Notebook Computers

More and more government workers are using notebooks while in the field.

by / May 31, 1996
Many government agencies have personnel -- inspectors, engineers, surveyors, recruitment officers, auditors and others -- whose jobs take them out of the office. These kinds of positions require a notebook computing solution. A routine "shopping" trip for a procurement officer to find that perfect laptop can mean weeks or months of research.

This is a big challenge fraught with many complications. Is a color screen a necessity for every staff member or will a gray-scale screen suffice? Does the average job require lots of hard-drive space to run high-end programs like Autodesk's AutoCAD or Adobe Photoshop? Will the person be telecommuting from the field? If so, what kind of internal modem will do the job?

A wise way to look at purchasing notebooks for your division is to examine what you yourself would like in a mobile machine. "State and local users are looking for the same features in notebook computers that mainstream users are looking for," said Larry Aronson, assistant program manager for the California Multiple Awards Schedule in the California Department of General Services. "State procurement officers are searching for flexibility and cost value, but also maintenance and support for those products as well. For example, the California Board of Equalization was looking for a line of notebooks that were rugged and could withstand all sorts of weather conditions, from freezing mountain temperatures to the high temperatures of the deserts."

So what are some factors that should be examined before making a purchasing decision? Peter Poulin, director of government markets for Compaq Computer Corp., suggested that procurement officers consider two factors -- a whole product solution and local support once a product is purchased.

"A whole product solution is where the needs of the entire project are considered," said Poulin. "For example, there's a police department that purchased notebook computers and server products at the same time to put together a pilot program to stop gang members from terrorizing citizens," he said. "A server stored information about gang members -- such as tattoos, aliases, cars driven, etc. -- and the officers used the notebooks out in the field to pull the information up. Thus, they could arrest the criminal on the spot rather than accidentally free them.

"You also need to consider reliability and longevity -- how easy is it going to be to upgrade to the next level of technology?" said Poulin. "Is the product modular enough to take advantage of the new tech coming down the pike? Users don't want a notebook that is useful today and useless tomorrow."

Now comes the hard part -- how do you decide which of the dozens of laptops will suit your department or division? Some of the most popular brands aren't necessarily the best. Look very carefully at product price and specifications, and be sure to find out what kind of service contract goes with the deal.

Although manufacturers may deny it, laptops are some of the most fragile pieces of equipment. Be sure to check out durability ratings and hard-drive failure rates. After you've made that step, make certain the laptop of choice comes with an extensive warranty.

Many notebooks are coming on the market that use Intel's Pentium 133MHz processor, and Texas Instruments has introduced its TravelMate 5300 that takes full advantage of this warp speed. Speed, however, comes at a hefty price of $5,499. The TravelMate 5000 series comes in models that offer 75MHz speeds, but this is older technology and may mean your machines become obsolete sooner.

If processing speed isn't a factor, then the TravelMate 5000 may be worth investigating. It contains an integrated PCI bus architecture, an active matrix color screen, 8MB of RAM, wireless connectivity through a serial infrared port, dual lithium batteries, a 4mm keyboard and a built-in pointing device.

An excellent feature is its power management system, which prevents data loss in case of battery depletion. The real advantage is that it allows you to exchange batteries while the notebook is still running. Older notebooks that don't have this feature can cause serious data loss when they suddenly switch off.

For those who do any kind of presentations or graphics, the TravelMate offers a superior color monitor that has an active matrix or dual scan display with 65,000 colors. It includes 2MB of VRAM to support full-motion video and a Windows accelerator which speeds up the redraw speeds of graphics applications such as Photoshop or QuarkXpress.

Also featured is a PCMCIA slot, an external PCI expansion bus, an SIR port for wireless connections to other computers so you can file share, a security latch, dual-mode microphone, 16-bit sound card and internal speaker.

For further information, contact Texas Instruments Inc., P.O. Box 6102, Temple, TX 76503, or call 817/774-6001.

