Classic Computer Magazine Archive COMPUTE! ISSUE 132 / AUGUST 1991 / PAGE 18

The moveable beast. (laptop computers)
by Richard O. Mann

Just when you thought it was safe to use your computer, just when you were getting comfortable with its cantankerous ways, just when you felt like you knew your way around its drives, device drivers, and software ... you're faced with a new challenge: a laptop computer. All kinds of new experiences await you as you learn about the care and feeding of the laptop. You'll find that it's a completely different beast from a desktop PC.

Sure, it's still DOS (although it may have special quirks), and sure, it runs standard software. But it has unique demands that come with its small size, its odd little flat monochrome screen, and its smaller-than-you're-used-to hard disk. And the need to carry it with you as you travel and to somehow lug all its essential and near-essential paraphernalia complicates things further.

No doubt about it: When you move to a laptop, you're entering brand new territory. But never fear. We'll help you learn the important things you'll need to know. Travel like a veteran, from your very first computerized trip.

Preparing for the Trip

Plan the computer side of your trip by customizing a packing list. I've made a fairly extensive one; create your own by picking the elements you'll need and adding the few special things your system needs. Prepare your list on the computer and save the file. Voila! You'll have an instant packing list for your next trip.

Be sure to take everything you'll need, but don't take one ounce more. Balance your potential requirements against the cost of not having each ite. This packing list contains just about everything you could conceivably need, but if you take all of it, your suitcase may not have room for your second change of underwear.

Setting Up the Computer

Surging laptop sales have brought a wealth of new products designed to overcome the inherent limitations of laptop computers. You'll want to consider them as you ready your computer for the road.

Setting up the computer will be a big job the first time; after that, it can become fairly routine. Using these laptop-specific products can ease the pains associated with portable computing.

Screen enhancers. Laptops have less-than-ideal screens. Your friends may start calling you "Squint Eastwood" behind your back. Fortunately, the screens can be improved by several ingenious but simple programs. You've probably noticed that it can be quite difficult to find the cursor at times, especially with word-processing programs. The blinking underline gets lost in a sea of low-contrast monochrome text.

The solution is SkiSoft's No-Squint II, which turns the cursor into a large blinking block. You set the blink rate on a scale from 1 (no blink) to 9 (very fast). The program is absolute simplicity itself, yet it makes a major-league difference in your ability to enjoy your laptop. (Laptop makers are beginning to catch on to this problem. The Texas Instruments Travel-Mate 2000 notebook computer I'm using to test products for this article comes with a similar cursor-fixing program built in.)

If your laptop has an EGA or VGA screen, there's even more help available. Personics' Laptop Ultra-Vision gives you not only a block cursor but a choice of beautiful, slightly larger, and more openly spaced screen text fonts. You also select reverse video or smaller type, a small as 60 lines per screen (normal is 25 lines per screen). Once you've seen these elegant typefaces on your laptop, you'll never want to go back.

Disk compression software. Because working with a laptop means that you're probably working with a rather small hard disk, getting the most out of that storage space should be high on your list of priorities. Start by going through the disk with a sleek file manager such as ODOS II to remove any extraneous files. EDLIN (the clunky text editor that comes with DOS) and some word processors leave behind unwanted backup files with a BAK extension, for instance. You can usually delete them without harm. Remove the data files for completed projects and, if space is still tight, consider removing software you know you won't need on the trip.

There are some ingenious software packages that utilize hard disk space more efficiently than DOS. The simplest but least convenient is PKZIP, a shareware file compressor. You can't run files that have been zipped (compressed) without unzipping them to full size, but you can save a lot of disk space by storing inactive files in zipped format. You can also get a lot more onto a disk if you zip the files first. You can always save time and money by zipping files before transmitting them by modem. Just be sure the recipient has PKUNZIP to unzip the files.

An excellent new program, Stacker, can almost double your disk capacity. Using realtime lossless compression technology, Stacker's software compresses and decompresses your data on the fly. Once it's installed--an easy process--your hard disk is suddenly up to twice as big (because some files compress more than others, the exact amount of extra capacity depends on the nature of your data). On my TI TravelMate 2000 test unit, Stacker converted its 20MB hard disk with about 1MB available to a 40MB drive with 21MB available. I immediately loaded three large games that wouldn't have fit before and added GeoWorks Ensemble, and I still had almost 13MB open. It also worked beautifully with a half-dozen TSR programs, some odd device drivers, and a disk-locking program.

