Have briefcase, will travel

4 portable technologies for business travelers to take on the road

The slow days of summer are over and the boss says it's time to hit the road again. The day before your trip you stand looking at your empty briefcase and contemplate what to pack.

First, you think about what you want to accomplish. You'll need to write some documents and check e-mail on the road, and you plan to make the most of your time at the airport and on the plane to complete those tasks.

You're also scheduled to present a slide show to a small group. The attendees will want to be able to use some of your information when they're in the field and away from their computers.

Another meeting will be a brainstorming session that will involve drawing diagrams you'll want to reference later. Most of them will be static, but some will need simple animation to be fully effective.

So what will accomplish all those tasks and still fit in your briefcase? We've rounded up four products that fill the bill.

The first is Lenovo's ThinkPad X41 convertible tablet PC. It's the lightest convertible tablet on the market, and it switches from notebook to tablet mode in seconds. Use it in notebook mode to type documents and e-mail messages, or use it in tablet mode to take notes while you're sitting or standing. You can also make a presentation to a small group by rotating the screen.

Lenovo obtained the X41 through the acquisition of the IBM Personal Computing Division. The X41 is one of the few notebook PCs on the market that includes a touchpad and a trackpoint for navigation. But if you don't like either of those, you'll want to check out Iogear's Laser Travel Mouse 1600. This small, lightweight mouse works on almost any surface, and its high resolution means that moving the cursor requires little effort on your part. That's perfect when you're working in cramped spaces such as airplane seats.

To cover your on-the-road printing needs, bring the MPrint micro printer from Brother Industries. It will hardly take up any room in your briefcase, and it will be handy for printing labels or small amounts of information on A7-size paper.

Finally, for electronic note-taking — even animated notes — load PhatWare's PhatPad on your tablet PC. The software allows you to use your tablet like a pad of paper, and you can also organize and manipulate your notes electronically.

Happy traveling!

Switching modes

When we unpacked the box containing our ThinkPad X41 review unit, we wondered at first if something was missing.

We were wowed by the small size and light weight of this convertible tablet. It weighs just 3.5 pounds and measures 10.8 inches by 9.5 inches by 1.3 inches. We'd volunteer to carry it around any day.

Of course, there are trade-offs for small size. In this case, it's the lack of an integrated optical drive and a relatively small 12.1-inch display.

However, the wide-angle display allows viewing from any vertical or horizontal angle up to 170 degrees — a handy feature for a tablet PC. Its 1,024 x 768 resolution is not cutting edge, but it should be fine for most users.

The display's quad-metal alloy hinge is noticeably sturdier than the hinges on other tablets we've seen.

Despite the X41's small size, it has a full-size keyboard with truncated backspace and enter keys, which can take awhile to get used to.

Previous ThinkPad users will feel right at home with this tablet PC, which looks like the ThinkPad X series of ultra-portables with a few modifications to accommodate the tablet functions. The X41 features the familiar red trackpoint navigation device and the blue "Access IBM" button that connects users to a host of utilities and online help.

Ports include two standard USB 2.0 ports and one powered USB 2.0 port, which is a different size and is used to power a USB device. In this case, it powers the external DVD/CD-RW drive in read-only mode. If you want to use the drive to its full read-and-write capacity, you'll need to plug in the included external power cord. It has a small transformer, which, along with the drive itself, adds to the tablet's weight.

In addition to a Secure Digital card slot and a Type I or Type II PC Card slot, the X41 features VGA, Gigabit Ethernet, modem, headphone and microphone ports.

It also includes a bidirectional fingerprint reader, which means you can swipe your finger across it in either direction. The reader is mounted vertically on the bezel beneath the screen, and though it can be used when the PC is in notebook mode, the angle is awkward. In tablet mode, the fingerprint reader is near the top right corner of the screen and is easy to use.

Other function buttons on the X41 include a rocker scroll button, enter, escape, a customizable "Quick Launch" button and a "Viewing Orientation" button that rotates the display 90 degrees with each press, cycling through four orientations.