What makes the Compaq LTE 5000 series stand out from the crowd? Well, when you look at its standard features -- a 75MHz Pentium processor, a 64-bit CPU and 32-bit PCI local bus -- there's not much there that isn't also available on many other models. What makes Compaq such a worthy consideration is the company's approach to the market. They work to provide quality products with excellent customer service.

"Today's citizens are demanding more in terms of government services but want workers to use less resources," said Poulin. "There are cost pressures to go out and buy the cheapest product. But the best way to serve citizens often isn't about price. Service is important, because it affects how long that product is going to last. That's where Compaq is unique. We have 8,000-plus resellers throughout the United States. We've got a vested interest in offering superior levels of service and support to government users."

Although the LTE's basic processing speed starts at 75MHz, faster models are also available at speeds of 90MHz and 120MHz. Other standard features include 10.4- to 11.3-inch color displays, 16-bit digital stereo, built-in speakers, a PCMCIA Type II or Type I slot, a touch-sensitive pointing device and a hibernation setup utility that lasts up to 100 hours. Unfortunately, if you're in a hurry to purchase one of these models, they won't begin shipping until late September, at which time the final price of each unit will be available.

For more details, contact Compaq Computer Corp., P.O. Box 692000, Houston, TX 77269, call 800/345-1518, or go to Web address: .

Notebook computers have been notorious for poor-quality screens. But according to Aronson, Toshiba Computer Systems' notebook screens won't make your eyes water. Thus, if your work force has a job that takes you into bright light and requires a good notebook screen, consider a Tecra 720CDT. Not only does this mini machine come with a high-resolution 1024x768 active matrix display, but it also has a blinding processor speed of 133MHz. In the notebook category, this kind of processing speed is the fastest available for mobile computers and worth the investment if you use processor-intensive applications.

Another unusual feature is its new ZV port that enables it to implement full-screen, full-motion video for realtime multimedia performance, MPEG full-motion video, videoconferencing and more. The ZV technology features PC card controllers with a dedicated bus connected to the audio and video controller, a video data transmission rate up to 27MB/sec sustained bandwidth, PCM stereo data transmission from ZV Port card direct to the audio system
and more.

For further information, contact Toshiba America Information Systems Inc., P.O. Box 19724, Irvine, CA 92713, or call 800/334-3445.

For years Apple Computer has produced first-rate notebook computers with its PowerBook
series. Today, in keeping with the release of desktop machines with Power PC technology, they are releasing the PowerBook 5000 and 2000 series, which includes the PowerPC 603e processor, in September. For those who use a Mac at their desktop, the new PowerBooks will be a welcome addition to the office.

The new PowerBooks run at speeds of 100MHz and 117MHz and feature 8MB of DRAM (expandable to 64MB), a 9.5-inch gray scale or 10.4-inch dual-scan or active matrix color display. Users can choose from a 500MB, 750MB or 1GB hard drive. The units also come with a removable floppy drive that can be replaced with a number of third-party peripherals, such as additional hard drives, magneto-optical, removable media drives and internal AC power adapters. Prices for the 5300 series range from $1,799 to $6,299. The price depends on whether it's a gray-scale or color screen and the speed of the processor.

For details on release dates, contact Apple Computer Inc., 1 Infinite Loop, Cupertino, CA 95014, or call 408/996-1010.

This is just a small sampling of notebook computers available to government agencies. There are dozens of other popular brands -- such as IBM's ThinkPad and Dell's line of mobile computers -- that are worth considering.

Procurement officers and information managers planning on a large purchase of any machine should, as Aronson advised, take the machine for a test drive. "Don't go by name alone," he said. "Try it out before you buy it. Although a big name is probably a plus, you don't want to be blind-sided when a faulty product arrives. Base your decision on some kind of criteria or experience and you'll save users a lot of hassle."

Michelle Gamble-Risley is the publisher of California Computer News.