The Brancatelli File



August 1, 1995 -- A dozen years ago, my first "portable" computer weighed 35 pounds, never fit under the airline seat in front of me, and couldn't operate on battery power. This year's model, my fourth, weighs about six pounds, slips into a corner of my carry-on bag, and runs on a rechargeable battery.

But life with laptop in 1995 is not the life of Riley. In fact, traveling with a portable is much like taking your lover on a business trip: both tend to be cranky and demanding, and there are more than a few moments when you'll wish you'd left them both back home.

Here are some hard-won tips about traveling with your computer. You're on your own with your lover.

Buy the bag. While my laptop fits snugly in my carry-on case, I learned the hard way that a computer is most securely transported in its own padded bag. The first time I took my newest laptop on the road, my carry-on case fell and trashed the floppy drive. Good laptop cases aren't cheap--expect to pay about $100--but they have protective padding in all the right places. And they provide ample storage for all the requisite paraphernalia you'll be carrying.

Lies our laptops tell us. The amount of time a laptop manufacturer says a battery will operate between recharging is about as reliable as those mileage estimates on new-car stickers. Practically, rechargeable batteries last about half as long as the laptop makers claim. So if you don't want your laptop with a four-hour battery to quit halfway through a flight to Chicago, carry an extra battery.

Cords for the cautious. Hoteliers must have a lot of suppressed anger in their lives. How else can you explain the fact that every hotel room in America is 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 never seem to be in reasonable proximity to the desk? Be smart: travel with a 25-foot-long telephone cord, an electrical extension cord, and a 3-prong adaptor.

Know the codes. If you use your laptop for electronic mail or on-line services, make sure you know the local-access telephone numbers before you hit the road. You haven't suffered until you need to get on line in a strange city in the middle of the night and don't know what number to call. And there isn't a concierge in America who knows what a local access number is, let alone what it might be in his city.

Forego the faxes. The fax modem in your laptop will send a snappy fax once you negotiate the maze of the hotel switchboard. But forget about receiving a fax. Most hotel switchboards aren't capable of automatically switching a fax call to a guest room, and no office worker in America seems capable of making the manual call required to route your fax to your waiting modem.

Bring some backup. Portable computer hard drives are extremely fragile--and even quirkier than desktop drives--and subject to occasional data loss. So make sure you have floppy-disk copies of your crucial software and data files--and don't forget to bring a copy of your operating system.

Parting may not be such sweet sorrow. Heretical as it may sound, you may not need to tote your portable computer on every business trip. If you don't reasonably expect to use your laptop at least two hours each day, leave it home.

This column originally appeared in San Francisco Focus magazine.

Copyright 1993-2008 by Joe Brancatelli. All rights reserved.