Ultra-portable computers (UPCs) make it possible to carry a complete Windows XP computer in your hand, finally realizing the dream of ultimate mobility. The ability to do anything on a UPC that you can do on any computer and still put it in a small bag is quite liberating. But to make these little wonders so small does come at a price. UPCs like the Sony U and the OQO are designed to maximize battery life and in order to accomplish that they have hardware components that are not as robust as other computers. Manufacturers have to skimp on memory, CPU speed, hard drive size and bus speed to squeeze out every last drop of the battery. This is not a big problem if a few best practices are followed to maximize the mobile experience. While most of the things covered in this article are common sense a lot of them are the fruit of many days of hitting the pavement. I should point out that laptops and Tablet PCs can also benefit from these best practices and they are by no means restricted to just UPCs. The tips and recommendations that follow are the results of trial and error over many years of working as a mobile professional. Some of them apply to general use of the mobile device and others are specifically for the traveler. As with all recommendations your mileage may vary.
Lean and Mean
UPCs are complete Windows computers which makes it very tempting to load them up with all the programs and utilities you install on any computer. This is probably the worst thing you can do and have a quick running computer so just resist this temptation and you will be much happier with the results. You should only install the programs that you really need to be productive. I install Outlook, Microsoft Office, Skype and a few utilities. As you can see these are the things I need throughout my day to stay on top of things and to stay in touch. The utilities I recommend are a good battery monitor, any file viewers you need to handle documents like PDFS, and a good quick launcher. These are the essentials to maximize the utility of the little computer and still maintain a quick running device.
Prepare for Action
Setting the UPC up properly can go a long way to streamlining how the device runs throughout the mobile professional’s day. A common scenario for road warriors: you need to get at a piece of information or some PIM data. You turn on the device, grab the data and turn it back off again. You need this to happen in just a few seconds or it’s not worth the effort and properly streamlining the device setup can make sure you can always do your business quickly.
The screens on these little gadgets can be pretty small so I always set the taskbar to auto-hide. This frees the entire viewing area up for the desktop and makes a big difference in utility. Speaking of the taskbar I use True Launch Bar which lets me put a bunch of program icons, a battery monitor and other system utilities right on the Windows taskbar. This puts them right in front of me when I need to refer to them yet moves them out of the way when the taskbar hides. To further free up system resources and allow the desktop to draw faster I keep the desktop relatively free of icons. I only keep Outlook, Internet Explorer, and a few other icons sitting out there and screen redraws are really fast.
You want to have easy access to the files and documents you use most throughout the day and a simple way to do this is to put client and project folders on the Quick Launch toolbar. All important folders are then just a tap away without having to open My Computer or the Start Menu. Quick access to key documents is the key to simple computing and this is surprisingly effective. Another good technique to make frequently used programs one tap away is to pin them to the Start Menu. Tap the menu and the programs are sitting right in front of you.
A big part of maximizing the mobile experience is to take a few actions to prolong battery life while you are away from an electrical outlet. The single biggest factor affecting battery life is the screen and most UPCs make it simple to dim the brightness. I always set it just bright enough to still be comfortable and this greatly extends the amount of time the battery lasts between charges. This goes hand in hand with properly using the power management integrated in all mobile devices. Set it up so the UPC goes "dark" after only a few minutes of inactivity and also controls other sleep settings. Make sure they are set to prevent an inactive device from sucking down the battery. It is a good practice for the device to enter into Standby mode very quickly and especially don’t forget to enable Hibernation. Most computers I have worked with ship with Hibernation disabled by default which defeats the purpose of the utility. I always set my UPCs to automatically enter Hibernation no more than 30 minutes after entering into Standby mode since Hibernation uses no battery power at all. Power management aside the next best thing you can do to make sure you can go extended periods without charging is the most obvious- carry a second battery. It’s worth the price, believe me.
Standby/ Resume is the road warriors best friend. A properly tuned computer will both enter Standby mode and resume from it in just a couple of seconds. It needs to be this fast so you will always use the tool when you need it. I hear a lot of complaints from mobile device owners about the stability of Standby and Resume and how they don’t use them for that reason. They don’t use Standby because it’s too slow or doesn’t work reliably. In my experience this is almost always caused by utilities running in the background on the mobile computer. This is the single biggest reason to limit the number of utilities you have running all the time, even if you think you can’t live without them. Smooth running Standby and Resume is worth giving up some background utilities in the long run. Desktop search programs like Copernic, MSN Search and Yahoo Desktop Search all interfere with Standby and Hibernation because they are continually accessing the hard drive in the background while indexing. If you must use them then be sure and configure the indexing to only occur when you are not likely to be using the device. Don’t forget to close your email program if it is set to check for new email every few minutes, as this can interfere with shut down procedures. I can promise you that if you restrict stuff running in the background you will love using Standby and Resume, and you will enter and exit your UPC in only two or three seconds.
