Laptop Buyer's Guide for the Court Reporting Professional

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The two most frequent questions I get asked are easily “What’s wrong with my computer?” and “What new computer(s) do you recommend?” It’s curious that my answer to both of those questions has always been the same – It Depends. Now, my personal favorite system would have to be ANY model Lenovo ThinkPad T-Series laptop, but not because I spent over 10 years working for a company that specializes in them. Believe it or not, I was quite fond of ThinkPads well before I began working at eVerbatim, so to me it was just a perfect match that they were too. Now that said, just because they are MY personal favorite doesn’t mean that is what I would recommend for everyone.

Buying computers has changed drastically in the last 3 to 5 years, let alone the last 10 or 15, but my “it depends” answer has always remained relevant. I’d like to focus mostly on court reporters and CART Providers for the sake of this article. Broadcast captioners and scopists have different needs, which include using desktop computers instead of laptops, so that will be a different article all together. So, to start off, keep in mind that I whole-hardheartedly believe that there are mobile professionals, and then there are mobile court reporting professionals, with the difference I am emphasizing being the amount of time spent using their mobile technology. A typical reporting professional (which I am going to refer to as court reporters from here out, but I also mean CART providers, etc. as well) is on their laptop for between 8 and 12 hours per day, many times more. During that time, you are constantly working and using your computer, whether it is writing realtime, researching, emailing or editing jobs. Compare that to most other mobile professionals who might use their laptop 3 to 4 hours a day, at most, IF that. So for the sake of my comparison, that means that court reporters use their laptops a minimum of 2 to 3 times more than a standard mobile professional. That’s two to three times (minimum) more wear and tear on that technology than it was typically designed to handle. Keep that in mind as point one of my article.

When doing this, I like to divide things up into categories to make them easier to digest. Our first category are things we have to decide on up front that can’t be upgraded or changed later, or at least without extreme cost. With laptops there are always more of these things than with desktops, but when it comes down to it, only a few really matter to reporters.

Components We Cannot Change

  • Screen Size
    • This one is obvious, but still a big one. Replacing broken screens is pretty easy, and for the most part, fairly inexpensive, but we can’t make them bigger or smaller. Be sure to choose a screen size that you will be happy with for not only realtiming in the courtroom, but also editing at home. Most reporters choose between 14.1” and 15.6” systems, but many like the 12.1” to 13.5” systems for their portability.

  • Processor
    • Choosing the right processor is critical as it cannot be replaced without incurring extreme labor and part costs, IF the laptop manufacturer has even made it possible at all. It is best to always assume they have not, and pick something that exceeds your current needs. CAT Software itself doesn’t require the fastest system as they are just very advanced word processors, but you need to consider everything else you do too. Atom and Celeron processors are the slowest and should be avoided at all costs for professional systems as they can barely power Windows, let alone anything else. Even the lower grade Intel i3 (or equivalent) processors should be avoided for the same reason. Don’t go with anything less than a current generation Intel i5 (or equivalent) processor. If your budget allows, or if you are a voice reporter, go ahead and get the Intel i7 (or equivalent) processor based systems which will give you all the power you need for years to come. Also, don’t be worried when you see a processor labeled as “Low Voltage” or “Ultra Low Voltage” as this is simply a common practice of making processors use less power to extend battery life. As long as you are using an Intel i5 (or equivalent) processor or higher, you won’t experience any noticeable drop in performance.

  • Audio Systems (Speakers in Particular)
    • Audio is a tricky subject, but a big one, so it needs to go in both categories. In almost all laptops, audio is an after thought, especially the input (recording) aspect of audio. The only audio a laptop manufacturer is concerned with is close-up recording and playback for video conferencing and movie playback. As court reporters, we need rock-solid audio, mostly from the recording side of things, but strong playback helps too. IF you find a laptop with decent speakers, that’s a start, but don’t let that be the deciding factor because the recording aspect might not be worthy. There are NO specs anyone can give you to determine on paper if a laptop has a good microphone, or input jack, on it or not. And because every microphone, audio chipset and recording protocol combination sounds different, taking the advice of someone you know might not help you either. However, while we can’t replace the speakers, internal microphone OR microphone jack on a laptop, we can get new ones. This is precisely why I urge you NOT to worry about your laptop’s built-in audio quality. You can always plug-in new speakers, or use headphones, or an external microphone – all of which will sound better than almost anything you will find built into a laptop, especially if you use a USB Microphone or Audio Device.

