My High-Tech Road Test

Collect the top-rated gear for road warriors, take it all on a 36-hour business trip-and what do you get? The final word on whether this stuff really works.

Monday, 1 a.m. I should have been in bed hours ago. Instead, I'm standing over my ZERO Halliburton computer case, wielding a 16-inch butcher knife and looking a bit too much like Jack Nicholson's character in The Shining. My flight to Minneapolis leaves in six hours, and I can't get the damn case to open.

The satin-silver Halliburton, which looks like standard-issue luggage for James Bond, is made of aerospace-quality aluminum - the same material used to build the space shuttle. The case is designed to preserve and protect the most fragile computers from falls, fires, and thunderstorms. Great for my laptop. Not so great for me and my butcher knife.

Just as I'm about to plunge the knife into the case to pry it open, I realize that its overstuffed contents are keeping the lock from releasing. I lean on it and spin the combination lock with the kind of tense anticipation that you'd feel in a game of Russian roulette.

"Pop!" The case opens! I collapse on my couch, exhausted and covered in sweat. After a few minutes, I recheck the Halliburton and head off to bed. Such is the stuff of business travel: I haven't even left town, and already I've had my first panic attack.

At dawn, I'm flying to Minneapolis, where I will talk to a group of dedicated Fast Company readers and meet a few honchos at 3M Corp. There's another reason for this trip: I'm going to subject some of the latest - and, reportedly, greatest - electronic gadgets to a real-world road test.

Most computer-trade magazines use laboratories to test laptops, cell-phones, and other road-warrior gear. Trouble is, people don't work in labs. My mission is to determine whether such gear lives up to its billing. What follows is my first-person account of the trials, tribulations, and triumphs that I experienced on the road (and before I hit it). My hope is that this edition of Powertools will help you avoid a few speed bumps on your next business trip.

Coordinates: $259. ZERO Halliburton computer case, ZERO Halliburton, 800-545-1026, www.zerohalliburton.com

Preflight: Wednesday, 10 a.m.

It's five days until my trip, and I'm frantically tearing open a FedEx package that - fortunately - contains a replacement Compaq C-Series Handheld PC. The C-Series is part of a new digital-presentation solution, dubbed the Personal Presentation System, that bundles the Compaq handheld, an In Focus LP420 projector, an Iomega Clik! drive, and Microsoft Windows CE and Pocket PowerPoint. The result is a compact tool kit that promises to revolutionize life on the road for the mobile presenter. The system weighs less than eight pounds and fits easily into a shoulder bag. And all the components are compatible with one another - which spares me the hassle of buying each gadget separately and wondering whether they'll work together. The Personal Presentation System is by far the most innovative gizmo in my toolbox. It's also the bane of my existence.

I've spent the past two days trying to configure the system, and I feel like a complete techno-illiterate. I can't get my Compaq handheld (the one that was originally shipped to me) to recognize its connection to the PC that I used to create my PowerPoint presentation. After endless calls to a polite but baffled tech-support guy at Compaq, I finally decided that it was time to try a new unit.

At last, success: Three minutes after opening the FedEx package, I actually have the replacement handheld up and running. It's a bit difficult to feel excited; I'm simply relieved.

Once the handheld is connected to the PC, transferring files from one to the other becomes a simple one-step process. I just drag my PowerPoint file to the Compaq C-Series icon, and Microsoft CE automatically converts the file and downloads it to the handheld. Converting and transferring all 21 of my files takes about 20 minutes. One drawback to the system appears at this point: With the handheld, I can make changes only to the first slide of my presentation. To make changes on my other slides, I must edit them on my PC and then retransfer the entire file to the Compaq C-Series machine.

To help those making several stops on the road, the palm-sized Iomega Clik! drive allows for storage of multiple presentations - which saves you from having to lug a laptop to all of your meetings. The Iomega disk stores up to 40 MB of information, or about 250 slides. Unfortunately, the Clik! drive was still in beta testing the week of my departure (it is scheduled for release this month), so I was unable to try it out.

I had set aside five days to prepare my presentation. But even though I had help from Fast Company's on-site tech gurus, I should have given myself two weeks to learn the system and to assemble a flawless slide show. At least I didn't leave everything to the last minute.

Coordinates: Anticipated price for the Personal Presentation System: about $6,200. C-Series Handheld PC, Compaq, 800-652-6672, www.compaq.com; LP420 projector, In Focus, 800-294-6400, www.infocus.com; Clik! drive, Iomega, 800-697-8833, www.iomega.com; Windows CE and Pocket PowerPoint, Microsoft, 800-426-9400, www.microsoft.com

Takeoff: Monday, 7:30 a.m.

