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-- by John Woram
The neighbors are jealous. You're always jetting off to some interesting destination while they're stuck at home. They don't know what they're missing. But you do, and you wouldn't mind missing it, too. Or at least part of it. It used to be just you and your clothing; now it's you, the clothing and the computer, and the computer is making more and more demands. Everyone expects you to be "in touch" at all times. So what if you're in a hotel room in some dismal backwater where the telephone is still regarded with suspicion? The report's due anyway, and so are your replies to that squadron of "urgent" e-mails.
We can help with a few suggestions on how to win at the communications game, beginning with a contrarian view of how to buy a laptop. You'll have to find your own solutions to jet lag, strange water and language barriers.
When Less Is More
There's something to be said for a laptop with a hot Intel Pentium processor, a built-in modem, diskette and CD-ROM drives, and all the other trappings that identify you as the ultimate power user. And that something is, "Who needs it?" If you must tote all that iron around, be sure to pack extra batteries, good shoulder pads and some tiny pills for when your back gives out. Or better yet, find a minimally equipped laptop and leave the hardware you don't need back at the office. If all you're going to do is check e-mail, you don't need to be weighted down with various drives you won't use. Nor do you need 1024x768 true-color pixels on your tray table. As for the CPU, you'll get more battery time if it's not quite the latest and the greatest. Put another way: What would you rather have in mid-flight-a dead Pentium or a live 486?
For the minimalist on the move, the old IBM ThinkPad 701 seemed like a dream come true. It weighed next to nothing, had no internal drives (except the hard one), and the butterfly keyboard reduced physical size to an absolute minimum. On the downside, it needed its own detachable multi-port to interface with most of the outside world, and its (permanently) built-in 14.4Kb-per-second high-current modem was fast at the time, but not so today. The newer model 560 is even better; it's no heavier, all ports are built-in, and the modem isn't.
The bottom line: Save the high tech for the office. Look for a laptop that offers nothing more than what you always need, and the option to plug in what you sometimes need. And read down the spec sheet until you come to the most important one-it's called weight.
More Power to You
If you need to compute during the entire flight, help is on the way. Primex Aerospace is retrofitting some 1,000 commercial aircraft with its EmPower in-seat laptop computer power system. Soon (even sooner if you fly first or business class) you'll find a 12-volt DC receptacle in the armrest. Just plug in your own adapter cable and use up the airline's power supply instead of your own. American Airlines' outlets will use the same receptacle as an automobile cigarette lighter. Delta, United and many other companies will install a slightly smaller receptacle, so you'll need an adapter for your adapter cable if you fly American and one of the others, too. Delta promises on-board adapter cables for many laptops, and some manufacturers plan to include the appropriate cable with future laptops.
In the meantime, many companies sell an adapter with a conventional AC receptacle powered by the 12V DC source in your car, and now, in your airplane, too. Although such an adapter will run any conventional AC device, the three-step conversion from DC to AC and then to whatever your laptop wants is a bit of a power waste, and the adapter itself is apt to be bulky. You'll be happier-and travel lighter-with a simpler cable that converts 12V DC directly to laptop power, without the intervening AC mode. Depending on your computer's appetite for power, expect to pay between $90 and $120.
If that plane takes you overseas, expect to find 220V to 240V service. Some American adapters will work at these voltages, too. If so, the label on the adapter should have a 100V to 240V (or similar) range printed on it somewhere. If there is no such label, get a new adapter or a good step-down transformer.
The Case for Protection
In case of a crash landing (of your laptop, that is), make sure you carry a lot of insurance. A good carrying case is a term not likely defined by your present briefcase. If you need to work while traveling, look for a clamshell design that lets you use the computer without removing it from the case. If your laptop uses an external diskette drive, there should be a fitted compartment for it, and the means to leave it connected to the laptop while both are still in the case. Port makes a wide variety of quality cases. Depending on your requirements, expect to pay up to $300 for a good custom case.
