Classic Computer Magazine Archive COMPUTE! ISSUE 164 / MAY 1994 / PAGE 60

20 top portable computing tips. (includes glossary of portable computing terms) (Compute's Getting Started With: Portable Computing) (Buyers Guide)
by Richard O. Mann

As you get started with portable computers, there's a lot to learn. Here are 20 tips for traveling with and using a portable computer that can help make your first experiences positive.

What to Take

1. Prepare a packing list of everything needed for a successful out-of-town venture. Make it a word-processing file on your computer--so you won't lose it and so you can modify it on the road when you discover what you left at home. (Tips 3 and 4 provide items for this list.)

2. Carry critical phone numbers: tech support for the computer and major software programs and online network numbers for cities you visit. Fun-loving guy that I am, I also carry a photographically reduced sheet with copy protection keys needed to play SuperTetris, X-Wing, The Even More Incredible Machine, and other games that have found a home on my laptop.

3. Prepare to tap into hotel and remote site electricity. In too many hotel rooms, the few outlets available are full--and even then, they're behind the headboard or somewhere else inaccessible. Carry a small extension cord (or a surge-protecting power bar if possible) or a three-tap plug. A three- to two-prong plug adapter can be handy, but for your computer's sake, be sure you actually ground it.

4. Be prepared for modem-hostile environments. Ask hotels for modem-ready rooms. Carry the necessary equipment to tap into the phone lines in rooms with no RJ-11 jack: a screwdriver and alligator-clipped wires. Know how to use them. For modem-ready rooms, you may still need a line-doubling jack, an in-line connector, and an extension cable. (All are available at Radio Shack.)

Conserving Disk Space

5. Use disk compression. No hard disk is ever large enough, especially on a laptop. Use DOS 6.2's DoubleSpace or Stacker 4.0 to artificially enlarge the disk, but be sure you've previously installed Windows, to ensure enough uncompressed space for Windows' permanent swap file.

6. Conserve hard disk space with laptop-install options. Many program installation routines offer special laptop options of leaving out help files, clip art, templates, tutorial files, extra drivers, and so on. You can save whole megabytes of disk space with only minor program sacrifices.

7. If your computer had Windows preinstalled, go back through the Windows Setup routine and remove all the Windows chaff you don't need. (Windows has a laptop-install option too, but the manufacturers install everything.) I routinely delete over 2MB of Windows miscellany from laptops I set up.

Conserving Battery Power

8. Don't let your nicad battery develop a false "memory." Nicads tend to believe they're discharged at any point where they're regularly recharged. If you typically use your three-hour battery for one hour, then recharge it, the memory effect will soon convert it to a one-hour battery. Periodically, leave your computer running till the battery fully discharges.

9. Conserve battery power using the computer's standby feature. Many notebooks have a standby or sleep button, which instantly puts the computer into a deep, power-conserving sleep. It stays asleep until you awaken it with the same button. Use it whenever you're on batteries and have an interruption, even for a minute or two. (It also hides your screen from nosy passersby.)

10. Conserve battery power with the turbo or speed switch. Running the laptop at a lower clock speed uses significantly less power, so run at low speed in situations where extra speed isn't needed. Most word processors, for instance, don't need much speed to keep up with your typing. Try your routine tasks at low speed; if they're fast enough, use low speed whenever running on battery.

11. Conserve power by controlling screen colors. Dark backgrounds use less power than light backgrounds. Change the background in Windows in Control Panel's Colors window. Windows provides dozens of preset color schemes, including three designed for LCD screens. Try them to see which gives you the most usable screen, then use the darker background colors when running on battery.

Mouse Matters

12. Don't abandon your real mouse. Sure, you probably can't use a mouse on an airplane, but you certainly can use it in a hotel room, a client's office, or other remote sites. As good as the trackballs are, for me nothing beats a real mouse.

13. Improve the Windows cursor with Mouse Trails. The ordinary mouse cursor, a small white arrow, gets lost too easily on a monochrome screen. Turning on Mouse Trails (a check box in Control Panel's Mouse window) makes the cursor leave a vanishing trail that's much easier to see.

Other Tips

14. Increase available memory when not using PCMCIA cards by disabling the many drivers necessary to run a PCMCIA slot. DOS 6's multiple configuration feature (type help multi-config for instructions) lets you select whether to install the drivers each time you boot.

