Portable Powers That Be

Connectivity was always one of the major sticking points when it came to conventional mobile computing. Cables and wires often imposed frustrating restraints on users wanting to download or upload information in the field, or to plug in peripheral devices.
Today, new wireless technologies adopted around the world are finally providing portable PC users with true computing freedom and, not surprisingly, it’s having positive effect on sales. Around one in four PCs being purchased are now notebooks. Organisations are beginning to appreciate the cost saving and productivity benefits associated with teleworking. Equipping workers with full-functioned notebooks not only provides greater flexibility and support, it also encourages high staff morale and worker retention.
Portable computers come in all manner of size, shape, capability and features. Laurie White, product marketing manager for Toshiba Australasia offers the following explanation for those who are little confused by the large range of options.
Apart from true “handhelds” or “palmtops”, which weigh around 500 grams (see separate box), there are B5 notebooks which weigh around one to 1.5 kilograms. “These are half the weight of normal notebooks and about two centimetres thick,” White explains, “but may not have internal CD ROM capability.”
Next, the ultra-portable two kilogram range with A4 size footprint boasts screens up to 14 inches, CD drive, and are typically targeted at the top end of the executive market.
Standard notebooks, on the other hand, weigh 2.5 to 3.5 kilograms and are full desktop replacement with inbuilt CD-RW or DVD-ROM drives, up to 30Gb hard drives, network access, and full multimedia access. Examples include the Toshiba Satellite Pro and Tecra, or Hewlett-Packard’s new Omnibook XE3 notebooks.
When desktop users switch to one of these standard notebooks they don’t have to sacrifice any features or functions, and an increasing number of business users are doing just that, despite the difference in the initial purchase price.
The argument that suitably equipped notebook (or laptop) can successfully replace desktop PC is compelling one, especially in teleworking situation.
Although portable computers can cost up to almost twice the cost of comparably equipped desktop PC, the reasoning is that much of that price difference is made up for in extra productivity. Buyers should also be aware that portable computers usually have lower processor specifications than their desktop counterparts, and offer less expandability due to space restrictions. Despite this, today’s typical portable should provide all the grunt required for everyday applications. If you intend running major PowerPoint presentations however, the recommendation is to go for the highest specifications you can afford at the time.
Incidently, if storage space has been problem, Toshiba’s new 2Gb Type II PC Card hard disk could be the answer. Compatible with other brand notebooks, the device weighs just 55 grams and is the equivalent of 1300 floppy drives or three CDs.

Making the connection
Apart from faster processing speeds and bigger memory capacity, connectivity has been the killer development in portable computers over the past 12 to 24 months. The prime technology driving the wireless revolution is known as “Bluetooth”. Originally adopted by Toshiba in October 2000, it is expected to become ubiquitous during 2002 replacing infrared on all notebooks.
Meanwhile, Apple has made wireless AirPort technology available on its portables for some time. high-end PowerBook was announced with built-in AirPort card for the first time in Q4 2001, and there is an optional card to use AirPort on any current iBook or PowerBook.
Plug-in WiFi LAN cards have also revolutionised wireless connectivity, offering all the speed and security of networked environment. “WiFi has 30 times more bandwidth than USB,” says White, “which makes it the perfect choice for high-speed storage and serious video capture.”
WiFi allows users to communicate with other similarly equipped devices within 150-metre radius, and many of the world’s major airports are now implementing such wireless networks, as are corporate companies. Portable computers will be able to surreptitiously download email upon detection of such wireless networks, so when you sit down to do some work in the field, your in-box will be completely up to date.
Apart from wireless connectivity, other trends impacting on the portable computer marketplace include larger screen sizes and, no surprises here, faster processors. The reason why portables lag six to nine months behind desktops in processing speed is generally due to heat management. With the latest Pentium III chips running at 1GHz or more, keeping the system cool has been an enormous challenge for design engineers. Toshiba, for instance, has had to draw on the experience and resources of its refrigeration division.

Checkpoints for notebook buyers
Toshiba has been the top selling notebook in New Zealand for number of years now, with Compaq holding second spot. Acer, Apple, HP, IBM and Panasonic together hold significant market share, with each manufacturer offering particular technology enhancement. Panasonic, for example, specialises in “ruggedisation” of its notebooks, making them especially suitable for industrial and commercial applications in harsher environments.
Apple continues to push the envelope in terms of innovative design and ease of operation. There are some impressive free productivity tools for Mac buyers such as iMovie (for editing movies), iTunes (for managing your music library), and iPhoto (for managing still photos).
Generally speaking, there are some basic features buyers should be aware of, including ease of use (how user-friendly the trackpad or accupoint pointing device is for example); battery performance (lithium ion is now standard, producing up to 3.5 work time); durability (magnesium alloy cases are becoming increasingly popular); disk size; screen size (14 to 15-inch); and weight (ranging from one to three kilograms).
According to Laurie White, most people buying notebooks aren’t looking for the fastest computer on the market, they purchase them for other reasons. “In fact, people are starting to plateau out on processor speeds. Consequently, portables tend to have longer life and higher resale value than desktops.”
In terms of specifications (at the time of writing), processor speed should be 1GHz minimum, memory should preferably run to 256Mb, and the hard disk should ideally be 20Gb. The operating system will either be Windows XP Home edition or the Professional version. Also look for integrated DVD-ROM and CD-RW capability, bundled security options.
White also recommends close look at vendor support locations (including international support) if you travel lot. “And last, but not least, what are your network requirements, consider Wireless LAN, LAN 50/100 and modem.”
You may also want to consider handheld computer, which could perform the necessary functions at fraction of the price. At the moment, these devices appear to be stealing the mobile computing limelight.
Pocket rockets
Available in all shapes, sizes, and prices … PDAs and handheld computers put personal productivity back in your pocket.

Not to be confused with conventional electronic organisers, palmtop computers or PDAs (Personal Digital Assistants) have undergone major performance boost over the past 12 months, especially in regard to processing power and memory board expansion. “There has been huge surge in interest for wireless/remote access PDAs, moving beyond the traditional use of such device,” says Rocom Wireless computing consultant Ben Etherington. “Customers are now fully utilising PDAs for mobile email and sales automation solutions, and software developers are keeping up with the play enabling users to use standard applications like Microsoft’s Pocket Excel and Pocket Word.

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