Is this going to work as a desktop replacement for
me? (I use a 17" Viewsonic in my lab, probably the best picture
quality ever) - I think so, after seeing how bright and sharp the
photo-realistic screen is (picture doesn't do it justice).
I'll comment fully on
it after I pick up my cell phone equipment and install the modem.
| AUTHOR'S NOTE:
The 6.4 Mb drive failed and was replaced under warranty. The
first replacement attempts were with several identical refurbished
IBM drives which were defective upon arrival. They then substituted
a Fujitsu drive which is still working today. Nevertheless, I wasn't
pleased about receiving refurbished drives for a brand new, high end
laptop - so I looked around and bought a new IBM 20 GB Travelstar
drive, and it has worked extremely well, very quiet and fast.
27/99 - The first thing that greets you when
you power up the CPt is a welcome screen from Dell. When Windows
launches, there are icons conveniently provided on the desktop that
permit direct access to the html based documentation, so it really isn't
necessary to read the hard copy manuals even though several are
provided. Another nice touch is a Dell applet that prompts you to make
floppies containing all the system drivers in case you ever have a
catastrophic hard drive failure. These driver disks, along with the Win
98 CD will enable you to reconstruct your system quickly.
After backing up my drivers, I decided to take a
look at how the 6.4 Gb hard drive had been configured at the factory.
It turned out that it
was divided into three partitions, all running the 16 bit FAT file
system. I wanted the hard drive divided into two equal partitions
(primary and backup) and I also had expectations of taking full
advantage of the newer 32 bit FAT system so that I could maximize my
hard disk sector and space utilization.
| AUTHOR'S NOTE:
The back lighting for the screen started to fail, making it
hard to see. The entire display unit was promptly replaced under
However, if I changed the disk structure using
the Windows FDISK utility, I would have lost all the data, including the
pre-configuration of Windows that Dell had installed. This didn't seem
like a good idea, so I elected to run out and purchase the Partition
Magic program from Power Quest. This product allows you to re-configure
your hard drive 'on the fly' without losing any data; in very short
order I had the system running smoothly, just the way I wanted it,
without having to re-install Windows, etc. It's the kind of program you
hardly ever need, but when you need it, you need it bad!
My next step was to transfer all the data from my
desktop system so while I was out and about, I also purchased a special
parallel port cable so that I could run the Windows Direct Cable
Connection program. This is not the fastest way to transfer data, but it
works well enough for a one-time or occasional activity. If I was doing
this often, I would certainly purchase something like Laplink, USB
hardware or a network card. After letting it run all night (yes, moving
2 Gb of data is slow), I came back in the morning and my mobile desktop
replacement system was ready to go.
Dell laptops come with a built-in touchpad that works very well as a
mouse replacement, largely due to the presence of a really nifty driver
from Synaptics. It permits vertical page scrolling by stroking the right
hand edge of the touchpad (likewise horizontal scrolling by sliding your
finger along the bottom edge). It even let's you 'coast' through a long
page if you swipe it quickly and let your finger fly off the edge,
stopping the scrolling action only when you tap the touchpad (yes, you
can control the speed). The more I use it, the better I like it and it
certainly is handy when you just need to turn on the computer and do
something easy, like downloading your email, without having to drag out
However, I still like to 'mouse around' so while
I was out, I had also grabbed a new Microsoft IntelliMouse with the
scroll wheel. When I plugged it into the PS2 port, the Synaptics driver
recognized its presence and disabled the touchpad, allowing all the
IntelliMouse features to come into play. I also installed the
IntelliMouse driver, but discovered it clobbers the Synaptics driver for
the touchpad (and doesn't really provide any additional functionality),
so I used the driver disks I had made earlier to restore the Synaptics
driver. The scroll wheel also works very well; when you click the scroll
wheel button, you can scroll a page vertically just by moving the mouse
up or down on the page - you don't need to move the cursor over to the
elevator bar and click on it anymore. You can also rotate the scroll
wheel to generate the same effect, but I found that this operation was
not as consistent in all programs as the scroll wheel button is,
although this might be something to do with the Synaptics driver.
time I reached this point, I was getting quite used to the new system
and found that I was really starting to enjoy using it. Everything works
well - the hard drive is fast and the CPU snaps programs up on the
sharp, bright screen in a flash. I have also enjoyed the versatility of
being able to swap various different drives in and out of the media bay.
