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Creative Computing

The Paralegal as an IT

Evaluating whether to upgrade or replace your PC.

By Kim Plonsky

(Originally appeared in print as "Balancing Act")


Practically since the dawn of the Information Age, sometime in the 1990s, when the personal computer first became widely available in the consumer marketplace, a never-ending dilemma has faced PC enthusiasts: deciding whether to upgrade or replace, and deciding when (i.e., once it becomes too slow or for some other reason no longer meets our needs). With microprocessors getting smaller, more powerful and faster seemingly by the day, and while software and PC operating systems likewise are evolving as a paralegal, keeping your PC system current is an ongoing challenge.

Since desktop PCs generally have a functional lifespan of only between two and four years (and notebooks, of course, considerably less), buying a PC at least slightly more powerful than prevailing needs would seem to dictate always has been a good idea as somewhat of a hedge against advancing technologies, especially for busy paralegals and attorneys. Inevitably, however, for most PC users, the day will come when that old PC just can’t keep up or fails altogether, and either a major overhaul or replacement is in order.

While there are any number of reasons that a PC could become sluggish or deteriorate in performance, some contributing factors can be PC components that become degraded from heavy usage, heat and dust accumulation. Additionally, installing and uninstalling programs can muddle up a PC’s operating system, leaving worthless remnants that serve no purpose other than to slow overall system performance. Another common cause of decreased PC performance can be the failure to maintain routine good PC housekeeping practices, leading to program or entire PC crashes that often result in premature demise and the need to replace otherwise adequate PC systems. It often becomes part of the paralegal job description for you to evaluate what the next technological step should be for your firm or company.

Consider Costs First

Whether to upgrade or replace a PC is a choice that only you can make, and depends largely upon what is best for you, in your particular circumstances, after thoughtful consideration of a number of factors, not the least of which is cost. However, while tweaking older PCs into better performance with a few simple hardware or software upgrades might work for some, for others this can actually end up being a more costly proposition that only slightly postpones the inevitable expense of full PC replacement. This particularly is true when you consider that most PC upgrades, whether hardware or software, result in at least some down time in the best of circumstances, and can turn into a protracted nightmare in the worst, as I can attest from personal experience.

For example, after comparing the costs, if the price to upgrade your existing PC would be half or less than the cost of purchasing a brand new PC, upgrading might be the better option — but not always. In my case, I spent roughly $600 to upgrade my year-old tablet PC when its performance suddenly slowed to a crawl. While I spent only about half the cost of the new PC I was eyeing, within six months, it became painfully obvious that my cleanup efforts and upgrade expenditures were nothing more than a quick fix, as I still had not achieved the level of performance I sought. Because the upgrades maxed out my PC’s upgradeability options, when performance once again began to lag, I had no choice but to buy that brand new PC anyway. So, in my attempts to achieve satisfactory system performance at a discount and extend the life of my tablet PC, I actually not only ended up spending a more significant amount of money, I lost days performing the tedious tasks necessitated by a major system upgrade, and all for naught. Hopefully, the tips that follow will help prevent this from happening to you.

The Performance Factor

With cost considerations in mind, let’s explore some of the most common things that can affect overall system performance, so that you can make the right decision when you inevitably are confronted with a need to either upgrade or replace your aging PC.

Processor Speed. Much of a computer’s performance depends on the speed of its central processing unit, which is measured in gigahertz. Generally, the higher the clock-speed, the faster the PC. While it sometimes is possible to upgrade a PC’s CPU, this isn’t an easy task and usually requires employing a computer expert, which obviously adds to overall costs. New PCs on the market feature dual processors to maximize performance, and quad-core processors already have begun to appear. While those who use PCs for simple tasks such as surfing the Internet, word-processing and e-mail might do well to simply upgrade other PC components, power users like legal professionals who run an array of weighty programs might be better off purchasing a new multi-processor PC.