At last, I'm in the air, with most of my gear stowed in an overhead bin. But I've got one tool stashed in my shirt pocket - the REX Pro, from Franklin Electronic Publishers. It's the latest version of REX, the popular, credit-card-size personal digital assistant. It holds my itinerary, plus all of my contacts and appointments, which I've downloaded from my desktop computer.

The most significant new feature of the REX Pro is that users can add, delete, or modify data. Just enter or change an appointment, a contact, or a To Do item using the Starfish SuperKey Light Data Entry System (the operative word here being "light"). Entering anything longer than a few characters, however, is more bother than it's worth, since you must scroll through a screen of letters and numbers and then select each character separately.

As I'm skimming through my itinerary, the guy sitting next to me starts coughing - he sounds as if he's got a hair ball lodged in his throat - and doesn't let up. So I pull my Sony MDR-NC5 Noise-Canceling Headphones out of my carry-on bag and plug them into my Sony MZ-R50 MiniDisc Player/Recorder. The headphones contain two tiny microphones that pick up ambient sound, along with a noise-canceling circuit that works to silence my seatmate's hacking. Road warrior? If I hadn't packed the headphones, I would have been road-weary when I arrived in Minneapolis.

Coordinates: $229.95. REX Pro, Franklin Electronic Publishers, 888-739-6400, www.franklin.com; $99.99. MDR-NC5 Noise-Canceling Headphones; $399.95. MZ-R50 MiniDisc Player/Recorder, Sony Electronics, 800-222-7669, www.sel.sony.com

Touchdown: Monday, 11:34 a.m.

The moment we land, I dash to the hertz counter before most of my fellow passengers have deplaned. As I trek through the terminal, my Beepwear pager watch goes off. An alert flashes on the watch's LCD screen: "1 new page." I press a button, and a message scrolls across the bottom of the screen: "We've got clearance to photograph in the airport, but call me for details - Emily." The message is from Emily Crawford, one of Fast Company's senior designers.

The Beepwear pager, the product of a joint venture between Timex and Motorola, looks like an average watch, except that it's a bit bulkier. It has all the functionality of a typical sports watch, including an alarm, as well as alphanumeric, numeric, and voice-mail paging capabilities. The Beepwear watch is also fairly inconspicuous - which is perfect for people like me. I refuse to wear an ordinary pager, because I don't want to look like a geek.

Coordinates: $129 plus paging service. Beepwear, Beepwear Paging Products LLC, 888-727-2931, www.beepwear.com

Getting Ready: Monday, 1 p.m.

Time to prep for my presentation. The meeting takes place at 4 p.m. in the offices of gofast.net, an Internet-service provider for businesses, located in downtown St. Paul. There's just enough time to print out my slides, to get copies made at the hotel business center, and to check email. So I fire up my Hewlett-Packard OmniBook Sojourn.

Weighing in at just 3.2 pounds, the Sojourn is designed for on-the-go people who want the power, but not the bulk, of a multimedia desktop machine. The laptop's price includes a two-year warranty: If the Sojourn has a meltdown, HP will ship a replacement unit to you by the next business day. The laptop boasts an extra-large SVGA screen, a 233-MHz processor with MMX technology, and 64 MB of RAM. The machine also has a full-size QWERTY keyboard, although I found that I needed to use a little extra oomph to hit each key - which slowed down my typing.

I've also packed a multimedia expansion slice, which comes bundled with the Sojourn. The slice attaches to the bottom of the laptop, adding less than an inch to the machine's thickness and just 2.8 pounds to its weight. And the attachment's features - including a 24X CD-ROM drive, a floppy-disk drive, and dual stereo speakers - are worth the extra bulk.

I packed the multimedia slice because I knew I would need a parallel port to connect my Canon BJC-50 portable color printer (the notebook also has a built-in USB port). I'm used to a desktop printer, so the Canon portable seems as if it were stuck in the slow lane: It delivers two four-color pages per minute and five and a half black-and-white pages per minute. But I'd rather tuck this 2.1-pound printer into my computer case than lug around reams of hard copy. Plus, when I pop in a small optional cartridge, the BJC-50 doubles as a scanner. That said, there is a downside: Unless I make room for the bulky optional sheet feeder, I can feed the printer only one page at a time, so it's not ideal for printing long reports.

Once my print job is done, I get online to check my email. I use the 3Com Megahertz 56K Modem PC Card, which comes with a pop-out telephone-jack connector. The modem isn't as speedy as a T1 connection, but it's the next-fastest thing. The card is compatible with an Apple PowerBook and can transfer voice data, giving motormouths like me the option of adding telephony features, such as caller ID or a laptop telephone-answering device.