The battery lasts for over 3 hours and I find it very liberating to be
able to move around and work wherever I want instead of being confined
to my office all day.
| AUTHOR'S NOTE:
The keyboard failed and was replaced promptly under warranty.
haven't tried the specified torture test of pouring coffee between the
'h' and 'j' keys yet (from 4", with cream and sugar), but something
tells me it really could handle this.
| AUTHOR'S NOTE:
The battery failed and I had to pay for a new one as the
warranty doesn't cover it after a year. It was hardly ever used off
110 VAC, very few charge/discharge cycles, but it died (zero output
all of a sudden) anyway. Of course, it was one of the few times I
was using it on battery power and I lost data because of it.
I installed my Megahertz/3Com cellular modem, hooked it up to my
landline using the handy Xjack retractable connector and logged onto the
net. The first thing I did was go to the 3Com website and download the
flash upgrade for the modem bios. I ran the flash upgrade program, but
when it reached the 10% stage, it quit the bios replacement and gave me
an error message, something like 'file transfer failed'. A chill ran
down my spine and then I broke out into a cold sweat as I realized I may
have toasted the most expensive modem I've ever owned. I've heard some
woeful stories about modems being destroyed during the flash process and
I didn't need to find out that this had happened to me. I rebooted the
laptop, hit the dial-up connect icon and muttered a short Bhuddist
prayer. Much to my extreme relief, it logged on and even downloaded a
new order from a client!
I zoomed back to the 3Com website, but couldn't
find any reference to the problem in their knowledge base. So, I picked
up the phone, called their tech support and got a support person on the
line in short order (toll-free). He knew exactly what the problem was
and instructed me to reduce the buffer settings while the update was
being performed. This worked just like a charm and my panic level
subsided; faith in 3Com was restored.
I had also noticed that I couldn't hear my modem
dial-up when I was connecting to the net even though the speaker setting
was on; although the PCMCIA modems don't have an internal speaker, they
are supposed to be able to feed the line audio into the Windows sound
system. This was troubling because I have learnt over time to interpret
the handshaking signals (i.e. squawks and bleeps) and know when I've hit
a bad modem or other problem.
Since I had a few other minor issues to resolve,
I decided to give the Dell mobile support team a quick call and see if
they could help. The contact information is prominently displayed in the
support notes and I found myself talking to a friendly technician in
very short order. He was very helpful and we actually had a long
discussion ranging over numerous topics; I found that he was in no hurry
to dump the call. After hanging up, I tried the things he suggested, but
unfortunately, it still doesn't work. So I've sent off some email in the
hopes that they can find something else to try, but if they can't I
still feel that they did a good job, especially since the modem is from
another supplier. My guess, though, is that it's a problem with the
laptop audio driver because the Win 98 'toggle keys' sound doesn't come
through either (author's note: in the end, it turned out to be a bios
problem, solved by the release of Bios version A01).
Nevertheless, the modem is working fine and
consistently logs on at 44 to 50k. The compression algorithms seem very
good as everything downloads very quickly and I haven't yet had a failed
connection, so not having the dial-up audio monitoring hasn't been much
of a problem so far. I have also traveled out of our local calling area
and tried connecting long distance to our modem pool, using my telephone
credit card - it worked perfectly. If you try this, make sure you check
the 'Operator assisted or manual dial' setting on the 'Options' tab for
your modem settings. This causes Windows to bring up a dialog box when
you hit the 'Connect' button; this allows you to manually dial your long
distance number, wait for the tone and enter your credit card number.
When the modem pool answers, you just hit the 'Continue' button on the
screen, hang up the phone and the system logs on just as if you were at
home ... works like a charm!
10/99 - The most difficult part of connecting
to the 'net via cellular has been obtaining the correct data
cable that links my laptop to the cellphone. There are numerous types
available, depending on your cellphone model and your laptop
modem. In the end, I had to special order the 'Mot1' cable for my
equipment, which set our schedule back considerably.
I have an older Motorola analog cellphone and I
decided to stay with this for a number of reasons. The analog system has
much wider coverage than the newer digital cells; it is also higher
power and uses a lower frequency range, making it less line-of-sight.
