Brett Burney is the Legal Technology Support Coordinator at Thompson Hine in Cleveland, Ohio. He regularly reviews products for Law.com’s Automated Lawyer and Law Office Computing Magazine. Feel free to e-mail Brett with your legal-technology questions at [email protected].
Welcome to my Legal Tech Reviews . I’m excited to begin this monthly column and I look forward to reviewing some great products and discussing issues that are relevant to technology used in legal environments.
This first month might seem a little lopsided towards Microsoft as I review the new optical mice from Microsoft Hardware and the discuss Windows XP. While I don’t work for Microsoft or anything, I do realize that anytime you discuss the great giant from Redmond, it will directly touch the greater number of readers.
The Computer Mouse Comes of Age
The computer mouse was created in the dawn of the computing age as an efficient tool for human/computer interaction. Unlike everything else in the world of technology, the computer mouse has virtually kept the same design and function – a mouse with two buttons, a tail, and a little rubber ball to move the cursor. Perhaps its time to change that.
From the Old to the New
One of the most significant technologies for computer mice in the last few years has revolved around the word “optical.” If you turn an old, conventional computer mouse upside down, you’ll discover a small rubber ball protruding from the bottom. When you use an older mouse, the ball moves two rollers inside the mouse that translate the movements of the mouse into corresponding movements of your pointer on your computer screen. These movements are sent to the computer via the computer mouse’s “tail” – the wire from the mouse to the computer.
No matter how careful you are in your computer mousing activities, the old style rubber balls will eventually gather dust and gunk. This is remedied only by the tedious process of removing the ball, cleaning it, and then using Q-Tips to clean the rollers inside of the mouse. If the notion of taking apart a piece of your computer is a frightening prospect, then the newest offerings of Optical Mice from Microsoft might just be your saving grace.
I have been using optical mice from Microsoft from the first month they were introduced in 1998. Instead of a rubber ball to track the movement of your hand and pointer, optical mice use a tiny digital camera inside the mouse to takes “snapshots” of the surface that the mouse moves upon. The “cool” factor is very prevalent with these new optical mice because in order for the camera to take accurate pictures of the surface it’s moving on, a red LED is used to light the surface and produces a nice red glow underneath your hand. While the old rubber ball mice required a mouse pad to operate properly, optical mice can operate on any kind of surface except those that are very glossy or mirrored.
One of the first optical mice that Microsoft released was the “IntelliMouse Explorer.” The mouse’s appearance was very odd and unconventional because of it’s unique shape to make it more ergonomic. While the IntelliMouse Explorer was indeed more comfortable for those of use who use a mouse all day long, it was only designed for right-handers.
|For our fearless leftys, the IntelliMouse Optical was introduced with a symmetrical design which functions well for whichever hand you choose to use.|
Most of Microsoft’s optical mice feature two additional buttons besides the normal two on top of the mouse. While some people might find these extra buttons unnecessary, it really is a fantastic innovation. For example, you can use the extra two buttons for the “back” and “forward” buttons in your Internet browser. That way, instead of moving your mouse all the way up to hit the back button in the browser’s upper left hand corner, you can simply click the additional button on the mouse. And with the newest version of Microsoft’s IntelliMouse Software, you can assign the buttons different functions for different programs.
Last but not least, all of Microsoft’s optical mice feature a “wheel” on the top of the mouse. This wheel can be moved up and down to scroll through a document or Web page on your computer instead of clicking on those little arrow buttons or slider bars.
New Additions to the Family
Microsoft’s optical mice have been very successful and once you use one, you’ll never want to go back to a gunk-attracting conventional mouse. Microsoft has improved upon their optical mouse line and introduced two new additions to the mouse family. The first is an improved IntelliMouse Explorer and the second is the Wireless IntelliMouse Explorer.
The improved IntelliMouse Explorer is truly great. The earlier model was only capable of taking 1,500 “pictures-per-second” of the surface the mouse was moving upon. The new version can take upwards of 6,000 per second with the improved IntelliEye Optical Technology. I was able to tell the difference in accuracy immediately after installing the mouse. The mouse reacts to my slightest hand movements and I really appreciate that kind of responsiveness.
In addition, the improved IntelliMouse Explorer has a slimmer design than the original model and it feels a lot better under my hand. My hand is better supported which also adds to the accuracy of mouse movement. The wheel feels a little more firmer to the touch and the whole mouse responds perfectly to any action that I desire.
