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A Movable Feast

We've set up an impressive spread of budget-friendly gadgets to get your mobile office on the road.

There's no need to be glued to your desk anymore. If you anticipate a lot of travel in the course of your new business, then build your technology from the ground up with mobility in mind. We're going to look at how you can equip your mobile office for less than $3,000. More than just looking at potential products, we have tips from an IT pro to narrow down your shopping list. We'll look at general information for picking your mobile technology, and then we'll get into a shopping list to bring it all in under $3,000.

Business Basics

The components of a basic mobile office are simple: cell phone, laptop and printer. We won't go too deep into cell phones, because chances are, you already have one. If anything, you may need to adjust your calling plan to accommodate increased talk time. Kyle Terrill, IT director with Austin, Texas-based tech consultants CM IT Solutions, recommends checking into a service such as Sprint's Fair & Flexible plan. That sort of plan will adjust to different talk-time levels depending on how many minutes you use each month. That way, you won't suffer from overtime charges. Rollover minutes can also be useful. Check with your service provider to find a plan that fits your business's calling patterns.

Moving on to laptops: A solid laptop that will cover most businesses' needs can be found in the $1,500 to $2,000 range. "If you're paying over $2,000, you're buying a lot of bells and whistles you don't need," says Terrill. Most notebooks from manufacturers like Dell, IBM or Sony will come with all the business software you need, including Windows XP and the full Microsoft Office suite. If specs are shy, upgrade when you make your purchase. Terrill recommends getting Windows XP Professional Edition if the price is right, especially if you plan on expanding and networking computers.

There is a wide array of laptop categories: superbudget models, ultraportables, desktop replacements and tablet PCs. Let's pass on superbudget models and the expensive tablet PCs and focus on the other two. "Generally speaking, you're going to pay a lot more to get a decent amount of power in a smaller package," says Terrill. If you can lug around a bit more weight, a heavier and better-stocked laptop is a smart move and will fit your budget. The 15-inch screens that typically come with midsize notebooks are also easier on the eyes.

Chances are, you don't need the latest technology, but there are certain features to look for. Wireless is a must. Most laptops come with Wi-Fi, but double-check that the model you want is equipped with it. Most hot spots in airports, hotels and coffee shops are compatible with 802.11b and 802.11g, and a lot of laptops come with that combination built-in. Websites like WiFinder can help you find hot spots wherever you're heading.

One of the most important specs is memory. It's cheaper to add memory upfront when you're buying a laptop rather than upgrading later--512MB will keep you going for a while and boost the notebook's performance.

Even if you're away from your home base, you'll still need to print. If it's an occasional occurrence, an inkjet multifunction printer in the $200 to $300 range will suffice. You will also get scanning and faxing capabilities to handle other office needs. "If you start printing in larger volumes, inkjet will come back and bite you because the cost per page is astronomically higher than laser," says Terrill. A grayscale laser multifunction in the $300 to $500 range could be your best bet if you plan on printing quite a bit or need to create your own brochures or printouts.

You don't have to stop at one printer. If you keep finding yourself at Kinko's or at hotel business centers, a mobile printer could be right for you. Mobile inkjets clock in around the $250 mark. One solution might be to go with a mobile inkjet for the road and a laser multifunction for when you're in the office. That way, your bases are covered should you need to print something in color.

Software is another matter. As mentioned earlier, you should be able to pick up XP and Office with your laptop purchase. An application like Intuit's QuickBooks can cover your accounting needs starting at $99.95 (all prices street) for the Simple Start Edition. Backing up data regularly can be a challenge when you're traveling. An online backup solution--like IBackup or Xdrive--is one option that can give you some peace of mind. Services typically start at less than $10 per month and can automatically back up your files when you connect to the internet.

Considering that you're going to be on the road and likely connecting to the internet through hot spots, security should be at the front of your mind. Your number-one defense to keep snoopers out of your computer is a solid firewall application. Windows XP has a built-in firewall, but it isn't ironclad. For a personal firewall, Zone Labs' ZoneAlarm starts at about $70 for a security package including anti-virus and IM protection. Terrill also recommends turning on the password protection for your XP profile.