Diagnostics on the Road
If your travels take you to those faraway places with the strange-sounding names, rest assured the phone system will be no less exotic than the food. If you make regular trips to the same location, you can buy a connector kit that includes the required phone plug adapter and a line tester for about $50. Or if you're truly a world traveler, you can get a kit complete with 39 adapters for slightly less than $500. At about this point, an acoustic coupler (about $150) starts to look good, and it's your only choice if the phone is hard-wired into the wall (see sidebar "Mike Elgan and His Acoustical Coupling Machine")
Even if your travels take you no farther than your favorite stateside chain, odds are the phone system will be digital and the data port (if any) will be dead-or if not dead, then miswired. In case of doubt, take along an IBM Modem Saver. This test probe plugs into any conventional RJ-11 phone jack, and its three traffic-light LEDs report line status: Red indicates over current; yellow, reverse polarity; and green, normal.
As usual, a red light means stop-do not plug in. In this case, you're in the presence of a digital phone line and will need to connect your modem to the line between the phone and its handset, where communications are still in the analog mode. To do this, though, you'll need an interface. The Konexx Mobile Konnector is one of several devices that do the job.
As for the yellow light, a random sampling of hotel phones on both coasts revealed a polarity reversal in almost half our tests, which usually
doesn't matter much anymore. In auto-answer mode, some ancient (circa 1993 or earlier) modems won't recognize an incoming ring if the wires are crossed, but that's surely a nonissue for the modern business traveler. Of more concern is the high-frequency pulse system used in parts of Europe to monitor (read: to tax) phone usage. In this case, a polarity reversal may cause your modem some grief, especially if it's a PC Card device. Here, a pulse filter should solve the problem.
Assuming you have the right connectors, the line checks out, your modem is certified for local operation, and you've entered the necessary dialing sequence, the next step is to see if you can place a call. The procedure usually goes something like this: The modem listens for a dial tone, then dials the number. After a few rings, a recorded voice thanks it for calling and invites it to dial someone's x-digit extension. Or you've dialed directly into your Internet service provider or e-mail service, and there's no need for the modem to bother with an extension number. But in either case, the software does all this, and-voilŗ-you're connected.
Maybe. Sometimes the software dials out prematurely or dials the extension before it's asked to. Then nothing happens for a while, and finally the connection is terminated. Depending on your hardware/software configuration, you may hear what's going on during this period. If your laptop speaker isn't too good, you'll hear a series of squawks, which by their rhythm you'll recognize as the welcome message. But if some other message intervenes, there's a good chance you won't understand it. In cases like
this, don't overlook the obvious. If the telephone has a built-in speaker, press its button and eavesdrop. If you hear the modem dial the extension prematurely, redial it from the phone when asked to do so. Or react as appropriate if you hear something else. Once you're satisfied that your modem is indeed talking to their modem, turn off the speaker. If there's no speaker, use the handset instead and replace it (gently!) once you make the connection.
You probably won't forget to pack a short length of phone cable-or at least you won't forget a second time. Also don't overlook one of those female-to-female RJ-11 adapters. Plug both ends of that phone cable into it while on the move to protect the adapter tabs against breakage. And when you finally get settled in a room where the phone lacks a data port and is connected to a wall socket behind an immovable piece of furniture, just disconnect the phone and, if necessary, use the adapter and your own phone line as an extension. This option becomes a necessity if your PC Card cable has a proprietary connector at the modem end and an RJ-11 at the other. The adapter is also handy for checking the hotel's phone cable. Disconnect the cable from the phone, plug it into the adapter and plug your Modem Saver probe into the other end of the adapter. If you're from the belt-and-suspenders school, you may want to make room in your case for a notebook surge suppressor. APC offers the SurgeArrest Notebook Protector, and Tripp Lite offers the SMP. Both sell for under $20 and both include damage insurance.
Look, Modem, No Wires!
If you want to avoid confronting bad wiring, dead data ports, connector mismatches and outrageous hotel surcharges, you have two options. One is to use the U.S. mail. The more likely way is to use a wireless modem, such as the Megahertz AllPoints Wireless PC Card. Just plug it into your PCMCIA slot, extend the short antenna, and you're ready to send and receive messages from just about any major metropolitan area in the country. Let the others make a mad dash for the phones-you just stay seated and do it from there, wherever there is. You will, however, need a subscription to a wireless e-mail service such as GoAmerica's Email Plus, or Wynd Communications' WyndMail.