The brand new “Wireless IntelliMouse Explorer” is phenomenal – the freedom of a computer mouse without wires and the accuracy of Microsoft’s IntelliEye Optical Technology. Since the actual mouse is wireless, the body of the mouse holds two AA batteries which adds only slightly to the weight of the mouse. The mouse communicates with the computer by radio frequencies via a small receiver base which connects to your computer’s USB port. Once installed, you simply press the “connect” button (on both the receiver base and bottom of the mouse) to make sure the mouse and receiver base are talking to each other. If you get any kind of interference with other wireless products in your home such as a cordless phone, Microsoft included a second radio frequency channel for the Wireless mouse that you can switch to. You can use the mouse up to 6 feet away from the receiver base without any problems.
The Wireless IntelliMouse Explorer has a very intelligent design with slight “grooves” in the sides to provide a pinch grip for your thumb and third or pinkie finger. Battery life should be great since Microsoft included a sensor in the mouse that can tell when your hand is not laying on top of the mouse. This allows the mouse to go into a power-saving mode until you “wake it up” again for the next use.
Once You Go Optical, You’ll Never Go Back
If you haven’t figured it out already, I highly recommend trading in your old computer mouse for an updated optical mouse. And while there are other great companies like Logitech Inc. that produce optical mice, I’ve found that the Microsoft models work best within the Windows environment.
The only major complaint from everyone I’ve read or talked to is the price – Microsoft charges around $55 for the regular IntelliMouse Explorer and $75 for the Wireless model. But these are some great quality products and it still is Microsoft so you’re almost expected to pay just a little more. I just happen to think that it’s worth it.
In the world of computers, the Windows operating system is the great common denominator. With Windows booting up around 98% of the world’s computers, everyone gets exposed to the OS even if they’re a die-hard Apple fan or Linux user. Regardless of the latest antitrust brouhaha and your personal feelings towards Microsoft, Windows XP is here and its time to look at its usefulness for legal environments
A “Windows” to the Past
Many years ago on a PC far, far away, Microsoft released Windows 3.1 which was based upon DOS. In very simplistic terms, Microsoft placed graphical “windows” on the underlying DOS to make computers a little easier to use and understand. Windows became the GUI (graphical user interface) on top of the DOS kernel.
When Microsoft introduced Windows 95 to the computing world, the OS was revolutionary but was still built upon trusty ol’ DOS. The same goes for Windows 98. This is why Windows NT was introduced – Microsoft developed a new OS kernel with NT which was much more stable and designed for computer systems like network servers that needed to run for long periods of time without presenting a problem.
Windows Me (which stands for “Millennium Edition”) was for the most part a very fancy upgrade to Windows 98 and the DOS-based kernel.
Since Windows NT became so popular, mainly because of its stability and reliability, Microsoft sort of converted the NT line into Windows 2000. While NT was known mostly for computers in large networking environments, Windows 2000 brought the stability of NT to the personal computer desktop. This made many people happy, including myself. (For a great, short history on Windows please visit http://members.fortunecity.com/pcmuseum/windows.htm.)
All that brings us to the “ultimate XPerience” of Windows XP. One of the reasons Microsoft went with “XP” for “experience” was because the past experiences with thier older operating systems showed Microsoft that users wanted the security, reliability, and stability of Windows NT, but they also wanted the cool multimedia features and gaming possibilities of Windows 95, 98, and Me. And that’s exactly what XP offers to the world of Windows.
Windows 98 (and 95 for that matter) was notorious for giving users the Blue Screen of Death (BSOD) which reported an ominous error message and froze up the computer, no matter what you were working on. With Windows 2000 and XP, Microsoft has done a fantastic job of keeping your computer system stable when it encounters an unrecoverable problem. When I do get an error in 2000 or XP (which is seldom), Windows usually just shuts down the particular program that originated the problem and I’m free to continue working on the computer without a dreadful BSOD that would require me to reboot.
Now this isn’t to say that Windows XP couldn’t cough up a hairball every now and then. XP is not completely crash-proof, but the crashes are much less likely.
Other major bonuses with Windows XP include the faster boot-up time. This is another advantage of the DOS-less environment. You don’t get the “instant-on” like on a Palm Pilot or anything, but boot-up and re-boot time for a computer running Windows XP is slightly faster which of course allows everyone to be slightly more productive! (Tongue in cheek.)
On a quick side-note, being DOS-less means that those ancient DOS-based programs may not function in Windows XP. For example, it is reported that the old standby WordPerfect 5.1 will not operate in XP.
