Taking it all with you-- portable computing
by Alan Zisman (c) 1996. First published in Computer
Player, June 1996
My first portable was a Coredata luggable? a sort of
made sometime around 1985 or so. Luggable was the word for it?this
was about the size and weight of a portable sewing machine, and sported
512 kb ram, and a lovely, crisp, green monochrome screen?its real TV
tube accounted for a lot of the unit?s weight and size.
No, it didn?t run off batteries; AC power only,
please, and you certainly
couldn?t call it a ?laptop?, unless you had King Kong?s lap. But you
take it with you, and work from its 20 meg hard drive anywhere that you
could find an electrical outlet. (These were surprisingly popular?I
running into machines like it, under a variety of brand names: Corona
Olivetti, for example, as well as the Coredata name I first knew).
A decade or so later, I?m writing this article on a
sort of descendent
of that machine? this portable?s about half the size of the phone
and fits into my briefcase. It?s a Pentium-90 with 16 megs of ram, and
built-in sound card and CD-ROM. Much easier to carry, more attractive
use, and probably retails for about the same price as the luggable
after accounting for inflation).
Portable computers have become an increasingly
to the traditional desktop system?particularly as they?ve become more
Initially, only people who were constantly on the go
could justify the
added expense for a portable unit?many newspaper reporters still swear
by their hand-held Tandy 1000s, which could last for hours on a couple
of standard penlight batteries. Real estate agents and insurance
could also justify having a computer that they could bring right into
Now, however, more and more employees are finding that
they often need
to continue working on a project, even after coming home from the
rather than maintain programs and data both at work and at home, it
sense to simply take the computer home with them. As a result, more and
more businesses, at upgrade time, are finding that it?s worthwhile
those desktop machines with portables. They are, however, finding that
it does cost a premium, often a hefty one, to pay for the added
(These same factors of convenience, portability and
these sorts of machines also prime targets for theft? take
The portable also suffers in ergonomics? the keyboard
is more cramped,
for instance. Ergonomics has probably led to the decline of the
genre? these four-pound machines were simply too tiny for easy typing.
At least, with the somewhat larger notebook-sized models, keys can be
or so of standard size.
And what kind of pointing device will you get? Earlier
have pointing devices built-in? you could add a mouse, but try using it
on an airline seatback table! The next generation added built-in
sort of a marble, that when rolled, moved the cursor. While Apple?s
featured a relatively large trackball below the spacebar, many PC
had tiny models, often placed in odd and awkward corners? one Compaq
actually had the trackball on the side of the screen.
IBM pioneered an alternative?a small bit of rubber,
resembling a pencil
eraser known as a pointing stick, right between a pair of typewriter
Now adopted by other vendors as well, this takes some getting used to,
but can be very convenient, as your fingers never need to leave the
row to move the cursor.
Newer Powerbooks, and other PC models now feature a
sensitive rectangle, that lets you move the cursor by just wiggling
finger along it. It?s easy to use, and unlike trackballs, for example,
won?t get clogged with dust? but it?s harder to be precise than with a
In fact, I haven?t found a portable pointing device
that?s as usable
as a standard mouse.
Currently, the market for portable computers has split
in three directions.
For about the same price as a fully equipped desktop
can pick up a portable. This can give them a good machine if their
are limited; in all those things that are used to measure a computer?s
power and usefulness, this portable will come out short, compared to
larger desktop unit. Today?s desktop will sport a Pentium or PowerPC
while the entry-level portable will probably have a 486DX-100 or
68040 Mac cpu. Many laptops in this price range are still being sold
4 megs of ram (particularly if no ram amount is mentioned at all in the
ad). This amount is totally inadequate for running Windows 95 or even
3.1 with any of the major business applications.
And while ram prices have been tumbling lately,
require special, non-standard memory modules, which can cost several
as much as memory for a standard desktop computer.
Hard drives in these portables are smaller?now 340-500
megs or so, about
half the size of what you?ll find in a comparably-priced desktop.
Finally, while all these low-end portables sport
colour screens, the
so-called passive-matrix panels lack the brightness and contrast of
an inexpensive standard computer monitor. Even the better dual-scan
are dimmer and slower than their desktop equivalents? not a good choice
for displaying multimedia or games.
And as always with portables, upgrades or replacements
to find, and expensive if you can find them. On my last portable,
the screen suddenly emitted a puff of smoke and then blacked
a loose wire had created a short circuit. The rest of the computer was
fine. Replacing the monitor for a desktop computer is no big chore? but
it seemed to be impossible to repair or replace the portable?s screen;
it was simpler to replace the entire computer.
