastest Front Side Bus (FSB) speed of the system board and processor. (Here’s a paradox: fast DDR400 PC3200 memory is often less expensive than older, slower memory! Memory rated for a higher speed will work at lower FSB speeds and have an extra margin of reliability to boot.) There’s no way to work around an inadequate amount of DDR memory except to add more memory and it’s the single best way to improve the performance of an underequipped system. If your system board uses a chipset that provides “dual channel” memory capability, be sure to install the DDR memory sticks only in the designated paired slots. Check your system board manual for installation instructions and diagrams.

D. Be sure that your system BIOS is properly set for optimum performance. Do this only if you are both experienced at BIOS setup and also have the manual for your system board immediately available. If you make a mistake, your system may not boot and you’ll need to refer to the system board manual for instructions about how to clear the BIOS and reset it to the defaults. Your system board BIOS controls the speed of every important system component. For example, you can set DDR memory timing and voltage (hint - raising the DDR memory voltage from 2.5V to 2.6V is usually safe and typically allows the memory to run noticeably faster - do this at your own risk, though - no guarantees). Your BIOS will probably have a user-selectable high performance option. Even that is not optimum but a good first start toward tweaking. The newest nVidia nForce4 Ultra and nForce4 SLI chipsets for the high performance AMD 64-bit Athlon64 processors contain a software program that automatically adjusts the processor and system board setup for the best possible performance and reliability.

E. Swap the CPU and DDR memory for the fastest versions that your computer can handle. Most computers have system boards that can use processors and memory that are faster than what you already have installed. For example, the ASUS A7N8X-E system board installed in my daughter’s computer had an older and relatively inefficient Athlon 1800 and 266MB DDR memory installed. It was neither difficult nor time-consuming to swap out that old CPU and DDR memory for a 2800+ Athlon XP and 512 MB of high performance low latency PC2700 (DDR333) memory. You can do this, with a modicum of hardware knowledge, in about 7-8 minutes and the performance improvement was dramatic. The cost for a 2800+ Athlon XP CPU and 512 MB of matching memory was about $176. Check the Web site of your computer or system board manufacturer to see what upgraded processors are usable on your system and whether a BIOS upgrade is necessary. Most manufacturers now provide relatively easy and automated BIOS upgrades, but again, do this ONLY if you are experienced, know what you’re doing, and follow all directions exactly. Be sure that you make a backup of the prior BIOS to a floppy disk in case you need to revert.

F. Reduce the color depth of your video card from 32 bit (16.7 million colors) to 32,768 or 65,536 colors. You’ll never notice the difference on your monitor unless you’re doing professional graphics. Right click on any part of the Windows desktop, choose properties, and then settings.

G. Use a different anti-virus solution. Anti-virus operations are critical but really drain computing system performance. Not all anti-virus solutions are created equal. After I experienced a problem with Norton 2005, I uninstalled the entire program, which includes many hidden modules, and tried both Panda Anti-Virus and Grisoft AVG anti-virus, two of several competing products recommended on the Microsoft security Web site. Both of these are just as efficient as Norton at catching all common infections, but places a noticeably lighter overall load upon my system. I saw a nearly 10 percent documented performance gain after I uninstalled the Norton products and installed Grisoft. Your mileage, of course, may vary.

H. Many Windows programs load services and other program snippets into memory where they remain whenever your system is turned on. Just about every software vendor seems to believe that your experience with their product will be unsatisfactory unless you load these “services.” Often, they’re not only unnecessary but suck up DRAM memory and overall system performance. Even though some install icons on the lower right side of the task bar where you can unload or exit them, many “services” can be found only by more minute examination. In Windows XP, go to Windows Task Manager (hold down Control- Alt-Delete) and select the Processes tab. That will show you which software is loaded and how much memory and CPU capacity it absorbs. You can test selective service shut-down (pun intended) by trying to end various processes on a one-time to see what difference they will make. Some but not all processes either will not shut down or cannot be safely shut down and attempting to exit these processes will result in an error message. Other critical processes such as Explorer or svchost will exit but will immediately cause a harmless system shutdown. Definitely keep some notes when you start this testing process. To adjust which services load on start-up, go to the Start menu, administrative tools, services option. You can then see which services load automatically. Be very careful about changing the start-up status of any basic system services, because you may affect system stability and usability. Be sure that you first test any proposed service alteration by first testing the change in Task Manager, processes, exit process. As with BIOS setup, don’t try this at home unless you know what you’re doing, have kept a good full system backup, and have the technical ability to get any errant system back on track!

2. My printer takes too much time on long documents

I have transitioned to a digital law office where paper has been banished wherever possible and PDF files used as the primary file system and the expensive photocopier is hardly used at all. One result was that slow printing of large PDF files used to be a tremendous irritation and productivity drain until I implemented the steps noted below.

A. Microsoft’s print spooler has always been a drain upon desktop computer performance. Even the print spooler in Windows XP seems to suck up nearly all available CPU cycles, even on very fast high end systems. Even with a top-end 64-bit Athlon 3500+ system, a Gigabyte of DDR400 memory and a 25 ppm HP LaserJet 2300 printer, printing a lengthy PDF file directly from my computer to a directly attached LJ2300 is glacially slow, on the order of “Waiting for Godot”. It was so slow that I considered spending over $1,000 for a faster printer. I then discovered much better, and far less expensive, solutions.