Some entrepreneurs may be able to take advantage of the new crop of PDA/phone combination devices. Those who need to access their contacts and calendars without cranking up their laptops will appreciate one of these. Terrill suggests going for the combo device rather than a separate phone and PDA for practical reasons. You're less likely to leave your PDA behind if it's part of your phone, and you're more likely to use it when it's right there with you.

Shop Smart

Now that we have a knowledge foundation to work with, it's time to go shopping. Here is one way to set up your mobile office. Starting with the laptop, the IBM ThinkPad T42 series straddles the line between price and mobility. The 2378DWU model comes with Windows XP Professional, Office, a 40GB hard drive, built-in Wi-Fi, a 1.5GHz Intel mobile processor, a CD-RW/DVD combo drive and a 15-inch display. We customized it from 256MB of memory to 512MB, and came out at $1,729, with the whole package weighing in at less than 6 pounds.

Let's add a printing solution. The Brother MFC-8220 is a black-and-white laser multifunction that will copy, scan and fax for about $300. Twenty-one ppm print speeds and a 250-sheet input capacity aren't too shabby, either. Add the 4-pound portable inkjet Canon i80 for $250, and we still have room for extras. If you're inclined to upgrade your regular cell phone, check into the PalmOne Treo 600, a $450 combination device that runs Palm OS and has a small built-in keyboard. Samsung also offers a more svelte, but also more expensive by about $200, option in the clamshell-style SP-i600, which runs on the Windows Mobile platform.

Adding up the IBM ThinkPad, Brother multifunction, Canon portable inkjet, Treo 600, ZoneAlarm Security Suite and the basic QuickBooks package, we hit $2,899. With some smart comparison shopping and a sharp eye for rebates, you may be able to shave that total a bit more. For example, you can pick up a Treo 600 for $100 less if you're also signing up for a new plan from AT&T Wireless. The above shopping list isn't a one-size-fits-all solution, but it gives you an idea of how to cover your needs and still stay within your budget. Check with other manufacturers like Dell, Hewlett-Packard, Sony and Toshiba to compare items like notebooks and printers.

You can use leftover cash for accessories. A hands-free headset for your phone is a must if you plan to talk and drive at the same time. Wired headsets can be picked up on the cheap, but a wireless Bluetooth option will cost more. The Jabra BT110, for example, is $69 with up to 15 hours of talk time on one AAA battery. A security cable to lock down your laptop will cost $30 to $55, and laptop cases run the gamut of styles and prices. Check out our suggestions for items that, while above and beyond what's necessary, can help make your mobile life run smoothly.

In a mobile business world, it's important to be as effective working on the road as when you're in the office. Smart tech purchases can make that happen. Your startup doesn't have to be defined by four walls and a desk. So hit the net, and check your Sunday ads for deals. For $3,000 or less, you can jump-start your mobile office.

Love Connection: Turn an Ethernet connection in a hotel room into a hot spot with this little device. Share your connection with colleagues, or just kick back in a more comfortable spot in the room. You'll no longer be tethered by your Ethernet cable.

3Com
Office Connect Wireless 54Mbps 11g Travel Router
(800) NET-3COM
www.3com.com
Street Price: $79

Carry On: You don't need a $100 laptop case, but you might want one. The Contour Roller will shift the weight of your laptop and accessories onto a pair of wheels with a curved handle design. It's also designed to distribute the weight when you have to carry it.

Kensington
Contour Roller
(800) 235-6708
www.kensington.com
Street Price: $99.99

Screen Test: If you have extra cash, a desktop-size monitor and an extra keyboard and mouse can be great additions. This 17-inch LCD monitor runs about $449 and gives you plenty of viewing area. If you're on a budget but still want a lot of viewing space, 19-inch CRT monitors can still be picked up on the cheap.

Dell
UltraSharp 1703FP
(800) WWW-DELL
www.dell.com
Street Price: $459

Like this article? Get this issue right now on iPad, Nook or Kindle Fire.

This article was originally published in the February 2005 print edition of Entrepreneur's StartUps with the headline: A Movable Feast.

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