I'm not particularly concerned about the higher voice quality and
enhanced privacy of the digital system, but the coverage issue is of
paramount interest to me. The analog system gives me excellent coverage
in all the areas I need and I am basically never out of touch because of
Analog modems don't work with digital phones, so
I couldn't see much point to having a 'dual system' cellphone. You can
connect your analog modem to a 'dual' phone (provided it has the proper
connector), but as soon as it detects a data operation, it will
automatically switch to analog operation even if digital cells are
available. Some digital cellphone providers allow you to connect through
the digital system by attaching a cable from the serial port on your
laptop to the digital cellphone (no analog modem is involved or
required), but this will only work when you are within range of a
digital cell. Since analog service is generally available wherever
digital is (the converse is not true - yet), I couldn't see the point of
mucking about with two different systems, hence I settled for a pure
analog setup (for now). This also means that the cellphone costs are
lower, although airtime is charged by the minute rather than the second.
So, I connected my expensive data cable to my
3Com/Megahertz modem, held my breath, muttered another prayer and hit
the 'connect' button to dial-up my service provider (Sprint). I watched
in sheer disbelief with my 'net monitoring software (NetMedic) as the
modem auto-deteced the cellphone connection and the phone number
scrolled by on the cellphone readout. The system logged on at the
(lately) unheard of speed of 4800 bps - wow, I thought, I'm ON!!
I stared at it for a while, enjoying the sense of
elation. I then began to wonder if I was experiencing an unfounded sense
of joy since 4.8K is not exactly cable-modem speed. So, I opened my mail
program (Netscape) and, voila, 14 new messages began pouring in. It
wasn't as fast as I'm used to, but hey, it worked just fine - amazing!
Then, I tried surfing some pages with large graphics and even that
worked well enough to convince me that I didn't need to put my browser
into 'text only' mode. I rattled off some quick responses to the email,
logged off, and with a big smile on my face, cracked open a bottle of
select brew that I had been saving for this occasion. I knew in that
moment that a whole new era in my life had begun.
be field testing the system over the next week or so, seeking ways to
optimize performance and reporting on the 'real world' trials.
23/99 - The screen froze just as I
was sitting down to write a more detailed account of some of my
experiences with cellular phone behavior when connecting to the net.
Hmm, I thought, I'm sure I didn't hit the 'freeze' button and I've yet
to have this thing crash on me, what's up? The short answer is that my
IBM hard drive went south and I've just spent two days going through
computer hell ...
I had purchased the next-day onsite service
policy when I bought the laptop, so I quickly got on the phone to Dell
tech support to see how they could help. My call was answered promptly
and after running a few diagnostic tests with the tech over the phone,
he decided we wouldn't waste time with a service call - they'd just send
another hard drive right away by overnight courier. Sure enough, it
arrived as promised at 11:30 the next morning.
The primary hard drive is removed by releasing a
single screw on the side of the laptop, so sliding the bad one out and
replacing it with the new unit was simple. However, I now faced the
daunting task of rebuilding my system. Yes, I had backed up my critical
data onto my 120 Mb 'super floppy' disks, but I still needed to
re-install Windows, all the system drivers, all my programs (and finding
all the danged program serial numbers) and some more data that I had
archived on our office network system.
I had decided not to buy the second hard drive
when I purchased the system as it is a relatively expensive option. I'm
becoming long in the tooth when it comes to rebuilding computers and I
decided this was to be the last time I go through this. The fact of the
matter is that hard drives fail, no matter how old they are, who makes
them, etc. The only workable solution I've found is to run dual hard
drives as we do on our office network system, one being a bootable copy
of the other. So, I picked up the phone and ordered the second hard
drive; when it arrives I'll discuss the setup I use for this
Meanwhile, I've got my system back up and running
so I'll be writing more about the cellular experience shortly ...
28/99 - I owned a communications design/build
business for over a decade, so experimenting with UHF (Ultra
High Frequency band) cell reception is almost second nature to me. I say
'almost' because there are certain peculiar anomalies associated with
the cell system and it has taken some time to understand some of the
characteristic behavior I have observed, especially when connected to
the Internet. I decided to keep things simple for the first part of this
evaluation, so the comments in this section apply to my experiences
without any external antennas or high power 'bag' phones; I'm just using
a Motorola hand-held 'flip phone' for now.
