Not too long ago, on a trip to Chicago, I found myself lugging around no less than five computing devices: a nine-pound laptop, a three-pound handheld computer, an old PalmPilot, a palm-size PC, and a tiny electronic organizer. Clearly, I didn't need all of that stuff. What wasn't so clear was the one go-to gadget that I do need.
Ranging from $200 personal digital assistants to $4,500 full-blown laptops, mobile computing devices are almost too numerous to keep track of. But, despite the many options available, road warriors will find that every machine involves trade-offs: A mininotebook, for example, is sleek and eminently portable, but its midget screen and its diminutive keyboard can make for a less-than-ideal work environment.
If you're a buyer-to-be, the challenge is to know what you gain — and what you give up — with each device. So, just for you, the demanding Fast Company reader, I have evaluated dozens of options that fit various work styles. Whether you're a day-tripper who hates hauling a laptop or a marketing rep who's always on the road, we'll help you figure out which mobile computer is right for you.
You Need: An address book for day-tripping
Check Out: The Rex Pro ($199)
The tiniest electronic organizer on the market, the Rex Pro is no bigger than a business card. It holds up to 6,000 entries, and it offers four basic programs: an address book, a To Do list, a note taker, and a clock. If you hate having to worry about charging batteries and carrying cables, then the Rex Pro is for you. It will run for months on a single battery charge, and it weighs a mere 1.4 ounces.
Geek Factor: Unlike a little black book, the Rex Pro can incorporate updates from the contact-management software on your desktop computer. Just set the Rex in its cradle, connect it via cable to your PC, and use the software that's bundled with it to transfer appointments and contact information from popular PC-based contact managers like Microsoft Outlook, Lotus Organizer, and Symantec Act!
Weak Factor: Entering names and contact info into the Rex while you're on the road is a huge time sink: You have to click on the Rex's minuscule arrow buttons to select each letter of each name.
Coordinates: Franklin Electronic Publishers, www.franklin.com
You Need: A contact manager and calendar Check Out A palm-size computer ($299 to $519)
This category of mobile computers was popularized by the best-selling PalmPilot. Now there are several versions of the Palm machine, as well as imitators that use Microsoft software. The main advantage of palm-size computers is that they synchronize easily with leading desktop-computer programs.
Palm Computing (a division of 3Com) offers an array of models — including the company's most recent release, the Palm V ($449). Targeted to fashion-conscious buyers, the Palm V has all the functions of the Palm IIIx, but half the memory and twice the sex appeal.
The main competition to Palm's little organizers are similar-looking devices that use Microsoft's Windows CE operating system. Made by companies such as Casio and Everex Systems, these digital divas feature screens that are generally a little sharper than the Palm models, and they typically carry more memory than their Palm counterparts.
Geek Factor: The Windows CE computers can record voice memos; the Palm models cannot. On the other hand, there are thousands of applications available for Palm computers, including travel software and games.
Weak Factor: You can't get email on any of the palm-size computers without adding a modem — which makes the devices too big to fit in your pocket.
Coordinates: Palm Computing, www.palm.com; Casio Inc., www.casio.com; Everex Systems Inc., www.everex.com; Hewlett-Packard Co., www.hp.com; Compaq Computer Corp., www.compaq.com
You Need: A device with a keyboard and email capability (for overnight stays)
Check Out: A Handheld Windows CE Computer ($699 to $999)
If your on-the-road computer needs are limited to exchanging email and filing a few notes in your hotel room, then a handheld computer with a built-in keyboard and a modem should fit the bill. The main options in this category run on the Windows CE Handheld PC (H/PC) Professional Edition operating system.
Among the top models in the Windows H/PC Pro category are the HP Jornada 820, the LG Phenom Express, the NEC MobilePro 800, and the Vadem Clio. Although they look like laptops, the H/PC units are really oversize PDAs. They lack a hard drive, a CD-ROM drive, and a floppy-disk drive. And even though they look like Windows machines, they aren't Windows machines. The CE Pocket versions of Word, Excel, Access, PowerPoint, and Internet Explorer that come with each system let you download files from their desktop namesakes, but you'll lose some formatting, and your work options will be limited. If you need to create a slide show while you're traveling, Pocket PowerPoint won't come through for you.
Geek Factor: When you need to grab some data off the Web, just fire up Pocket Internet Explorer. No other PDA gives you that kind of reach.
Weak Factor: With very few exceptions, these devices limit you to one email option: Microsoft Outlook.
Coordinates: Hewlett-Packard Co., www.hp.com; LG Electronics Inc., www.lgphenom.com; NEC Computer Systems Division, www.nec-computers.com; Vadem Inc., www.vadem.com
You Need: The ultimate in portability — with no loss in computing power
Check Out: A mininotebook ($1,599 to $2,299)
Mininotebooks (also known as "subnotebooks") are about the same size as Windows H/PC Pro machines — that is, small enough to fit easily on an airplane's flip-down tray — but they offer full computing power, and they can run standard Windows 98 programs. A typical model in this category is the Fujitsu LifeBook B112 ($1,599). It weighs a paltry 2.5 pounds, it runs Windows 98, and it has a 233-MHz Pentium processor with MMX, 32 MB of RAM, and a 3.2-GB hard drive. It also features a built-in 56-Kbps V.90 modem and an 8.4-inch active-matrix screen that's much crisper than anything on a Windows H/PC Pro machine. Because of the machine's small size, its floppy drive is an external model, and so is the optional CD-ROM drive.
