Road worriers, you can beat travel travails

Notebook computer users like to share horror stories about $5,000 notebooks left on
planes or LCD displays that cracked like an egg after a fall or froze up--literally--in
the car overnight. More nightmarish are tales of crucial presentations gone awry in front
of senior agency managers.


Anyone who displays external video probably has had such experiences. There are ways to
protect yourself against them.


First, carry along a backup notebook. Despite improvements, a notebook PC is still
fragile and can take one bump too many. The likeliest thing to go is the irreparable
display.


Yes, it's a pain and expensive to carry two notebooks. But if you've traveled hundreds
of miles to explain to thousands of citizens why their river should be dammed, you might
be glad to pay the price to get the job done right.


You can take other steps to ensure that your display performs. The first is so simple
it's often neglected: Don't pack your just-blew-out-the-PC-budget notebook in a thin,
cheap carrying case. And if you carry along a projection panel, make sure it's even better
protected. Remember, you're just one hard knock away from a horror story.


Another small but significant detail is making sure the display elements are spotless.
Bring a small bottle of glass cleaner and spray on the cleaning cloth, never on the
display itself.


Carry a second copy of your presentation on a separate floppy or recordable CD, as well
as a copy of the presentation program in which it was created.


Make sure you know how to use its basics. If your branch head changes the budget while
you're in the middle of a trip to outlying offices, you're going to want to amend your
presentation in a hurry. Without the software knowledge, you'll be out of luck.


Another must is a good, strong, 25-foot or longer power cord. If you can, buy it in a
flashy color so people won't trip on it and so you'll remember to pick it up afterward.


Unless you like to live dangerously, never, ever trust your presentation to a
notebook's batteries. Silly as it sounds, pack some good old duct tape to make sure power
cords don't get shifted about or disconnected.


Before you depart, inspect all your cables to see that they're in good condition. If
you have doubts about any cables, replace them. Take duplicates of the important ones if
space permits.


It's also a good idea to carry some three-to-two-prong electrical adapters. Odds are
you won't run into a situation that requires one, but you only have to run into it once to
learn this lesson.


Next on the trite but often overlooked checklist is to prepare your setup in advance.
Make sure everything is hooked together properly and working--unless you think people
enjoy watching you show off your on-site computer troubleshooting skills.


Don't let others set up your equipment in your absence. If you're using someone's
in-house equipment, that's fine. They can be there. Just hover about protectively to make
sure they don't plug your precious notebook into a 220-volt line by mistake.


If you're putting an LCD screen on top of an overhead projector, find out how many
lumens--the measure of brightness--the projector puts out. If less than 3,000 lumens,
you're going to have trouble in any but the darkest conference rooms. On the other hand,
if it's higher than 7,000 lumens, that funny smell may be your LCD screen undergoing
meltdown.


In general, you'll never have all the time you need to set things up and check them
out.


And if something does go wrong, test the simplest thing first.


Don't bother checking the CMOS or studying your .ini files until you're sure that
everything is plugged in where it's supposed to be, and that all the appropriate switches
are turned on. If I had a dollar for every time I've been to a presentation where someone
left one vital connection unplugged, I'd be rich.


Neat technology that's just down the road will make future notebook presentations
faster and jazzier. In the meantime, several things can perk up the machine in your
briefcase right now.


The first step is to add Presentation Electronics Inc.'s ProPresenter Plus to your kit.
The ProPresenter Plus, no bigger than a TV remote, lets you control your presentation with
an infrared beam. No messy wires, and the IR receiver hooks up to the serial port, so you
don't need an IRDA-equipped notebook. This is one nifty toy that makes any presentation
slicker.


A laser pointer--any brand--is a must for anyone who's serious about making memorable
presentations. For something fancier, look at Interlink Electronics' RemotePoint Plus or
Gyration Inc.'s GyroPoint Pro. Either will let you point and click your way magically
through live computer programs.


RemotePoint Plus uses proprietary infrared technology. GyroPoint Pro relies on a
spread-spectrum wireless connection that lets you walk far away from the notebook.


Another winner is TView's TView scan converter, which turns your notebook's graphics
into S-VHS and NTSC video output. You won't be able to display on a low-end television set
that's limited to radio-frequency input, but you can indeed impress your audience with a
high-end TV.


Remember the warning about hooking up in advance and making sure you carry the right
cables? That goes double if you use TView.


In an ideal world, every presentation site would have a 21- to 35-inch computer
monitor, but a good TV screen will do in a pinch. Check out your show on the TV before
letting the audience in. Without proper adjustment, you may run into cropping, ghosting or
overscanning with TView or other products such as Umax Technologies Inc.'s MaxMedia TV.
Usually you can fix these deficiencies with a few minutes of adjustment.


Another pair of must-buys: Software Publishing Corp.'s Harvard Spotlight 2.0 and a
Colorgraphic Communications Corp. Voyager VGA Type II PC Card. Spotlight lets you monitor
two displays simultaneously: your notebook display with timer, notes, the next slide and
the ability to make on-the-fly changes to your presentation order, and the one up on the
wall that everyone sees. The Voyager VGA card lets you pull up Spotlight's multiple-view
tricks.


TV display is well and good, but most presenters are going to be using overhead
projectors for the next few years. For that, you need an LCD screen you can count on.


The only way to tell what's right for your presentation is to get your hands on the
equipment and try it. What works well with text may be terrible for images. Two LCD
screens worth checking out are nView Corp.'s Z250 and Polaroid Corp.'s Polaview 3000.


If you have enough money and a strong back, get an LCD projector, which gives you an
overhead projector and LCD panel in one neat, though weighty, bundle.


Names to look for are InFocus Systems Inc.'s LitePro 210and Proxima Corp.'s Desktop
Video Projector 2810. Sharp Electronics' many product lines deserve a critical look, too.


There's not a lot you can do about your video performance. But as you read this,
computer stores are stocking notebooks and PC Cards with the ZV (zoomed video) port, which
lets the card write video straight to the VGA controller over its own fast bus.


It's not quite as fast as the CardBus' theoretical maximum of 132 megabits/sec, but ZV
is inexpensive and maximizes video performance. Chances are, the next time you buy a
notebook for presentations, you're going to want it with ZV installed. CardBus could be
your video hot rod for the system after that.


A new Video Electronics Standards Association standard for the high-speed Enhanced
Video Connector also promises to give desktops and notebooks a kick in the pants by
speeding up transfers between the graphics card and the monitor.


As always, video chips are speeding faster and faster. Will these developments put an
end to all your presentation nightmares? Well, no. But if you follow this advice and get
the right equipment, your presentation road trips stand a good chance of changing from
nightmares to the stuff that dreams are made of.


Steven J. Vaughan-Nichols is a computer journalist in Lanham, Md.


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