Wearable office

Posted by jerry on August 27th, 2004 — Posted in Technology, Travel, Writing

I would venture to say that anyone who has travelled with a computer has given thought at some point to how to do it without carting around the ubiquitous briefcase-sized anvil. But I wonder how many have actually managed it? A recent series of articles recounts how an enterprising journalist sold his laptop on ebay and decided to use the proceeds to come up with a pocket solution that would cover the basic functions of an office on the move.

I found it interesting that the journalist had to restrict the technology to that of a couple of years ago, because some functions have disappeared, despite the much trumpeted convergence of technologies, and the so-called wireless revolution.

My needs are different from those presented in that series of articles, but only a little. And my version also fits in a series of pockets – though not the fishing vest the author advocates.

So here is my version of the laptop-less traveller. First my travel needs: I want to write stuff on a comfortable keyboard. I want to keep my expenses straight, and I want to keep appointments scheduled. I want to be able to send and accept notes to a fellow traveller’s palm-top. I want to be able to build and display web pages. I want to be able to scan text and to take photographs – and integrate the photos with the web pages. I want a common, compatible, storage medium that goes across all devices. I want to be able to print stuff. And I want to be able to use the internet. Above all I want battery power to last from Canberra to London, or to last for several days in places where mains power is at best intermittent – even if it is available.

My other condition is that I can’t afford to buy laptop, so my entire technology suite should fall within the price range of a base-level laptop.

Here’s how I did it. The centrepiece is the PDA. I don’t want to learn how to write all over again, so I immediately ruled out almost all of what is available today – yes you can buy separate keyboards, but they have extra hinges to break, sockets to get dusty, and above all, a portrait screen that doesn’t let you lay out written text very well. My choice was rapidly narrowed to a couple of machines that had integral keyboards – and some of those were more like calculator pads rather than keys, or required one to have fingers the size of a gnat. Some even required that you typed only with two thumbs. Some might say my typing may as well be with two thumbs! But I found the one I needed – a Psion 5MX – not made now for four years, and still streets ahead on practicality over most other PDAs.

There are some limitations – no WiFi connection, no USB ports (although you can use serial-USB connectors), the thing won’t (yet) play movies, and there is no colour screen. so why on earth would I persevere with such dated technology? Even the EPOC operating system is no longer supported (although some EPOC-6 programs will run on EPOC-5). And I have yet to be able to convert Psion Presentation documents to powerPoint (the mac doesn’t speak PsiWin – and it is one of the very few things left out of Neuon converter).

Here is why. The keyboard is still the best that has ever been on the market for such devices. It is small, but with keys large enough and well enough spaced to type quite comfortably – and even on the smallest aircraft you have room to spare on the tray for a coffee while you type. It also weighs only 350g including batteries Psion made some good choices for connectivity. Storage is on Compact Flash cards – which now go up over 1GB – more than enough for an extended trip. You can even take backups for all your favourite applications, and a whole library of e-texts. The ‘Word’ application can be persuaded to save as RTF which is readable by most word processors. Battery life is at least two weeks of heavy usage, and the thing uses readily available AA batteries – even up-country in PNG! The Opera web browser is good, providing well laid out pages very similar to full scale computer display.

The compact flash is one major key – it also fits the cannon A40 digital camera – and you can quite happily take the flash card out of the psion, throw it in the camera, take a few hots and load it back into the psion and embed the images in a web page – which can be displayed on the psion.

Sometimes I will want to scan small bits of text, say an entry from a travel book, or my airline ticket number. for this I use a wonderful little device called a C-pen 600c scanner. Mine again is quite old, but it does the job quite well. And I can beam its contents to the psion using the IrDa infra-red port and plBeam utility.

And I have a GSM travel modem – also psion, also no longer made, but which works well on a dialup connection through which I can send emails and surf web pages. Of course this is strictly hotel room stuff because you need a fixed landline connection. Or I can wait until I get home, transfer the compact flash card to the USB card reader on my mac and upload files straight from the card.

And that’s it – so far. As for a printer, there are a couple of travel printers that take IrDa input through an infrared port and no doubt I will get one before too long – I’ll let you know what I choose when the time comes.

In the mean time, I have yet to be stopped in airport security lines with my PDA being waved through, and I generally take only the Psion and camera on board – the rest (mainly power adapters) I stow in my baggage. The psion fits in one pocket, the camera on a belt pouch and a couple of spare batteries in another pocket – oh yes the camera also takes AA size batteries I have one tenth of the hassle of those who feel the need to cart laptops on board – perhaps to play games or watch a movie. I’m happy with a chess game and a couple of others, and I have a good selection of e-books to read.

Let me know what your travel set up is!


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