Despite all these seeming drawbacks, if you need or
and most of your work involves straight-ahead word processing and
in touch with your e-mail, any of these sorts of machines can be a fine
choice. And don?t forget, while a 486-100 with a 500 meg hard drive is
wimpy by the standard of today?s entry-level desktop machine, only a
or so ago, this was a power platform, and can certainly be used for
work. Maybe pay to upgrade to at least 8 megs ram, and think hard about
your software needs; integrated programs such as Microsoft Works or
Works may have all the power you actually need, without the overhead of
a big-time Office suite, and these integrated programs are getting
and better at sharing files with the office standards. If you need to
presentations, take a look at ASAP?it does a great job of quick and
presentations, and ships on two floppies.
Multimedia bells and whistles
If you are needing to create and show multimedia
want more than a basic portable? you need something you can take on the
road, that sports sound, colour like your big iron. You may need to
it into an external monitor and speakers, to present to a group, but
may also need speakers and bright, attractive colour on-board, so you
do your show to one or two clients in their office.
Inevitably, these machines are bigger and heavier, and
pay for their
added punch with much reduced battery life. And, of course, getting
costs more? and as with everything involving portables, it costs much
Here, we?re talking Pentium cpus (or PowerMacs), big hard drives (800
1 gig or more), 16 meds ram, and a large, bright, active-matrix screen.
A fully-packed unit can run up to $10,000 or so. Still, making only a
big sales could justify that cost.
Do everything the desktop machine can do
You may not quite need all that, but if you?re looking
to replace your
office desktop, you shouldn?t have to give up anything? you may need to
connect to the office network, for example, or make use of specialized
peripherals such as scanners. More and more, portables are able to
your standard office computers.
Docking stations, for example, let you pop in your
portable into a unit
already set up with the network and other hardware connections,
even a real mouse, keyboard, and monitor. Note however, that these are
not standard?you?ll need a docking station made for your particular
Other advances are making it easier to use your
portable alongside the
rest of the office. PC Cards (formerly known as PCMCIA Cards, one of
least memorable computer acronyms), credit-card sized add-ins, are
becoming standardized, letting users easily plug in modems, network
SCSI connections, and more. They?re even being offered on the latest
Powerbooks. One of the better reasons to upgrade to Windows 95
you have enough ram and hard drive space) is that operating system?s
PC-Card support? users can insert or remove PC Cards without having to
reboot; Win 95 recognizes the change and automatically adjusts for it.
More and more peripherals are using the parallel port,
common to both
desktop and portable PCs. This allows easy connection of devices
from scanners to cameras, to video-capture devices, to CD-ROMs and tape
backup. (Yes, Mac owners have done this for years. Stop gloating.)
Just starting to become common is wireless
connections. The InfraRed
Manufacturers Association (IRMA) standard is showing up on more and
portables, along with printers, and even network connections? making it
possible for portable computers to connect and send data just by being
pointed in the right direction, using the same technology as your TV?s
Wireless connection to the Internet is even possible.
Burnaby?s GDT Softworks, with their InfoWave package (for Windows, Mac,
Newton and more), include a wireless PC Card modem with a Cantel
account, making it posible to get your e-mail in major centers across
without even needing a phone cord.
All this easy and standardized connections make it
to use a portable computer as a desktop replacement, without having to
forego the wealth of peripherals that formerly involved cracking open a
desktop?s case, inserting a card into an expansion slot, and fussing
obscure IRQ, DMA, and IO parameters.
Whether you need a no-frills portable, a multimedia
monster, or a single
desktop replacement, today?s portable computers offer more performance
than ever before? though still at a premium price compared to their
brethren. And they?re a lot easier to carry around than my old
Sidebar: Win 95?best choice for your new notebook
If you?re going to be using a portable computer,
you?ll find that Windows
95 is a big improvement over the typical DOS/Windows environment.
Besides all the usual improvements?long file names,
and stability, more powerful multitasking, and a better-designed user
there are a number of features that were designed from the beginning
mobile computing in mind.
For starters, it gets the most out of hardware
designed for portable
PCs. For instance, PC Card support is built into the core operating
No fussing with DOS drivers for Card and Socket Services. And you can
cards in, or remove them, while the computer is up and running. A brief
pause, a beep, and the change is recognized. Plug in a network card,
the computer quickly recognizes the card, loads the network drivers,
establishes a network connection.
