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 a sort of XT-clone, originally made sometime around 1985 or so. Luggable was the word for it?this machine 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 picture 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 could 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 keep running into machines like it, under a variety of brand names: Corona and 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 directory, 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 to use, and probably retails for about the same price as the luggable (certainly after accounting for inflation).

Portable computers have become an increasingly desirable alternative to the traditional desktop system?particularly as they?ve become more capable.

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 salespeople could also justify having a computer that they could bring right into clients? homes.

Now, however, more and more employees are finding that they often need to continue working on a project, even after coming home from the office? rather than maintain programs and data both at work and at home, it makes 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 replacing those desktop machines with portables. They are, however, finding that it does cost a premium, often a hefty one, to pay for the added convenience of portables.

(These same factors of convenience, portability and desirability, make these sorts of machines also prime targets for theft? take precautions!)

The portable also suffers in ergonomics? the keyboard is more cramped, for instance. Ergonomics has probably led to the decline of the sub-notebook genre? these four-pound machines were simply too tiny for easy typing. At least, with the somewhat larger notebook-sized models, keys can be 90% or so of standard size.

And what kind of pointing device will you get? Earlier generations didn?t 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 trackballs? sort of a marble, that when rolled, moved the cursor. While Apple?s Powerbooks featured a relatively large trackball below the spacebar, many PC models had tiny models, often placed in odd and awkward corners? one Compaq model 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 keys. 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 home row to move the cursor.

Newer Powerbooks, and other PC models now feature a Trackpad?a touch sensitive rectangle, that lets you move the cursor by just wiggling your 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 traditional mouse.

In fact, I haven?t found a portable pointing device that?s as usable as a standard mouse.

Bargain basement

Currently, the market for portable computers has split in three directions.

For about the same price as a fully equipped desktop computer, buyers can pick up a portable. This can give them a good machine if their needs 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 the larger desktop unit. Today?s desktop will sport a Pentium or PowerPC cpu, while the entry-level portable will probably have a 486DX-100 or older-generation 68040 Mac cpu. Many laptops in this price range are still being sold with 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 Windows 3.1 with any of the major business applications.

And while ram prices have been tumbling lately, portables typically require special, non-standard memory modules, which can cost several times 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 even an inexpensive standard computer monitor. Even the better dual-scan versions 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 are difficult to find, and expensive if you can find them. On my last portable, recently, the screen suddenly emitted a puff of smoke and then blacked out?presumably 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 want portability, and most of your work involves straight-ahead word processing and keeping 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 year or so ago, this was a power platform, and can certainly be used for real 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 Claris Works may have all the power you actually need, without the overhead of a big-time Office suite, and these integrated programs are getting better and better at sharing files with the office standards. If you need to create presentations, take a look at ASAP?it does a great job of quick and dirty presentations, and ships on two floppies.

Multimedia bells and whistles

If you are needing to create and show multimedia presentations, you?ll 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 plug it into an external monitor and speakers, to present to a group, but you may also need speakers and bright, attractive colour on-board, so you can 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 more costs more? and as with everything involving portables, it costs much more. Here, we?re talking Pentium cpus (or PowerMacs), big hard drives (800 meg- 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 few 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 replace 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,  perhaps even a real mouse, keyboard, and monitor. Note however, that these are not standard?you?ll need a docking station made for your particular make and model.

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 the least memorable computer acronyms), credit-card sized add-ins, are finally becoming standardized, letting users easily plug in modems, network adapters, SCSI connections, and more. They?re even being offered on the latest Mac Powerbooks. One of the better reasons to upgrade to Windows 95 (assuming you have enough ram and hard drive space) is that operating system?s built-in 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 ranging 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 more 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 remote control.

Wireless connection to the Internet is even possible. Companies like Burnaby?s GDT Softworks, with their InfoWave package (for Windows, Mac, Newton and more), include a wireless PC Card modem with a Cantel Mobitex account, making it posible to get your e-mail in major centers across Canada, without even needing a phone cord.

All this easy and standardized connections make it increasingly practical 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 with 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 stay-at-home brethren. And they?re a lot easier to carry around than my old luggable.

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, better resources and stability, more powerful multitasking, and a better-designed user interface, there are a number of features that were designed from the beginning with 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 system. No fussing with DOS drivers for Card and Socket Services. And you can plug 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, and the computer quickly recognizes the card, loads the network drivers, and 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. Hot-docking is supported?as with PC Cards, you can plug into the docking station, or remove your notebook from it, while it?s up and running. Win 95 recognizes the changes, and adjusts for them.

You can easily create multiple configurations?for example, different video settings when you?ve got an external monitor plugged in, or different 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 course, 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 files to a folder on your hard drive. At a cost of 35 megs of hard drive space, 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 smaller than their desktop equivalents. DriveSpace 2, included with Win 95 allows users to create compressed partitions of up to 512 megs. DriveSpace 3, included in Microsoft?s Plus! Pack can make partitions as large as 2 gig, and includes other advanced features.

Windows 95 supports Advanced Power Management, if your portable?s hardware supports those features. There?s a little power plug on the Taskbar?s tray?rest the cursor on it to see an estimate of how much life is left in your battery. The Start Menu gains a Suspend item, letting users suspend their desktop?saving 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 computer off.

Mobile computer users also need to stay in touch?they?ll appreciate 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 support, 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 two machines using a null-modem serial cable or a Laplink (or Interlink)-style 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 applications 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 to 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 this feature, you can ?print? out your work, even when not plugged into a printer. Later, when Win 95 detects a printer, it will print out the stored work, 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 the 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 get the most out of mobile computing.

Sidebar: Better Keep a Close Eye on that Portable Computer!

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 thieves most-wanted lists.

An American insurance firm, specializing in computers, estimates that as many as 1 in 14 notebook computers was stolen last year, a year in which about 3.5 million portable computers were sold in the US. With sales expected 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 official warning 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 the last possible moment, and keep careful watch at the other end.

Owners should be sure that valuable data is backed up before travelling, to minimize disruption in case of loss, and should consider keeping their computer in a generic briefcase or carry-on bag, rather than a more fancy case that virtually shouts ?Steal me!?. Users may want to add a lock and cable, allowing them to attach their computers to tables. By encrypting data, users can ensure that if a machine is stolen, their business records can?t be read.

NEC officials learned this lesson too late?thieves broke into their California headquarters on April 3rd, stealing six notebooks, containing long-range business plans for the company?s notebook computer line. It appears that the theft was carefully planned to get just that data?forcing 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 computer, to help her up? only to find a man with his computer running one way, the so-called old woman (who was neither old nor female) running the other.

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Alan Zisman is a Vancouver educator, writer, and computer specialist. He can be reached at E-mail Alan