This looks nice but is a resource killer
Meeting of the Minds
A big part of any mobile professional’s day involves meetings, and UPCs can be really helpful in meetings if you prepare properly. Before I head into a meeting I open all the programs (OneNote, Outlook, etc.) that I normally use so they are instantly accessible with just a click. The trick for keeping the screen clear is to minimize them all so they are available but out of the way. You don’t want to waste a lot of time starting programs when you are interacting and this is the best way to avoid that. You have to remember you don’t have a lot of screen real estate to start with and I find it easier to work with just one window open at a time.
I don’t recommend using a keyboard or a mouse in most meetings because it creates an unwanted distraction. It is better to be low key and just use ink whenever possible. Leave it as ink during the meeting- if you must convert to text do it later when you won’t distract yourself and possibly miss something you need to catch. A few other tips for avoiding distractions in front of colleagues is to mute the sound on your UPC, do not email during the meeting and above all else do not play with Instant Messaging (IM). Few things can bring a meeting to a halt quicker than someone getting busted playing with IM while others are speaking and I find it disrespectful to the other attendees.
Traveling with the UPC
You bought the UPC for its great mobility and taking it on trips is where it really shines if you prepare properly. You can help that along if you accessorize with practical cases and bags to carry the device and all the other stuff you need to carry. Of course they fit easily into brief cases too, just make sure you don’t leave something behind that you will need later. I mentioned it earlier but it’s important enough to say it again- bring a second battery. Nothing is more annoying than a dead computer when power is not available and you are stuck with a $2,000 paperweight.
Batteries are important but they won’t do you any good if you forget to pack your power adapter. I throw this in because I attended a management retreat a few years ago that was held in the French countryside in a monastery that had been converted into a business resort. One of the company VPs forgot his adapter and unfortunately for him his laptop was such a new model there was no one at the retreat who had a similar adapter. His wife FedExed it to him and he got it the last day of the retreat. Pack your adapter.
There are other accessories I have found invaluable to carry on trips that insure I have all the tools I need no matter what opportunities arise during my travels. If you travel in business class be sure and get a universal power adapter with both car and air fittings so you can use your UPC anywhere you need it. Other little accessories that are nice to bring include an extra stylus or pen for your computer and a screen cleaning cloth, both of which you can get online and in many stores. What you are trying to do is be the "boy scout" traveler and always be prepared.
Having the right accessories to enable internet connection is crucial to staying in touch on the road. I carry a portable WiFi router that turns any hotel room into a hotspot if wired broadband is all that is offered. This is especially useful if you have coworkers staying in adjacent rooms as you can share a single internet connection across the WiFi network. Dialup modems can be useful if you are stranded without broadband and need to get work done in your room. There are many Compact Flash, USB, and Bluetooth modems available at good prices and they are very small for packing. Don’t forget to bring both a phone cable and an Ethernet cable which are priceless if you need them. While some hotels have loaners many don’t and this can be a work stopper. If you need to have some sort of plan available for contract WiFi or dialup access don’t forget to activate it before you leave. Without something in place you might be stuck using daily plans at Starbucks or other sites that can easily cost $10 a day. If you are a frequent traveler, especially international in scope, I recommend the iPass service. iPass has arrangements with hundreds of WiFi and dialup providers world-wide so you have internet access almost anywhere you go. You only pay for time used so it is very economical for the traveler.
I put all accessories mentioned in this article in a cable stash bag (I don’t remember where I got it) that holds everything and yet is still small. This bag when loaded with the accessories gets packed in my checked luggage so once at the destination I only look for the one bag and have all my gear handy.
Rounding out our travel accessories for the mobile professional is a good portable keyboard and mouse, wireless if possible, so you can convert your UPC or Tablet PC into a full-fledged desktop for extended work sessions. I use the Stowaway Bluetooth keyboard and the Bluetake BT500 mouse which work very well on the road. I can do anything on a UPC outfitted with these accessories that I can do on a full laptop. This is the power of the little computer that UPC owners know so well. An important note for wireless keyboard and mouse users- you cannot use them on planes so if that’s critical for you then get USB versions.
The small size of the portable computer makes it perfect for providing entertainment when you need it, either on the plane or in the hotel. A perfect use for the UPC is taking movies along for watching on the plane. I use a simple DVD ripper, ImTOO DVD Ripper, for pulling a movie or two from DVD and encoding them to a small resolution. There are many rippers available but this is one of the easiest to use I’ve tried for providing quality movies for the UPC. Your seatmates will envy you as you have the best seat in the house for watching your own movie on your portable device.
Another good use of the UPC is for listening to music, which can be a good time filler if you carry a lot of songs along. Ripping CDs is something that is very easy to do and lets you have your favorite music on trips. You can even download Podcasts and take them with you which is a favorite pastime of mine. If you plan on listening to music or watching movies during flights you should consider getting a good pair of noise canceling headphones. These are excellent at blocking out distracting background noise which enhances the listening experience. They will also keep your seatmates from getting annoyed at you, which is a good thing.