One top-of-the-line machine in this class is the Sony VAIO C1 PictureBook PCG-C1X ($2,299). This 2.5-pound, 266-MHz Pentium computer has a razor-sharp display and a 4.3-GB hard drive.
Geek Factor: Mininotebooks sport features that allow for easy expansion, such as USB ports (for scanners and other peripherals) and PC Card slots (for network-adapter cards and other add-ons).
Weak Factor: The screen on a mininotebook is exceedingly small. If you need to do lots of detail work, this machine may not be right for you.
Coordinates: Fujitsu PC Corp., www.fujitsupc.com; Sony Electronics Inc., www.sony.com/pc
You Need: A lightweight computer that's built to handle a full day of work
Check Out: An ultrathin laptop ($1,800 to $3,500)
Thin is in, and there's a new generation of Windows ultraportables that are downright anemic. Measuring less than one inch thick and offering bright, full-size screens — as well as most of the standard computing amenities — these ultrathin notebooks weigh less than three pounds (the same weight as mininotebooks and Windows H/PC Pro models). Plus, they come with a nearly full-size keyboard, so you can work all afternoon without giving yourself a repetitive-strain injury.
Models from Sony, Mitsubishi, and Toshiba offer crystal-clear displays that measure more than 10 inches diagonally. These machines have sturdy magnesium-alloy cases, and most of them feature internal 56-Kbps modems, as well as enough processing power to handle standard business software. Sony's VAIO 505 SuperSlim Notebook PCG-505TX ($2,499) includes a powerful 300-MHz Pentium processor with MMX, 64 MB of RAM, and an ample, 6.4-GB hard drive. Toshiba's Portégé 3025CT ($1,999), which also has a 300-MHz Pentium MMX processor, is thinner than Sony's model but offers just 32 MB of RAM.
Geek Factor: Room for expansion: USB ports and PC Card slots allow for easy use of digital cameras, scanners, and other peripherals.
Weak Factor: Touch typists will find the keyboards on these machines to be less than user-friendly.
Coordinates: Sony Electronics Inc., www.sony.com/pc; Toshiba America Inc., www.toshiba.com
You Need: An economy-class machine that includes all the necessities
Check Out: A budget-priced notebook computer ($1,500 to $2,000)
Most lower-priced notebook computers use less powerful processors, such as Intel's 266-MHz Celeron chip or AMD's K6-2-333 CPU. Even so, the system performance of some budget models is just 20% slower than the performance of 366-MHz Pentium II notebooks that cost twice as much.
Most models last about five hours on a single battery charge, and most feature a 12-inch screen, along with built-in floppy and CD-ROM drives. There are a lot of choices in this price range, including various configurations of memory and processor speed. IBM's ThinkPad "i Series" portables start at $1,500, but you can spend up to $1,999 on a system like Toshiba's Satellite 4030CDT, which uses a faster (300-MHz) Celeron processor. Direct marketer Gateway offers a Solo 2500SE model ($1,599), which has a 333-MHz Celeron chip, a 4-GB hard drive, 32 MB of RAM, and a 12.1-inch screen.
Geek Factor: Budget-priced models exemplify both foresight and thrift: Any notebook that you buy today will be obsolete next month, so why pay more?
Weak Factor: Ranging in weight from a little less than seven pounds to about eight pounds, these notebooks can be something of a burden.
Coordinates: Gateway 2000 Inc., www.gateway.com; IBM Personal Systems Group, www.ibm.com; Toshiba America Inc., www.toshiba.com
You Need: A machine that can run presentations and stand in for a desktop PC
Check Out: A full-size laptop computer ($3,000 and up)
Models in this heavyweight category are designed for users who want to replace their desktop computer with something that they can carry. Typically, these high-end machines boast a 366-MHz Pentium II processor, 64 MB of RAM, and a 4- to 10-GB hard drive.
A good example of a full-size laptop is Toshiba's Tecra 8000 ($3,999), which weighs about 6.5 pounds and comes with a 14.1-inch screen, a 366-MHz Pentium II processor, an 8.1-GB hard drive, a DVD drive, and a 56-Kbps V.90 modem. Computers in IBM's ThinkPad 600E series ($3,000 and up) have a smaller screen (13.3 inches), but they weigh in at just 5.5 pounds, and they too include a DVD drive.
Geek Factor: When you're on the go, these machines will keep you from feeling technologically bereft: They have plenty of space for all of your software.
Weak Factor: Get ready for a workout. Some high-end notebook computers weigh as much as nine pounds.
Coordinates: IBM Personal Systems Group, www.ibm.com; Toshiba America Inc., www.toshiba.com
Contributing Editor John R. Quain (www.j-q.com) appears regularly on CBS News's "Up to the Minute."