You'll also need to be willing to sacrifice speed. Megahertz says the Allpoint's speed is equivalent to a "wired" modem's 9600 baud. Metricom's Ricochet is a good deal faster, at 28.8Kbps. Coverage is currently limited to three major cities (Seattle, Washington, D.C., and San Francisco) and 10 major airports, but the company provides dial-in access from everywhere else (see WinLab Reviews, May). Some companies offer a trial rental plan that includes a wireless modem and e-mail service. You may want to try such a plan for a few months to evaluate its cost/convenience ratio.
The Customs Inspector
You can avoid some grief at and beyond the border if your modem is certified for foreign travel. Given the diversity of international dial tones, ring frequencies, tax tones and other telecommunications variables, it's unlikely that a conventional modem will work well both at home and abroad. And because most countries take a dim view of equipment that may compromise their phone systems, it's probably against the law to connect a modem not certified for local use. If this is a consideration, have a look at the TDK DF2814CX Global Class PC/Card, which can be configured for some 70-plus countries via a simple Country Selector applet. Just pick the desired country from a pull-down menu, and the modem reconfigures its internal flash memory to recognize that country's unique telephony characteristics, thus keeping the modem in operation, the tax tones at bay and you on the good side of the law.
These suggestions won't turn your business trip into a pleasure cruise, but they should help lighten your load a bit. And don't forget to send the neighbors a nice "Wish you were here!" postcard. They probably won't get its real meaning, but you'll feel better.
Consulting Editor John Woram is the author of The Windows 95 Registry: A Survival Guide for Users (MIS:Press, 1996). Contact John in the WINDOWS Magazine areas on America Online and CompuServe, or care of the editor at the addresses on page 20.
SIDEBAR: TRAVEL TIPS
If your battery doesn't get much of a day-to-day workout, let it run down by leaving the laptop on but unplugged overnight; then recharge it. The exercise will keep your battery healthy longer.
Pack Your Boots
If your hard drive forgets its manners, you'll be glad you remembered to bring along a reliable boot diskette. With luck, you won't need it.
It's a Jungle Out There
If you and your laptop will be up against the elements, check out the FieldWorks FW5000 or FW7000 series. These rugged laptops are built for use in just about any harsh environment.
More Bang for Your Battery
Your PCMCIA card can be sucking the life out of your battery even when it's not in use. Remove the card to conserve battery power.
Be Easy to Find
If you and your laptop become separated, help the honest return it to you. Hereís how:
- Tape a business card to the bottom or--space permitting--near the keyboard.
Long Life to You
Ö And to your laptop, too, if itís in the Fujitsu LifeBook 600 series. These lightweight laptops offer a two-battery option for those long trips on a plane that doesnít yet have the EmPower system installed. The modem is built-in, though, so youíre stuck with it. On the bright side, itís a 33.6Kbps.
Reset Your Clock
Let your laptop know youíre in a different time zone, so your messages will be correctly time-stamped and your scheduling software wonít have you showing up hours too early (or worse, too late!) for the next meeting.
Learn to Adapt
If youíre traveling overseas, youíll need an AC plug adapter for any device that can be plugged in. Remember, this adaptation is strictly physical--you must also make sure the device can handle the voltage itís about to receive.
Check the Local Access Number
Donít wait to get where youíre going to discover you donít know the local phone number. Before heading for the airport, check your communications software to see if those numbers are already available. Better yet, dial into whatever service youíll be using and download the latest access numbers.
Preflight Software Update
If you havenít used your laptop for communications recently, make sure it works *now*. Some services recognize outdated software and offer to update it online. If you decline, youíre disconnected. You will not be pleased to discover this "feature" when youíre on a long-distance call.
Face it, your modem isnít going to live forever, and its proprietary cable will likely get damaged or disappear. Because this is most likely to happen while youíre on the road, this is a very good time to pull a spare modem out of your bag (and donít forget spare cables, too).
Join the Club
In this era of hub-and-spoke air travel, sooner or later youíll wind up killing a few hours between connections. You can mill about in the holding pen with the rest of the cattle or retire to the airlineís members-only clubroom, where youíll find peace and quiet, fax machines, printers, a few PCs and even more important--a well-stocked bar.
Check In with Some Reservations
See if the hotel is running one of those "kids stay free" promotions. If it is, find another hotel. Enough said?
Room at the Top
Many hotel chains offer premium-price rooms on the top floor with amenities you wonít have time to enjoy, but not those you need. See if the hotel has a "business floor," too. If so, your phone may include a data port, an extra line or maybe even a fax machine next to it.
