Ann Arbor Business to Business
Small Business and the Internet


June 2003

By Mike Gould

I just got back from my annual morel hunt in northern Michigan, where, once again, I dragged my laptop and cameras along. I spent an enjoyable time tromping through the woods, taking pictures of fungus and wildlife and dumping them into my laptop. "But Mike", I hear you say, "I don't get to do that in my line of work; how does this relate to small business?" Substitute "remote business site" for "woods" and "products and facilities" for "fungus" and you are in the picture. Follow along for tips on keeping your stuff running on batteries.

Nuts and volts Okay, okay, you don't go into the woods - you go to a hotel and then to some facility where you need to document the latest business-related activity for the folks back at the home office. You have a digital camera and a laptop. These run on batteries which have a limited lifespan; how do you cope?

Laptops run on Lithium Ion (LIon) batteries, which seem to go dead just before that big presentation or right before you do that final SAVE on the document you are writing just as the plane is landing. Their life spans are getting better but they are still not what we would like. As every seasoned road warrior knows, the first thing you do when stopped for a moment on a business trip is to plug the laptop into the nearest outlet and re-charge. But if you're on a tightly-packed schedule, this can be impossible.

Conservation and Consideration
The first thing you can do is to arrange things so that your battery life lasts as long as possible. The two biggest draws on your battery power are your screen and your hard drive, so it pays to tweak your work habits around them. The easiest thing to do is to dim your screen as much as possible, leaving just enough light to see your text or whatever. I did this on my camping trip and got around four hours of life instead of the usual three. There isn't a lot you can do about the hard drive. It needs to spin up whenever you save, and you don't want to skimp on saving. There is a trick that involves setting up a RAM disk on your computer; this is a special area of RAM that substitutes for disk storage. How to do this is beyond the scope of this article, but instructions can be found on the Web.

What really eats up batteries is your CD/DVD drive, especially if it is a CD burner. Watching a DVD movie on your laptop on an airplane is a sure battery-drainer. Fortunately, many airlines now feature special seat-side power jacks where you can plug in your laptop as you fly the friendly skies. You can buy power adapters for these from various places on the Web. I recommend for this sort of thing with Macs, and there are lots of sites with travel accessories available for PC laptops.

Spares and Wares
But in spite of all your fussing with dimmed screens and the like, you will still need more battery than you have. So buy a spare battery and double your work time. This is where things start to get pricey. The LIon batteries in use today contain circuitry of their own to manage power, and this runs the price up. Laptop batteries can cost up to $130 each, so buying a bunch is out of the reach of most folks (me, anyway).

Here is the best tip in this article: buy a 12V adapter for your laptop and then buy a 12V power cell, available for around $40 at finer discount outlets everywhere. I got mine at Target, finding it in the camping department. This jobbie has a cigarette lighter-type outlet and a built-in lead-acid battery, just like your car. Containing quantities of lead, it is a bit heavy, and may not be suited for packing into airplane luggage. But it is just the thing to throw into the back of your car when you are headed off-site. And at $40 a pop, you can afford a couple.

Once you have your 12V adapter, you can also charge your laptop from your car battery, but this can pose some problems. First, your car has to be running, so you need to remember this when you are underway. Second, you will be plugged into a complex electrical system with its own special needs, so you may be creating problems for either your car or laptop when you do this. The main thing to remember is not to start your car while your laptop is plugged in; a client of mine did this and the initial power surge fried his laptop.

The hardcore folks out there who may find themselves doing business in a rustic environment for extended periods can also do what we do for power in the woods: buy a heavy-duty marine battery and charge from that. Very heavy, but good for the duration.

Camera Batteries
As anyone with a digital camera (DC) can attest, these things eat batteries for breakfast, lunch, and dinner. Because of this, the wise photographer packs plenty of spares. The good news is that they cost considerably less than laptop batteries, even the LIons that are used in the more upscale DCs. My Canon G2 uses a battery that I can get at for around $40; they stock batteries for most cameras, along with 12V quick chargers. The quick charger is made by Lenmar, who also makes the batteries I use.

So whether you are headed into the forest after fungus or off to the boonies on business, pack some extra power for your portables and keep 'em running.

Mike Gould is a mouse wrangler for the U of M, runs MondoDyne Web Works, is a member of Fac·, and welcomes comments addressed to

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