  • Keyboards
    • This is an honorable mention for those who think that all laptop keyboard come with a back light in them, which they DO NOT. Back-lit keyboards are NOT standard, and they are not easy to add-on in the future, so if a back-lit keyboard is something critical to you, be sure to check for that up front.

  • Video Cards & Screen Resolution
    • While not as important to most reporters, a good video card goes a long way. There are 3 types of video cards out there; integrated, discrete, and hybrid. Integrated means that the video card shares processor power and RAM with your laptop, which means there is less to go around, resulting in a slightly slower system. Integrated graphics also mean that you will generally have the lowest resolution screen. Discrete means that the video card has its own processor and RAM, so it doesn’t need to borrow it from your laptop, and your system is faster accordingly. Discrete graphics also means you typically have the highest resolution screen. The third system, hybrid graphics, means that you have both, and that the system will typically detect and switch between the two accordingly. So when it detects that you need more power, or are doing something that is graphics intensive, it will use the discrete systems; and when it detects you are doing average, everyday work, it will use the integrated system. The hybrid systems are the best of both worlds and also have the highest resolution screens, but are often the most expensive, and hardest to find.

      The discrete graphics based system is the best overall choice, however I need to point out something about screen resolution for those that aren’t familiar with the term. I higher screen resolution means that you can fit more on your desktop/screen because everything appears smaller, and systems with higher resolutions will run faster because they have their own processors and memory. But one thing about higher resolution screens that most people don’t know is that they do not perform well when you force them to use a resolution LOWER than best. For example, if you have a high resolution screen, but can’t read it because everything is too small, so you reduce the resolution to make everything larger (so you can see it better) – the resulting display won’t look nearly as sharp or clear as it did at the higher resolution. So this may be one of those cases where having the best equipment isn’t really your best choice. If you like everything on your screen (icons, text, programs, emails, etc.) to appear larger, don’t purchase the discrete graphics based systems with higher resolutions – you’ll only end up lowering them and making your display fuzzy.

  • Ports
    • This is a pretty broad category, but you should pay close attention to what type of ports are on the laptops you are looking at, and just as importantly, how MANY. Your biggest concern should be what you need to work as efficiently as possible in the court room, followed by at home and then on the road traveling. While you CAN add-on various ports by way of hubs and docking stations, I caution against using them when possible. Every device or adapter you connect to your system is a potential layer of complication, meaning something that can break or be forgotten. A network (Ethernet) jack is a big help, especially if you plan on doing a lot of realtime for judges, attorneys and so forth, and may come to need one of those pocket routers. If you do any CART work, having both VGA and HDMI ports are handy, just in case you need to hook into a projector or external screen. If you can only have one, remember that it is easier to go from HDMI to VGA (downgrade the signal) than it is to go from VGA to HDMI (upgrade the signal), which can be problematic and require more complicated and expensive adapters. WiFi is always included in laptops these days, and we will talk about Bluetooth in the next section, but Mobile Broadband (sometimes referred to as WWAN) is available on some laptops and can be handy. If you use, or plan to use, a mobile hotspot from your wireless provider, it may be worth checking to see if the laptops you are looking at have the ability to build this in. Sometimes the signal isn’t as great as the portable hotspots, but having a mobile hotspot already built into your laptop could be a huge advantage for some reporters, and typically isn’t that expensive of an add-on these days. Wecams are a fairly common inclusion these days, but not always a given, so if that is important to you, be sure to check the tech specs or ask your sales person.

