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 The Brancatelli File

joe LIFE WITH LAPTOP

BY JOE BRANCATELLI

February 20, 2003 -- This is how far we've come: Twenty years ago, my first "portable" computer weighed 35 pounds, never fit under the seat in front of me, had a monochrome screen the size of an index card, couldn't operate on battery power and had no hard drive or modem.

Now I'm traveling with my seventh portable: It weighs four pounds, slips into a corner of my briefcase and it has a huge color screen; hard, CD-RW and DVD drives; rechargeable battery; and a gaggle of connection ports.

Needless to say, traveling with a portable computer is a lot easier today than back in the bad old days of 1983. But life with laptop today is much like taking your boss on a business trip: Both tend to be cranky and demanding, both inevitably force you to change your travel patterns and there are more than a few moments when you'll wish you'd left them back home.

Here are my ten commandments for traveling with your laptop right now. But you're on your own with your boss.

FIRST COMMANDMENT: THOU SHALT ABANDON THY LAPTOP BAG
The first time I took a notebook-sized portable on the road, I stashed the unit in a briefcase. It promptly fell off an airline ticket counter and trashed the laptop's hard drive. So I bought a good, padded laptop bag--and that was my first commandment of life with laptop for many years. Now, however, it's time to abandon that false god. With the carry-on rules limiting us to one piece of luggage and one "personal" item--which I interpret as the largest briefcase that fits in the overhead bin--I've dumped my laptop bag. These days I carry one of Glaser Design's exquisite and ingenious Traveler's Briefcases. They come complete with a foam divider to swaddle your laptop and a special interior bag for your cables and supplies. And they are roomy enough for all your non-computer business essentials. I purchased the all-leather, 22-inch model, so I can even squeeze in an extra shirt and my kit bag. Glaser bags aren't cheap (they start at $475) but they wear like iron, look great and serve a multitude of purposes.

SECOND COMMANDMENT: THOU SHALT GET THE CD/DVD DRIVE
I'm a minimalist. I am generally against non-business bells and whistles that add weight and cost. But my latest laptop--a 4-pound, $900 clone that I recently purchased at a warehouse club--has a built-in CD-RW/DVD drive. I didn't think I'd use it and I resented the added heft (my old laptop weighed just 3 pounds), but I was wrong. There is a giddy joy in bringing along my favorite CDs. And I admit it: I have watched movies on my laptop thanks to the DVD drive.

THIRD COMMANDMENT: THOU SHALT NOT LISTEN TO THY LAPTOP
The amount of time a laptop manufacturer says a battery will operate between recharging is about as reliable as mileage estimates on the stickers of new cars. Rechargeable batteries last about half as long as the laptop makers claim. So if you don't want your laptop with a six-hour battery to quit halfway through a transcontinental flight, carry an extra battery. And be smart: Buy a power inverter. This is an ingenious device that converts DC power to AC power. Why is that important? The power point in your car (we used to call it the cigarette lighter) and the power sockets on airplanes both use DC power. An inverter such as the Teleadapt--available for $95 from Magellan's--converts DC power to AC power suitable for your laptop's AC power cord. It even includes the plug adapters you need for cigarette lighters and in-flight power sockets.

FOURTH COMMANDMENT: THOU SHALT CARRY THE CORDS
Hoteliers must have a lot of suppressed anger in their lives. How else can you explain the fact that most hotel rooms in America are designed so that the power outlets are as far away as physically possible from the telephone jack? And how else do you explain the fact that these two crucial ports rarely seem to be in reasonable proximity to the desk? Be smart: Travel with a 25-foot-long phone cord, an electrical extension cord and a three-prong adapter. Headed overseas? Make sure you have the proper plug adapter so your laptop's AC power supply will fit into the local power receptacles. (Most laptop AC adapters operate between 100 and 220 volts, so a power converter isn't necessary.)

FIFTH COMMANDMENT: THOU SHALT KNOW THY ACCESS CODES
Make sure you know the local-access telephone numbers of your online services, Internet Service Providers and electronic-mail systems before you hit the road. You haven't suffered until you need to get online from an exotic resort in the middle of the night and have no way of learning what number to call.

SIXTH COMMANDMENT: THOU SHALT OUTSMART THY HOTEL
So many business travelers are going online from their hotel rooms that hotels have created a new fee for long calls. This new charge usually appears as a 10-cent-a-minute surcharge on calls to 800 numbers lasting 30 minutes or more. But you can beat the fee if you hang up after the 29th minute. That resets the clock. Then redial and you'll dodge the surcharge for another 29 minutes.

SEVENTH COMMANDMENT: THOU SHALT HAVE A VIRTUAL FAX NUMBER
The nifty fax modem in your laptop will send a snappy fax once you negotiate the maze of the hotel switchboard. But receiving faxes is problematic because hotel switchboards aren't capable of automatically switching an incoming fax call to a guestroom. If you need to receive faxes on the road, get a free, receive-only fax number from a service such as Efax. People can then send a fax to that number.

EIGHTH COMMANDMENT: THOU SHALT BE READY FOR THE FUTURE
I have seen the future of business travel--even played with it a little--and it belongs to wireless and in-flight Internet. When you're buying a new laptop, be sure it comes equipped with a PC card slot, which will accommodate the Wi Fi cards that make wireless Internet access possible. Moreover, make sure your new laptop has an RJ-45 jack, which is also known as an Ethernet port or a 10/100 network connection. Boeing is now testing in-flight Internet and E-mail on selected transatlantic Lufthansa and British Airways flights. I tried it myself last week on a BA flight. It works. But you need an RJ-45 jack to connect, so make sure your laptop has one. One more thing: When you buy a new laptop, make sure it has the latest USB ports, which are known as Version 2.0.

NINTH COMMANDMENT: THOU SHALT OCCASIONALLY LEAVE IT HOME
I know this is blasphemy in this era of anytime/anywhere Web access, but you could leave your laptop home. Would the world really end if you went a couple of days without checking your E-mail?

This column originally appeared at JoeSentMe.com

Copyright 1993-2004 by Joe Brancatelli. All rights reserved.