As legal computing matures, we no longer need to buy expensive cutting edge equipment merely to do basic law office tasks. Instead, our focus increasingly turns toward buying the most cost-effective computing systems, which I define as the most “bang for the buck.”
Any system that is cost-effective must first be effective. There’s little sense in economizing to the point that your system cannot effectively perform all tasks required of it. Your accountant might be happy but you will not.
So, what’s cost-effective? Probably not the fastest CPU available or game quality video performance. Indeed, optimizing the performance of existing computer systems, increasing hard disk performance and deploying good peripherals are more important to improving reliability and productivity and are a better buy as well. In this article, I’ll discuss how you can optimize both your existing computing hardware and also your hardware purchases.
One of the best, and least expensive, ways to improve the performance of your existing computer systems is to update the driver software that is the critical interface between your hardware and the operating system. The generic driver software that ships with Windows XP and W2K often saps 30 percent or more of potential performance. Use the Windows Update feature and your vendor’s web sites to ensure that you have the latest driver software, but beware of any “beta” software. In that instance, you’re basically a guinea pig for the manufacturer to test not-quite-ready products and will likely encounter reliability problems.
The fastest CPUs cost far more than entry level processors but provide only minimal benefit. Consider the chart below. Even the lowly AMD Athlon XP 2800+, which is about to be discontinued by AMD, is only about 25 percent slower, in terms of raw CPU performance, than AMD’s top of the line 64-bit Athlon 64 FX-55. The price difference, however, is phenomenal - the FX-55 chip is nearly nine times as expensive, about $880 for the CPU alone when the price was last checked.
Hard disks, however, are a different story. Unlike incremental differences in CPU performance, hard disk speed varies a great deal and is the single most critical factor in cost-effective computing. The price spread between average and top-end desktop hard disks is only about $120 - here is an area where spending a little more money can result in very noticeable improvements. The generic Western Digital 7200 rpm drive below left is typical of average hard disks in average desktop computers. Decent performance, but not spectacular. The 36 GB 10000 rpm Western Digital SATA Raptor drive, center, is about 20 percent faster, a good boost but probably not worth the additional $50 purchase price and hassle of reinstalling the operating system and application programs. However, Western Digital’s top end 10000 rpm SATA drive, the 74 GB WD-740GD Raptor SATA drive really flies. It’s about 60 percent faster than the generic 7200 rpm drive but costs about $120 more. Assuming a very modern motherboard that efficiently connects with this drive, you will likely find the performance improvement worth the extra cost and reinstallation hassle, particularly if included in a new computer system. Here’s an example of where spending a little more money for a top-end hard disks provides more performance gain, and is more cost-effective, than spending hundreds of dollars more for a faster CPU.
Disk defragmenting programs likewise are not equal. The defragmenting programs that ship as a Windows XP system accessory is barely adequate. Norton SystemWorks 2005 provides somewhat better defragmenting but the large “common core applications” loaded by Norton between the Windows operating system and application programs seem to be a drag upon overall system performance and seem to increase the probability of system lockups, at least on my system. The most effective disk defragmenter that I’ve found is Executive Software’s Diskeeper, which is purchased over the Internet and does not introduce extraneous software. Here’s the maximum hard disk performance that I found among disk defragmenting programs:
In my tests, substituting a less-intrusive anti-virus program, in this instance Panda, for Norton SystemWorks increased overall system performance almost as much as installing a faster CPU. Using Grisoft AVG instead of Panda results in a similar performance improvement.
Believe it or not, different versions of Windows have a marked effect on computer system performance, particularly critical hard disk performance. Windows 2000 and Windows XP with Service Pack 2 are the fastest. If you’re using XP Service Pack 1, consider upgrading to SP2. Be aware, though, that not all application programs work flawlessly with XP SP2. In most instances, though, the software vendor will offer a free compatible update on the web.
I found that Windows XP’s default disk settings are already optimal and cannot be altered nor reset once changed inside XP. The net result is hard disk performance that is permanently degraded, at least until you reinstall Windows XP.