Similarly, if you use a docking station, you shouldn?t
have to manually
load and unload different configurations depending whether you?re using
the docking station?s monitor, drives, and other accessories.
is supported?as with PC Cards, you can plug into the docking station,
remove your notebook from it, while it?s up and running. Win 95
the changes, and adjusts for them.
You can easily create multiple configurations?for
video settings when you?ve got an external monitor plugged in, or
mouse sensitivities when you?re using a ?real? mouse.
With a more recent Plug and Play printer, try
connecting your Win 95
portable to the printer for the first time? the computer recognizes the
printer, and offers to install the proper drivers, automatically! Of
it needs to have access to your original Win 95 installation files?hard
drive space permitting, I?d recommend copying all the Win 95 Setup
to a folder on your hard drive. At a cost of 35 megs of hard drive
it adds a lot of versatility. (And if you need to reinstall Win 95, do
it from that folder?it?s a lot faster than using either the floppy disk
or CD-ROM copies).
Even recent portables often sport hard drives that are
their desktop equivalents. DriveSpace 2, included with Win 95 allows
to create compressed partitions of up to 512 megs. DriveSpace 3,
in Microsoft?s Plus! Pack can make partitions as large as 2 gig, and
other advanced features.
Windows 95 supports Advanced Power Management, if your
supports those features. There?s a little power plug on the Taskbar?s
the cursor on it to see an estimate of how much life is left in your
The Start Menu gains a Suspend item, letting users suspend their
battery power but enabling a near-instant return to work, just the way
you left it. The Shut Down menu item can actually do just that?turn the
Mobile computer users also need to stay in
Win 95?s built-in Internet support, and basic telecom and fax software.
Personally, I?m less impressed with the built-in Exchange e-mail
but it?s there if you want to use it.
Several tools help users connect to their desktop
machine, when they?re
back home or in the office. Direct-Cable-Connection lets them hook up
machines using a null-modem serial cable or a Laplink (or
parallel port cable. This allows users to read files of the hard drive
or CD-ROM of the computer designated as the Host?and even run programs
residing on the other machine. A great way to install CD-ROM
onto a notebook that lacks a CD-ROM.
With the addition of the free Service Pack 1, mobile
users can add Infrared
support, allowing the operating system to make use of wireless access
printers or even networks.
If you frequently take data files home, you can use
The Briefcase? this
automates the chores of updating files, as they change between the two
machines. As well, travellers may appreciate deferred printing. With
feature, you can ?print? out your work, even when not plugged into a
Later, when Win 95 detects a printer, it will print out the stored
in the background.
The new version of Windows NT, 4.0, expected later
this summer, will
include some of these features, but is not expected to come close to
capabilities of Windows 95, for mobile computer users. If your notebook
has enough hard drive space, and at least 8 megs ram, it?s the way to
the most out of mobile computing.
Sidebar: Better Keep a Close Eye on that
If you do get the portable computer of your dreams,
you?d better keep
a close eye on it. They?re not only hot sellers, they?re on many
An American insurance firm, specializing in computers,
as many as 1 in 14 notebook computers was stolen last year, a year in
about 3.5 million portable computers were sold in the US. With sales
to jump to 4.3 million this year, we can expect thefts to keep pace.
The same portability that appeals to users makes these
units easy to
steal, and their popularity makes them easy to unload.
The US Federal Aviation Administration has issued an
of the danger of theft when notebook computers are run through terminal
x-ray machines. They suggest that owners place them on the machine at
last possible moment, and keep careful watch at the other end.
Owners should be sure that valuable data is backed up
to minimize disruption in case of loss, and should consider keeping
computer in a generic briefcase or carry-on bag, rather than a more
case that virtually shouts ?Steal me!?. Users may want to add a lock
cable, allowing them to attach their computers to tables. By encrypting
data, users can ensure that if a machine is stolen, their business
can?t be read.
NEC officials learned this lesson too late?thieves
broke into their
California headquarters on April 3rd, stealing six notebooks,
long-range business plans for the company?s notebook computer line. It
appears that the theft was carefully planned to get just that
the company to revise its plans.
In a more prosaic, airport operation, a corporate
executive bumped into
an elderly woman, knocking her down. He stopped, putting down his
to help her up? only to find a man with his computer running one way,
so-called old woman (who was neither old nor female) running the other.