Lighter, Faster, Smarter
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Lighter, Faster, Smarter

by Tom McNichol

December 2012

According to some doomsday scenarios, there shouldn't be any tech trends for the year 2013 - or much of anything else, for that matter. But that sort of apocalyptic thinking is so 2012. The coming year promises to extend tech's hottest products into new realms. Like the law, technology never sleeps - it just occasionally gets hung up on appeal. In the case of technology, mass appeal.

Smartphones Rule (Almost)
Each year, the American Bar Association's Legal Technology Resource Center conducts a survey to see what technology attorneys are using. To no one's surprise, smartphones remain extremely popular among lawyers, with 89 percent of attorneys saying they used one for a law-related task during the preceding twelve months, a figure virtually unchanged from last year's 88 percent.

This demonstrates not only that nearly nine out of ten lawyers rely on their smartphones to practice law, at least sometimes, but also that a stubborn 10 percent are refusing to join the smartphone party - and probably never will. Although the ABA doesn't drill down on the figures, I suspect the holdout 10 percent are older, veteran attorneys who figure that since they haven't needed a smartphone to practice law successfully for decades, they don't see why they should buy one now; that's what assistants and paralegals are for. Meanwhile, most younger lawyers rely on their smartphones the way diabetics rely on insulin.

What's truly revealing is the kinds of smartphones lawyers are turning to these days. This ABA survey found that about 31 percent of all attorneys using a smartphone for work owned a BlackBerry, down significantly from about 46 percent the previous year. It's further proof that the device is finally becoming the smartphone equivalent of WordPerfect.

The device that's eating BlackBerry's lunch is, of course, the iPhone. These days if a lawyer pulls out a smartphone, there's a 50-50 chance it'll be an iPhone. (Android holds down about 16 percent of the legal market, according to the same attorney survey).

Lawyers in the market to replace their BlackBerry or to upgrade their existing iPhone have to decide: Is it worth buying Apple's latest model, the iPhone 5? It's thinner, lighter, and has a slightly larger screen than its predecessor, the iPhone 4S. The biggest improvement is a processor that Apple says is twice as fast. The rest of the iPhone 5 improvements are more cosmetic.

The disadvantages of the iPhone 5, aside from its hefty price, are that it has a new connector port on the phone's base that renders most chargers and accessories obsolete, and that it features a new Apple Maps function that's decidedly inferior to rival services such as Google Maps or MapQuest. (For example, a 3-D Apple Maps view of the Tacoma Narrows Bridge appeared to show the span melting halfway across.) Already there are work-arounds for the map problem, but it's a rare example of Apple screwing up in public. (Somewhere, the ghost of Steve Jobs is screaming at a conference room full of Apple engineers.)

For those who need to own the latest shiny gadget, the iPhone 5 is the obvious choice - it's enough of an incremental improvement over its predecessor to warrant an upgrade. But for the price-sensitive, the 4S is an entirely respectable option. It's nearly the equal of the iPhone 5, with an important difference - it's half as expensive. The cost of the iPhone 4S has been slashed to $99 and up; the newer iPhone 5 starts at $199, depending on the amount of storage and the cellular carrier.

Better, Cheaper Tablets
This may well be the year that you finally buy a tablet computer, if you haven't already. That's not because they've become an essential part of the practice of law or home computing (although they're making fast inroads in both worlds). Rather, it's because the prices have come down so quickly. Apple's iPad, the industry leader with the price to match ($499-$829) is being undercut by a slew of cheaper tablet computers, with more competitors on the way as the year rolls on.

Already there are three standout competitors to the iPad: the Google Nexus 7, the Amazon Kindle Fire HD, and Barnes & Noble's Nook HD+.

The Google Nexus 7 is a smart-looking 7-inch tablet with a fast quad-core processor, a ten-hour battery, and all of Google's own apps. The price is right too: $199 for the 8GB version, and $249 for 16GB. If you're already comfortable with the Android OS from your smartphone, this is a natural way to get into tablet computing.

The recently released Amazon Kindle Fire HD (starting at $299 for 16GB of storage) feels more like a souped-up e-reader/multimedia player than a tablet you'd rely on for work. But for play, it's great. It has fast and direct access to Amazon's gargantuan offering of books and videos, and a crisp high-definition screen. On the other hand, it lacks the broad selection of third-party applications available from Google or Apple.

The Barnes & Noble Nook HD+ (starting at $249 for 16GB), the latest device from the bookseller, is basically Barnes & Noble's attempt to compete with the Amazon Kindle Fire. It has a snappy high-res screen and access to B&N's 3 million books.

In response, Apple has begun undercutting its own iPad with a smaller, cheaper tablet: the iPad Mini. Announced in October, the Mini weighs a little over two-thirds of a pound, making it more portable than the 1.44-pound iPad. But you'll still have to pay a premium price - the least expensive Mini retails for $329.

And speaking of Apple, there's still Apple's iPad 3 to consider, introduced last spring. Millions of users will remain loyal to their iPads, because the devices are remarkable, if somewhat pricey. But for others looking to buy their first tablet computer, the cheaper alternatives to the iPad may make more sense.

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