How Much Do Faster Systems Matter? Not that much. The general rule of thumb is that anything less than a 50 percent overall improvement will not be significant in most applications. Consider the chart below. The Athlon XP2800 system is an entry level system although built with a 36 GB Western Digital Raptor SATA hard disk whose fast performance increased overall system performance about 14 percent. The Athlon XP 3200 system used the same hard disk but a somewhat faster processor and faster memory bus. The XP3200 has, at best, about a 12 percent overall performance advantage on the XP2800. The Athlon 64 3500+ is representative of the fastest desktop system that might make economic sense in a legal office. It costs nearly twice as much but is only about 25 percent faster than the entry level 2800+ computer. All of these systems are capable of performing exactly the same functions - the only difference is how fast they can accomplish these tasks, and their cost.
The above charts are derived from tests made using a general purpose benchmark program. How do these results correlate with real law office situations? Adobe Acrobat Professional is among the most demanding programs that most lawyers are likely to use and formatting a long document for printing is among the most time-consuming Acrobat tasks. In the first test, I printed an 893-page Acrobat 6 document containing mixed text and graphic discovery responses. By printing to a network file server cache across a one-gigabit network, I was able to greatly minimize all variables except CPU and memory performance. Notice that there is no difference in the printing times for the XP2800 and XP3200 systems and only about a 17 percent decrease in printing time for the currently expensive high-end Athlon 64 3500+ system.
In a second correlative test, I used Acrobat Professional version 7 to OCR and index a lengthy Acrobat document. Here, we see a slight benefit to using the Athlon XP 3200+ while the 64-bit Athlon 64 3500+ is about 33 percent faster, a useful improvement if you tend to work with very large Acrobat files on a regular basis.
Cost effectiveness is a rapidly moving target, particularly as AMD and to a lesser extent Intel introduces new processor versions every few months. In legal computing, though, one size does not fit all. For undemanding tasks such as word processing, checking Email and most spreadsheet work, even an inexpensive entry level system based upon an AMD Athlon XP2800+ is quite adequate, particularly when coupled with a fast hard disk. For many law office purposes, such as voice recognition or simple scanning, you’re better off buying an adequately fast but less expensive system and spending the difference on peripherals that really make a difference, such as a DSP headset for voice recognition and a better scanner. If your existing computer systems perform at least on par with AMD Athlon 2800+ or Intel Pentium 3.06GHz computers, then it is probably not cost-effective to upgrade them in the near future.
As you can see from the chart below, system prices (shown in the blue graphs in dollars) increase far more rapidly than the expected performance from more expensive systems, shown in magenta. I believe that this may be partly due to some inherent inefficiencies in current Windows operating system technologies and to the residual limitations of current hardware standards.
If you truly have immediate high end computing requirements for tasks such as processing video depositions, searching across massive document databases or using Adobe Acrobat 7 for text-searchable scanning using automatic text recognition, then buying a high end system now may be not only more effective but also more efficient in the long run. It is worth remembering, though, that buying technology remains quite different from buying a car. Deferring for six months any purchase that is not immediately necessary makes good sense both economically and technically. That is particularly true now because we seem to have reached an equilibrium point for the next year or two in legal computing software demands.
Computer components, with the notable exception of the Windows operating system, tend to drop rapidly in price over a year or so after introduction even as the same products mature and become more stable and reliable. Hence, what was the expensive high end Athlon XP 2800+ processor in late 2003 now nears discontinuation as it becomes obsolescent. Seventeen-inch flat panel screens that hovered around $450 in late 2004 now sell in the $240 - $300 range, making them a far better value. For the same total purchase, you can now replace twice as many old CRT monitors with flat panels.
The price-performance gap is even wider for notebook computers. Largely because of the smaller, slower hard disks installed in notebook systems and the additional costs of miniaturized, lower volume components, notebook computers are not yet a cost-effective replacement for upgradeable desktop computer systems.
For now, I believe that the most sensible course is to objectively evaluate whether existing systems provide sufficient performance and whether gaining an additional ten percent or twenty percent performance is worth doubling your purchase costs. After all, the expensive high end system that you buy today will be an entry level system in six months.
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.