You Canít Get There from Here
Ö Unless you have a good map, or better yet, Delorme Mappingís Street Atlas USA 4.0. Just search for the city and street you want to locate, then print your own map of the general area. If youíre the type who wonít ask for directions, take along Delormeís Tripmate, too. Its GPS (Global Positioning System) unit sits on your dashboard and looks for satellites. The GPS plugs into your laptopís serial port and shows your current location using the Street Atlas software, which comes bundled with Tripmate.
Pack Your Briefcase
If you donít want to miss a beat back at the office, synchronize your data between your desktop and your laptop. Windows 95ís Briefcase applet is one way. Youíll see the icon on your Desktop if you chose the Portable setup option when you installed Windows 95. If itís not there, click on "Creating a Briefcase" in Windows Help and follow the directions. Then connect your two systems, and on your laptop, drag and drop files from shared folders on your main computer to your Briefcase. When youíre ready to update your files, and the two computers are connected by cable or network, double-click on the My Briefcase icon and select Briefcase/Update All. Or select the files you want to update, and then click on Update Selection.
Get in Synch
For more sophisticated synchronization features than you get with Win95ís Briefcase, try LapLink 7.5 for Windows 95 or pcAnywhere32 7.5. LapLink streamlines the file-synchronization process with wizards, drag-and-drop editing and integrated preview features. You can even schedule unattended file synchronizations, thanks to integration with Microsoftís System Agent. If youíre security-conscious, LapLink can encrypt all data during remote-control, remote-node or remote file-transfer sessions. With pcAnywhere32 7.5, you can control another computer or transfer files over the Internet. The software also includes log-on and password protection, data encryption and file-transfer rights that can be limited by the caller.
Season Your Batteries
Brand new batteries come uncharged and need to be warmed up before theyíll reach their full rated capacity. To break them in, charge and discharge a few times by unplugging your AC adapter and leaving them turned on for a couple of hours.
SIDEBAR: Mike Elgan and His Acoustical Coupling Machine
Contrary to popular belief, the acoustic coupler did not go extinct during the Jurassic period. In fact, we even spotted one in use on editor Mike Elgan's desk. Since it's Mike's obligation to set an example here at WINDOWS Magazine to demand the latest and the greatest, we couldn't resist a question: Why?
Turns out Mike often uses his digital desk phone to exchange files between his laptop and his desktop PC. He uses his acoustic coupler in conjunction with LapLink remote-control software, and forgoes the cable for lack of available ports on his PC. His desktop system uses the analog modem port in the wall. And his phone has one of those adapters for a headphone/microphone set, so one more adapter for the modem would be just one adapter too many. Because the coupler is part of his regular road kit, it's just that much easier to continue using it back at the office, as occasion-and desktop clutter-demands. Besides, "I don't like crawling on the floor," says Mike. "The acoustic coupler is a highly underrated device. I depend on it on the road and enjoy its convenience at the office."
If you're considering an acoustic coupler, here are a few tips:
-- Use a fresh battery. Some PCMCIA modems require a relatively high-current signal, which a marginal battery-or the coupler itself-may not deliver. If a battery change doesn't help, try a different modem. Or look inside the coupler's battery case for a current-selector switch (the Konexx Koupler has one). Try the high-current position if you must; otherwise, leave it in the low-current position to extend battery life. If your coupler doesn't have such an option, and a low-current modem isn't available, you'll need a new coupler.
-- Fasten your safety belt. When you place the coupler against the handset, wrap the fastening strap firmly, but not tightly, around both devices. Both devices communicate via moving diaphragms. If you cut off the air supply, they'll die.
-- Don't use your phone's speaker. With the handset off-hook, the speaker is usually disabled, or if you press the speaker button, it may disable the handset, thereby severing the acoustic link to the modem.
-- Find the right pay phone. Some older (carbon microphone) handsets will force the modem into 2400 bits per second-or lower! You may need to set your modem to the lower speed if it has trouble doing so automatically.