The X41 has two power buttons, one above the keyboard for use when the PC is in notebook mode and one on the bezel for tablet mode. The latter button can be locked to prevent accidental shutdowns, a clever feature we applaud.

Lenovo's ThinkVantage Technologies are hardware and software utilities and enhancements that provide robust security and management features.

For instance, the Active Protection System protects from drop and shock damage by stopping the hard drive when the system detects sudden acceleration. The Embedded Security Subsystem consists of a security chip and a free downloadable software package.

In case of a crash, ThinkVantage Rescue and Recovery software lets users restore system images themselves, often eliminating the need to call the help desk.

Our unit was configured with a 1.5 GHz Intel Pentium M 758 processor, an Intel 915GM Express chipset, 512M of memory (expandable to 1,536M), a 40G hard drive and 802.11b/g wireless networking. The Intel Graphics Media Accelerator 900 powers graphics.

The General Services Administration schedule price for our configuration is $1,667, which is in the typical range for tablets PCs.

If size and weight are your primary concerns and you don't mind carrying an external optical drive when you need it, this convertible tablet PC is the one for you. The fingerprint reader is a great feature that adds an extra layer of security.

Traveling with a mouse

We've seen the future, and it's a laser mouse. Optical mice are so passé.

The big deal about optical mice was their lack of moving parts. Plus, their tracking was more precise than their predecessors', and they could be used on just about any surface except glass and mirrors.

Laser mice offer more powerful and accurate tracking and work on polished surfaces that optical mice can't handle.

After testing Iogear's new Laser Travel Mouse, we didn't want to return it. According to the company, it provides 30 times more tracking power than an optical mouse.

In addition, its 1,600 dpi resolution means that small mouse movements cause the cursor to travel far, a handy feature for a mouse you might need to use in cramped quarters. In fact, the tracking on our mouse was so fast that we had to reduce the pointer speed on our computer.

Instead of the LED technology that optical mice use, the Laser Travel Mouse uses a vertical cavity surface emitting laser as the light source. When the light shines on the working surface, the surface reflects and diffuses the light, generating a speckle pattern that the mouse chip's imaging sensor picks up.

In contrast, an LED-based mouse's imaging sensor captures the reflected image of the working surface's micro-texture, which is why such mice can't be used on polished surfaces.

Iogear claims the mouse can be used even on glass, and we found that to be true but with one exception. It didn't work when we tried using it on a glass table. But when we held a piece of paper directly beneath the glass, it worked fine. So if you want to use the mouse on, say, a glass-topped wood table, you should be able to do so.

We loved the mouse's design. It's lightweight and small but not so small that it's hard to use. It features a scroll wheel and retractable cable; handy extras include a PS/2 adapter and hard carrying case.

We especially liked the black, rubberized coating, which feels soft. The silver border adds a splash to the overall modern look.

The mouse is designed for right-handed users, but those who are left-handed could still use it reasonably comfortably because the curvature isn't extreme.

The Laser Travel Mouse is pricey at $49.95, but it sure is cool.

Small but fine print

Brother's micro printer is tiny. So is the paper that comes out of it, which means you won't be printing 8.5-inch-by-11-inch documents on it.

Instead, it is designed primarily for users whose printed output can be small, such as doctors printing prescriptions and patient instructions; field-based service technicians printing bills, repair statements and parts labels; and consultants printing records and forms.

But we could also see someone distributing copies of a Microsoft PowerPoint presentation, a diagram or another type of document that uses large text or relatively simple graphics. It may not be an ideal format, but it would get the job done in a pinch if people needed a hard-copy reference to take with them.

The printer uses size A7 paper, which measures 4.1 inches by 2.9 inches and comes in a convenient cartridge that's simple to load. The MPrint accepts five types of A7 paper.

