Getting to the mobile office

The latest kit for faster, longer and cheaper mobile working

Getting to the mobile office
Matt Loney
The latest kit for faster, longer and cheaper mobile working

Notebook sales are booming in the UK, as vendors and retailers squeeze their profit margins to generate demand. At the same time, sales of PDAs are down by over 10 percent in 2003 compared to 2002, as PDA manufacturers struggle to target new markets.

All this means one thing for buyers: lower prices -- if not now, as in the case of notebooks, then soon, as PDA manufacturers race to get rid of inventory in the run up to Christmas, when they traditionally bring out new models. If you're looking for the perfect kit for the mobile wireless office, there's never been a better time.

ZDNet UK recently ran a poll to find out what you value most in a notebook, and the results are reproduced below. High-speed wireless networking came low on your list of priorities, presumably because for most people working wirelessly, the 11Mbps provided by plain old 802.11a is more than sufficient.

Battery Life

Everyone's seen the cartoon about the gadget freak with the smallest notebook PC -- dragging a suitcase-sized battery along on castors behind. We still have not escaped that caricature, but there are a number of technologies on the horizon that look promising.

And we do need them. The electronics industry is rushing to find ways to replace the nickel cadmium and lithium ion batteries that today power most portable electronic devices. The drawback to existing power technologies is that they will inevitably hit a barrier, as faster processors, higher-resolution displays, more wireless connections and other advances increase the overall demand for power.

Methanol fuel cells

Earlier this year Toshiba exhibited a methanol fuel cell that it believes could eventually replace rechargeable batteries. The Japanese electronics company, which ranks among the top notebook makers, showed off direct methanol fuel cell (DMFC) technology for portable computers that can provide about five hours of power with a single cartridge of fuel.

The new fuel cell, about 275 mm by 75 mm by 40 mm, provides an instant power supply for a significant amount of time using replaceable methanol cartridges, the company said.

But don't hold your breath; analysts say the cell is unlikely to have much of an impact on the notebook sector before the end of 2004, and even then shipments are likely to be in small units.

Munich-based Smart Fuel Cell GmbH, meanwhile, has shown early production examples of a methanol-fuelled device capable of producing 40 watts of power and intended to provide electrical energy for laptop, printer and mobile phone at the same time.

The company claims that a single 125 mL cartridge of methanol -- a common alcohol costing around ten pence a litre in bulk -- will power a laptop for a full working day. Recharging is a matter of putting in a new cartridge, and takes seconds.

Smart Fuel Cell says that it is planning to produce around a thousand of its fuel cells this year, most of which will go into test and experimental uses including traffic systems, remote sensors, camping and outdoor equipment. The company is aiming for the price and size of the laptop version to be comparable with lithium-ion cells, the current leader for portable power, but says that the fuel cells will have three times the power density in watts per kilogram.

Fast charging

One company looking at the problem of battery power from a different perspective is Rayovac, which is promising rechargeable batteries that charge in minutes and last up to four times longer than current cells.

Rayovac's technology is based on existing nickel metal hydride (NiMH) chemistry -- the most widespread in general use -- but adds in-battery monitoring and a new basic design. Batteries based on the technology will be included in products from next year, with retail rechargeables in standard sizes available in shops by the end of 2003.

The batteries will recharge in quarter of an hour, says the company, and can be charged to 90 percent of their capacity in ten minutes. Ordinary rechargeables would dramatically overheat and be damaged by such treatment: an in-battery pressure sensor in the new design monitors the precise state of the chemical reaction that takes place during charging. The system, called in-cell charge control (I-C3), is currently going through patenting and has not been fully disclosed.

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Getting to the mobile office
Matt Loney
Page Two: The latest kit for faster, longer and cheaper mobile working

Adding a twist of phosphate

Another company, Valance, is replacing cobalt with phosphate as the cathode material in its lithium-ion batteries - a process that the company claims will mean batteries become more stable and less expensive.

Valence is calling the new technology Saphion, with devices using it expected to hit the market soon. Valance says notebook manufacturers are likely to be the first to adopt the new battery technology. But analysts remain sceptical.

Short-term fix

If you need more battery life now and can't wait for fuel cells, then a joint venture between Motorola and Freeplay Energy Group could point the way to an answer.

The Motorola FreeCharge is a wind-up mobile phone charger. It won't work for notebook PCs, and at present only Motorola phones are supported, but adapters for Nokia mobiles are expected by September. Adapters for other brands of phone, and possibly other devices, are also being developed and will be released over time says the company.

Freeplay intends to develop what it calls "self-sufficient energy" for other devices. Rory Stear, chairman and chief executive of Freeplay Energy Group, said at the launch that the company intended to put its technology into as many electronic devices as possible. Apart from the obvious application of the FreeCharge to devices like PDAs, Freeplay is working on more powerful generators for more demanding applications such as laptops. A foot-powered generator is one such innovation in the pipeline, which will use two of the generators used in the FreeCharge. Other possible areas for development are wind-powered generators.

Speed

High speed and plenty of memory are ubiquitous today, but there will always be a trade-off between speed and battery power. The following graph, produced by ZDNet Labs shows just what you have lose on the swings to gain anything on the roundabouts.

This graph summarises the performance and battery life advances made by the new Pentium M/Centrino notebooks. The previous generation of Mobile Pentium 4-M notebooks (green dots) were good performers (30-50 on Business Winstone 2001), but typically delivered between 2 and 3 hours' battery life. Notebooks that use the desktop Pentium 4 chip (purple circles) could be excellent performers, but battery life rarely exceeded 2.5 hours. Older Mobile Pentium III-M systems (blue triangles) could exceed 3 hours' battery life, but performance was lower (20-40 on Business Winstone 2001). The three new Pentium M notebooks (pink diamonds) we have tested so far occupy the hitherto-elusive top-right quadrant of the graph, where performance was excellent (>50 on Business Winstone 2001) and battery life long (3-5 hours).




