Power, portability and connectivity

The best ultralight PCs, handheld computers and cellular phones for the seasoned traveler

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Winter is nearly over. As feds gear up for another year of travel, what are the top mobile devices that will help them accomplish work while on the road? Federal Computer Week’s test center has attempted to answer that question by evaluating some of the latest devices and applications that help the worker on the go boost productivity and stay connected.

We have assembled the cream of the crop from the past year: three ultralight notebook computers, two handheld computers, one cellular phone and a few partridges in the pear tree. Each offers something special for the road warrior.

Ultralight computers: Power to the traveler
The bottom-line trade-off for traveling professionals has always been portability vs. power. For those who need to maximize the power side of that equation, a handheld computer or a cell phone may not be enough. In such cases, an ultralight PC may be the best solution.

During the past year, we’ve come across three ultralight PCs that stand out from the crowd. Each device offers something special for the traveling power user, and until we find a unit that combines the best features of all three, these are definitely the front-runners.

Portégé R200
Toshiba’s Portégé R200 is the most stylish ultralight we’ve ever tested. It weighs in at a svelte 2.75 pounds and is only 0.75 inches thick. The brushed silver case of the R200 will barely be noticeable when you slip it into your briefcase. This latest Portégé iteration also has beefed up its security arsenal. For starters, the R200 includes a fingerprint scanner.

It also features a multiple-level password system that you can configure to offer different users access to selected resources on the computer, a feature that will be especially welcome to workgroups that share computers. In addition, the R200 contains an embedded security chipset that is Trusted Computer Group-compliant and can be configured to automatically encrypt data, passwords and user credentials. Administrators can also choose to bypass passwords and use Secure Digital cards for access to the R200 and its resources.

The computer even has a customizable device lock utility that restricts who can copy files and prevents unwanted users from booting your system with a secondary hard disk drive.

Finally, a utility that secures the drive when it senses an unusual level of vibration or shock protects the hard drive from accidental damage. The R200 falls a bit short on expandability. You can increase system memory to as much as 1.2G, and extended-life batteries are available. But the fastest processor is the 1.2 GHz Intel Pentium M, and you can’t get a larger or faster hard drive than the 4,800 rpm 60G drive that comes with the R200.

Lifebook P7120
The Fujitsu Lifebook P7120 isn’t the most stylish ultralight PC, nor is it the strongest on security. But no ultralight can compare when it comes to packing the most power into a small package.

Yes, the sharp 10.6-inch display is noticeably smaller than you’ll find in the Portégé R200. And the keyboard is just a

tad more cramped, which users with large hands would have to adjust to. In return for those sacrifices, however, you get a full-featured notebook PC that measures only 10.5 x 8.5 x 1.25 inches and weighs only about 3.5 pounds.

That trim little package contains a 60G hard drive and offers built-in 802.11a/b/g wireless, Bluetooth, two USB 2.0 ports, an S-video port, an IEEE 1394 port, an Ethernet port and a Secure Device slot.

The kicker? The Lifebook P7120, while being the trimmest of the trim, still manages to hold a DVD/CD rewriteable drive. In contrast, the ThinkPad X41 and Portégé R200 only offer CD/DVD drives as external options.

If portability is your priority, you can’t beat the Lifebook P7210. It packs more features into a tinier package than any other ultralight PC we’ve seen.

Like the other ultralight computers we tested, the Lifebook P7120 includes a fingerprint scanner for added security. It does not, however, have embedded encryption or other security tools offered by the ThinkPad X41 or the Portégé R200.

The model we tested, with 512M of RAM that is expandable to 2G and a 60G hard drive, has a list price of $2,149.

Handheld computers: Extending portability
If you want to maximize portability and don’t need a lot of power, a handheld computer is the way to go. You can’t do a lot of typing or store large amounts of data, but handheld PCs are great for organizing calendars, sending e-mail messages, browsing the Web and, depending on the model, making phone calls.

You can go one of three routes with handheld PCs: Palm, Microsoft or Research in Motion. Although we tip our hat to RIM’s tried-and-true BlackBerry, the past year hasn’t brought any remarkable new developments there, so we focus on Palm and Microsoft products.