File transfer program. Buy a good file transfer program that comes with a special cable to connect your laptop with any other computer and lets you copy files back and forth. Traveling Software's LapLink III and Rupp's FastLynx are two of the best. Install the program on the laptop and bring along a disk with the software for installing on potential host computers. (Bring it on a 5 1/4-inch disk, too, so you can rely on getting in onto any computer.)

You can usually install these programs on remote computers just by connecting the cable, but don't count on this working every time. Test the software by hooking up to another computer; be sure you know how it's done before you hit the road.

The TI TravelMate 2000 comes with a special version of LapLink in firmware and a transfer cable. I had to load my standard LapLink III, however, because I couldn't stand the limited set of LapLink features available in the firmware version.

Security. Laptops are the new darling of sneak thieves. Where else can you get $5,000 worht of readily marketable electronics so easily? You'd have to steal 20-30 VCRs to make that kind of haul. People carry laptops around like purses, set them on chairs in airport concourses, and leave them on the floor while they make phone calls. They're easy pickings.

Eternal vigilance is the best defence, but software aids are available as well. They won't deter a thief, but they will frustrate him and foil any attempt to steal your data. Rupp's FastLock locks your hard disk so that the computer simply will not run without the password you have assigned. You can boot it with a DOS disk, but you still can't access the hard disk without the password. Give it three bad passwords consecutively, and it sings out like an air-raid siren--or as much like an air-raid siren as a laptop speaker can sound.

You can also protect your data using the file-encryption features of PC Tools and other programs or by using file passwords offered by many application software packages.

Tape your business card to the bottom of the computer. You never know when this may help. You can also offer a reward for the return of the unit on your business card and put such a message in your AUTOEXEC .BAT file, so that it will be on the screen every time the computer is booted.

Battery-monitoring programs. Traveling Software's Battery Watch is designed to precisely determine the amount of battery capacity remaining. It also offers a deep discharge feature that beats the battery's shadow memory problem. Nickel-cadmium (nicad) batteries have a tendency to remember the point at which they were recharged and assume that this point is total discharge, even when there is plenty of capacity left. (A recent research report from a Florida battery maker concluded that the shadow memory problems is a myth and that deteriorating behavior of nicad batteries simply results from their slowly wearing out. The jury is still out on this controversial matter.)

RAM disk. A RAM disk is a simulated disk created in the computer's working RAM. Because it isn't a disk at all, but rather high-speed memory, it is many times faster than reading and writing to disks. There is a significant downside to using a RAM disk, however; if you lose power, you've lost what was on the RAM disk.

An important benefit of a RAM disk is that it doesn't drain the battery the way a real disk drive does.


Now that the computer is set up with all that special software, it's time to consider what additional equipment you may want to bring along.

Mice or mouse substitutes. There are some great new pointing devices designed for laptop users from Appoint, Suncom, Microsoft, and Logitech (see the product list).

Modems and fax modems. Being on the road usually brings out a need to cummunicate by telephone with other computers. You will need to have a modern for that. You could even buy a fax modem, which adds the ability to send and receive faxes directly from the computer.

You can buy your laptop with an internal modem, or you can buy an external protable unit such as the Worldport 2496 Fax Modem from Touchbase Systems. Portable units add to the clutter of things to take, but they also work with any computer (not just laptops). One portable modem is all you need for any computer you may be using.

The Worldport 2496 is about the size of a deck of cards. It houses a 2400-baud modem for use with online services or computer-to-computer communications. It also includes a 9600-baud fax machine that sends images of computer files to any fax machine anywhere. It can also receive faxes, converting them to computer files that you can then read or print.

Batteries and extra batteries. Depending on how much time you plan to put in with your machine away from AC power, you may need extra batteries. If you need extras and haven't yet bought a laptop, investigate the prices of extra batteries and external chargers as part of your buying decision. There's nothing worse than traveling with an expensive computer that won't run because the batteries are dead. The price of battery packs varies greatly from machine to machine. Always leave home with fully charged batteries.

