Ann Arbor Business to Business
Small Business and the Internet

Laptop Dancing II - Bag It

May 2001

By Mike Gould

Last time out we discussed my nifty new laptop- why it is cool, what it can do and why you want one. This time we discuss how to keep your little folding buddy happy and secure, and how to haul it around.

Power Up
Laptops run on batteries, and batteries have a limited charge. My Titanium PowerBook G4 (Ti) has an advertised life of 5 hours, but this is rarely seen in real life; 4 1/2 hours is the most I've experienced, but this is pretty good in the scheme of things. The ultimate question is: can you watch a DVD all the way through on that flight from New York to Los Angeles? This stresses a 'top to the max: you are running the screen full tilt and keeping the DVD drive spinning. Reports I've read indicate that the Ti can pull this off, if you have a fully-charged battery as the seat belt lights go off. The nice thing about the Ti is that when you get the low battery warning, you can put the unit to sleep, pop out the depleted battery, pop in a new one, and wake the computer up without Russell Crowe noticing you were gone.

Other laptops have similar features; the point is that an extra battery is your friend. The bad news is that these batteries are the new-fangled Lithium-Ion variety - these trade off outstanding performance against your wallet. A replacement costs $130 in my case. Of course, if you are fortunate enough to be flying certain friendly skies, there is a power socket provided for 'top power supplies, with adapters available for most power connectors (including mine, fortunately).

You can also get adapters that enable you to recharge your battery from your car cigarette lighter outlet. I plan to use such a system next month when I drag my Ti into the woods on a morel-seeking expedition; I plan to use it as storage for the digital photos I'll be shooting. Spores, alors.

Lock Down
The main danger facing the mobile computer user is theft. Laptops are walking away from their owners in alarming numbers, especially from airports and hotel rooms. The best way to keep your 'top secure is to chain it to your wrist; but this can be inconvenient at times. The chain part is good though; most modern laptops come with a security slot somewhere on the body, and various manufacturers make locks that hook into this hole, tethering your 'top to whatever stationary object is handy. I have the Kensington Laptop Kit ($45 at the URL below) and this works just fine.

The usual caveats about backing up apply here in a major way; if your computer is stolen, there is no software anywhere that will restore your files. I would advise a major backup session before every major trip, and would think hard and deep about carrying around sensitive files - if you don't need the CoolBiz file with your revolutionary dotcom business plan in it this trip, leave it at home. If you are carrying really sensitive material, and maybe work for the Dept. of Defense, or something, you might want to encode your files or password protect your machine. If this is your plan, invest in some serious security software, as most out-of-the-box system security is crack-able by a determined thief.

And speaking of security software, here is a cool program that may help recover your laptop if it is stolen. CompuTrace is software that, according to its vendors,

"...automatically and silently calls into the CompuTrace Monitoring Center at regular intervals to report its unique Electronic Serial Number and the phone number it is calling from."

In other words, the first time a thief or fence plugs your purloined 'puter into a phone line, it surreptitiously calls for help.

Haul Away
Once you buy a laptop, you need to get something to haul it around in. The usual answer is one of those boring black satchel thingies that all the computer stores sell, or an expensive aluminum jobbie. These work OK, but tell the world: "I am obviously a computer container and I have an expensive item inside, so please steal me". If you are a busy executive with an image to maintain, by all means go out and get that ZERO Halliburton number and show the world how brave you are. But for the rest of us road warriors, I propose a policy of security by obscurity. I bought a nice Eddie Bauer knapsack; it comes with the usual arm straps, (which I removed), a handle at the top, and the all-important shoulder strap. There wasn't much padding, so I bought an Eagle Creek Computer Vault; this is a well-padded enclosure that holds my Ti snugly, and fits in the backpack easily. Details on this are available on my website at:

http://mondodyne.com/tipb.html

So now I have a carrying case with pockets for batteries, power supply, CD-ROM/DVD container and security cables. There are even zippered pockets for papers and the like. And best of all, it tells the world, "I'm just some student's bookbag filled with paperbacks and sandwiches; nothing here to steal, move along".

But the best solution of all to deter airport theft is one I read about on a newsgroup: put that expensive laptop in a large colorful diaper bag, and no one will go near it.

The security products mentioned above, along with lots of helpful info, are available from:

http://www.ComputerSecurity.com/

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