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Why Buy a Laptop?
A ticket to freedom
December 2002

K. Joyce McDonald

Joyce is a senior technical writer for a local software company.

See her web page

I'm getting a lot of response from readers now, the content of which is quite good. If you write, be sure to let me know if I can use the content in an article and if you want me to use your name and/or e-mail address.

In response to my Tales from the Software Twilight Zone article last month, wherein I mentioned the purchase of my new laptop, one reader asks, ďAre you free from the cubicle culture? Really?Ē I canít answer that question with an unequivocal ďNo.Ē Last month, I spent three weeks in a tiny cubicle situated in a windowless bomb shelter writing a training manual. The upside is that when the three weeks were up, I got to walk out of there and return to my comfortable home (or anywhere) office.

Working my next contract, I was able to baby sit my two grandkids, producing while they were sleeping. I visited my dad and worked while he and my husband watched a football game. I am writing this article at my dadís house right now. I attended a High Growth Stock Investing software usersí meeting and continued updates to their User Guide during the presentations.

Fifty percent of my readers just told themselves that a laptop is something only a workaholic could love. The other half view a laptop as I do: as a ticket to freedom. If you are still reading, you belong to the latter half, so Iíll give examples.

I enjoy my work. What I donít enjoy is working till 3 AM or getting up at 5 to meet a deadline. Avoiding such odd hours, I can still, if needed put in the occasional sixty hour week and see my family, too.

Twenty years ago I started my love affair with ďportableĒ computers, lusting after a KayPro II. (You can see one now in the window at the Alamo PC Resource center.) The Kaypro retailed at about three grand, which I couldnít afford. That didnít matter, since I didnít have a clue as to how to use it. Lacking cash for a computer I bought every computer book or magazine I could find. It was another two years before I touched the real thing.

By 1984, machines with the DOS operating system had taken off in the business world and I bought a ďportableĒ IBM PC. My PC had a seven inch inboard monochrome yellow screen, 64 kilobytes of memory, two 360K floppy drives, a 4.77 megahertz Intel 8088 processor, and a 25 pin serial port. The price: 2500 bucks. We had to pay fifty extra to install a parallel port for a printer. The printer cost about $400. The printer cable was another $25. And my ďportableĒ computer weighed 33 pounds.

We pieced together a software library that included DBase II, Wordstar, Lotus 123 and Flight Simulator. The last item, surprisingly, was the only Microsoft product outside the DOS operating system.

Since my primary task was learning how to use a computer, I did see a rise in productivity. When the kids were small and my husbandís parents were alive, we traveled to his tiny home town in east Texas to spend one weekend a month. The kids and I loved the visits, but after about 24 hours (when sports events dominated the only TV set,) I ran out of things to do, besides eat.

Since I had a part time job lecturing for Weight Watchers, it was important that I find something more constructive to do. I set up a card table in the guest room and lugged out my PC. I learned to simulate an aircraft takeoff and fly around a bit, if not land safely. I wrote letters to my friends. Without the DOS boot disk, my PC would boot up into the BASIC programming language, so I learned to write code and develop rudimentary programming logic. I learned that I never wanted to be without a PC again.

In the next 18 years we purchased nine computers including five laptops. We also got two Palm devices, countless peripherals and enough network equipment to attach three computers at a time to the Internet and to each other. In those years, Iíve learned that portability equals productivity, and the more portable, the more productive. For this reason, we recently purchased for my daughter and me almost identical Dell Inspiron 8200 laptops.

Both laptops came with a built-in CD Burner/DVD Player combination. During a long flight, I can plug in my earphones and watch Gladiator on a generously sized screen. After Gladiator, if I have time, I can listen to music on my hard drive or from CDs. When I get to my hotel room, I can get out my Tíai Chi DVD for some well-needed exercise and relaxation. These devices also let us use cheap CDs to burn backups of daily work when weíre not attached to a network.

Even on a long flight, battery power is not a problem. I ordered an extra battery and replaced the floppy drive with the extra battery. The batteries and power saving features manage six or seven hours of unplugged power. Even when my laptop is plugged in, I have reason to give thanks for the batteries. The occasional power blip or failure doesnít phase a laptop, as battery power takes over where AC leaves off. Lost work, and worse yet, lost ideas never need hamper my productivity.

If itís dark, I can use the tiny Targus laptop light that plugs into my USB port. Since it doesnít require a plug, I can use it anywhere. It illuminates the keyboard and serves as a spotlight for anything else I may need to see. I could charge and hotsync my Palm M130, but I would have to unplug either the external (infrared) mouse or the light, since I have only two USB ports. The upside of USB, in addition to the power it supplies to peripheral devices, is how easy it is to connect and remove the devices.

If I had some manual dexterity, I could be more productive by leaving the mouse in my carry all and using the inboard mouse. This mouse has two sets of buttons, one below the space bar and another set at the edge between the sizable palm rests.

If I have a long wait in an airport, I can pull out the locking cable, another extra purchase, that hooks into the hole in the computerís right side. Wrapping the lock around a chair arm or desk leg and spinning the combination makes my laptop secure enough for me to run get a soda or pack of gum. It also makes me less jittery when I take it to a client site.

I bought both machines to be 802.11b (Wi-Fi) ready. We havenít used this feature yet because most public locations require a membership, and we wonít be able to install a wireless hub at home until after the holidays, but I still look forward to of hooking into the Internet in Starbucks, an Airport or even on a plane.

Both laptops came with a built-in Ethernet networking port, a welcome change from the cranky PCMCIA cards and proprietary cable converters I once used. The downside is that the port is on the left side, about where you would put the mouse. Like most QA people and help system developers, Iím a left-side mouser (leaving my right hand free to take notes.) The cable is pretty resilient, but its presence still makes me a bit nervous.

Even if I never traveled or spent time at a client site, my laptop would be a useful investment. The work of a technical writer is most productive when one has access to two computers: one to run the application and one to write the documentation. The ability to freeze an application program and document a message, menu item or action makes documentation faster and more accurate. If one computer is a laptop it leaves enough desk space for a printer and printed material or notes.

One of my primary reasons for getting a laptop is my health. I am prone to migraine headaches and have age-related macular degeneration in one eye, both of which are aggravated by standard desktop monitors. Purchasing a new computer leaves me with two choices: buy a laptop or buy a desktop with an expensive flat panel monitor. The six hundred bucks I didnít have to spend for a flat panel monitor gave me a good bit of cash to sink into the best laptop I could find.

Finally, because of their size, and perhaps their cost as well, laptops tend to be well-thought out. Some do have cramped keyboards, but mine is quite comfortable due to the large, slightly raised palm rests. I have two buttons at the top of my keyboard that I can program to open my two most frequently used programs. I have keyed them to Outlook Express and the Palm Desktop. Add this to the fact that a laptop is much quieter than a desktop, and you have a machine for which you make few sacrifices and gain many advantages.

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