15. For VGA screens (including color), use Laptop UltraVision (explained in detail in the software article) to expand the amount of screen the computer uses, improve the screen fonts, and provide a blinking-box cursor for DOS. The first thing I put on every laptop is Laptop UltraVision.

16. Don't ignore ergonomics. As a carpal-tunnel victim, I know the value of simple wrist-rest pads. Use one with your laptop. Cut it down to the right size for the laptop, and notch it for frontmounted trackballs. Use it.

17. Back up! Back up! Back up! On the road, your options are pretty limited if there's a problem. It probably isn't worth carrying a full set of backup disks for your hard drive (unless it's a long trip), but carry a bootable floppy disk with a current AUTOEXEC.BAT and CONFIG.SYS. And for heaven's sake, back up your daily work. I keep a master trip disk in my A drive all the time. Every time I save a file to the hard disk, I also save it to the trip disk. Instant backup.

18. Prepare for printing problems. By loading a few standard printer drivers for Windows and each of your major DOS programs, you can be ready to borrow most printers you'll run across in your travels. Load drivers for PostScript, HP LaserJet II, Epson LQ850 and FX85, and IBM Pro-Printer, and you'll be able to print acceptably on 90 percent of the printers you'll encounter. For really limited but necessary printing, send yourself a fax at the hotel office or the office you're visiting.

19. Plan for security. Tape your business card to your computer with an offer of a reward for return of the unit. Put text in your AUTOEXEC.BAT file offering a reward and showing your name, address, and phone number. For important data, consider using software data encryption or passwords.

20. Plan for airport problems. Most authorities say not to X-ray computers, although I've seen it done without harm dozens of times. Ask for a hand check; when security personnel hand-check a computer, they often ask you turn it on (to prove it's a computer, presumably), so have enough battery charge to boot it. This usually takes a few extra minutes at the security area, so allow enough time.


active matrix. A type of LCD that uses a transistor-- or three transistors in the case of a color LCD--to drive each pixel. The brightness, contrast, and refresh rate of active matrix LCD screens are generally on a par with those of standard cathode-ray tube (CRT) monitors. See also LCD and passive matrix.

docking station. Also known as expansion chassis. An external box that allows a laptop computer to add a combination of expansion slots and drive bays.

gray scale. The progressive series of grays that a device can produce, ranging from black through white. On a portable computer, the quality of the gray scale is dependent on the video controller (usually CGA, EGA, or VGA) and video display (usually 16-or 64-shade LCD).

laptop computer. A portable computer, usually able to operate from either batteries or AC power, that offers most or all of the functionality of a desktop computer. Laptop computers are generally considered to be portable computers that weigh 6 to 12 pounds, but the term is also used generically to refer to any portable computer, including notebook and subnotebook computers, that weighs less than about 12 pounds.

LCD. Short for Liquid Crystal Display. A type of computer display that sandwiches a liquid compound between two transparent electrodes. LCD screens are found in the vast majority of laptop computers because they consume less power than standard CRT monitors.

notebook computer. A lighter and thinner version of a laptop, usually weighing less than about six pounds. The term is also used to refer to any portable computer, including a subnotebook computer, that weighs less than about six pounds.

palmtop computer. Also known as hand-held computer. A computer small enough to be held in one hand, usually weighing less than one pound.

passive matrix. The type of LCD found on most currently available laptop and notebook computers. Standard passive matrix LCD screens are less expensive and have less brightness, less contrast, and a slower refresh rate than active matrix LCD screens. Double-scan passive matrix LCD screens fall in between standard passive matrix screens and active matrix screens in both cost and quality. See also LCD and active matrix.

PCMCIA. Short for Personal Computer Memory Card International Association. An industry group whose standard allows credit-card-sized expansion cards to be used in a variety of portable computers. These expansion cards, called PCMCIA cards, include memory, fax/data modem, network interface, SCSI interface, sound, and hard drive cards. Some have suggested that PCMCIA really stands for People Can't Memorize Computer Industry Acronyms.

PDA. Short for Personal Digital Assistant. A lightweight palmtop computer that relies on a pen for input rather than a keyboard or mouse. The builtin software in PDAs usually emphasizes personal organization and electronic communication.

submarining. Slang term for the disappearance and reappearance of the mouse cursor as it moves across a slow-refresh LCD screen.

subnotebook. A lighter and thinner version of a notebook, usually weighing about four pounds or less.

transportable computer. Also known as luggable computer and lunchbox computer. A portable computer that weighs from 12 to 30 pounds and requires AC power. Many have standard CRT monitors built in.

--David English