Keep your eyes open for several new product categories to shake up the portable PC market this year. You're likely to be tempted to finally go portable--and perhaps even chuck your current PC to recover acres of desk space.
Some of the most cutting-edge machines in Japan lately have been part of a new class of "mininotebooks." And they should be hitting U.S. shores any time now, offering high performance in a small, sub-3-pound package. The main drawback: slightly smaller-than-standard keyboards. Perhaps the hottest example is Toshiba's Libretto, which industry experts say is due out in a revamped U.S. version by the time you read this. (Look for our review of mininotebooks in our October issue.)
For those who need comfortable-touch typing in an ultraslim package, there's the new "ultraportable" category. Typical of these is Sony's PCG-505 model, another Japanese success story that's due to be released in the United States this summer. Weighing in at less than 3 pounds, it has a 10-inch screen or larger but a thickness when folded closed of less than 1 inch.
Finally, so-called "super-notebooks" are rounding out the spectrum, where performance--not price--is all that counts. Here, leading suppliers such as Dell, Compaq, Toshiba and IBM are catering to consumers who need to run multimedia applications or those based on Microsoft's Windows NT. Price tags: around $5,000.
Recycle That Computer!
By Bronwyn Fryer
Did you know the average 15-inch computer monitor contains more than 1.5 pounds of lead? According to the Environmental Protection Agency, Americans disposed of 279 million tons of hazardous waste in 1995 alone. Much of that was computer-related--monitors, printers, cables and the like. Think about how much electronic trash has been tossed since then, and it's enough to make you lose your toner.
One solution is to take your electronic trash to a computer recycler. These organizations check your old equipment to see what still works, replace what doesn't, and get everything back in working order. Then they give the refurbished machine to a school, community center or nonprofit organization. And your donation is usually tax-deductible.
Sure, these old machines can't run the latest Star Trek game. But they can give shut-ins a modem connection to the outside world or help inner-city kids learn to write their book reports on a computer. To find a center near you, check PEP's (Parents Educators Publishers) National Directory of Computer Recycling Pro-grams (http://www.microweb.com/pepsite/recycle/recycle_index.html).
If you thought LANs were only for big offices, think again. There may be a home network in your future, designed to help your business and your family in their enjoyment of the Web and other digital technologies.
Like traditional LANs, these networks connect various computers, printers, scanners and other devices to create a unified system.
What's different, though, is that these home LANs don't require you to string bulky cables throughout your house. Instead, they link your computers via the electrical lines and telephone wires already in your walls, or through high-frequency radio waves. So you're free to move computers and printers anywhere you need them--whether it's your home office, the living room or the back porch. And adding new devices is as simple as adding software and a network connection card. As for speed, count on a hefty 10 million bps, the same as most office LANs and more than enough for the multiplayer games kids like to play.
These home networking products were just hitting the market at press time. RadioLAN (408-524-2600, http://www.radiolan.com) sells connections for desktop PCs for $349 each and portable PCs for $449. But those prices will likely drop as production volumes ramp up over the coming year. Another wireless supplier is Netwave Technologies (510-737-1600, http://www.netwave-wireless.com). And soon to jump into the market is Proxim (650-960-1630, http://www.proxim.com).
And Tut Systems (510-682-6510, http://www.tutsys.com) is one of many companies scrambling to make use of a technology called DSL (digital subscriber line), which sends computer data across telephone lines.
Home LANs may be big business, especially with Microsoft, Intel, IBM, Compaq and a host of other manufacturers rallying around a new radio networking standard for homes. As these companies envision the technology, not only will your various computers be communicating with each other, but with your refrigerator, garage door opener and television, too.
I've been hearing a lot lately about "virtual offices." What are they, what might I do with one and where would I find it?
Virtual offices are indeed a hot topic, and for good reason. They're designed to help employees in a small company, business partners, customers, suppliers--in fact, anyone--work together on projects in spite of any barriers of time or space. Like e-mail, you ask? Yes, but they're so much more than that. Virtual offices exist as Web sites where members of a work team can leave each other private messages, post notes or entire documents for the whole group to see, deposit files for safekeeping and retrieve them anytime later, and share ideas in real-time chat rooms.
Think of virtual offices as the computer equivalent of a telephone conference call, and then some. Many people use these setups to talk to each other through their PCs without paying long-distance phone bills.
All this may sound quite complicated or too technical, but fear not. The whole point is to bundle the Web's most powerful features into a single, easily grasped package. Using virtual office setups such as Lotus Development's Instant!TEAMROOM, Netopia's Virtual Office and HotOffice Technologies' HotOffice requires nothing more than a desktop or laptop PC, a Web browser and a modem link to the Internet. The bulk of the software that makes the virtual office work actually runs on a computer somewhere else on the Net. That computer is generally owned and operated by an ISP, which typically sells you and your colleagues the service for a monthly fee.
How much will it cost? Pricing varies among ISPs, but expect to pay $19 to $200 per month, depending on how many people are involved and the length of your contract.
What if you're a solo entrepreneur? You may want to open a virtual office as a place where prospective customers can leave messages, ask questions and even "knock" on your door--by clicking on an icon, that is--to see if you're available for a computer chat. These setups may be virtual, but they have the potential to save you real money.
HotOffice Technologies Inc., http://www.hotoffice.com
Lotus Development Corp., http://www.lotus.com
Netopia Inc., http://www.netopia.com
Sony Electronics, http://www.sel.sony.com
Toshiba America Information Systems Inc., http://www.toshiba.com
John W. Verity is a writer in Brooklyn, New York, who has covered the computer industry for 21 years. Send your computer questions to John at email@example.com