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.

HOME ON THE RANGE

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.