      With more and more writers & realtime going wireless, and CAT Software companies going keyless, the port requirement has gone down over the years, so finding a laptop that has enough USB Ports built-on shouldn’t be a problem, so that is your BIGGEST checklist item to look out for. Most laptops are coming with between 2 and 4 USB ports these days, and as long as you can get one with at least 2 or 3 USB ports of any kind you’ll be right where you should be. If you are still using a USB Key to protect your CAT Software, and don’t plan on going keyless anytime soon, you should shoot for at least 3 USB Ports, while keyless users should be safe with 2 port minimum. These are just estimates, but if you have 3 and use a key that is 1 for your key, 1 for your writer and 1 for a USB Microphone. Even if you go wireless with your writer, there is a 90% chance you’ll still need a USB port for the Bluetooth adapter that almost all writers REQUIRE you to use, even if you have built-in Bluetooth, so I always assume 1 for the writer no matter what. So that said, if you go keyless you drop to 2 USB ports minimum depending on your exact configuration. Remember that USB Flash Drives and Hard Drives don’t count here as you don’t NEED to have them plugged in during realtime – you can backup AFTER the job once you’ve disconnected something. Now yes, you can use a USB Hub to add more, but only if you HAVE to, and wherever possible try to use one that is powered – meaning you have to connect it to an outlet to power it. If you are forced to using a USB Hub during realtime, leave your most critical devices (USB Audio, Writer, Software Key – in that order) plugged into the built-in USB ports and move the others to the hub. All the CAT Software keys work fine on hubs, as do all the writers I’ve ever seen and tested, so the most important to keep on the laptop’s built-in (native) USB ports is your USB Microphone/Sound Card – if you use one, which you probably should be. After that, if you have another free native USB port, plug your writer into there followed by your Software Key. Having at least one USB 3.0 (blue colored) port is also extremely helpful while transferring files and backing up, so to me that is essential.

      Docking Stations are a great way to add ports, but are bulky and not a good option for traveling or using in court. Some laptops have connections for a true docking station, where the laptop physically drops into, locks and docks into it – these are the best, and most expensive, type to get. After that you have port replicators, which are typically universal, and connect into a USB Port on the system. Both docking stations and port replicators do a good job of giving you lots of extra ports in a small package, but be sure to check with your laptop manufacturer to see what options they may have. For example, some Lenovo laptops have a special port on them called a “OneLink” port which is specifically designed for connecting their port replicators as it can handle the extra speed and capacity they require. Some other manufacturers offer the same types of devices, so be sure to consult with them.


      Components We CAN Change

  • RAM (System Memory)
    • In almost all cases, RAM can be added or replaced at any time during a laptop’s lifecycle, although it is generally cheapest to do it up front. It should be noted that there are some ultrabooks and lightweight systems out there with soldered memory, so be certain to check ANY potential laptop for it’s installed and maximum RAM/Memory Amounts. You’ll want at least 8GB in anything you purchase these days, but going over 16GB is just overkill and you’ll likely never end up using that much RAM, even in voice with Dragon. If your budget won’t allow extra RAM at the time of purchase, don’t worry, it can be added later for relatively cheap. If the system you like already has 8GB of RAM, and that is also its maximum memory, you’ll likely be OK as long as you are using a newer version of Windows, like 10, which handles memory much better.

  • Hard Drives
    • While costly (mainly for the labor), replacing and upgrading hard drives is completely possible and a fairly common practice. The average size for a mechanical/traditional hard drive (HDD) is about 500GB, and for a solid state drive (SSD) the average size is about 240GB. While their costs are dropping, SSD’s are far more expensive per Gigabyte (GB) than their mechanically based HDD cousins. So while you can get more space for your money with a regular HDD, the smaller space you get with the SSD is many, many, many times faster. Larger capacity solid state drives (500GB and over) are typically ONLY available as third party add-ons, so if you want the best of both worlds you’ll need to upgrade after your purchase for sure. The general rule of thumb here is to go with a HDD if you are mostly concerned with space, go with a SSD if you are mostly concerned with speed, and flip a coin (or open your wallet wide) if you want both.

  • Bluetooth
    • Most steno writers on the market today require you to use not only a very specific type (and brand) of USB to Bluetooth adapter, but also a very specific Bluetooth Software to go along with them. The main reason for this is how Windows itself works with Bluetooth, specifically how Windows handles Bluetooth security and COM Port connections. The easiest way for the Writer Manufacturers to get around these issues was to force all their customers to use these external adapters and third party software INSTEAD of using your laptop’s built-in (internal) Bluetooth chips. This is why, as a court reporting professional, it makes absolutely no sense to worry about IF your laptop has internal Bluetooth or not. Sure, if you aren’t using a Bluetooth writer the laptop’s built-in Bluetooth would be handy for connecting external mice and keyboards, but chances are that you will either switch to using Bluetooth for your writer, or buy a new writer with Bluetooth, in the very near future. No matter what version of Windows you are running, you should NEVER have 2 Bluetooth radios turned on at the same time. Doing so could and routinely does create massive communication and signal issues, so even if you have built-in Bluetooth you’ll need to turn it off in favor of your writer manufacturer’s recommended USB Adapter. That said, you can use their USB to Bluetooth adapter to connect not only your writer, but also most mice and keyboards out there, so besides sacrificing a USB Port, it’s not that big of a deal.

