Business in Vancouver: News that works for you

    As portables offer more and more features, they're taking over from desktop units

    by Alan Zisman (c) 1995 First published in Business in Vancouver ,  Issue #317  November 21, 1995 High Tech Office  column

    Call them laptops, notebooks, portables, whatever: small computers that aren't stuck on a single desktop are hot sellers. Part status symbol, part productivity enhancer, they now account for 25 per cent of the market for new computers, and their share is increasing. And this has happened despite the virtual disappearance of the bottom-end, sub-$2,000 machines in a market that remains price-sensitive.

    What's new is that businesses, when replacing older desktop machines, are increasingly justifying giving an employee the use of a $3,000 portable instead. Why? Some employees have been able to justify portables for years--reporters adopted the old Tandy 1000 over a decade ago to send copy over the phone lines to their editors. Salespeople, real estate agents, anyone needing to make a computer-based presentation out of the office can justify the increasingly powerful portables, even at a price premium that typically meant less-than-desktop performance at twice desktop cost. Suddenly, portables have become machines for everyone.

    The best of the breed sport bright, large (at least by portable standards) screens that let users work without squinting, even in marginal light. You can get a unit with a quick, built-in CD-ROM. Memory, CPUs and hard drives are now approaching the capabilities of comparable desktop units. Users no longer have to fuss with a clip-on mouse: workable trackballs and other pointing devices are now standard. And after a few years of glitches, the PC Card finally seems to have become a standard, permitting users to add easily interchangeable modems, networking cards and other add-ons, without being tied to a single manufacturer's overpriced offerings.

    The result is that the best PC and Mac portables come closer than ever to what users expect from their desktop machines, although still at a price. These top-end units can cost as much as $10,000 and may be back-ordered by several months, which has proven a big problem for high-end innovators IBM and Apple. (Apple has also been embarrassed recently, when forced to recall its pricey Power Book 5300s, whose batteries destroyed the units. "No injuries were reported," according to Apple Canada's Sue Belanger.)

    Even at the lower end of the market, portables can provide a lot of machine at a price that is creeping closer to the average desktop's. In the $2,500-3,000 range, you will find a colour screen, although its passive-matrix design won't be as bright or as quick as the pricier active-matrix models at the higher end. (Some prefer them, however, pointing out that the limited viewing angle of the low-priced screens ensures more privacy when working in a public place.)

    This price range represents the bulk of the portable market, with models from market leaders Toshiba, Compaq, IBM, NEC, Apple and Dell leading in sales. You're likely to find a quick 486 processor, a hard drive of 300 to 500 megs, and four to eight megs of RAM. Get as big a hard drive and as much RAM as you can justify: replacements of both for portables remain more expensive than the more standardized desktop equivalents.

    As the technology has improved, it has become possible for more and more business people to use a portable as their main computer, running the same software as their co-workers with desktop machines. And that makes a portable an ideal tool for anyone who may need to work outside the office. That includes not just the growing numbers of telecommuters, who work primarily at home, but also the much larger number of people who, while coming in to work every day, also need to take work home with them.

    While taking the computer home means more to carry than just a floppy disk in the pocket, it avoids getting home and finding that you copied the wrong file, or that the software at home won't read the file format produced by the software at work. In fact, it eliminates having to have a computer at the office and another at home. And with the growing ability to connect via modem, portable users can use remote-control software to log in on the office network, accessing data and even applications. An Internet account makes it increasingly irrelevant where you're working: you can access the same data from just about anywhere.

    There are even starting to be dedicated cell-modems, like a cell-phone but pluggable into your portable's serial port (Burnaby's GDT Softworks, for example, offers a wireless e-mail service called InfoWave which rides on the Cantel mobitex network... and it can provide the cell-modem). Or you may be able to plug your PC Card modem's phone cord right into your cell phone so that you and your portable can always be connected, at home, in the car, even away on vacation!

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