We tested it with full-size single sheets, but it also accepts two-ply carbon-copy paper and three sizes of adhesive labels. The carbon-copy paper is good for capturing signatures for authorizations or signed proof of receipt.

Our test unit, the MW-140BT model, connects to Microsoft Pocket PCs, Palm handheld devices, and notebook and tablet PCs via Bluetooth. It has a rechargeable lithium-ion battery, so between that and the Bluetooth, you can use it without cables.

The battery is rated to print up to 100 continuous pages on one charge if the sleep mode is not used.

A USB cable is also included for devices that don't have Bluetooth capability, as was the case with the notebook PC we used for testing the printer.

This little printer, which measures just 3.9 inches by 6.3 inches by 0.7 inches, offers big conveniences. It's not quite small enough to fit into a shirt pocket, but it wouldn't take up much space in a briefcase. And at less than 1 pound — including 50 sheets of A7 paper — it barely weighs anything.

The MPrint is a thermal printer, so you don't have to carry potentially messy toner or cartridges, and it will never run out of ink. Thermal printing also eliminates moving print heads, so the device is quieter and less fragile than other printers, which is good for a printer designed to go on the road. The output is four pages per minute.

What's more, the thermal paper feels like regular paper, and you can write and use a highlighter on it. Even freshly printed pages with solid black areas don't smear when rubbed.

Another convenience is the lack of warm-up time. When you turn on the printer, it's ready to go. That translates to longer battery life because you don't have to use the sleep mode. Instead, you can simply turn the printer off between uses.

The 300 dpi output is impressively clear even when the text is quite small. You can also print out a readable version of an 8.5-inch-by-11-inch text document by splitting it between two A7 pages. The document prints in landscape mode with the top half on one piece of paper and the bottom half on the other.

A software development kit is available for customers who want to create custom applications for the printer.

The MPrint MW-140BT costs $399, and a non-Bluetooth version — the MW-100 — sells for $299. This is a fantastic travel printer if you carry a Palm or Pocket PC device and want to print images, screen captures or items from your calendar, tasks, e-mail or notes. It is also handy if you're using a notebook or tablet PC and want to give hard copies of information to meeting participants.

Now that's Phat

PhatWare's PhatPad is a note-taking software package originally designed for Pocket PCs, but it now works with tablet and desktop PCs, too.

We tested PhatPad on a tablet PC. The interface resembles a piece of paper that you write on with a digital pen. You can draw pictures and write words, and a pane below the scratch pad interface allows you to type text to save along with your handwritten notes.

PhatPad offers standard editing commands such as cut, paste, drag and undo/ redo that can be used with handwritten input. Other features include an eraser, variable pen widths and multiple pen colors.

For drawing, the software includes a basic shape-recognition engine that smoothes circles, rectangles, triangles, arrows and straight lines.

PhatPad can store up to 16,000 handwritten pages per file, and you can export notes and drawings in bitmap and JPEG formats.

PhatPad's major highlights are its compatibility with Pocket PC, including note synchronization, and the ability to create animated notes.

Animated notes are the electronic version of those paper pads that animate a scene when you flip through the sheets quickly. In this case, the software automatically "flips" through a series of single-page notes at a user-defined speed. You can use this feature to create animation or simply review a series of notes quickly.

We were a little disappointed in PhatPad's ability to recognize handwriting. When we wrote quickly, it didn't pick up the pen strokes nearly as well as Microsoft's tablet input panel, which really feels like using a pen on paper.

PhatPad costs $29.95, but if you're using Microsoft Windows XP and want the ability to convert handwriting into text, you'll also have to buy PhatWare's PenOffice package for $49.95. The equivalent software for a Pocket PC is called CalliGrapher; it costs $29.95.

If you want a basic note-taking package but don't want to spend $100 on Microsoft OneNote, take a look at PhatPad.

You won't get all the bells and whistles OneNote offers and the writing recognition might not be as good, but you do get Pocket PC compatibility and the animated notes feature.

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