Our recommendations :

Wireless networking is a must-have in any portable kit, and all the following notebooks come with 802.11a wireless networking built in.

Notebook for long battery life:

IBM Thinkpad X31

The low-power processor shows up in IBM's ThinkPad X31 and delivers impressive working time in an ultra-lightweight system. The X31 that we looked at was configured as a true-blue Centrino, although you can also specify IBM's 802.11a/b wireless and built-in Bluetooth. Beyond its 3.5-hour battery life (six hours with a second battery fitted), the X31 offers flawless design and flexible configurations. The ThinkPad X31 makes a desirable package for someone who travels a lot and relies on long-running batteries.

IBM Thinkpad T40

IBM's long-lasting ThinkPad T40 series combines a svelte, thin-and-light chassis with Intel's Pentium M processor, the 855PM chipset and a choice of wireless adapters. Choosing Intel's PRO/Wireless adapter (as fitted in our review sample) makes your T40 a true Centrino notebook. The ThinkPad T40 also offers a dual-band, 802.11a/b antenna; an excellent keyboard; and wafer-thin swappable modules. It's not the fastest Pentium M notebook we've tested, but it's a business traveller's dream nonetheless: an extra-thin system with superb battery life if you buy the bigger of the two batteries. Those who crave more speed should consider another Pentium M notebook.

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Getting to the mobile office
Matt Loney
Page Three: The latest kit for faster, longer and cheaper mobile working

Notebook for speed
Dell Inspiron 8500
This completely redesigned desktop replacement system has plenty more in store as well, including the fastest Mobile Pentium 4-M processors, integrated dual-band antennae for 802.11b and 802.11g wireless and excellent performance. All of these features are wrapped in a silver case that you can customise with QuickSnap lid covers in a variety of colours. For all that it offers, the Inspiron 8500 range's £1,256 (ex. VAT) starting price is reasonable. Any way you look at it, you'd be hard-pressed to come up with a cooler, faster desktop-replacement notebook than the Inspiron 8500 series.
Notebook for big screen
Acer Aspire 1705 SCi
Acer was the first PC manufacturer to announce a notebook with a 17in. screen. Since then a number of others, including Toshiba, have followed suit, but the Aspire 1705 SCi is the first system we've had in for review. Can any computer with an integrated 17in. display really be called a notebook? Perhaps it can. However, any use of the term "portable" with reference to this 7.1kg monster will certainly raise eyebrows.
Apple PowerBook G4 (17in)
Apple's high-profile 17in. PowerBook G4 took on legendary status as would-be owners waited for this portable giant to start shipping. We can't deny that this is a rock-star's notebook, what with its hot new design, built-in DVD burning as standard, wireless networking and awesome backlit keyboard. But the £2,211.91 (ex. VAT; £2,598.99 inc. VAT) 17in. PowerBook performs about the same as its 15in. predecessor, and it's extremely awkward to carry. If you want an attractive, not-very-portable Mac with a 17in. LCD and a DVD burner, an iMac is more than £1,000 cheaper. If you're after a slick-looking G4-based Apple notebook, the original Titanium PowerBook remains our top choice.
Notebook for price
Dell Latitude D400
Dell's Latitude D400 series is one of the best-looking and most affordable Pentium M ultraportables on the market. We have tested an entry-level 1.3GHz version with 128MB of RAM, which predictably isn’t a great performer; also, its 2 hour 41 minute battery life trails the scores posted by most competing Pentium M/Centrino notebooks. Nevertheless, the D400 offers an impressive array of wireless options, ranging from standard 802.11b (which can make this a true Centrino system), to various combinations of 802.11a, b and g. Businesses will also like the built-in smart-card reader, and everyone should appreciate the low starting price.
PDA's
Sony Clie PEG-UX50
Sony has experimented with mini notebooks in the past, but the new CLIE PEG-UX50 takes miniaturisation down to a whole new level. The screen swivels a full 180 degrees so that you can also use the device as a traditional handheld. The UX50 measures just 10.4cm by 8.6cm by 1.9cm, and at 176g, it weighs about the same as other handhelds with integrated Wi-Fi.
HP iPAQ H5550
The H5550 comes with integrated Wi-Fi and Bluetooth, and includes a healthy 128MB of RAM and the latest Pocket PC operating system. Although it may be a bit much for the average consumer, corporate buyers will find it to be a powerful jack-of-all-trades. It's the Pocket PC equivalent of Palm's Tungsten C, minus the integrated keyboard.
Palm Tungsten T2
The Tungsten T2 succeeds the Tungsten T, which was the first handheld to ship with version 5 of Palm OS. Palm has since announced new devices at both ends of the market, including the camera-equipped Zire 71 for consumers and the Wi-Fi-enabled Tungsten C for business users. The Tungsten T2 is very much an evolutionary development, offering only a smattering of changes over the Tungsten T. The T2 also comes with Bluetooth.
Mobile Phone
Sony-Ericsson P800
The P800 delivers a great deal, both in terms of features and accessories. Included in the box are a 16MB Memory Stick Duo card, an adapter for older Memory Stick cards, a hand strap and a pouch, as well as three styluses. Packing in all these parts also eliminates a problem that some users have cited -- a dearth of Sony Ericsson accessories on the market.

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