Life With Laptop

It's your constant travel companion, a source of pain and pleasure. Joe Brancatelli shows you how to make living with your portable computer easier on both of you.

After 25 years of traveling with portable computers, I have come to a somewhat racy conclusion: Laptops are like lovers. No matter the initial attraction, passions are fleeting. The gorgeous ones always break your heart. You constantly lust for the next great thing. And you remember every one you leave behind.

My first, a Kaypro, was chunky and ugly, but willing. My first true love, a Hyperion, was beautiful, slender, and sexy. But it didn't work out. Actually, it never worked at all. Then brief affairs with dowdy first-generation Compaqs and Tandys; a Datavue, my first notebook; and faster, younger Toshibas, NECs, Sonys, Hewlett-Packards, Zeniths, and Dells. There were ill-fated liaisons with portable Macs and ThinkPads and a doomed affair with a Sharp Actius. It moved like a runway model and sacrificed everything to make the weight. Lately, it's been meaningless hookups with nameless clones that always leave you wanting more.

The good news? Unlike Eliot Spitzer's dalliances, portable computing has consistently gotten cheaper. That Hyperion cost five grand in 1983; today you can get an entry-level laptop for a tenth of the price, and it'll do things you didn't even fantasize about a quarter-century ago.

What else can I tell you about my star-crossed love affair with laptops? Consider these hard-won insights, which will help you make your life with a laptop more productive, less frustrating, more fun, and less painful.

Go for the Gusto
Unlike with desktops, upgrades for laptops are pricey and often require installation by a pro. So buy a new machine with as much memory and hard-drive space as you can afford. And, all things being equal, choose the one with the most USB ports.

Work the Keyboard
I don't understand folks who buy laptops without ever having tested the keyboards. Too many otherwise great portables are ruined by inferior input devices. Keyboards are intensely personal, of course, and no two travelers will like the same one. Before you buy, pay attention to the layout; the size of the board and the keys; and the overall "feel" of the response when you type.

Watch the Weight
The smallest, lightest laptop I ever owned was that Actius. At three pounds and just two inches thick, it was the perfect size and weight for true mobility. My next model weighed four pounds, and my current machine is five. Other computers tip the scales at six, eight, or nine pounds. Why are supposedly portable machines getting heavier? Some notebooks are really "desktop replacement" units, not designed for true mobility. And manufacturers have decided that consumers want larger, widescreen-style monitors to watch movies and other videos. Maybe so, but each extra pound feels like 20 when you're dragging it around airports and hotel lobbies. If you never leave home without a laptop, consider the thin and light "ultra-portable" machines from Thinkpad, Sony, or Dell, or the Mac Air from Apple. They may cost twice as much as other units and entail some functional trade-offs, but your back and shoulders will thank you.

Add Some Bling
I'm a fast (but sloppy and fat-fingered) typist and I always inadvertently drag my thumbs on those below-the-keyboard touch pads. So I've purchased an ultrasmall mouse that plugs into a USB port. I love my Aviator Laptop Stand. It's light, stable, folds flat, and puts the laptop at a perfect typing angle on an airline tray table or hotel desktop. I carry a lifetime of data on a half-dozen thumb drives and I've found the perfect organizer case for them: an empty Altoids tin. I'm okay with the wired and wireless high-speed internet access I get on the road, but if you're not, get yourself a wireless card from a mobile-phone service provider. I throw it all in a formfitting neoprene sleeve from Incase.

Use Software Tricks
I wouldn't think of telling you what software to use, but two programs have made my life on the road with laptop more productive and satisfying. LogMeIn allows me to access (and work on) my desktop machines from my laptop over any internet connection. And Slingbox software works with the Slingbox connected to my home television. From anywhere in the world, I can watch Keith Olbermann railing against President Bush or the New York Mets blow another one in the late innings. My frequent-flying wife reports she gets HGTV and the Food Network just fine on her Slingbox-enabled laptop.

Be Prepared to Walk Away
The day will come when you have to break up with your laptop. I last an average of 18 months before I bolt for something newer and better. But now you need to be prepared to leave your laptop long before the passion cools. A federal appeals court last month ruled that laptops are the equivalent of luggage and Customs officials may search--and, if they choose--confiscate your portable when you enter the country. As with any border search, no "reasonable suspicion" is necessary. You need to safeguard your proprietary data. Always have it backed up somewhere other than on your laptop.

The Fine Print
Get ready for WiMax, a superfast form of wireless internet access. Sprint Nextel and Clearwire announced a $14 billion joint venture last week, and they have the backing of some major cable companies too. WiMax promises to deliver data faster than existing 3G wireless networks and operate at speeds equivalent to wired broadband access.

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