Macs vs. Windows Laptops, Sky-Fi, and Video Chat

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Last week I offered some lessons learned during 2008, which included the realizations that using eBay to sell your laptop can be dicey and that netbooks can quickly lose their allure. I'm back this week with three more a-ha moments from 2008: Mac laptops aren't necessarily more expensive than Windows machines; airplanes are the new Internet cafes; and video chats are lots of fun but can be distracting.

Mac OS Laptops Can Be Competitively Priced

In July 2008 I compared the specs and prices of three MacBook portables to three Windows laptops. I discovered that in some cases, MacBooks are priced competitively and can even cost less than similarly configured Windows competitors. Add to this the fact that Apple continues to get top scores for service and product reliability, and Mac laptops can be extremely attractive.

Of course, a lot has changed since July. In recent months, Apple refreshed its MacBook lineup, and I haven't yet had the chance to compare their specs and prices to comparable Windows laptops. (Watch for a Mac vs. Windows rematch in this space soon.)

Also, Apple's lowest priced laptop costs $999, and there are plenty of Windows portables costing less. Nonetheless, if you're looking for long-term value--not to mention a more pleasurable computing experience--a Mac OS laptop is the way to go.

Don't forget, you can run Windows on a Mac machine. But after using the Mac OS a while, you might not want to.

Airplanes Are the New Internet Cafés

This will be the year "Sky-Fi"--wireless network access onboard airplanes--should really take off, after years of stops and starts.

Last fall, I had the opportunity to test Aircell's Gogo in-flight service ($13 for flights longer than 3 hours) aboard an American Airlines flight from San Francisco International to New York's JFK airport. I had fairly low expectations for the service, thinking my connection would drop frequently and Web surfing would be painfully slow.

To my delight, I was wrong. Overall, the Gogo service was reasonably fast, and the only problem I encountered was in trying to sample songs on Apple's iTunes service (access was so slow, I soon gave up). It was almost like being in one of my favorite Internet cafes, except I couldn't get a cappuccino or step outside to take a phone call.

American will continue to roll out the Gogo service throughout its fleet this year. Meanwhile, Virgin America, Delta Airlines, Southwest Airlines, and many other U.S. and international carriers will be introducing or expanding their Sky-Fi services in 2009. If you get the chance to try in-flight wireless Internet access, jump on it.

Video Chats Are a Blast

I've made it my mission to encourage readers of this blog, plus my friends and family, to take the plunge into video conferencing. Three reasons:

  1. Video chats are the best way to make a connection with distant parties, rather than simply having a conversation.
  2. Good-quality Webcams, such as the Logitech QuickCam Pro for Notebooks, cost $62 and up online).
  3. Many services, such as Skype, let you video chat with people in the U.S. and abroad for free.

With all these benefits, there just doesn't seem to be any good reason not to video chat, right? Actually, I've realized there is one potential downside.

I've been using Skype for video chats with friends and family members. In order to receive a video call, I need to be online with Skype. Because Skype also includes instant messaging, I've started receiving IMs from friends during the workday--something I've steadfastly avoided since the early days of IM. Unlike e-mail, which I check during breaks only, IMs can pop up on my screen at any time. For me, this is a distraction.

Now, when I need to focus, I must remember to either log out of Skype or change my status to "Do Not Disturb." This isn't a big deal, of course. But for those times when I need to focus intently, it's yet one more thing I have to do, along with turning off my cell phone and unplugging my Vonage-connected phone--not to mention remembering to turn all those things back on again.

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Are You an Extreme Commuter?

Do you travel over 90 minutes each way most days to get to work? If so, I'd like to hear from you. Why is your commute extreme? How do you stay productive and organized, given such a cumbersome commute? What digital tools, services, and accessories do you use to help you stay productive? Please share your thoughts with me for use in a possible upcoming Mobile Computing blog post. And be sure to tell me your first and last name and your hometown.

Mobile ComputingNews, Reviews, & Tips

Pocket High-Def Camcorder: Kodak has announced a new pocket high-def camcorder, the Kodak Zx1. It's priced at $150, comes in multiple colors, is reportedly weather-resistant, comes with two rechargeable AA batteries and an HDMI cable, and stores video on Secure Digital or SDHC cards. It will be available in April. Go to "Best Products of CES 2009: Let Us Introduce You" for a look at these colorful camcorders and other new gadgets unveiled in Las Vegas.

Palm Unveils New Smart Phone, OS: Once a smart phone innovator and leader, Palm is making a claim for relevancy in the iPhone/BlackBerry-dominated market. Palm recently announced the Pre, a smart phone that will initially be available exclusively to Sprint customers, and Web OS, Palm's long-anticipated new smart phone OS. The phone will be available sometime in the first half of the year.

New Notebook on Display: At the recent Consumer Electronics Show, we saw some intriguing new laptops debut. Exhibit A: Lenovo's ThinkPad w700ds, with a 17-inch screen and a secondary 10-inch slide-out display. The laptop costs about $3700. Check out the ThinkPad and other new laptops in our gallery, "Hot New Notebooks Shine in Vegas."

Contributing Editor James A. Martin offers tools, tips, and product recommendations to help you make the most of computing on the go. Martin is also author of the Traveler 2.0 blog. Sign up to have the Mobile Computing Newsletter e-mailed to you each week.

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