I recently returned from a trip where I flew in the coach section, stayed at moderately priced business hotels and drove a midsize rental car. But my computer was strictly first-class.
I was carrying IBM's new ThinkPad 560. The Concorde of notebook PCs, the 560 is sleek, fast and comfortable. I also got first-class service on the ground thanks to a wireless modem, which let me send and receive e-mail from airports, hotel rooms and taxicabs.
At 4.1 pounds, the 560 fits into the sub-notebook category of portable PCs. Yet it has a full-size notebook keyboard with 85 keys that have the same feel as a desktop keyboard. Not everyone cares about the size and quality of the keyboard, but touch typists and people with medium to large hands will be more productive if the PC keyboard has the same basic feel as the one they use at home or at the office.
Speaking of the office, this machine could easily be used instead of a desktop PC. The model I tested has a fast 133-megahertz Intel central processing unit, 16 megabytes of memory, a 1.08-gigabyte hard disk and a 12.1-inch active matrix screen that's arguably better than a typical computer monitor. You can also plug in an external VGA monitor and a standard keyboard and mouse.
Like all ThinkPads, the 560 features the TrackPoint III pointing device. Instead of using a trackball or mouse, you use your finger to move what looks like a pencil eraser that sticks up between the G, H and B keys. I found it intuitive and easy to get used to. And because it's in the middle of the keyboard, it doesn't discriminate against lefties, as do many notebook pointing devices.
The machine comes with an external floppy disk drive. It doesn't have a CD-ROM drive but does have built-in SoundBlaster Pro compatible audio, as well as a microphone input jack.
Prices for ThinkPads start at $2,699. A high-end system with a 133-Mhz CPU, the large screen, 16 megabytes of RAM and a 1.08-gigabyte hard disk costs about $4,500.
On my trip, I carried a quad-speed Panasonic KXL-D740 portable CD-ROM drive that plugs into a PCI slot and turns the 560 into a full-fledged multimedia PC. The Panasonic drive, which is about the same size and weight as a portable audio CD player, costs about $370 and uses standard alkaline batteries when it's not plugged in. It can also play audio CDs, so it kept me entertained on the flight after the 560's battery lost its charge. Panasonic also offers a version that adds stereo sound to notebook PCs that are not so equipped.
Of course, you can now buy a full-size notebook PC with a built-in CD-ROM drive and built-in floppy drive, but it will weigh more than 6 pounds. That's OK for people who primarily use it at home or in the office or even those who take it on trips. But I like to have a PC with me as I go about my day: I use it to take notes at conferences, check e-mail and look up phone numbers and other information as I need it.
I even carry a PC with me when I'm near home. One of the perks of working from home is the ability to stuff my notebook PC and cellular phone in my bicycle bag and pedal over to a coffee shop, library or park to work on my columns.
For the time being, I can submit them without having to find a phone line. I'm using a borrowed Megahertz AllPoints wireless modem that's plugged into the ThinkPad's PCI slot. The antenna-equipped modem, which costs about $499, is able to send and receive e-mail via Wyndmail from Wynd Communications ( 549-9991 or www.wynd.com).
Wyndmail and rival RadioMail provide nationwide e-mail access that covers 92% of all major business areas. Both Wyndmail and RadioMail use a nationwide wireless network operated by RAM Mobile Data, which, according to Wynd's Web site, provides coverage to 92% of the country's business users. Wynd adds value by providing wireless fax service, paging and speech-to-text conversion that enables you to send a phone message from your PC. Other services include sending messages to any alphanumeric pager and receiving notification on your pager that e-mail has arrived.
Wynd's prices start at $29 a month, which includes 200 messages (in or out). Additional messages of up to 150 characters cost 5 cents each. The company also offers a $149 unlimited-access plan. RadioMail's prices start at $39 a month. Both companies must pay a fee to RAM Mobile Data for each packet of data they transmit over the network.
The RAM Mobile Data network isn't a practical way to access the World Wide Web, for two reasons. First, it's too slow. The modem operates at about 9,600 bits per second, which is fine for e-mail but too slow for decent Web performance. Also, because you pay a fee for each bit of data transmitted, it would be prohibitively expensive to use it to view Web sites with graphics.
There is an efficient and cost-effective wireless way to access the Web and send e-mail, but it works only from the San Francisco Bay Area, some college campuses and a few other areas. The Ricochet service, from Metricom (-556-6123 or http://www.metricom.com), costs $29 a month, which includes an Internet account with unlimited access to all Internet services, including e-mail and the Web. Its speed ranges from 14,400 to 28,800 bps. Because it uses radio waves, you don't tie up a phone line. The Ricochet modem, which measures 7 5/8 inches by 2 3/8 inches by 5/8 inches and weighs about 2 pounds, costs $300, or you can rent it for $10 per month. In addition to Internet access, you can use it to sign on to CompuServe or America Online (for no extra cost other than your regular hourly rate) or any other dial-up computer system. If you buy a pair of modems--one for the road and another for the office--you can use it to access your desktop PC or your company's local area network.
Ricochet is able to keep its prices low because it uses the same unlicensed 900-MHz radio frequency used by such consumer devices as garage door openers and some cordless phones. The company pays nothing for the use of the radio spectrum. It's pretty remarkable technology, but, because the company doesn't have a nationwide network, it's of no use to people who live or travel outside its limited coverage areas. The company says it plans to extend service to Los Angeles, Washington, Seattle and other metropolitan areas.
Lawrence J. Magid can be reached by e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org. His World Wide Web page is at http://www.larrysworld.com