Computers: Road Warriors

by Libs mulling over latest loss in 407 dispute

For long-haul truckers, the sleeper is becoming more and more like a home office-a place to catch up on paperwork and correspondence, not just sleep. And, like anyone else with a home office, a computer is more a necessity than a luxury. The critical difference is that truckers need computers that can move with them. A desktop PC, with its bulk and need for lots of AC power, just isn’t practical.

Portable computing means taking a smaller-than-average computer with you wherever you go, so that you can track jobs and finances, maintain up-to-date databases, and keep up with faxes and e-mail. The results of a decision to go portable can be significant-work gets done more efficiently, backlogs are avoided, and connections with business and home are easily maintained. But making the wrong choice can bring added expense and frustration.

What’s the best choice? The answer depends on your personal preferences, what the machine will be used for, what your budget will support, and more.

A helpful starting point is to decide how big (or small) you want your machine to be-portables come in every size from notebook to “pocketable” these days. Whatever the form factor, the computer should be compatible with Windows 95, 98, or NT-most trucking-specific software is written for these operating systems. Second, will you need such features as a CD-ROM drive, a sound card, or a modem? Each of these will add to the size and cost of the machine, so decide on how you’ll use the machine before you buy. Third, do you need a keyboard for inputting data, or would a pen-based interface be acceptable? Underlying all of these factors, of course, is the question of budget: how much can you afford to spend on your portable computer?

Keeping all of these issues in mind, let’s look at some available options. They’re grouped according to size and price-from largest to smallest.


First in line come the so-called ultra portables. They’re full-featured notebook computers, with all the bells and whistles you’d expect, such as a CD-ROM drive, internal modem, built-in sound card and speakers, and a high-quality color screen. Where they differ from traditional notebooks is in their weight and size-they’re aimed at the mobile consumer, so tend to be lighter and slimmer than their ordinary siblings.

Consider the Sony VAIO 505GX ($3600). It’s about the same size as an ordinary magazine (only 0.9 inches thick) and weighs in at three pounds (because of its magnesium case). Yet it comes with all the power and functionality of a desktop system: a 233MHz or 266MHz Pentium processor, 4.3Gb hard drive, 56Kb internal modem, and built-in microphone and speakers. Or consider the Dell Latitude ($2099), which is built for toughness as much as portability. The Latitude offers features like HyperCool, which reduces heat flow to the computer’s most critical components, and StrikeZone, which stops the hard drive from vibrating or shifting if the notebook is accidentally dropped flat.

Slimness has its price, though. You may find that CD-ROM drives or floppy drives come as external packs rather than being incorporated in the machine’s case. Add those, and a power pack, and an extra battery, and your total package (size, weight, and cost) will grow.


Next on the portable scene are mini-notebooks, such as the Toshiba Libretto 50CT/110CT ($2899) and the Hewlett Packard Jornada 820 ($1565). The primary appeal of these machines is their smaller size. The Libretto, for example, offers a potent Pentium 233 processor with MMX (which means superior graphics performance), 4.3Gb hard drive, 32Mb of RAM, and runs Windows 98. It weighs only 2.3 pounds and measures 8.3 inches by 4.5 inches by 1.4 inches. It has an external floppy drive and no CD-ROM drive (though one can be bought separately). The Jornada, a competitor mini from Hewlett Packard, is a little heavier (2.5 pounds), but lighter in its capabilities, as it runs the Windows CE PRO operating system rather than full-blown Windows 98. Pre-loaded is Microsoft’s Pocket Office software, 16mb of RAM (upgradeable to 32mb), a 190Mhz processor, and an internal 56K V.90 modem.

Mini-notebooks will appeal to you if you don’t have enough room for a full-sized notebook PC. Their screens are smaller, as are their keyboards, so you’ll have to make a decision about trading some efficiency and ease of use against savings in size and weight.


If even a mini is too big for you, you might consider a handheld computer (sometimes called a palmtop). These machines are pocketable and less expensive, but will still do the same work as larger machines-they’re real computers, not organizers or toys. Typically, they will not offer floppy or CD-ROM drives, and will have less memory capability than an ultra-portable or a mini-notebook. They can, however, be linked to a desktop PC system for backups, file transfers, and synchronization of database or scheduler applications. They can also be linked to a printer for hard copy output, or to a telephone line or cell phone for mobile transfer of e-mail or faxes.

Leading the pack among handhelds are various machines running the Windows CE operating system. Sharp’s Mobilon HC-4600 ($1139) is an excellent example of the breed. It measures 7.3 inches by 3.7 inches by 1.2 inches, and weighs only 17.3 ounces, including batteries and a built-in 33.6 Kbps modem. It features Windows CE, 16Mb of RAM (upgradeable to 32Mb), and a 6.5-inch color touch screen with backlight. The Hewlett Packard 660LX ($1,399) is similar, but more fully-featured. It also runs the Windows CE operating system, but offers a 75Hz processor, 32Mb of RAM, and a 56Kb modem in its trim 1.2-inch by 7.6-inch by 3.8-inch package, and weighs 21.2 ounces. The 660LX’s lithium ion battery offers five to six hours of run time without the modem, and three to four hours with the modem.

An interesting alternative to the CE machines comes from UK-based Psion, which has been in the palmtop market for 18 years. The Psion Series 5 machine ($789) runs on Psion’s proprietary EPOC32 operating system, and comes with a full set of installed software programs, which are compatible with all leading Windows 95/98/NT4 word processors, spreadsheets, and databases, and synchronize with schedule and contacts software on your desktop PC, including Microsoft, Lotus, Corel, WordPerfect, and other applications.

The Series 5 measures 6.7 inches by 3.5 inches by 1 inch, and weighs in at 12 ounces including batteries. The Series 5’s keyboard has received outstanding acclaim for its usability, and claimed battery life is a healthy 35 hours. Note, however, that the Series 5 touch screen is gray-scale rather than color, and that an external modem is needed for mobile communications.

Filling out the portable computing stable is the immensely popular 3Com PalmPilot III ($539), small enough to fit into a shirt pocket, but capable enough to do scheduling, database management, and e-mail or faxing. The PalmPilot is more like a personal organizer on steroids than a true portable computer, however. It has a smaller, gray-scale screen, and uses a handwriting recognition interface rather than a keyboard. Like its bigger siblings, it offers easy synchronization with a desktop PC, so that its small size and easy portability can be used to full advantage.

Choosing the right machine to answer your mobile computing needs is a matter of compromise. Software function, battery life, and appropriate size are all factors that will play a part in your choice. When the right decision is made, though, you’ll find that a computer that travels with you can change the way you work and live-for the better.

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