B. You can change the priority of your printer in control panel, printers, (choose printer to be adjusted), then menu item printer, properties, advanced, priority. Give your printer a higher priority if documents are printing out too slowly or a lower priority if printing essentially disables your computer from doing other useful work simultaneously.

C. Try printing through your network. Many networks are better suited to printing than your Windows system. Novell NetWare, even eight- and nine-year-old versions, is significantly faster. In order to print using your network, you’ll need to attach a printer to your network in a manner that allows the printer to be recognized as a network element. In order to do this, you’ll need an inexpensive device called a “print server.” I use the Edimax print servers purchased for about $60 each from www.zipzoomfly.com. These are small, unobtrusive, and easy to set up. My LJ 2300 printer is still in my office and used only by me, but I now print directly through my Novell network. I can start a 300 or 400 page long print job of a PDF discovery file and not worry about anything except running out of paper.


Edimax 3 port Print Server

D. Get a modern printer. You’d be surprised how many law offices are still using slow inkjet printers for printing everything rather than only color output when needed. As a result, their cost per page is more than you might imagine. A modern laser printer costs perhaps $650 and prints both standard output and Postscript at up to 25 pages per minute at a relatively low cost per page. This is particularly important as you move toward a digital filing system where all documents are stored in electronic form and printed out only when copies are needed. You’ll need color output from time to time, particularly for digital photos and exhibits (you are doing these, aren’t you?). A fast four cartridge USB color printer such as the HP Business DeskJet 1100 costs under $250 and gives excellent and fast multi-page color output at a reasonable cost per page. I attached both a LaserJet 2300 BW printer and a Business DeskJet 1100 to my own desktop computer and found that I was definitely more productive as I moved toward digital law office.


LaserJet 2300 and Business Inkjet 1100 Printers

3. Backing up data is expensive and unreliable.

You need to back up your data every day. If you don’t, then you’re flirting with disaster and malpractice. Unfortunately, traditional backup tape drives are expensive, slow, and relatively low in capacity, certainly not matching the capacity of most modern hard disk. You need to do a total backup daily, not an incremental backup, each evening as you leave for home. Now that most recording keeping is computerized, major data loss is the equivalent of a fire. There is a less expensive and much less irritating way to back up your data. Use a portable USB 2.0 hard disk and run the backup program included in both Windows 2000 and Windows XP Professional.

These work with both local and networked hard disks. The cost will be perhaps 20-40 percent of a tape drive solution while providing much greater capacity and speed, with far less hassle and difficulty. You can even get backup systems that fit in your shirt pocket and require no separate power supply. Many computer stores sell tiny USB enclosures into which you simply insert a standard 2.5" notebook computer hard disk of your choice. I use a 60 MB Toshiba with a 16 MB buffer for best performance. Power is drawn from the USB port. Total cost per system is under $180.


60 GB USB Pocket Hard Disk (without USB cable)

3. Clean up your hard disk

An amazing number of junk files accumulate on your hard disk over time, particularly old temporary Internet and cache files. When I recently cleaned up my own hard disk, I found hundreds of unnecessary Internet cookies and other clutter and thousands of cache files. In Internet Explorer, go to these menu items, tools, Internet Options, general, Temporary Internet files, also History. Selectively delete “cookies” - hint, if you clear all of them, you’ll experience problems re-entering and using many sites. Delete all old temporary files. Retain only a few days in history and, if you have broadband Internet service such as DSL or cable, then set the amount of local hard disk storage for Internet files as low as possible. Retaining already used Internet files is a vestige of slow modem days and seriously clutters your computer.

You should also try to eliminate all unnecessary duplicate files. Doing so not only reduces hard disk clutter but also makes it easier to find the latest version of whatever you need. Download a duplicate file finding utility. I use LD.EXE, a DOS utility that also works across my network and checks by name, file size, and content.

Finding a particular file can be a real hassle, particularly if you try to use the file find utility shipped with Windows. It does work but there are much better. Google now ships a really fast utility that searches your local hard disk and E-mail. It’s free and the initial security holes will likely be remedied by TECHSHOW. dtSearch is a commercial text searching product that indexes both local and network hard disks and allows “fuzzy” and synonym searching. This is a very powerful and useful product, particularly when you are not sure exactly what you’re searching for. You can get a trial version at www.dtsearch.com.

