Comparison Shopping for Hardware and Software on Westlaw

Brian Huddleston
Evening/Weekend Reference Librarian
Loyola University New Orleans School of Law

Introduction: Dialog’s COMPUTER Database on Westlaw

In academic law libraries, many of us regularly make decisions and recommendations to purchase computer hardware and software. When we’re lucky, these purchases are planned well in advance, with plenty of time to shop around. But sometimes it’s a more urgent affair: an end-of-the-year budget surplus comes up or a hurried request from higher powers forces you to make a decision in a matter of days. In either of these situations, one underutilized resource for comparing brands of hardware and software products is the COMPUTER database on Westlaw.

This Dialog database indexes articles from over a hundred computer trade journals and magazines. Full-text articles are available for select publications back to 1988 and abstracts are available back to1983. A companion database, COMPUTER-C, contains articles from the "most recent full year to the present", but new articles are uploaded into both databases at the same time, so this brief how-to guide will only discuss COMPUTER, instead of naming both databases repeatedly.

Magazines indexed on COMPUTER include familiar titles such as "Family PC", "Computerworld", "MacUser", "Computer Shopper", and "PC Magazine", as well as more obscure titles such as "Insurance and Technology" and "Federal Computer Week". For a complete list of all magazines and journals covered by these databases, with an asterisk noting those available in full text, look at the scope note (the scope note for COMPUTER-C does not contain the publications list). Product reviews and comparisons are a staple of many of these magazines and cover the types of hardware and software most common to law libraries. At my previous job I was once tasked with choosing a brand of digital scanner. A recent article I found in COMPUTER not only compared seventeen brands in three different price ranges, but offered detailed explanations about the relevant jargon: resolution dpi, 30-bit vs. 36-bit scanning, etc. On my recommendation we bought the editor’s choice for our price range and were completely satisfied at how the scanner met our needs.

NOTE: A footnote located in the 1999 Westlaw Database Directory indicates that COMPUTER is available through academic accounts only for law schools that subscribe separately to LegalTrac. Information Access Company (IAC), producer of LegalTrac, and Gale Research, the pre-merger version of the company that supplies COMPUTER to Dialog, are now both part of the Gale Group, which is owned by The Thomson Corporation, West’s parent company. Customer service representatives at Westlaw confirmed this license bundling arrangement, but there was some indication that the requirement of a separate LegalTrac subscription either is no longer in force (and the footnotes in the directory are vestiges of this former policy), or is being phased out. If you can’t access COMPUTER, check with your account representative. That’s the best resolution of this question that I received.

How to Find Product Reviews on COMPUTER

Anyone who has used Dialog with the traditional interface -

?s (searchterm1(s)searchtem2?) /ti,lp,de

- will appreciate the more familiar look that the Westlaw interface puts on the Dialog databases. Even with a loss of some functionality and a minor glitch in the database "translation", discussed below, the availability of numerous Dialog databases on Westlaw is a boon to us in academia. Additional charges for using these databases are not incurred under academic accounts, despite the proprietary software pop-up windows to that effect.

Dialog uses controlled indexing vocabulary called descriptors, which vary among the different databases. By using the appropriate descriptors on COMPUTER, you can quickly locate articles that compare specific types of computer products. For example, with the descriptors "hardware multiproduct review" and "laptop" in the descriptor field, you retrieve reviews comparing different models of laptop computers. Such a search would look like:

de("hardware multiproduct review" and laptop notebook)

"Notebook" and "laptop" are not actually single-word descriptors themselves. Rather, they are the two terms included in all relevant descriptors such as "Pentium-II Based Notebook", "PowerPC-Based Laptop/Portable Computer" and the basic "Laptop Computer".

There is no master list of descriptors on COMPUTER to browse or search through (Westlaw does not support that "native" Dialog feature anyway). Instead, you have to use what Dialog calls the "pearl growing" search strategy – a technique we’ve all used but which I personally never knew had a name: locate a few articles first through basic key word searching, note the relevant descriptors, then use them in a second, comprehensive search similar to the one above. ("Pearl growing" may be more appropriate on the Dialog interface because you can use the "Expand" command to view a list of related descriptors after you find one; maybe pearl diving is a better metaphor for Dialog on Westlaw). For reference, here are some useful descriptors:

Descriptors for Types of Reviews

Software single product review
Software multiproduct review
Hardware single product review
Hardware multiproduct review

Descriptors for Types of Products

Word processing software
LCD projector/projection panel
Flatbed color scanner
OCR software
Pentium-II based system

(There is apparently no simple descriptor term like "laptop" available for desktop computers. Instead, the various "system" descriptors like the one above, that correspond to different processors, retrieves articles about non-laptop computers.)

The descriptor field is phrase indexed. The multi-word Dialog descriptors must have quotation marks around them, like phrases in any other Westlaw database. A slight glitch in how Dialog is "translated" on Westlaw makes component words from descriptor phrases highlighted throughout both the text and the other fields of the retrieved documents. The documents retrieved will all contain a descriptor matching the specified phrase, so the search is working as it should: it’s just a bit disconcerting to see your search terms highlighted in places besides the fields where you specified them.

Recall that COMPUTER contains both abstracts and full-text articles. To retrieve only full-text articles use the field for Record Type – RT – with the un-hyphenated, compound word "fulltext". Also, a standard Westlaw date restriction can be used to limit a search to only articles from recent months. So an advanced version of the basic search above, limited to full text articles from only the past several months, would look like:

de("hardware multiproduct review" and laptop notebook)and rt(fulltext) and date(after June 1, 1999)

If you already have one or two models or brand names that you’re considering, you can use the Trade Name field – "TN" – to look for articles that specifically mention that brand or model. Combine this field with the appropriate descriptors to find recent reviews of just one brand of laptops:

tn(Dell) and de("hardware single product review" and laptop notebook) and rt(fulltext) and date(after June 1, 1999)

You can also use the Trade Name field to find out how one particular laptop model has stacked up against other competing brands and models:

tn("Dell Inspiron 7000") and de("hardware multiproduct review") and rt(fulltext) and date(after June 1, 1999)

Adding the descriptors "laptop" and "notebook" in this second example would be superfluous, as the trade name specified is itself a laptop computer model: all articles mentioning it will always contain one of the various descriptors for laptops or notebooks.

With a little practice, finding relevant product reviews on COMPUTER will be second nature. Then you’ll never make a bad purchasing decision ever again. Or, at least, you’ll have supporting documentation for the purchasing decisions that you do make.

© 1999 Brian Huddleston