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Mobile computing solutions: what to know before you buy portable hardware.

As business travelers' computing needs grow, so does the market for mobile computing equipment. Laptops, cellular phones and personal digital assistants (PDAs) are common fare for airports, taxis and trains. Professionals today need to access e-mail, fax documents and even create presentations while on the run. According to a Forrestor Research report, Computing to Go, by 1999, 31% of all PCs will be laptops, compared with 18% today.

Not merely for show, laptops and other mobile computing accessories should fit the user's needs and leave room for growth. When considering an investment, you should identify what you presently expect from a mobile device as well as future requirements. Clearly, you don't want to invest in products that'll fail to fulfill your needs or quickly outgrow their usefulness. Nor would it be wise to jump in at the high end with products and features you'll never need.

Andrew M. Seybold, a consultant to portable hardware vendors and editor-in-chief of Outlook on Communications and Computing, says there are different types of mobile computer users, each with different needs. "There are those who need to access information while on the road, and those who need to create it," says Seybold. Most mobile users are in the first category, where cellular phones and pagers reign.

AT&T's PocketNet cellular phone does much more than just talk. It allows users to send and receive e-mail, send faxes, search the Internet for specific information and access your corporate intranet. PocketNet sells for about $500 (not including air time). Pagers, too, have grown up: there are now two-way pagers that can send and receive text messages. SkyTel Corp. sells them for about $400.

For the mobile professional with information processing needs, laptops and PDAs are the weapons of choice. PDAs borrow the best features from the organizer, handheld, palmtop and pen-based markets. The options here are vast, ranging from low-end organizers, which are basically electronic versions of the old leather-bound journal, to complex PC companions that allow word processing, file transfer and e-mail access.

While they are very versatile, even the high-end PDAs are not meant to replace your computer. In fact, one of their biggest strengths is that they create a link to laptop and desktop computers for transfer of information. They are made for the mobile professional who needs to keep appointments, check e-mail and receive faxes, but doesn't need a fullblown laptop. Products like Sharp Electronic's Zaurus ZR5800 K-PDA, which lists for $599.99, allow you to do just that (see "Weapons for the Road Warrior," Techwatch, this issue).

Mobile professionals who need to create, edit and present files and applications while on the road are bettter off with a laptop. Newer models enable e-mail exchange, word processing, data storage and multimedia presentations. Now that laptops have caught up to their desktop counterparts in terms of functionality, there are a slew of models crowding the field. Some of the more notable include IBM's ThinkPad, Toshiba's Tecra line, the AcerNote Nuovo by Acer and the LTE 5000 line from Compaq.

Despite vendors' claims of design uniqueness--aside from ergonomic nuances like rounded corners and keyboard arrangements--there's little difference among them. So pay less attention to brand names and more to system configurations and your needs as a laptop user.

Core features will include screen size and resolution, CPU speed, battery life, hard-disk size and RAM. Seybold says it's customary these days for laptops to come with Pentium processors, one to two gigabytes of hard-disk space and 16 megabytes of RAM. Lithium ion batteries generally last longer than their nickel hydride counterparts. In addition to the core elements, you have to decide whether you need a full-blown all-in-one machine, including full multimedia, or a road warrior-type unit that compromises some of the bells and whistles for true mobility.

First you should ask yourself: Am I a portable user, who will set up office in my hotel room or other place, or a road warrior, who sets up shop anywhere and everywhere--planes, cabs and airports. All-in-one units like IBM's ThinkPad 760ED are made for portable users: they can set up units in hotel rooms and other places, taking advantage of rich features without fear of interruption from drained batteries. That's what Bob Ford does. A regional sales director for Bayer Corp. in Pittsburgh, he has a desktop PC in his office and a laptop for his frequent road trips. But he uses the laptop mostly in hotel rooms and, sometimes, at home.

Road warriors on the other hand, need lighter units with longer battery lives, such as the AcerNote Nuovo. You may have to give up your floppy drive and sacrifice a little speed for longer battery life, but it's worth it if mobility is key. Acer's unit, with 1.3GB hard drive, 16 MB of RAM, a 3.5-inch floppy drive and an optional 6X CD-ROM is in the range of $3,500-$4,000. Toshiba's Satellite Pro is in that same neighborhood, and the ThinkPad is list priced at $4,198.

If price is an issue for you, retailers may pitch you less robust units with smaller hard drives and less RAM, but you shouldn't skimp on the core features. If your work doesn't require voice-aided applications, product demos or sales presentations, you can forgo multimedia functionality.

Some professionals even need to print documents while on the road. The amount and quality of printing you need to do on the road should determine your portable printer. A mobile user, who has extensive print requirements, should consider a portable printer with a sheet feeder. For light printing, a sheet feeder is not necessary. Citizen America makes two portable printers, the PN50 and PN601. They're not going to outdo the Hewlett Packard laser jet back in the office, but they're not designed to. A professional who works with rapidly changing contracts or documents can now revise and reprint them. That's the kind of in-a-pinch printing they're intended to handle.

There's no question that mobile computing allows for workers to be more productive. But assembling the ideal mix of products from this expansive market won't be easy. And it's not likely to get easier, with changes happening as rapidly as they are. Ford says his philosophy on buying technology is to make sure he has what he needs for his current workload, "but always leave room to grow." In this market, that's pretty good advice.
COPYRIGHT 1997 Earl G. Graves Publishing Co., Inc.
No portion of this article can be reproduced without the express written permission from the copyright holder.
Copyright 1997, Gale Group. All rights reserved. Gale Group is a Thomson Corporation Company.

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Title Annotation:includes a related article on tips for a professional using a laptop on the road
Author:Muhammad, Tariq K.
Publication:Black Enterprise
Article Type:Buyers Guide
Date:Feb 1, 1997
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