DIARY OF A LAPTOP COMPUTER (column) - mobile computing

Written by David Tebbutt, Computer Buyer 03/92 - scanned

[David Tebbutt takes the office for a walk in the park, explaining the delights of portability along the way.]

What do you think when you see those people with notebook computers on trains, planes and in the park? Are you dead envious of their ability to work anywhere? Or do you think ``Poor saps, their computers shackle them to their work as effectively as a ball and chain''? If you're in the latter category, this column isn't for you. It's for those who wonder whether there's any real benefit in having a computer to hand 24 hours a day.

Me? I love it. I can't imagine not having a computer within reach, except, of course, when I'm on my holidays. (Even then, I'd find it more fun than some of the things we get up to. But that's a story for another time.)

The notebook computer liberates you from the normal constraints of your working life. Providing you have all your important programs and data in the machine, you can cart around the equivalent of your desktop, pens, writing pads and filing cabinets in a device not much bigger than a bumper A4 pad. At the drop of a hat, you can set up office on a train, in an aeroplane, in the park or in someone else's office.

Only this morning, I found that I had ten minutes to wait for an appointment. Out came the Tosh (a Toshiba 1000XE) and by the time my companion joined me, I'd written a few more lines of program code. I could have written a couple of paragraphs of a report or thrown some more figures into a spreadsheet. Setting up office is as simple as lifting the lid and switching on the power. It really is worth doing even for a few minutes.

The notebook has dramatically changed my mode of transport. Where I used to toss up whether to use the car or take a train, now the train wins every time, thanks to my lap-sized office.

Your choice of machine will be largely dictated by whether it's your only one. If you have a desktop machine in the office, it makes sense to buy a low specification laptop and port stuff back and forth when you're at your desk. If you have no desktop machine, you might go for a machine with VGA, a large hard disk and either a VGA connector to a real screen or one of those docking stations that have the advantage of carrying other connections to the outside world, such as networks or printers.

As someone with more than his fair share of computers, I have a 2Mb laptop with a CGA display and a 20Mb hard disk. I connect up to the Macintosh or PC using Travelling Software's LapLink packages. Since battery life can cause nightmares, I also use the same company's Battery Watch, which acts like a fuel gauge. It also reports on battery usage, so you can cure bad habits or spot when a battery is on the blink. If you can afford it, I strongly recommend you buy one or two extra batteries - the peace of mind you gain is out of all proportion to the cost.

Toshiba pioneered a wondrous technique, called AutoResume. For the price of a little bit of battery drain, this feature remembers the precise state of the laptop when you last switched off. You're coming up to your station on the underground? Jab the `off' button and hop off the train. When you get home, switch on and the machine carries on from where you left off. I always try to squeeze in a Save, just in case you get the dreaded "Resume Failure" message when you next switch on. This is caused by the batteries - internal and replaceable - going flat.

The Resume feature means that operating environments like DESQview or Windows suddenly become viable. There's nothing worse than the tedium of loading them each time you switch on the machine but if they're always there, your attitude changes somewhat. I use DESQview on the portable because it requires little memory and little processor power. It doesn't demand a high resolution screen, nor does it take up much hard disk space. Windows, on the other hand... I know you can run Windows using the regular keyboard, but that strikes me as rather defeating the object of a graphical environment.

DESQview lets me keep as many programs on the go as I like, flicking from one to the other at the touch of a key. Well, two actually. Windows would suggest a need for trackballs or mice, neither of which is convenient unless, like the Apple and Outbound machines, they are an integral part of the machine. Even then, they're hopeless for any kind of drawing or painting program. What we have to wait for are the stylus operated machines. Surely a laptop with a touch sensitive screen and a pen-sized control device has got to be just around the corner?

I say `control device' because I believe the keyboard still takes some beating as a text input device. Proper fluent handwriting recognition is some way off. If I were a researcher, I'd feel I had a better return from studying speech recognition. The stylus will enable you to paint and draw, though, and this will be a tremendous improvement in functionality. I'd be in laptop heaven if someone could produce an upgrade kit comprising a touch sensitive screen overlay and the necessary operating system extensions.

Is anyone listening?