One of the devices we cover, the Treo 700w, combines Microsoft and Palm features. The other is a Hewlett-Packard iPaq, which offers impressive security.

Treo 700w
Some pairs just go together, like milk and cookies. But Palm and Microsoft?

Sure enough, the two historic rivals have teamed on the new Treo 700w Smartphone, which runs Windows Mobile 5.0 and is the first Palm handheld device to run a Microsoft operating system instead of a Palm system.

Microsoft has let Palm tweak its software, and one result is a much-improved Today screen, which is the Treo 700w’s starting point and home. It lists speed-dial entries and includes a fun option to display them as photos instead of names. There is also a Web search box that takes you directly to the Internet, and you can easily find contacts by typing one or two letters.

Those enhancements make excellent additions to the Today screen’s standard features, which include one-tap access to the calendar and e-mail service.

Palm has also added several useful call-management features. You can set up speed-dial entries for accessing voice mail systems, and VCR-like buttons serve as consistent playback controls so you don’t need to memorize each system’s commands.

In addition to the operating system, the second big news about the Treo 700w is that it runs on Verizon Wireless’ Broadband Access network, resulting in Web surfing speeds comparable to those of a desktop PC.

Other new features include a 1.3 megapixel camera and integrated Bluetooth, which you can use to wirelessly synchronize data with your PC. The memory has also been beefed up to 60M.

One of the Treo 700w’s biggest quirks is that the programs do not stop running even if you close their windows, a problem we did not encounter with the iPaq. If you open many applications, you could produce an error message that states that the device’s memory is low. The only way to fully close an application is to hold down the OK button until you get a list box that shows all the running applications and then delete them from there.

The Treo 700w is fantastic for Windows and Outlook users, and Palm’s enhancements significantly improve usability. The broadband Internet access speeds are also a welcome addition. However, longtime Palm fans might lament the loss of that operating system’s simplicity. Menus now conceal some functions that were once just a tap away, requiring more steps and, in some cases, making them harder to find.

iPaq hx2790
Security is the name of the game with Hewlett-Packard’s iPaq hx2790. In addition to the virtual private network and Wired Equivalent Privacy security included in Windows Mobile 5.0, this iPaq features an integrated fingerprint reader and HP’s security software suite, HP ProtectTools.

HP ProtectTools, which is secured by Credant Technologies, is impressively comprehensive and customizable. You can use it to encrypt your calendar, e-mail messages, tasks, contacts, notes, files and even content on expansion cards. Speaking of which, the hx2790 can accept both Secure Digital and CompactFlash Type II expansion cards.

The software also offers quite an array of authentication choices for unlocking the iPaq. You can choose a simple four-digit personal identification number, a password of any length and content, a strong alphanumeric password, or a fingerprint.

You can also require authentication with both a fingerprint and one of the password options, or you could require just one or the other. The most secure option requires both a fingerprint and a strong alphanumeric password to unlock the device.

HP ProtectTools further lets you choose one of four encryption types of varying strength: Lite, Blowfish, Triple Data Encryption Standard and Advanced Encryption Standard. You can also choose the number of failed authentication attempts to allow and specify whether you want the device to perform a hard reset after reaching the maximum number of failed attempts.

In addition to the security software, HP has added a handful of other useful applications and utilities. There are managers for the Bluetooth, 802.11b and infrared wireless connectivity, in addition to a handy utility called iTask that lets you quickly launch and toggle between applications and common tasks, such as changing the screen orientation from portrait to landscape.

HP also includes a utility that lets you test a handful of functions such as audio, infrared data transfer, notifications and even the hardware buttons on the iPaq. To protect against data loss, an application performs automated backups, and a certificate enroller allows you to use personal certificates to positively identify yourself to others.

The iPaq features a roomy display that measures 3.5 inches diagonally. It has launch buttons for the calendar, contacts, e-mail service and the iTask application, in addition to a five-way navigation button. There is also an audio recording button on the side.

The rubber-coated sides are a nice touch that makes the device easier to grip, and the battery is easy to remove. A USB cradle comes bundled with the device for convenient synchronization with desktop PCs.

The amount of user-available memory is a whopping 144M, which should be more than enough for most users.

