NOTEBOOK COMPUTERS - pluses and minuses

Written by David Tebbutt, Director 03/93 - scanned

The pluses

Personal computers enable you to keep in touch with your well informed workforce while they are out on the job. On the other hand, they can be unreliable and expensive. Big deal or small beer? Personal computers have become such a feature of business life that many users feel completely cut off when away from their desks. Many major companies run networks of computers which allow any employee to "log in" to their personal records from anywhere in the company. This is an expensive and sometimes inconvenient way of keeping people in touch. Far better to provide a notebook computer which can double up for, or even replace, the desk-top computer.

As miniaturisation, battery and screen technologies have advanced, these small machines have increased in power to the point where they are almost equivalent to a desk-top machine. Because of the need to keep the machines small, they are usually less expandable than their larger brethren and the screen quality falls slightly short of the cathode ray unit. Notebook computer-makers, realising that these are the only problems preventing their devices becoming the user's only machine, have responded with a variety of desk-top "docking stations." These are units which can be permanently connected to the office network, to printers and to a good quality display unit.

Suddenly, the notebook user can work on the move, without worrying about whether the data in their machine still matches that in the desk-top computer. The train, the aeroplane and the hotel room all provide an office away from the office. In terms of personal productivity and freedom, the arrival of the powerful notebook computer has been truly transformational. It is the computer equivalent of the cellular phone.

If your staff get involved in preparing quotations or running through presentations while on the road, they will almost certainly increase the number of sales by using a notebook computer as an aid. Instead of going back to the office or calling an assistant to prepare a quotation, it can be done on the spot. Feedback from the insurance and pensions industry has shown that prospects are more willing to trust sales staff who tote these machines.

In the case of presentations, these can be tailored "on the fly" to meet the customer's needs. A computer-based presentation can look very slick, especially with a colour display. It can also be constructed so that the presentation can be given at a number of different levels, according to the awareness of the audience. Chunks can be included or left out "on the fly" without the audience being any the wiser, something which is impossible with conventional paper or overhead projection presentations. The ability to tailor your company's response to your client's needs is a powerful way to secure their business.

The minuses

Notebook computers are wonderful when they work. Unfortunately, they do rely on battery power which tends to run out at the most inconvenient times. Spare batteries are usually quite heavy, and because they lose their charge even when not in use, you have to be sure that they are fully charged before each day's work. Before recharging the most common type - nickel cadmium - the battery has to be fully discharged, otherwise it gradually loses its ability to hold a charge. There's nothing worse than apparently fully charging a battery, only to find it running out of steam after 20 minutes. You can, of course, run the machines from the mains but this is not always convenient at a customer's premises and it is impossible when on the move.

Security is another important consideration. Can you really risk your company information falling into the hands of someone else? Can your notebook users survive the loss of all of their work? How long would it take to reconstitute? Mobile users find it less convenient than desk-top users to make regular back-up copies of their information.

The third area of concern centres around the sort of work the user wants to do and the input devices needed to do it. If the applications are simple character based word-processors, spreadsheets or database access programs, then life is very straightforward for the notebook user. Once they start wanting to draw, or use more modern graphical user interfaces, then they have a problem. Somehow the screen pointer has to be moved around, and no-one has yet found anything quite as effective and economical as a "mouse" for doing this. A mouse, of course, would be impossible to use on the move.

The stylus, or pen, holds out promise but this requires a very expensive method of sensing where the pen is at any time. For the moment, many lap-top makers are providing some sort of trackball device. Some supply them separately, for clipping on the side of the keyboard - more stuff to carry around - while others have incorporated them in the machine itself The switch from mouse to trackball, especially for drawing, is rather like asking a right-handed person to draw with their left hand.

These considerations aside, notebook computers do bring benefits to their users and to the companies they work for. But recognise that they are prone to certain problems and plan for these when deciding which type to buy.