Finally, bill the call to your credit card. Otherwise, your modem will not be happy with those incessant interruptions to deposit more coins. -John Woram
SIDEBAR: Test Your Telephone
You've tried everything, yet you're still incommunicado. It's time to try a quick modem/phone line test using HyperTerminal, Windows 95's basic communications applet. Double-click on the HYPERTRM.EXE icon in the Programs/Accessories folder, type test in the Name box, select any icon and click on the OK button. Next, type any number (it won't be used) into the Phone Number box, again click on OK, and then on Cancel. You should see an empty Test window. Go to File/Properties and then the Settings tab. Check the Beep Three Times box, click on the ASCII Setup button and check the two boxes in the ASCII Sending section, then click on the OK button twice to close the dialog boxes. Now type the letter a (you may have to wait a few seconds for it to appear). If it appears twice, type te0 (the complete line will now read aattee00) and press Enter. From now on, each typed character should appear only once. Assuming the modem is connected to a working phone line, and the laptop speaker is operational, you should hear a dial tone when you type atdt and press Enter. Type ath0 to hang up. Select Disconnect from the Call menu. You should hear three short beeps.
If these tests pass, the basic modem/phone line connection is in good order, and subsequent problems are probably software-related. If they don't, you probably have a hardware problem.-John Woram
SIDEBAR: The Road Warrior's Shopping Cart
APC SurgeArrest Notebook Protector
American Power Conversion
Auto Power Cord
Price: $89 to $129
FieldWorks Field WorkStations Price: From $4,995
IBM Modem Saver
IBM ThinkPad 560
Price: $2,499 to 4,399
IBM PC Co.
Unlimited Systems Corp.
Konexx Mobile Konnector
Unlimited Systems Corp.
Metricom Ricochet wireless modem and Internet service
Phone Line Adapter Kit
Price: $50 to $457 (1 to 39 adapters)
Port computer carrying cases
Price: $79 to $300
3Com Megahertz AllPoints Wireless PC Card
Tax Pulse Filter
TDK DF2814CX Global Class PC Card
Tripp Lite SMP
312-755-5401, fax 312-644-6505
AAA Map 'n' Go 2.0
Price: From $14.95 per month
Price: $149; upgrade, $29.95
Price: Two-computer license, $149; upgrade, $89
Price: $149 (includes Street Atlas USA)
Price: From $30 per month
SIDEBAR: Just Can't Wait to Get on the Net Again
Here are some sites to see before you hit the road:
html At Symantec's Mobile Resource Center, you'll find scads of information on modem-friendly hotels, local access numbers for America Online and CompuServe, names of restaurants for business meetings and links to visitor information centers.
http://www.mapquest.com MapQuest is an interactive street guide for the United States and abroad that also features information on everything from lodging to transportation to cybercafes.
http://warrior.com The Road Warrior News is a monthly e-mail newsletter that keeps you up to date on the latest Road Warrior product developments. It also features important articles about using portable computers and pocket organizers.
http://www.netmeals.com/index.html NetMeals is an interactive restaurant, take-out and delivery guide. Search for a specific restaurant by name, cuisine or location, and view menus to order online, by fax or via e-mail.-Elizabeth Sawyer
SIDEBAR: You Can Take NT with You
Windows NT has come a lot closer to becoming a laptop-friendly operating system in the past couple of revisions, but it still has its share of portability pitfalls. These workarounds will help make NT a better travel companion:
-- Start at the beginning. If you can't install a floppy and a CD-ROM drive at the same time, run the Windows NT installation program from the CD-ROM and enter\i386\winnt /x /b (or \i386\winnt32 /x /b if you're already running an earlier version of NT). This places the install files on the laptop hard drive.
-- Plug in before you turn on. Hot swapping PCMCIA devices is out of the question with NT. Boot an NT laptop with all the PCMCIA hardware you're going to use already plugged in and fired up.
-- Watch your battery life. NT's lack of Advanced Power Management (APM) support means laptops with low battery lives will burn an even shorter candle than before. So if you have a lot of work ahead of you, look for an outlet.
-- Know your drivers. The right drivers are critical to NT's proper performance, so make sure you have the right hard disk or CD-ROM controller driver installed. Some controllers don't work with NT's supplied ATAPI/IDE driver, and the manufacturer may have a substitute. Many laptop audio hardware drivers are unavailable in NT's standard driver manifest, but you can find them on the CD-ROM in the \DRVLIB\AUDIO subdirectory.-Serdar Yegulalp