Mobile Computing Solutions

What to know before you buy portable hardware

As business travelers’ computing needs grow, so does the market for mobile computing equipment. Laptops, cellular phones and personal digital assistants (PDAs) are common fare for airports, taxis and trains. Professionals today need to access e-mail, fax documents and even create presentations while on the run. According to a Forrestor Research report, Computing to Go, by 1999, 31% of all PCs will be laptops, compared with 18% today.

Not merely for show, laptops and other mobile computing accessories should fit the user’s needs and leave room for growth. When considering an investment, you should identify what you presently expect from a mobile device as well as future requirements. Clearly, you don’t want to invest in products that’ll fail to fulfill your needs or quickly outgrow their usefulness. Nor would it be wise to jump in at the high end with products and features you’ll never need.

Andrew M. Seybold, a consultant to portable hardware vendors and editor- in-chief of Outlook on Communications and Computing, says there are different types of mobile computer users, each with different needs. “There are those who need to access information while on the road, and those who need to create it,” says Seybold. Most mobile users are in the first category, where cellular phones and pagers reign.

AT&T’s PocketNet cellular phone does much more than just talk. It allows users to send and receive e-mail, send faxes, search the Internet for specific information and access your corporate intranet. PocketNet sells for about $500 (not including air time). Pagers, too, have grown up: there are now two-way pagers that can send and receive text messages. SkyTel Corp. sells them for about $400.

For the mobile professional with information processing needs, laptops and PDAs are the weapons of choice. PDAs borrow the best features from the organizer, handheld, palmtop and pen-based markets. The options here are vast, ranging from low-end organizers, which are basically electronic versions of the old leather-bound journal, to complex PC companions that allow word processing, file transfer and e-mail access.

While they are very versatile, even the high-end PDAs are not meant to replace your computer. In fact, one of their biggest strengths is that they create a link to laptop and desktop computers for transfer of information. They are made for the mobile professional who needs to keep appointments, check e-mail and receive faxes, but doesn’t need a fullblown laptop. Products like Sharp Electronic’s Zaurus ZR5800 K-PDA, which lists for $599.99, allow you to do just that (see “Weapons for the Road Warrior,” Techwatch, this issue).

Mobile professionals who need to create, edit and present files and applications while on the road are bettter off with a laptop. Newer models enable e-mail exchange, word processing, data storage and multimedia presentations. Now that laptops have caught up to their desktop counterparts in terms of functionality, there are a slew of models crowding the field. Some of the more notable include IBM’s ThinkPad, Toshiba’s Tecra line, the AcerNote Nuovo by Acer and the LTE 5000 line from Compaq.

Despite vendors’

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