The analog cell system was designed primarily for
voice communications, not data, and it works better for the former. The
switching circuitry at the cell site is capable of performing all kinds
of bandwidth management tricks to better handle call volume,
particularly during 'dead air' moments that occur regularly with normal
conversation. An almost impertecptible pause in human speech patterns is
actually a long, wasted period of time for electronics that analyze time
domains at the microsecond (one millionth) level, so the system is
designed to switch the circuit away from you during those very brief
periods and hand over the 'airtime' to someone else that needs it at
that moment. This can be problematic for data circuits that exchange
handshaking pulses and expect measured responses in very short periods
Fortunately, our local provider allows us to
prefix the call with a special code that alerts the cell to the fact
that it is handling a data call, which causes it to react differently.
I've found that this usually means the difference between connecting at
4800 bps (without the data prefix *3282) and 9600 bps (with the prefix)
- a speed difference of 100%. Not all providers incorporate this feature
- I certainly couldn't use it in Washington, Idaho or Montana, although
I occassionally still connected at 9600 bps without it while in 'Roam'
mode in those states.
If the cell is busy, especially combined with a
weak reception condition, you can expect your 'net connection to get
dropped when you're right in the middle of downloading your mail, just
as it used to with the feeble modem connections we experienced on the
regular P.O.T.S. (Plain Old Telephone System) land line. This will
usually happen when someone sends you some unsolicited spam mail with a
large file attachment full of colorful graphics. Naturally, because the
incoming mail delivery wasn't completed, your remote mail server behaves
properly by re-sending the mail from the start of the first message in
the waiting batch as soon as you re-establish your connection and you're
on only long enough to find that the same thing happens again. When this
occurs, say three or four times, you may find that the air around your
current location becomes quite colorful too (usually blue).
However, there are some things you can do to
alleviate this condition. A short, 5 minute drive to another location
(especially higher ground) can often bring the cell signal level up to a
much higher level, with a corresponding boost in the integrity of your
connection. If you're near a highway, try and move off of it down a side
road - aluminum-sided trucks make great rolling reflectors at these
frequencies. Also, keep in mind that fog, heavy rain and electrical
storms can all have a negative impact on your level of success. Don't
even think about connecting to the 'net if you're in a moving vehicle or
a boat unless you can hit the cell tower with a water pistol.
If you are travelling through a popular tourist
destination area, it can also be a good idea to keep going until you
reach the next cell that may not be so busy. A fully loaded cell may try
and hand you off to another cell some distance away that actually is out
of reach, causing your signal strength to jump back and forth between
'good' and 'no service', a very confusing experience. If you're staying
in a resort area that has only one local cell that is running at
capacity, you may get better results by waiting for off-peak times.
If you can't move, most email client programs
have menu driven options that allow you to block messages larger than a
certain size from being downloaded, so you can temporarily prevent the
large spam message from being downloaded while you collect the rest of
your critical mail from the server. If you do this, keep in mind that
you'll eventually have to remove the block and download the message to
properly reset your mail queue. I've also found that it is much better
to log on frequently and collect mail in smaller batches during the day,
rather than waiting for one big one at the end of the day.
In summary, I've found the analog cell coverage
to be quite good and I've managed to maintain regular communications,
albeit with the help of some of the above techniques from time to time.
It seems to be available in all the places I've wanted to go, so I'm not
about to order my Iridium or Globalstar account yet. I lost it at the
6600' level going through Logan pass in Montana, but it came back
quickly as we descended to St. Mary's Lake. Yes, it can be painfully
slow at times, but overall I have to say it has worked well and has
never interfered with my daily work. (yes, I'm well aware I haven't
received my first cell bill yet). You'll learn quickly how to monitor
your signal strength meter as you travel and pick the good spots to log
Of course, you may often be staying in a hotel or
motel where you have a phone available. If this is the case, it may be
more practical to use your telephone credit card to connect to your
dial-up service provider (say goodbye to roaming charges and 4.8k).
Windows has a setting in the modem options under Dial Up Networking that
allows you to make a 'manual dial' call. If you check this option, it
will wait until you dial the number manually and enter your credit card
number. I carry a dual outlet plug that allows me to connect both the
phone and the modem into the line at the same time for this purpose.
You'll need a phone system that has a jack either at the wall or base of
the phone in order to do this.
one of our clients for some more cell information:
Good Cell Location
9/99 - My second hard drive arrived today
for my Latitude and I put it to work immediately, since I
have firmly resolved not to spend another microsecond in computer hell.