Coordinates: $4,999, including multimedia slice. OmniBook Sojourn, Hewlett-Packard, 800-752-0900, www.hp.com; $349. BJC-50 portable color printer, Canon, 800-652-2666, www.ccsi.canon.com; $269. Megahertz 56K Modem PC Card, 3Com, 800-638-3266, www.3com.com

The Meeting: Monday, 3:45 p.m.

I arrive at gofast.net's offices, which are located on the fifth floor of a renovated warehouse. I'm greeted by Griff Wigley, the company's HR administrator and the organizer of this meeting. After a quick tour of the space, including a visit to its legendary roof deck overlooking downtown St. Paul, Wigley ushers me into a conference room. As I pull out my presentation system, I mumble a prayer to the demo gods and hope for the best.

I connect the In Focus projector to the Compaq handheld by inserting a Colorgraphic VGA-out card into the handheld's PC-card slot. And that's it - I'm ready to go.

About halfway through my presentation, I hear a stage whisper from someone in the audience: "Ugh, it looks like he has some weird skin disease." The loudmouth is razzing my slide of Heath Row, an associate editor at Fast Company. While putting together my presentation, I used the new Sony Digital Mavica MVC-FD71 camera to take some snapshots. Heath's photo looked fine on my desktop PC and on the Compaq handheld, where it measures just two inches square. But now that the projected image is larger than life, I must admit that the slide's color is way off.

The Mavica doesn't deliver the same image quality as my Olympus 35mm camera. But a digital camera is a great tool for customizing a presentation. The sleek, slim Mavica comes with photo-editing software and can take up to 950 photos per battery charge. Best of all, the Mavica can store images on a standard 3.5-inch diskette: To transfer the photos I had taken into my presentation, I simply inserted the disk into my computer.

Aside from one crummy slide, my talk was a success. The system didn't crash, and neither did I.

Coordinates: $799. Digital Mavica MVC-FD71 camera, Sony Electronics, 800-476-6972, www.sel.sony.com

Day Two: Tuesday, 8:30 a.m.

"Who do we follow, man or machine?" I'm in panic mode again, screaming at photographer Christopher Harting. I'm driving a Hertz Mercury Sable on I-35W North, and I'm already late for my meeting at 3M. We've got about three seconds to decide whether to obey the computerized instructions from the Hertz NeverLost onboard GPS system or to stick with the directions given by my 3M contact. The robotic-sounding voice issuing from the GPS (global positioning system) tells me to continue on I-35W North; my contact's directions instruct me to take the exit for I-94.

NeverLost offers turn-by-turn driving directions to virtually any destination in the car's designated territory. A four-square-inch video screen is mounted on a swiveling stalk between the driver and passenger seats. The user enters in an exact address, and the system automatically calculates a route. Our destination is 3M Center (the headquarters of the $15 billion company), just outside of St. Paul.

But the computer seems to be misdirecting us. Pulling out the map that my contact gave me, I notice that there's an 8th Street in the general vicinity of 3M's headquarters. I enter "8th Street" into NeverLost. But then I have second thoughts. My contact's words echo in my mind: "3M's headquarters are right off I-94. You can't miss it." Just as I'm about to get on I-94, I swerve back into the lane, continuing on I-35W North. I turn to Harting: "We've been using this GPS thing ever since we arrived in Minnesota, and we've never gotten lost. I'm sticking with the machine."

"Okay. So I should have gone with the human!" I confess some time later. We've just turned onto 8th Street - a humble back road in the middle of nowhere. Well, not exactly nowhere. We're in White Bear Lake, a suburb about 20 minutes north of St. Paul. I offer a lame apology: "Who knew that a tiny town like this would have an 8th Street?" Harting is not amused.

I grab my Sprint PCS dual-band phone. We're lucky that the cell-phone is dual-band: Since we're outside of a digital network, the cell-phone automatically switches to analog mode. The dual-band is bulkier than an all-digital phone, but it delivers far greater coverage. I call the Boston office of my contact and get new Coordinates:. About 30 minutes later, we finally pull into the parking lot at 3M. Amazing - all this technology, and the one thing that I absolutely couldn't have done without was some help from another human being.

Coordinates: $6 a day (on top of the rental-car rate). NeverLost onboard GPS system, Hertz, 800-654-3131, www.hertz.com; $149. Sprint PCS dual- band phone, Sprint, 800-480-4747, www.sprint.com

Gina Imperato (gimperato@fastcompany.com) is an associate editor at Fast Company.

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1 Comments

  • John Pickering

    Very Impressive! Though, I must ask what is the difference or the advantages of this machine over the Apple iPhone newest release? This iPhone, if I understand correctly, does all what you describe and is a complete communication tool in one package. Where would I be able to view the REX Pro? Would it be stocked by digital and Printer Cartridges
    suppliers, or Office Suppliers?