My hardware life: The tablets, laptops and PCs that keep me working on the move

Summary:Take a tour of the technologies, from the Cambridge Z88 to the Windows 8 laptop, that have helped one journalist get her work-life blend just right

In the last couple of months I've worked on planes, trains and yes, in automobiles.

(My tips for car computing: bring a double USB charger so you can both keep your phones charged, make sure you have Internet tethering and (unless you have a second battery for your laptop) get a rental car with a power socket, or bring a portable transformer so you can plug in. A laptop with a keyboard light is also a big help.)

Coach
What hardware do you use to keep working on the move?

Over the years I've written everywhere from a coach shuttling around New Zealand with a BlackBerry in hand, blogging a thousand words a day, to a beach hut on Stinson Beach, north of San Francisco, with an early HP netbook.

Back at the dawn of time - 1990 - I wrote the monthly news for a programming magazine on a Cambridge Z88 with a 6-line display and a specially-quiet-for-libraries rubber keyboard.

By the mid-90s I'd graduated to an HP OmniBook 300 with Windows 3.1 and Word running from eXecute In Place ROM (the precursor of Flash), a 'mouse on a stick' that pulled out of the side of the OmniBook and a Motorola StarTAC mobile phone with a CELLect analog modem PCMCIA card. I could get online from the train to the CiX bulletin board at 2400 baud at 100 miles per hour to read email and file copy from the road.

My boss once insisted I show my face in the office to do some work; I did it on the train back, walked into the office and printed it out and got on the next train back to London to go to the next press conference. Management buy-in is as important for flexible mobile working as the technology and many managers suffer from 'presenteeism': if they can't see you working, they suspect you aren't even if all your tasks get done.

Since 2001 I've worked for myself as a freelance writer and consultant. As well as a beefy desktop PC, I bought a Toshiba Portégé ultraportable with a second battery that gave me six hours of power in a form factor I could carry around without putting my back out.

Not giving yourself RSI or back strain is another important thing about mobile working; I have a back problem that makes anything more than a 12" notebook out of the question and even that's a strain to lug around all day.

In 2003 I was covering the launch of the Tablet PC, tried out every one on the market for review and bought the HP TC1000 as the best combination of performance and battery life in a machine where I could rip off the keyboard when I didn't need it.

I used a 9" Motion Computing slate for lunch meetings for a while and loved it. Recently Tablet PCs have been convertible machines and I didn't notice the increasing weight of the HP 2710p, 2730p and 2740p I've used as my main PC for several years (my desktop PC was broken up for spares years ago) and I've treated it as a tradeoff with the Core i5 power of the 2740p and the weight of the slab battery. When I put Windows 8 on, I finally got the 6+ hours of battery life I'd expected all along.

The HP 2740p is still my main machine; I need a keyboard for bashing out the copious number of words I write every day. I need a pen as well and for meetings where I'm taking notes I now carry just my Samsung Series 7 (also running Windows 8).

I wrote this blog on the Series 7 in OneNote; the majority of it with the pen, in a mix of word-by-word handwriting recognition and digital ink that I either converted to text later or rewrote.

I'm very excited about the Microsoft Surface Pro because it will be a pen tablet with OneNote (everything I write starts in OneNote) but also a keyboard that balances on my lap without making it as heavy as the 2740p.

When I move from making notes to writing a story, I have to sit down and getting a table to work at is a luxury on a train or in a press conference. If it won't balance on my knee, I can't work on it for more than five minutes. Call me a fan of the hinge as well as the pen.

I'm also a big fan of sync, which lets me work anywhere, without notice. Obviously I need email everywhere, and not just the last 30 days of messages. For years we ran our own BlackBerry Enterprise Server and Exchange (now we use Office 365); a BlackBerry meant I had a phone with a real keyboard that I could search years of email from.

On Android I get much of that from Nitrodesk's TouchDown email client (I can't be rude enough about the lack of features in the standard Android email client). These days I use a Windows Phone; not only does it have the best OneNote client & decent email that has server search, but it's the only touchscreen I can actually type on (yes, I've tried typing on an iPhone; there's a reason Damn You Autocorrect is so funny).

For documents I'm writing and the PDFs and PowerPoints that I might need as reference I rely on offline files from the Windows Server file shares. Anything of interest I clip into OneNote alongside the nine years worth of handwritten notes and meetings recordings in notebooks on our server, syncing between multiple PCs. The notebooks I use most on the road are in SkyDrive so I can use them on my phone (I might move the 2GB notebooks from the server to SkyDrive soon; I'm a little reluctant in case the notebooks swamp my phone but mostly it's that server sync has worked so well for so long that I haven't bothered).

On the other hand I hate VPNs with a passion I normally reserve for OpenOffice and my bank's terrible online site. I can't wait until we upgrade the server to Windows Server 2012 and run Direct Access so I can get my files from anywhere without a VPN client. We'd have it already but IPv6 was a bit much for a two-person office so currently, if I didn't put it in a folder that offline files syncs, I probably won't even try to get it from the road and I can't see the new and updated files from another PC until they both VPN in to the server.

One option is to replace offline files with SkyDrive sync, but I can't put all my files up there without paying for extra storage and I don't need all my files up there - just a working subset that's in a varying mix of folders in a hierarchy I don't want to lose. And SkyDrive sync is all or nothing; I need to be able to easily sync specific folders without moving everything into the SkyDrive folder on my PC (because even the 256GB Kingston SSD in my 2740p doesn't have enough space for everything on the server, still less the 80GB on the Series 7).

There's never the perfect technology to enable mobile & flexible working. There's always going to be something that needs a tweak or means a little extra work compared to sitting in front of a big screen on a fast wired network.

But being able to work from the roof terrace or the recliner chair in my office or the District line tube or the hotel where we had a lunch meeting or the passenger seat of a rental car driving out of LA late at night or the motel in Florida, where doing an hour of work a day meant I could have a day at the beach, makes that worth it.

I can work anywhere with a seat, so I can go anywhere that's interesting. I can work early in the morning (unlikely!) or late at night (a little too often) so I can do other things during the day (errands, knitting, reading a book, shopping, siesta, catching up with friends).

We used to hear a lot about 'work-life balance' which was usually more of a seesaw than an impressive tightrope walk. These days the phrase is 'work-life blend' which I think of like an iced coffee frappe; you need the right proportion of coffee & ice/work and life but when you get it, you have just what you need to get you going in the morning.

I've been thinking about mobile, flexible working today because I joined in the Anywhere Working Experiment; follow it on Twitter as #AWExperiment or on the web.

Topics: Mobility

About

Mary Branscombe is a freelance tech journalist. Mary has been a technology writer for nearly two decades, covering everything from early versions of Windows and Office to the first smartphones, the arrival of the web and most things inbetween.

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