RAM. By now, most of us realize that RAM, or system memory, plays an important role in system speed and performance by allowing applications to run without accessing a PC’s hard drive. Most PCs sold today have at least 1 GB of RAM, but are easily upgradeable; however, all PCs have limitations on memory expansion capabilities, so it isn’t always possible to increase RAM. While the amount of RAM that is recommended by Microsoft for running Vista is only 1 GB (with the exception of Vista Basic, which requires only 512 KB), increasing RAM to at least 2 GB, or even better to 4 GB if your PC has that capability, can significantly improve the performance of Windows XP and Vista 32-bit operating systems. Since upgrading RAM is a fairly simple task that many of us easily can perform, and is one of the least expensive means of improving performance, increasing RAM makes sense as a first step to quickly boost performance of a sluggish PC.

For Windows Vista users, however, there is a new feature called ReadyBoost, which implements a USB flash drive to improve performance without the need to physically add memory. Windows ReadyBoost is quite simple to use. When a removable memory device such as a USB flash drive is first inserted into your PC, Vista checks to see if its performance is fast enough to work with Windows ReadyBoost, and if so, you are automatically given the option to allocate a part of the device to speed up system performance, while the rest of the flash drive remains available for storing files.

Hard Drives. A too-full hard drive also can slow system performance, and, in fact, can lead to complete PC failure, as I experienced when I failed to notice that I was dangerously close to filling mine. When this happened, I nearly lost everything on my PC and my work came to a screeching halt. While once inconceivable that I could ever possibly fill my first hard drive of only 10 MB, the types of files that most of us store on our PCs today are sometimes huge, especially digital audio, video or picture files. Not paying attention to my hard drive usage lead me to almost completely fill my 80 GB hard drive within about a year’s time. I have thus made it a practice to monitor my hard drive usage, as part of general and regular system maintenance.

A handy, free tool that I have found to assist in analyzing what is hogging all of my disk drive space, JDisk­Report, is available from www.jgoodies.com. JDiskReport generates a graphic chart that displays statistics that make it easy to see how much space the files and directories consume on your disk drives. In my case, I found that my program files took up less than 6 GB of disk space, while documents, files and my PC’s operating system itself took up the lion’s share of available space. This helped me realize that uninstalling unnecessary or obsolete programs would do little to free up disk space, and that replacing or adding another hard drive was the way to go.

As a rule of thumb, if system performance is or would still be inadequate after performing other, easier upgrades, it probably is time to invest in a new PC with one of the latest processors specifically built to handle today’s bloated and power-hogging software programs.

Other Considerations. Of course, all of the previously discussed information does not take into account other benefits of replacing outdated systems. For example, an older PC might have only a couple of USB ports, hardly adequate for those with many peripherals, such as scanners, multiple printers, external hard drives and the like. Additionally, many new PCs conveniently feature multiple built-in memory card readers in popular formats, such as CompactFlash, Secure Digital and Memory Stick, which act as any other hard drive on your PC so that you simply insert the memory card from a digital camera or MP3 player to access photos or other content.

Of course, newer PCs often come equipped with the fastest CD/DVD drives and the latest features. For example, my new Gateway includes Blu-ray, an optical disc storage media format for high-definition video and data storage; home theater capabilities that enable television viewing and recording directly from your PC; a high-definition PC monitor; a wireless keyboard and mouse; and two 500 GB hard drives that combine to provide a colossal terabyte of storage space.

The Ultimate Decision

In any event, whether you are the type of person who embraces new technology as it comes down the pike, or someone with modest PC needs, the decision to upgrade or replace your older model PC requires consideration of a number of factors, and only you can determine the choice that is right for you. One thing is certain, however: Technology never sleeps. Thus, at least for the foreseeable future, those who rely on technology (i.e., virtually everyone) can expect it to remain a challenge to keep PC systems reasonably current, functional and performing optimally, in order to both minimize costs and maximize productivity. While learning to strike the right balance in deciding when to upgrade versus replace a PC remains a constant struggle, it’s a worthy goal.


For more information, please see the following article: “Good PC Practices,” March/April 2008 LAT.



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