It slides easily into the exposed media bay slot and locks in place, so
the physical installation is about as simple as it gets. The software
aspect is a little more complicated, but not too difficult if you know
| AUTHOR'S NOTE:
The expensive second hard drive failed 3 years later, just
after the warranty expired. It was only used occasionally as a
backup and was never dropped. I replaced both internal drives with
the new IBM Travelstar 40GNX 20 GB drives - super quiet, super fast
and affordable ... these days, you can simply buy a USB hard drive
that plugs into your USB 2.0 or firewire port - makes a great backup
you want this to be a boot drive so that it can take over at a moment's
notice if your primary drive fails. The easiest and safest way to
prepare it is to remove the existing primary hard drive and boot the
laptop from a floppy (you'll need a boot floppy with FDISK.exe and
FORMAT.com on it). The new drive won't be recognized at first (after
you've booted from the floppy) because the boot sector needs to be set
with FDISK, but once you've done that, it will come up as the primary
hard drive 'C'. Then, if you run FORMAT.com with the '/s' switch, it
will be bootable as your primary drive.
Next, you'll want to re-insert your original
hard drive so that the new backup drive becomes the secondary hard
drive. After that, you'll be ready to copy the contents from your
primary hard drive to the new backup hard drive. So, you go into
Explorer, click on the root folder of drive 'C' and attempt to copy it
to drive 'D'. You then get an error message that says it can't be done
and you're sitting there, scratching your head, wondering why Microsoft
won't allow you to duplicate your hard drive ...
Fortunately, there is a way to do it (without
buying a program like DriveCopy). First, you should temporarily disable
the Windows swap file (Control Panel > System > Virtual Memory).
Then (after a reboot), use this variation of the dos XCOPY command:
xcopy C:\*.* /e /h /k /r /c D:
This will copy every file from your primary hard
drive over to your secondary drive. Note that this must be run from a
dos window while Windows is active. This command should only be used the
first time you copy to a freshly formatted drive. From this point on,
you should use this variation of xcopy, which will monitor the file
archive bit and only copy those files that have changed:
xcopy C:\*.* /e /c /i /h /r /m D:
You can put this command into a batch file and
run it from a desktop icon. The result: a fully bootable backup drive
that does the job in less than 20 seconds a day for most users! If your
primary drive fails, you just hit the setup button, change the 'first
boot device' setting to the media bay hard drive and voila! - you're
back in business while you wait for your primary replacement drive to
4/99 - Low signal levels do have an impact
on the efficiency of data transmissions while connected to
the net via analog cellphone. If the signal strength is poor, the
connection will hang for a number of seconds, continue transmitting
data, then hang for a few more seconds. This stop/start/stop/start
behavior can become tedious, not to mention the effect it has on airtime
charges. It is especially annoying when the connection is dropped
altogether and the call has to be re-established and the mail download
started all over again.
I have experienced these fringe situations enough
at this point to want to do something about it. I purchased a new
Motorola DP 650EV (the 'V' means you can set it to vibrate so that your
pocket doesn't ring) so that I could be confident of having the latest
circuitry - it seems to work better than my older 650, but I don't like
losing the 6 stage S meter (new one has only 3 levels of signal
strength). The Motorola phone also allows you to remove the built-in rod
antenna and plug in an external antenna, as you can see in the picture
below. I used industrial grade Velcro to attach the cellphone to the
edge of the laptop screen.
Next, I bought a marine whip antenna (no vehicle
ground plane required). This was a waste of money as it didn't perform
any better than the built-in rod antenna on the cellphone. I then
exchanged this for a Larsen YA5 800 directional yagi antenna (9 Dbi
forward gain) that you can also see in the picture below. This made a
big difference; since I have been using this in fringe areas, I've had
no trouble at all with my net connections.
Yagi Directional Beam Antenna
I'm going to use a shorter cable since line losses at
these frequencies can be quite significant, but even with this long
length of cable it is a marked improvement. Note the correct rotational
positioning re vertical polarization. A slight tilt on the horizontal
axis can also improve signal if the cell site is high up on a mountain.
The narrowest elements are at the front of the antenna (pointing end).
be field testing the system some more over the next few months, seeking
ways to optimize performance and reporting on any significant
improvements. In January or February of 2000, the Iridium global
satellite system will become 'internet enabled' and we hope to be able
to test the net capabilities at that time.
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