Enter the next generation of portables, which attempt to return to the virtues of the Tandy 200 while retaining the advantages of its successors. My Hewlett Packard Omnibook 300 weighs 3lb, eschews backlighting and uses 'flash card' technology, which requires scarcely any power, instead of hard or floppy disks. The small nickel-metal-hydride battery pack can be partially recharged without ill effects and can keep running for five hours. And it can run on four AA batteries as well.But the main reason for giving up on portables was last year's launch of the Amstrad NC100 Notepad. This is the size of a skinny A4 road atlas and uses four AA batteries which give up to 20 hours of use, foregoing the need for frequent traipsing to the Ladies in search of a hairdryer socket for recharging purposes. This activity becomes vital when your computer's four-hour battery gives up after two hours and ten minutes, a fact of computing life always overlooked by computer designers.The Amstrad can take the punishment meted out by casual transportation in my shoulder bag, where it jostles with a small tape recorder and a Swiss Army knife. The pruning attachments in the knife were once needed to repair fingernails brutalised by the short-travel keyboards of laptops and notebooks, but it is no longer needed as the NC100 is blessed with a decent full-size keyboard. This has knobbles on the 'home' keys, put there to tell you that the NC100 is not a toy in spite of its Fisher-Price appearance.
And I can even work the Amstrad without recourse to those multicoloured 'dumbo' keys. Once you have got the hang of the thing the red, yellow, green and blue function keys serve only to remind you of how computer-illiterate you were: 'To use the word processor, press Yellow and Red, stupid.'The NC100 is ludicrously easy to get started as it does not require you to undergo the tyranny of learning Dos or Windows - the PC-compatible operating systems - before you can write your first letter. It even prints to almost anything you can find that fits the sockets on the back. This is How Computers Should Be.The Amstrad stores up to 150,000 words at a time on its one megabyte PCMCIA storage card. This card is battery-backed and removable and one card can carry the manuscript of a full-length book. These devices are the size of a Barclaycard and less of a liability than floppy disks.When the computer world eventually catches up with the Amstrad, I will be able to buy a PCMCIA Card Drive to grab the data from the cards directly - at the moment I need a null-modem lead to transfer data to the PCs and Macs I use whilst deskbound. And the computer knows just enough about communications to be able to send and receive text documents via the telephone, so a small battery operated modem lives alongside it.
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I did dally recently with a Dell 325SLI notebook PC and for a while was besotted with its VGA screen and slim-line looks. But the Amstrad is much closer to the ideal machine for a peripatetic scribbler as it does not have a hard disk to suffer the slings and arrows of daily misfortune. Previous experience confirms that hard disks and mobile authors only work well together until the day after the warranty expires. Then all is irretrievably lost as a matter of course.Naturally, the NC100 lacks some features. It does not have a 120-megabyte hard disk, there is no spreadsheet for charts of accounts and it does not run Windows.Nor does it have a VGA colour display and it consequently does not impress people on trains. This is extremely useful as I can work away undisturbed without some suit leaning over my shoulder proffering advice on Windows Swapfile settings. The Amstrad has zero street cred. People leave you alone when they find out you have one.To celebrate its splendid non-standardisation, the NC100 has the words 'User Friendly' printed above the screen in small affable letters. If you decide that you do not agree after five minutes of use, then Alan Sugar will give you your money back, no questions asked. This is the sort of heavyweight guarantee that should come with all computers, regardless of size.
Backlight: Type of lighting on portables which have their own source of illumination for the screen. More basic models depend on an external light source falling on the screen.Memory resident programs: Also known as Terminate-and-stay-resident programs (TSRs). A Dos program that remains stored in the computer's main memory when not running so that it can be quickly restarted.Null-modem cable: A cable that allows two computers to communicate without the use of modems.PCMCIA card: A portable credit card-size storage medium used with very small computers and calculators.VGA: A medium-high quality screen resolution standard for PC-compatible computers which gives 640 pixels or screen dots by 480 pixels.Half-way through rejigging the budget, a series of beeps warns that the battery is about to run out. Arrive at your destination and you need to dig several bulky pieces of equipment out of your luggage to recharge the computer and transmit your work back to base.At present, mobile computing involves lugging around a battery charger, its power lead, a fax/modem unit and some interface cables, virtually doubling the space the computer takes in your luggage. A box of floppy disks and a network interface take even more. As the market for desktop PCs starts to slow, mobile computing needs to become much easier if the industry is to continue to grow at its historic rate.
At the moment, only the dedicated really bother. Dataquest, the US market analysts, expects worldwide desktop sales to peak this year at around 21 million units, dropping to 18 million in 1995. Sales of mobile computers, by contrast, are forecast to grow from around 6 million this year to 20 million in 1995. But only if their performance matches their promise.Intel, which has just overtaken Motorola to become the world's largest manufacturer of semi-conductors, has an obvious interest in ensuring that it does. Its microprocessors drive 80 per cent of the world's IBM-compatible PCs: the company's fate is therefore closely linked to the PC's. Last week, a court ruled that Intel did hold copyright over the 486 microprocessor, which seems set to prolong this situation.Intel has consequently launched two advances in mobile computing technology which it predicts will make a great difference to the productivity of managers on the move.The first is a new microprocessor especially designed for portable battery-driven use. Because it has been specifically engineered for mobile use it uses less power than the company's basic desktop chips, despite performing the same tasks.
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It also incorporates special circuitry which can be programmed to switch the processor off after a stated interval, while leaving everything else running. This interval can be as short as that between two consecutive keystrokes if required. As a result, battery life is extended by up to four hours, says the company - doubling the life that batteries achieve at present.The second innovation is based on 'flash' memory technology which enables contents to be retained even when the power is off. The information is held on cards which are all the same size and can be carried in pockets or wallets. Each contains the equivalent of several boxes of floppy disks.Further advances in miniaturisation mean that modems and fax cards will also shortly be available in the credit card format, making communications back to base much simpler. The company is also very involved in developing a local area network interface card.