  • Batteries
    • If you find a great deal on a laptop, but it doesn’t have the best battery life in the world, keep in mind that you can just replace it in most cases. Just a few years ago I would have told you that ALL laptops have replaceable batteries, but there are plenty of models out there that do have completely internal batteries that can’t be repaired or replaced. These irreplaceable batteries typically appear on systems 13” in screen size and smaller, so just be sure to check the specs to make sure you have a “removable” battery. When replacing batteries, or upgrading them, I generally let my warranty decide what course I should take. If the laptop is still in warranty, go with a manufacturer’s OEM battery. They are way more costly, but they won’t void your warranty. If you laptop is out of warranty, go ahead and try either a refurbished or third-party battery. I’ve had a lot of great experience with brand new, third party batteries that have given me flawless performance during the few times I actually needed to go off A/C power.
  • Memory Card Readers
    • Having a memory card reader can certainly come in handy from time to time, especially if your laptop fails in the middle of realtime and you need to read a job off your writer quickly. While having one built into your laptop is convenient, you can easily add them via a USB port, and almost all of the USB Memory Card readers are faster and read more cards than their internal counterparts.


      Components that Depend on the System


      We already went into detail on these above, but I just wanted to list them here for those that might not have read everything to this point.

RAM (Memory)
Audio Systems
Batteries


Conclusions


Sorry for the length of this article – IF you made it this far, that is. The width of this page isn’t helping, so it isn’t as long as our site makes it appear, but this is a very important topic and worth taking extra time to get it right.

Buying the correct laptop is a very important decision for a court reporter as your income and livelihood are directly tied to it. There are always the occasional exceptions to every rule, but with technology in particular, you get what you pay for, so don’t skimp on something that directly controls your income. A fast, reliable computer means less time in the repair shop fixing it, and more time to do your work. Spending a little more upfront now will save you money, time and your reputation in the long run. Budget and save up for this purchase accordingly, and plan to spend at least $2,000 on a good system, warranty and accessories. If you don’t have that kind of money, or can’t come up with it time, don’t hesitate to look at financing options available for large software and hardware purchases. Companies like Bryn Mawr Equipment Financing, First Lease, Navitas and Executive Financial (just to name a few) work with court reporting professionals every day to make sure they have the equipment they need, because they know that this stuff is expensive, but reporters are a good investment.

Get a laptop with the right size screen for you, and don’t compromise on that or anything else you can’t change at all like your processor (get at least an i5 or better), video card, screen resolution, keyboard and number/type of built-in ports. Don’t worry about the audio quality, expect that it won’t be good enough and assume you’ll need to use a USB Soundcard/Microphone – you’ll get a better recording that way anyhow. Make sure you have enough USB Ports to do realtime without a USB Hub – at least 2 or preferably 3/4 if you can. To help, make a list of what you connect during realtime before you start shopping. Make sure you get at least 8GB of RAM, and check to see what your system’s max total memory is before purchasing. RAM is the cheapest way to make a system faster, so if you can afford to upgrade the RAM during the initial purchase, do it, but don’t sweat it if you can’t because it’s affordable to do it later. If you are a file (mainly audio/WAV file) pack rat, go with at least a 500GB traditional hard drive. If you archive and/or delete your audio files regularly (external drive, DVD, etc.), and you care more about speed than larger storage space, consider upgrading to a SSD if your budget allows. Your inner Speed Racer will thank you, trust me, they ARE that fast. All laptops have built-in WiFi, and most have built-in Bluetooth as well, but don’t worry if yours doesn’t. Chances are the built-in Bluetooth will only get in the way and end up being disabled anyhow, so don’t even bother with it. Don’t forget the backups either. Buying a new laptop is the perfect time to review your backup procedures, and put new ones in place where needed.

After the specs, ports, warranty and options, the most important part of purchasing a laptop that I haven’t mentioned is service after the sale. Whomever you ultimately purchase your system from, be sure they are going to be around for a while and are known for customer service too. If possible, familiarity with the profession is a HUGE plus as you’ll want a contact for assistance at some point in the future. Remember that you WILL get what you pay for, so paying a little more up front for a superior, well supported system will be worth its weight in gold.

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