Mobile Computing: Top Tips of 2003

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Feature: Top Tips of 2003

In every issue I try to include at least a few helpful tips to make your life on the road easier (and to ensure my job security). This week, I've compiled what I think are some of the best, most practical tips that appeared in the newsletter during 2003--everything from how to save money to traveling wisely.

Be Safe, Not Sorry

Insure your notebook. Theft, breakage, fire, and other mishaps are rarely covered by a notebook warranty. If you travel frequently with a laptop, consider insuring it.

Safeware offers stand-alone notebook insurance policies that cover theft, fire, power surges, lightning, and natural disasters. At the Safeware site, you can easily get a quote; and you can request the amount of coverage you need to protect your full investment. Though I haven't purchased insurance from the company, several newsletter readers wrote to me saying they'd had positive experiences when filing claims.

For more info, read "Mobile Computing: Insuring Your Notebook."

Back up online. Theft or disaster can rob you of your notebook as well as any external backup drive or backup CDs you may have--everything, in short, in your office. Online backup services store your critical files off site, so a disaster in your office won't affect them. Also, online backup services make your files available from any computer with a Web browser, which could save the day if you need access to them while on the road.

I use IBackup, which automatically backs up my selected files at an appointed time and frequency. But don't rely on an online service as your only backup strategy. If your notebook has a 40GB hard drive, for instance, and you're backing up 500MB of data online, you're securing only a small portion of your data. For more ideas, read "Mobile Computing: Backup Strategies for the Road."

Pack restore discs. Most likely, your notebook shipped with one or more CDs containing the operating system, Microsoft Office and other applications, and hardware drivers installed by the vendor. If you're heading off on a lengthy trip, consider taking those CDs, or better, copies of them. You'll need them in case your hard drive dies, your computer picks up a virus, or some other calamity occurs. Make sure you have your serial numbers, too--you'll need them to reinstall programs.

Prolong Battery Life

Keep two notebook batteries charged. You'll be glad you did if you run into a power outage, or need to put in a long work session on the road. Many notebooks have two battery bays, but one of them may share space with a swappable optical drive. That means when you're charging two batteries and need a CD or DVD, you have to take out a battery to make room for the optical drive. External rechargers aren't often an option for notebook batteries. But there's a solution: Attach an external optical drive to your notebook. That way, you can easily access CDs and keep both batteries fully charged. The prices of external CD-R and CD-RW drives have dropped dramatically. For more battery tips, see "Mobile Computing: Power Tips for Notebooks."

Tweak your power settings. Your notebook's display and hard drive are its two biggest battery hogs. But you can control them by using a Windows XP Control Panel utility called Power Options. (Earlier versions of Windows offer similar power-saving options in the Control Panel, too.)

Go to the Start menu and click Control Panel. If you're in Category View, click "Performance and Maintenance," then open Power Options. If you're in Classic View, just double-click Power Options. On the Power Schemes tab, select Portable/Laptop from the top drop-down menu. In the "Settings for" area, you can tell your notebook to act differently depending on the power source. Save your settings by clicking the Save As button and clicking OK.

Use Stand By and Hibernate. Windows XP provides two battery-saving sleep modes for your computer: Stand By, which is kind of like snoozing; and Hibernate, which is deep, rapid-eye-movement-style slumber. Use Stand By for brief intervals when you won't need the computer--you're stretching your legs on a long flight, for instance. Hibernate is the ticket when you won't be using your computer for a while--you're changing planes at the airport, say--but you want to resume work faster than you could after a complete system shutdown.

If you use Start, Turn Off Computer to shut down your system, your options are Stand By, Turn Off, and Restart. To Hibernate, place the mouse pointer over Stand By, hold down Shift (the button's name will change to Hibernate), and click. However, if you use Start, Shut Down instead, you'll see the Hibernate option in the drop-down list

Read "Mobile Computing: Make Notebook Batteries Last" for more power saving tips.

Save Money

Pick your warranty carefully. When configuring a notebook for purchase online, don't assume a standard one-year warranty (which is usually no additional cost) will appear as your default warranty choice. In some cases, a more extensive and expensive warranty will be listed as the default. When you look closely, though, you may find a standard one-year warranty option. Picking it will reduce the total cost of your system. For more advice, read "Mobile Computing: Notebook Warranties."

Consider an extended warranty. Some electronics retailers such as Best Buy sell extended service plans on notebooks and other portable devices. Often, these plans extend the life of a warranty up to four years and may offer full replacements for defective equipment.

Some consumer advocates, such as PC World's Anne Kandra, warn that extended warranties often aren't worth the extra cost. But sometimes they are. I bought an extended protection plan from Best Buy for my IPod, and I'm glad I did: Six months after I bought it, the IPod developed a mechanical problem. Because I had purchased the performance protection plan, Best Buy exchanged my second-generation IPod for a brand new, shrink-wrapped, third-generation model of comparable retail value.

Keep the box. Hold on to your new computer or PDA's complete packaging for at least the duration of the retailer's return period. Many consumer electronics are intricately boxed, containing several cardboard inserts. Losing any of the packaging elements could subject you to a restocking fee should you need to return the item. For more tips on returning products, see "Mobile Computing: Many Happy Returns."

Travel Smart

Do your research. Many airplanes today offer in-seat power ports for charging your notebook in flight. To find out if the flight you'll be on has ports, go to, which offers detailed seat maps and information on many domestic airline amenities.

Before leaving home, turn off Wi-Fi. Some notebooks have built-in wireless data capabilities that run whenever the computer is on. But wireless communications are prohibited on planes for safety reasons; and they contribute to battery drain.

Coordinate your metals. Metal objects are practically guaranteed to cause the walk-through airport screener to beep. Before entering the secured area, gather your metal objects--keys, coins, jewelry, watches, pens, belts with metal buckles, and so on--and store them in one pocket of your carry-on bag. The goal is to not be wearing anything metal when you step through the security gate. And that includes your shoes (see next item).

Wear sensible shoes. Airport security guards are on the watch for suspicious footwear. So leave your chunky-heeled shoes at home and opt for a pair of sensible slip-ons; you may be asked to remove your shoes for inspection. Keep in mind that many shoes contain metal in the heels or arch support, which can make the security gate beep.

Wear your ID. You'll need to prove your identity numerous times before takeoff: at curbside luggage check-in, at the airline counter, when entering the secured checkpoint, and as you board the plane. And you'll have to show your boarding pass at least twice. Rather than fumbling for these documents constantly--while juggling all your other stuff--wear your driver's license or passport and boarding pass around your neck. Chic? Absolutely not. Convenient? Absolutely.

Print before you fly. Many airlines now allow you to go to their Web sites and print your boarding pass up to 24 hours before a flight. Doing so can save you precious time at the airport.

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