Activate or Die
The biggest bellyaching that I’ve heard surrounding the release of Windows XP has been about the idea of “activation.” Microsoft has always required users to register their copy of Windows but using XP will require you to perform the additional task of “activating” your copy. If you don’t do this within 30 days, the computer will lock up until you provide an activation code that comes straight from computer gods at Microsoft.
I was very leery of this process myself until I actually installed my copy of Windows XP. The activation was quick and painless and I elected not to send any additional personal information to Microsoft except for my location as being the United States.
The whole process of “activation” is designed to thwart piracy of illegal copies of Windows XP (although the technology has already been cracked). While this is a good and noble reason to have legitimate users of XP jump through another hoop, this also means that you can’t install your copy of Windows XP on more than one laptop and desktop computer at a time. And while this has angered a lot of people, this limitation has actually been a staple of every End User License Agreement (EULA) of Windows that people have agreed to when they install Windows.
You’ll only have to face the activation game if you purchase individual copies of Windows XP – volume licensing for XP works a little different.
A great feature included in Windows XP that I believe will appeal to legal professionals is ClearType. For some time now, Bill Gates has led Microsoft on a quest to make text on a computer screen more like text on paper. The latest embodiment of this quest is the ClearType technology – bundled in Windows XP.
ClearType is intended more for LCD monitors – such as flat-panel displays and notebook PC screens. The effect of ClearType is sort of hard to describe – one of those “you gotta see it to believe it” sort of things. I would say that ClearType makes text and fonts on your computer a little “fuzzy,” but I hesitate to use that word since the text becomes so much easier to read and view. You have to manually turn on the ClearType option in Windows XP, but once you do, you’ll never switch back to the “standard” typeface scheme.
If you are a legal professional that spends large amounts of your time staring at your computer screen all day, the ClearType feature in Windows XP will make your eyes dance with joy.
The other feature of Windows XP that I would focus on from a legal perspective would just be the already discussed stability of the OS. As more law firms and legal organizations incorporate the use of e-mail, Internet, instant messaging, and even video-conferencing into their cyber-repertoire, the underlying OS must be rock-solid.
Is There an Upgrade in Your Future?
Everyone wants to know if it is necessary to upgrade to Windows XP. The answer, of course, as I learned in law school, is “it depends.”
You probably haven’t seen anything in my column here or anywhere else that spurs to jump up and purchase XP immediately, and that’s ok. My general rule of thumb is that if you’re in a legal environment, you will at least need the stability (and peace of mind) of Windows 2000. This isn’t to say that a law firm can’t function with Windows 98, it’s just that they’ll have to dedicate more man-power to hunting down those BSODs when they happen. I’ve been using Windows 2000 for quite some time now and I’ll admit that I’m not quite ready to take the complete plunge into XP. On the other hand, I would have serious digital withdrawal if I had to go back to Windows 98 or Me.
The bottom line is that if you’re using Windows 2000 right now, you can feel confident in staying right there until you do a major upgrade on your computer hardware. If you’re using Windows 98 or Me, I would seriously recommend upgrading – either to Windows 2000 or jumping all the way up to XP.
Lastly, I would be remiss if I didn’t mention that Windows XP is offered in two different flavors – Home and Professional. (Microsoft has a good page that outlines the differences in the two versions.) The bottom line here is that they are basically the same package, it’s just that Professional has some added security and networking tools that an average computer user would probably never use. For office environments, I would recommend the Professional version just because you never know when those extra tools could come in handy. I run the Home version … on my home computer.
While I don’t think that Windows XP lives up to the millions of dollars that Microsoft spent on its marketing campaigns, XP is definitely a solid step towards a better OS. No one can deny the stability benefits that Windows XP brings to the table but many people can do without all the so-called graphical improvements that Microsoft stuck into XP. And as always, it’s a good rule of thumb to wait a few months after the release of a major software application to make sure all the bugs get discovered and fixed. Other than that, I wish you happy experiences with Windows XP.
Questions, Suggestions or Comments for Brett
I would like to reserve this last section of my monthly column for “questions from the audience.” I enjoy reading e-mails from all my readers and I’m always happy to offer some legal-tech advice. Please feel free to e-mail me ([email protected]) any questions, suggestions, comments, or any helpful tips and tricks that you might have relating to technology used in the practice of law. I’ll personally respond to your e-mails and then summarize our discussions for everyone else in this section for my next column. I’ve found that if one person has a tech-question, it’s a sure bet that others do too.
Thanks for reading.