You can’t talk about entertainment on the UPC without mentioning games. The platform is perfect for gaming with a few limitations. If your UPC has a keyboard attached then you can play any game that your hardware will handle, while if you lack the keyboard you have to be aware that a game is controllable without one. If a game uses the number pad for control then take a USB numpad along with you for gaming. I find that older games have gentler hardware requirements and usually work well on portable computers, although as the hardware specs of UPCs get better this will be less of a problem. Most games have copy protection that requires the CD to be present at run time which won’t work on UPCs without a drive, but there are workarounds involving virtual CD programs which make a hard copy of the game CD on the hard drive and then mount it as a virtual CD. This satisfies the copy protection and lets you play the game on the computer even without the CD drive.
One of the most enjoyable things you can do with your UPC is reading ebooks, those electronic books that take so little room on the device. I rarely read "dead tree" books anymore as I can find just about any work in electronic form. This is especially good when traveling which provides no shortage of spare time when you’re sitting around waiting. I use eReader Pro for my ebook reading which is a great program that displays beautifully on my Sony U. The Microsoft Reader is also a popular program that is free to the end user. Don’t forget to fill up your "bookshelf" before you depart on long trips and you’ll always have something to do.
Some Useful Tidbits
This section is where I’m throwing some suggestions that pertain to any mobile computer or laptop, but are especially useful for UPCs. If you carry an audio player like an iPod with you then you have the perfect opportunity to double the benefit of that device. I use my iPod has a hard drive for my Sony U and routinely backup my documents and important stuff to it. This makes it easy to retrieve important documents I need on the road in case something happens to the files on the UPC. I also copy all my documents and presentations onto a Compact Flash Microdrive so I have a small folder of pertinent information that I can retrieve at a moment’s notice. If you don’t have a CF slot on your device then a USB keychain drive will do just fine. The important thing is to capture only the information that you need for that day or trip so you don’t have to root around looking for it amongst all the extraneous stuff you have on your hard drive.
I use Outlook for my PIM and task management purposes and anyone who has used Outlook for any length of time at all can attest to how devastating it can be when you have problems with your PST file. I have been using an Outlook backup program, Outback Plus, for several years and it has saved my butt numerous times. It is not the only program that does this but it’s the one I am familiar with and I highly recommend it. It saves not only your Outlook data but also the entire environment which includes all the email settings, favorites, and lots of other information. Last year I was on a business trip and my PST file corrupted as they sometimes do and Outback was a real life-saver in this situation. I deleted my PST file, created a blank one, and in five minutes restored my entire Outlook system to where it was before. If Outlook is important to you, especially on trips, then back it up!
Last but not least in the useful tidbit category, to keep traveling as light as possible don’t take your portable printer along. I carried my portable printer with me for a long time and found I rarely used it so I leave it at home on my trips now. If you absolutely need a hardcopy of something here’s a simple tip- print to the Fax driver in your document and fax it to yourself at the hotel (don’t forget to set up fax services before you go). A little bit later someone will slide an envelope under your door with a hardcopy of your document inside. I’ve done this countless times and if someone asks me why it has a fax tagline at the top I tell them and I haven’t had anyone fail to be impressed at that simple bit of ingenuity.
Sharing Information with the Desktop
Even though mobile devices are getting more capable all the time most likely you still have a main computer where you do most of your work. The ability to share information between portable and desktop is important and there are simple solutions to make that easier. Simple file sharing and folder replication is easy if you use Karen’s Replicator (KR). KR is a free utility I have used for years and it only does one thing- copy folders from one place to another. You can even set it to replicate the source folder at the destination which means you have two exact copies on the two computers. KR is lightning fast, especially if you are copying a lot of files and I highly recommend it. It’s what I use to backup my documents to the iPod. KR will also copy across a local network so you can always keep your data backed up to a second computer.
Another important piece of information that UPC owners need to keep synced up with the desktop is the email. If you have an Exchange Server this is not a problem as the files are kept on the server and accessible from any computer but if you don’t have one then you need to sync your email files. Outlook owners have several options but the utility I have seen recommended the most is SyncPST. It will allow you to two-way synchronize all your Outlook data between any two computers.
Portable computers are powerful enough today to replace more conventional types of PCs and properly prepared can faithfully serve the mobile professional. I have outlined the "best practices" I use daily to maximize the mobile experience which greatly enhance the enjoyment of using my UPC. The practices here will go a long way to properly preparing the mobile device and help the owner achieve extended battery life through good power management. UPC owners will get better performance by keeping it simple and not adding a lot of seldom used software which will be much kinder on the limited resources of the portable computer. Better meeting practices will help integrate the UPC into the conference room without becoming a distraction. Proper preparation will let you concentrate on the task at hand and not the tool, which is the ultimate productivity enhancer.