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 The Brancatelli File

joe HIGH-TECH TRAVEL
TOOLS FOR RIGHT NOW


BY JOE BRANCATELLI

December 9, 2004 -- First, some perspective: I've been covering high-tech topics for so long that when I first wrote about "price wars," I was talking about 4-function calculators in the mid-1970s. I was a video-games expert when Atari's home version of Pong was literally the only video-games system about which you could be an expert. I remember when the Apple II was the must-have accouterment for savvy securities analysts. I wrote about DOS when contrarians were lining up behind a personal-computer operating system called CP/M. I've owned a Kaypro and an Osborne when those 35-pound behemoths were considered portable computers.

All of which goes to prove that I know what I'm talking about when we discuss high-tech travel tools. Wait, come to think about it, maybe it just proves that I'm old, so perhaps I should move on...

With tech maven Phil Baker writing about the airlines this week, I can sneak back to one of my old beats and offer some recommendations and observations about what works and what doesn't when it comes to the technology we business travelers currently use.

A GOOD, CHEAP NOTEBOOK COMPUTER
If my long relationship with high-tech proves nothing else, it's that I am no Luddite. But I simply do not understand business travelers who weigh themselves down with all these overlapping pieces of technology: PDA, mobile phone, laptop, pager, Blackberry, MP3 player, DVD player and on and on. My theory: Take two, leave the rest at home.

My choices are a cellphone for voice calls and a laptop for everything else. And the more laptops I buy--I've lost count of how many I've owned since that Kaypro--the more I am convinced that a portable computer should be considered a commodity. I want 'em cheap and light and durable and disposable.

Two years ago, I picked up an $800 thing called a Sotec at a warehouse store. It was acceptably light (about 4 pounds) and thin (about 1.5 inches) and had just enough of everything to make it a bargain. And it's still going strong.

These days, Sotec has morphed into Averatec and suddenly this Japanese firm that once made Macintosh clones for Apple is all trendy with the contrarian tech crowd. Averatec doesn't make the pioneering stuff like the best IBM ThinkPads or Sony Vaios. It certainly isn't as well-known as Dell or Toshiba or as omnipresent as HP/Compaq. But it's gaining mass-market attention for solidly made machines that are cheap and reliable.

I just bought my frequent-flying wife an Averatec 3250H1, one of the company's Thin & Light 3200 series. It lists for $999, but the office superstores and big-box electronic retailers are offering rebates of as much as $200. What do you get for $800? A 4.5-pound, one-inch-thick machine with 512Mb of memory; a 60-gigabyte hard drive; a built-in DVD/CD-RW drive; and an Ethernet port, modem and 802.11g wireless. The screen is 12.1 inches and it's built on the Mobile Athlon 2200+ chip. I wish the keyboard were a bit more responsive and I wish there were more than three built-in USB 2.0 ports, but you can't beat this machine for value. And you can beat it up on the road. Averatec also sells 3200 Series models with larger hard drives and other optical drives. It also markets a series of laptops with 15-inch displays, which I find too large to use comfortably on a plane.

A GOOD, CHEAP DESKTOP
When you get as old as me, you start getting crotchety and nostalgic for what could have been. The idea of truly personal computing, the holy grail of the earliest generations of PCs, has been lost. And now that the boxes themselves are essentially appliances, the dwindling number of retail PC makers have focused on loading up their machines with useless bloatware. Worse, they insist on claiming that their top-line "media center" PCs are the ultimate in convergence devices. Trust me, folks: I've had computers with built-in television tuners and video capability for a decade and we're still years from a truly useful all-in-one appliance that reliably manages all of the disparate elements.

But when my five-year-old HP finally gave out--the DVD had seized up, it has an immortal virus that I fooled into dormancy by resetting the clock to 2007 and I ran out of expansion slots--I had to start from scratch. And scratch turns out to be a good place to start--and finish. Ignore all the fancy, bloated boxes on retail shelves and go for an amazingly polished piece of cheap technology: the eMachines T3256.

For about $600 (less at some big electronic chains), you get a tower with 512Mb of memory (expandable to 2 gigabytes); a 160 gig hard-drive; a CD-ROM drive and a sophisticated DVD +/- burner; an 8-in-1 media reader; decent sound and video cards; a modem, Ethernet card and five USB 2.0 slots. The Athlon 3200+ processor in this machine is surprisingly fast, a quirk that has been documented by lots of online chatter. Even the usually snobby Cnet.com, which hasn't seen an under-$2,000 retail PC it really likes, rates this model as outstanding. There are a few quibbles (no 24-hour tech support, no FireWire port), but the T3256 is the value buy of the season. You can't match the features and capacity for twice the price and only the most sophisticated users or crazed gamers need more.

THE SATELLITE-RADIO CONUNDRUM
Early adopters of the satellite-radio systems pioneered by XM Radio and Sirius rave about them. But my complaint has always been the need to buy still more equipment. Both systems require specialty hardware and that made satellite radio, for me, a technology too far. Even if you weren't bothered by the extra monthly fee, the gaggle of gadgets you needed to get either XM or Sirius was off-putting.

Both companies have now decided that they need a more universally available solution and both are now available online in streaming form or with new hardware that mimics Walkman-type radios. Because XM Radio had the "killer app" I've been coveting--a channel of music fronted by Jonathan Schwartz, the novelist, Sinatra expert, sometimes Cabaret singer, son of composer Arthur Schwartz and one-man crusader for the American songbook--I have been testing its new options.

The XM Radio online product offers only about half of XM's full inventory of news, sports, music, comedy and information channels. (The company doesn't have Internet rights for the rest of its programming.) And that's the flaw. At $7.95 a month for Web-only access, getting only half of what XM offers simply doesn't cut it. There are other, cheaper (and many free) streaming-music alternatives on the Web.

So on to the Delphi XM MyFi, a brilliant, but flawed, new piece of hardware. It's an all-in-one solution for the full XM programming product. The core component is a portable, Walkman-type device that allows you to listen to XM anywhere. (You've undoubtedly seen those new commercials with Elton John bopping around with his MyFi.) The MyFi also has antennas and adapters that allow you to use it in your car and in your home. So what could be bad? Well, the portable device relies on a built-in antenna and reception is a problem, especially in areas with tall buildings, mountains or other promontories that block the satellite signal. The rechargeable battery's capacity is low (about five hours between charges). Some music fans dislike the fact that the portable component doesn't double as an MP3 player. And the price is high: $350 for the MyFi on top of the monthly XM subscription fee of $9.95.

The bottom line: Satellite radio will only get better and cheaper as it reaches critical mass. Unless you're absolutely fed up with your free radio and Internet programming options, wait for the second generation of XM Radio online and the portable MyFi system.

This column originally appeared at JoeSentMe.com.

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