Classic Computer Magazine Archive COMPUTE! ISSUE 140 / MAY 1992 / PAGE 72

How much is enough? (the increasing power of portable computers)
by Peter Scisco

Zenith Data Systems recently commissioned a study that documents the rise of portable computers as a viable alternative to large desktop computers. Fully 100 percent of the survey's respondents, all laptop owners, said they used their portable computers at home. Executives and managers looking for ways to extend their office hours without sacrificing all of their family time are choosing portable computers as "time-shifting" and "environment-shifting" devices.

It's not good policy to base conjectures on a single survey, but something quite striking seems to be happening as computers become smaller and more powerful and as the number of computers purchased for personal productivity continues to grow. America, the birthplace of the modern mobile society, in thrall to the automobile and to the opportunity over the horizon, is taking its work into the world outside.

The power in today's laptop and notebook computers makes it possible for you to carry financial reports, business presentations--really your entire business--in a seven-pound package. All of this functionality comes at a price, of course. The best notebooks--those that sport state-of-the-art video screens, big and fast hard disks for storing large amounts of data, and powerful processor chips for speeding your work--cost from $2,500 to $4,000. But you can get a decent laptop or notebook computer for less--sometimes for much less.

Since the business world has adopted the 386SX processor for its notebook and laptop computers, the price for 286-based laptops has plummeted. A 286-based notebook is a very capable machine; with a decent-size hard disk and a portable mouse, you could even run Windows applications on one (except for those requiring enhanced mode performance, such as Excel). You can pick up at AT-class notebook these days, with a hard disk, for around $1,000. If that still sounds like too much money, you can get an XT-class machine like the Toshiba 1000XE, with a 20MB hard disk, for around $800. Match a system like that with a package like Works, and you'll have almost everything you need for running a home-based business away from your home base.

Good things come to those who wait. The same companies that are producing high-powered SX notebooks are also moving quickly to adopt Intel's 386SL chip, which offers the same processing power with decreased energy consumption--which translates into longer battery life.

As the focus shifts to the 386SL, home computer users can look forward to a further drop in the price of 386SX notebooks. For 286, 8088, and V20 processors, price should cease to be much of a factor at all. Portable computers for word processing, simple databases, and telecommunications will be as prevalent in college dormitories as typewriters, VCRs, stereos, televisions, and videogames.

Increased functionality and usefulness aren't just the result of lower prices and higher processing speeds, however. A major stumbling block to efficient portable computer use has been the transfer of data from one system to another--from the desktop machine at work or home to the notebook in the hotel, out in the yard, or on the plane.

A few software companies, such as Traveling Software and DataStorm, have carved their niche by constructing file-transfer programs that make it easier to shift data from one machine to another. And Ergo has made headlines with portable systems that you can attach to a monitor and keyboards--all you carry is the CPU and the hard disk.

Recent developments in hard disk storage--autoparking, better shock mounting, increased capacity, and smaller footprint--are giving us families of systems that can share storage media. Companies like Samsung and Epson are leading the way. In fact, Samsung aims to create a series of computer systems, from desktop to notebook to pen-based, that will share the same plug-and-play hard disk. The hard disk will weigh only ounces and will come in a variety of sizes. That's portability.

The road to portable computing for home office workers is clear: An office without walls is a business without limits.