4. My voice recognition is not worth the hassle

Voice recognition software always seems to be the next big thing in law office automation yet rarely satisfies. I have found several fixes that, while not inexpensive, work extremely well and finally fulfill the unrequited promise of voice dictation. Dragon Naturally Speaking 8 works extremely well, even with only a minimal amount of voice training. The program allows you to create voice commands that include a great deal of text which retains its original formatting, a major benefit that eluded other major programs such as IBM ViaVoice. For example, you can use the voice term “Jones caption” and bring up the complete caption, then position your cursor and use the voice command “standard rear end discovery” to fill in most of the rest of your document. First, I would definitely upgrade to Dragon 8. However, the analog Andrea mike that ships with Dragon 8 is not the best for highest accuracy. I substituted a Plantronics DSP-500 digital signal processing USB headset ($69.00 from zipzoomfly.com) and it works faster and more accurately. ViaVoice Pro shipped with a Plantronics DSP headset, at least when IBM was still selling it directly, and the DSP processing definitely helped accuracy. The only problem seems to be Dragon 8 sometimes cannot easily adjust the DSP headset volume, unlike ViaVoice. For best results, I would urge a change-over to a DSP headset. That seems particularly true given that the slightly lower end Plantronics 100 and 300 series should still be available for $30 - $50 retail. DSP definitely seems faster and more accurate than analog conversion through the sound chip.


Plantronics DSP-500 USB headset

5. General Security

A. Run a firewall program. Most comprehensive utility program suites now ship with workable firewall programs and they’re relatively easy to use once properly configured. However, if you find that you’re having periodic odd problems with Internet or network access, it’s probably a mis-configured firewall program. Uninstall and then re-install it, checking for correct configuration. Windows XP Service Pack 2 includes a software firewall and other security enhancements. There is no good reason to run both a hardware firewall and a software firewall. I prefer to use a basic Internet hardware router for all high speed Internet access and enable the hardware firewall built into these routers. Routers now cost about $60 or so. Be sure to change the default password, though! It’s usually published on the vendor’s Internet site.

B. Enable address translation and access controls on any Internet routers. Most law offices now access the Internet through an office network that connects in turn to DSL or another broadband method of Internet access. Connecting a network to the Internet requires hardware called a router, which may be supplied by your Internet Service Provider or which you might purchase on your own. In either case, almost all routers - even the least expensive - now provide for address translation and access controls, method of hiding your actual Internet address from prying eyes and reducing your vulnerability to hacking. Contact your Internet Service Provider’s technical support for assistance in configuring your router to provide the best balance of security and ease of use.

C. Avoid for now any wireless networking or Internet sharing of any sort - these are inherently insecure because of a fundamental flaw in the WEP encryption scheme used with current Wireless Internet versions. Worse, the intrusions will be undetectable and easy to accomplish using free Wireless hacking software readily available on the Internet. New wireless networking hardware based upon the 802.11i standard should start showing up in the next several months and should be far more secure. Until then, avoid prying eyes.

D. Use Windows Update to download improved versions of Internet Explorer and Outlook Express. Many computers are still running version 5 of these programs. Upgrading is free and easy. If you don’t like Internet Explorer and Outlook Express, then try the public freeware Mozilla browser. It’s fast, stable, and includes all major Internet services and functions.

E. Use Windows Update to get the latest Service Pack for your operating system. Service Packs, which are periodic comprehensive updates and corrective software, tend to solve a lot of annoying Windows problems.

F. Use Windows Update to install critical security fixes to your operating system. Windows contains many vulnerabilities, most of which are exploited by hackers from time to time. This is now a common problem for law offices but fixes are free and easy to install.

G. Add industrial grade surge protection for every piece of hardware connected in any way to your network. Modern processors are so fast in part because the processor’s transistors are built to extremely small dimensions. It doesn’t take much of a static jolt to bridge a .13 micron gap and ruin the processor. Replace surge protectors whenever the indicator light no longer shines brightly. Use surge protectors rated for the highest Joule rating that you can find. Nothing is as annoying as a fried system.

H. Use uninterruptible power supplies on every network file server, without question, and on every desktop computer that accesses a database program such as your accounting, time and billing and litigation support applications. Even a momentarily power blip that causes the reboot of a network file server or desktop computer running a database can result in major data loss and enough damage to render a database unusable. And, be sure that the UPS battery is still working. These deteriorate over time.

6. Scanning’s a Drag - Literally

If you’re moving away from paper and toward a digital law office, then you need to scan your documents quickly and efficiently. Unfortunately, most inexpensive scanners do this so poorly as to become “shelf-ware” rather than hardware. I’ve found that the best approach is for each lawyer and clerical staff to have their own “convenience” scanner and to scan on the spot. The best that I’ve found is the Fujitsu fx5110, which costs about $500 list price and scans directly into Adobe Acrobat. The Fujitsu comes with a licensed copy of Acrobat Standard version and has a lot of neat features like auto color detection, auto page straightening, double-sided scanning, 15 to 30 page per minute scanning rate, and automatic blank page rejection. However, if you want to use programs other than Acrobat or scan large quantities of documents, such as discovery, then you’ll need another scanner. I personally like the Xerox 252 and 262 heavy duty scanners for these heavier demands.


Fujitsu ScanSnap 5110


Joe Kashi is an attorney and litigator living in Soldotna, Alaska, who is active in the Law Practice Management Section and a technology editor for Law Practice Today. He has written regularly on legal technology for the Law Practice Management Section, Law Office Computing magazine and other publications since 1990. He received his B.S. and M.S. degrees from MIT in 1973 and his J.D. from Georgetown University in 1976, and is admitted to practice in Alaska, Pennsylvania, the Ninth Circuit, and the U.S. Supreme Court.