Printers. Believe it or not, there are some tiny, lightweight portable printers that aren't unreasonable to carry around with your laptop. Your mobile printing needs would definitely have to be beyond the normal to justify buying a portable printer, but truly portable printers are available. The Canon BJ-10e portable bubble-jet printer, for example, is amazing little--the size of a notebook computer--and it produces near laser quality print.


The next problem you will face in moving your computer is carrying sufficient documentation for your hardware and software. If you take the manuals for every program you use and for your computer and all its peripherals, in no time you'll have a three-foot bookshelf of volumes to lug around. some of that documentation is necessary, and you'll have to take it (like the manual for the computer itself), but there are some good alternatives for the rest of it.

After you are familiar with a program, you may be able to get along with just a keyboard template, quick reference card, or just the online help. The lightest solution for other programs may be one of the series of small quick reference books that major publishers like COMPUTE, Que, Osborne/McGraw-Hill, and Sybex put out for major software titles. These small books contain operating information boiled down to the essentials. In any case, carry a list of the customer support phone numbers for all the software and hardware you'll be taking.

Taking this parsimony one step further, look for special books for laptop owners. Sebastian Rupley's Portable Computing Official Laptop Field Manual (IDG) and H. J. Liesert's The Laptop User's Guide (Abacus) both contain highly condensed but useful instructions for the most popular software programs so you can leave all the other manuals at home. Liesert includes advice on hooking up printers and mice and offers general laptop advice. Rupley includes essential information on the most popular computers.

David H. Rothman's The Complete Laptop Computer Guide (St. Martin's Press) is full of commonsense advice, tips for successful laptop use, and information on various countries' customs requirements. The chapter on hooking your modem to phones under every conceivable circumstance is in itself worth the price of the book.

Proper preparation is the key to a successful laptop trip. If you've outfitted the computer with some of the above helps and thought through your packing list, your trip will be a breeze.

On the Road

One of the first obstacles on your trip is the airport security check. Is the security check hazardous to your computer and software? Opinions vary, as do official pronouncements, but if you're the play-it-safe type, insist they hand-check your computer and not run it through the x-ray machine. If you're a little more trusting--as I am--go ahead and run it through the x-ray. Although they may affect film, x-ray machines probably will not hurt the computer or disk. My computers have been x-rayed dozens of times without harm. On the other hand, metal detectors may tend to corrupt data stored on magnetic disks because the metal-detecting process involves electromagnetic fields.

Be prepared to unpack and boot your computer to prove to the security guard that it is indeed a computer and not a bomb. Allow plenty of time for this. Don't be stuck showing your computer to the security staff as your plane pulls away from the gate.

Once you're aboard the aircraft, you may want to use the computer. Because there is potential for disruption of the sensitive electronic instrumentation of the aircraft, it is considered polite to check with the stewardess before firing up your laptop, especially on foreign airlines.

One last airline hint: Aisle seats give you more elbow room for the sometimes difficult feat of laptopping on airline food tray.

Computing in the Hotel

Hotels present their own challenges to laptop users. The one you hear the most about is the difficulty of tapping into the phone lines with your modem, which can be a nightmare. If you are taking an extended trip and need access to the phones, you can call ahead and find a hotel that promises access to RJ-11 jacks (the standard modular phone plug), but don't expect hotel desk clerks to be knowledgeable about telephone equipment. They may know, however, when the hotel was built. Oddly enough, the older the hotel, the more likely you can use its telephone equipment without major problems.

Hotels built in the 1970s and 1980s purposely made it difficult to get at any kind of phone connectors--the worst situation being when they have wired directly from the wall to the receiver with no plugs anywhere along the line.

Use the Road Warrior Toolkit from Computer Products Plus in these situations to alligator-clip onto wires in the unscrewed mouthpiece end of the handset. You can find juryrigging equipment similar to those in the Road Warrior Toolkit at Radio Shack and similar stores. If you're assembling your own kit, don't forget pliers, screwdrivers, alligator-clip leads, RJ-11 jack doublers, and other adapters and converters, An easier but more expensive solution is an acoustic coupler, such as the Telecoupler from Computer Products Plus, which straps onto any telephone handset to feed the computer signals into the phone without a direct-wire hookup.