Action Item: Two for the Road
If you work on the road, you need to plug in — to recharge the batteries on your laptop and to get online. Before you take another business trip, consider these two accessories. Power surges and telephone-line voltage spikes can ruin your laptop, so a surge protector is a smart addition to your travel bag. American Power Conversion's SurgeArrest Notebook Pro will warn you when a phone line carries excess current. And because the SurgeArrest handles multiple voltages, it works anywhere in the world.
Still using that 28.8-Kbps modem that came with your computer? You can jump-start your connection with Shark Multimedia's 56K Leopard Pocket USB Modem. This external modem doesn't require a power cord. Just plug the Leopard into a standard phone jack, and then connect it to a USB port on your computer. The modem also includes software that routes incoming calls to your voice mail.
Coordinates: $60. American Power Conversion, www.apcc.com; $80. Shark Multimedia Inc., www.sharkmm.com
Sidebar: Moving Pictures
If you're making a big pitch in a big room, you need a big screen on which you can show slides and video. Until recently, the only way to show clients the big picture was to haul around a bulky 12-pound LCD projector. Now there's a big-impact projector that comes in a small package.
The Lightware Scout is about the size of a briefcase, and it weighs just 5 pounds. By cramming the projector's components into such a small container, Lightware has sacrificed a certain degree of picture performance: The Scout's brightness is rated at 500 lumens, whereas some projectors can kick out 1,000 lumens. And its image measures just 800 pixels by 600 pixels, compared with the 1,024-by-768-pixel resolution that other projectors offer.
But the Scout's picture, which can be as large as 300 inches (measured diagonally), is more than adequate for most presentations. The projector includes a cable for your laptop, as well as S-Video and RCA cables that you can use to connect it to a VCR or a DVD player. That way, when you're not traveling, you can watch movies on a big screen in the comfort of your home.
Coordinates: $2,995. Lightware Inc., www.lightware.com
Sidebar: Cut the Cord
On your next business trip, wouldn't it be nice to sever some of the ties that bind you — including the one that links you to a phone jack? If you're always on the go, check out these wireless options for getting online.
The Sierra Wireless AirCard 300 is for users of Windows H/PC Pro devices like the HP Jornada 820. This wireless modem fits into a Type II PC Card slot, it has a removable three-inch antenna, and it works well with the Pocket Explorer Web browser that comes with most H/PC Pro machines. The AirCard runs on a "cellular digital packet data" (CDPD) network. CDPD service is available through cellular providers like AT&T Wireless, Bell Atlantic Mobile, and GTE Wireless, and monthly fees range from $55 to $70.
Coordinates: $499. Sierra Wireless Inc., www.sierrawireless.com
If you don't have an available PC Card slot on your laptop, check out Novatel's Sage wireless IP modem. Like the AirCard, it operates on a CDPD network, and like a standard modem, it connects to your computer through a serial port. One benefit: The Sage works with machines using any version of Windows. On the downside: It's nearly the size of a PalmPilot — but it weighs twice as much as a Palm III.
Coordinates: $400. Novatel Wireless Inc., www.novatelwireless.com
If you're a PalmPilot fan and you want to get unplugged, you may not have to wait much longer. Palm Computing (a division of 3Com) is set to launch the Palm VII, an all-in-one, wireless, palm-size computer.
The Palm VII will sport a flip-up antenna that snaps down neatly along the side of the unit. Spring the antenna, and you're ready to go online. One catch is that the device will not include a full-fledged Web browser: Users will be able to connect to selected sites only. BellSouth will provide wireless service for the Palm VII, and monthly fees will start at about $10.
Coordinates: Less than $800. Palm Computing, www.palm.com
Sidebar: Laptops to Go
Going first-class? IBM's ThinkPad 600E is a full-size laptop that can play DVD movies — and it's ideal for making computer-based slide presentations on the road.
The mighty mini: Fujitsu's LifeBook B112 is small enough to fit on an airplane's flip-down tray but big enough to contain a 233-MHz processor with MMX.
Thin is in: Sony's Vaio 505 SuperSlim Notebook has an elegant design that will draw stares on a coast-to-coast flight.
Flying coach? Gateway's Solo 2500SE is a budget-priced notebook that has all the computing necessities, including a 4-GB hard drive.
Sidebar: Quain's Top 10 On the Road
1. Bring extra laptop batteries.
2. Leave copies behind. Be sure to store backup copies of important files on your desktop PC.
3. Record the serial numbers of all your high-tech hardware.
4. Pack printouts. Bring along hard copies of your schedule and of your on-the-road contacts.
5. Write down tech-support phone numbers for your computer maker.
6. Use free-mail. Sign up for a free email service, and send critical files to your address.
7. Get local-access dial-up numbers for your Internet-service provider.
8. Use password protection. Most portable computers have this option, which prevents inquiring minds from ogling your work.
9. Bring a printer cable that connects to your laptop.
10. Update your voice-mail greeting. Let callers know whether they can reach you by email.
A version of this article appeared in the JulyAugust 1999 issue of Fast Company magazine.