Plot a path to laptop land

Kevin Mackay looks at the points to ponder before you splash out on that computer

Lawyers in Bird & Bird, use laptops for presentations – which may include multimedia and the Internet – working directly on legal documents in the office with clients, and other lawyers, and for keeping in contact with the main office while working abroad. But their requirements are unlikely to end there.

Access to information while on the move is increasingly

important and was seen as a key issue in a recent review of IT strategy. As part of this review, the firm took the chance to re-evaluate its use of laptop computers and evaluate the latest market offerings.

We defined what laptop features we needed to do business now and in the future. The emphasis was on the features

because reviewing computers in isolation is not a particularly fruitful exercise. We needed to find a laptop that could support all the communication, presentation and output technologies. For example, getting a laptop to work in China or India is a world away from plugging up in a London office with an IT department on hand. So, we were looking for reliability, ease of configuration and PC Cards (the industry-standard interface for connecting peripherals such as modems and printers to laptops) that didn't overheat – to name a few of the minor issues easily overlooked. And we were also looking at the future to identify products that could capitalise on some of the enhanced communications services we intend to employ as part of the updated IT strategy.

After reading many of the latest reviews in the computer press, we chose to look at the products from four leading suppliers – the AST Ascentia J, the Compaq Elite 5200, the NEC 4080H and the Toshiba Tecra and Satellite Pro series. The evaluations included using them, seeing how well our standard applications worked, carrying out some remote

connection tests via modem and mobile phone links and running multimedia demos to determine sound and screen qualities.

We talked to the suppliers about the support network, reliability and delivery of the computers, and assessed the products' position in their strategic plans.

This first process of evaluation demonstrated that each product has its strengths and weaknesses. These include technical issues – insufficient PC Card slots, poor quality sound output and overheating modem cards – more practical matters such as weight and screen size, and strategic

and commercial issues such

as the ability to upgrade.

Each of the products tested fell foul of at least one of these criteria, but our decision

provided the best for our needs.

Our priority was the ability of the laptop to integrate well with other technologies – internal and external networks, electronic messaging services, mobile telephony services etc. We do not see laptops, or for that matter any other computer facility, as being a technological island in the future. The 'best' laptop is the one which meets individual requirements at the time the market is reviewed. We chose the Toshiba Tecra range but will continue to monitor the market as products emerge; the Compaq Armada range is not available in the UK yet but looks impressive.

The two important points when selecting a laptop are to clearly understand what you want to use the computer for – only then can you select the right product – and to find out where the product is in its

life cycle and the supplier's strategic plans for the future.

Technology is a fast-moving market and if you do not make a wise choice, the products you buy today may not be compatible with their replacements in the future. But it is an important area to get involved in and at last lawyers on the move can access the information they need to communicate with clients and peers more easily.

Kevin Mackay is IT manager at Bird & Bird.