Another problem with doing your computer work in a hotel room is less obvious. Many of us travel, planning to work several hours in the hotel in the evenings. By the time the trip is nearly over, it's obvious that we've failed to meet our productivity goals. Why? Well, consider: Does your office have cable TV, including HBO? Does it have an inviting bed? Is there an interesting new city just outside, asking to be explored? Probably not. Add these distractions to the irritation of essential information you forgot to bring, and it's little wonder productivity plummets on the road, despite our best intentions. Just because you now have a computer available around the clok, that doesn't mean you should expect to attain superhuman production levels on a trip.

Online Services

The online services such as CompuServe and GEnie can be lifesavers when you're on the road. Be sure to take the local access phone numbers for your destination cities.

These international computer networks give you access to almost unlimited communication facilities. Need to send a fax quickly from your hotel room? Dial up your online service, and with a few simple commands the fax is sent. There's a charge for this, but it's quite reasonable.

Electronic mail, or E-mail, is extremely handy as well. If your office or home has a computer and modem, you can leave private messages for the folks you left behind through the phone. You can even transmit whole computer data files through E-mail. E-mailing files makes them immediately available to the addressee from anywhere in the world.

The networks can also be an auxiliary file storage area. Important files can be uploaded and saved online until you download them upon your return. If your laptop dies or is stolen or if the airlines lose your luggage and all your floppy disks, your data file is still safely stored on the network.

Extensive databases of almost every kind are available through the online services, Freeing you from the need to carry reference materials with you. And finally, the various special interest groups in the online services give you access to people who can help you with any kind of problem, computer or otherwise. (When I need interviews for a magazine article I was writing at night on a business trip in Hawaii, I posted a notice on GEnie. Within a few hours, I had all the people I needed, complete with quotations I could use without transcribing a tape.)

Running Your Computer

While running the computer on batteries, do everything you can to keep from accessing the hard or floppy disk drives unnecessarily. Most laptops save energy by turning off the disk drive motors when you haven't accessed the drives for a few minutes. Some require you to turn them off when you don't need them. As soon as you request data from the disk, the computer restarts the motor, spins the disk, and retrieves or writes the data. Any time the disk is spinning, you're eating away your battery power.

This is one of the benefits of the RAM disk we discussed above; it involves no spinning of disks.

A disk defragmenter (such as Optune or Spinwrite II) will make your disk accesses faster and more efficient and, over time, save a little battery juice.

Be aware that your laptop with its dependence on batteries and its exposure to unknown perils as you travel makes your data much less secure than it would be on a desktop unit. Back your data up frequently. Make floppy disk copies of files as you create them, just to be sure.

When You Get Home

When you get home, there are only a few essential things left to do. Download your network-stored files to your home or office computer. Upload your data files from the laptop to your desktop computer using LapLink or a similar product, or transfer them by floppy disk if there aren't too many. Clean up your hard disk and rerun your disk optimizer to degfragment and pack your files again.

In this process of transferring the files back to your desktop computer, be wary of confusing older versions of files with newer ones. Concentrate and be sure that you are transferring the files in the right direction. More than one travel-weary computerist has absent-mindedly written the pretrip versions of his files over the newer ones generated on the trip.

Stash away all your travel kit items in good order so that everything will be ready for your next adventure. That way, once you've assembled your travel survival kit, you'll never have to worry about it again except for simple maintenance.

Pull up that packing list file you saved on the laptop before you left and have a critical look at it. What did you take that you didn't use? Delete it from the list. What did you leave home that you needed? Add it to the list. After a few trips, your packing list will be fine-tuned to give you exactly what you need every time.

Finally, if you set new records playint Tetris on your trip, copy the high score file from your laptop to your desktop so that the vanity board will reflect your new triumph.

Congratulations? You've made it through your first laptop trip. You'll agree, I'm sure, that your laptop is indeed a different breed of animal from a desktop unit, but you're well on your way to taming it.

Richard O. Mann, CPA, CIA of Roy, Utah, is an internal auditor for the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints. His job has taken him to Brazil, Hawaii, Samoa, Tahiti, Cincinnati, and other exotic locales, always with a portable computer. Look for him on GEnie as R.MANN3.