The iPaq hx2790 is an excellent choice for security-conscious users, offering the most robust and customizable security we’ve seen on a handheld device. It’s also extremely flexible, offering three types of wireless connectivity, compatibility with two types of expansion cards and several customizable utilities.

Cellular connectivity: Moving toward seamless access
One day, we expect to have seamless access to e-mail services and the Web from our desktop PC, notebook PC and cell phone — all with a single account. No, we’re not there yet. But during the past year we’ve seen significant steps in that direction. Cell phones have become slimmer and more robust, with faster connections to the Internet. And cellular providers have enhanced their offerings to include broadband access for notebook PC users, which helps close the wide gaps between hot spots.

We’ll also welcome the day when hardware sales aren’t tied to service providers. We tested products provided by Verizon Wireless, but be aware that the same product may be available with different services and prices through other service providers.

Motorola Razr V3
No, it’s not the last word in Internet cell phones. In fact, we’re sure we’ll be lusting after a newer model by this time next year. But Motorola’s Razr V3 offers the slickest combination of style and Internet power we’ve seen so far.

It’s only slightly larger than a credit card and slightly more than half an inch thick, so you might have to fish in your pocket to find the Razr. Flip the brushed metal top, and you see a bright and clear 176 x 220 display and an attractive keypad etched into a nickel-plated copper alloy sheet.

We found the keypad easy to use, with rubber bumps aiding use of the number pad. We did find the navigation wheel a little kludgy, however.

As for the Internet, the Razr includes a Wireless Application Protocol browser, an AOL Instant Messenger client and a basic e-mail client. We found cruising the Web tolerably fast — or not quite intolerably slow — using Verizon’s NationalAccess service, which claims to deliver speeds of 60 to 80 kilobits/sec and bursts as fast as 144 kilobits/sec. We were also impressed with the Razr’s use of Verizon’s V Cast service, which delivers MPEG4 video downloads to your cell phone. The videos were, as expected, a bit choppy but still undeniably cool.

A grab bag of other features makes the Razr an attractive choice, including built-in Bluetooth for headsets, a good speakerphone capability and a decent 1.3 megapixel camera.

The biggest drawback should be no surprise in a phone this slim: limited battery life. If you spend a lot of time watching videos and surfing the Web, you might not get all the way through the day on a single charge.

Kyocera KPC650
Tired of subscribing to one hot spot provider only to find you need to cough up more money for a different provider in a hotel room or airport?

Have you seen the ads for wireless broadband Internet from your cell phone provider? We decided to give it a try.

Verizon sent us Kyocera’s KPC650 PC card for testing. The device has a small antenna that you can align for optimum reception or click into the card for protection while traveling.

The device took virtually no setup. All we had to do was install the VZAccess software on the laptop PC, plug in the card, and we were off and running. You can configure the VZAccess manager to boot with Windows, and it will automatically detect not only Verizon Broadband Access but also other wireless providers. If Broadband Access, which promises typical download speeds of 400 to 700 kilobits/sec, is not available, you can connect via the slower NationalAccess service.

We were especially pleased to find that VZAccess offers to connect to other hot spots. When we tried the unit on the ferry between Seattle and Bainbridge Island, for example, the software automatically connected to the free wireless Internet service provided by the ferry system, thus saving the extra connection charges incurred with Verizon Broadband Access.

We found signal strength to be surprisingly good in most locations we tested.

Yes, the card is a tad costly, and broadband service will cost $50 or more a month with most providers. But for frequent travelers that is still cheaper than multiple hot spot subscriptions.

Portable utilities for the worker on the go

USB drives have made it possible for travelers to take a wide array of utilities with them on road trips. Want to travel with your own version of the Mozilla Firefox browser so that you can have your favorite Web sites and cookies when you access the Internet from another computer? Download Portable Firefox to your USB drive. How about a compact (298K) utility for synchronizing files between your laptop and desktop? Download SyncEXP.

We’ve gathered a number of sites that offer a grab bag of utilities for mobile workers.

Combobulate

JohnHaller.com

Mike Tech Show

Portable USB Drive Apps

The Portable Freeware Collection

The 2014 Federal 100

FCW is very pleased to profile the women and men who make up this year's Fed 100. 

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