Notebooks' faults weigh heavy on feds

Mercer, unit LAN manager, Air Education and Training Command, Kirtland Air Force
Base, N.M., on his Micron GoBook

”I’d like it to be about half the

—Robert Allan, integrated logistics support manager, Army
Tank-Automotive and Armaments Command, Picatinny Arsenal, N.J., on his Hewlett-Packard

Look for a steadily rising tide of notebook computer use in the federal

A GCN poll found that feds expect to increase time spent using notebooks from 20 to 27
percent and decrease their use of desktop PCs over the next few years.

The ability to work on the go, take files and applications on site, access e-mail on
the road and generally increase productivity were all part and parcel of what most feds
liked about their notebooks.

Although they’re planning to step up their notebook use, feds aired a few gripes.
Some notebooks took a bashing for limited battery life, hefty weight and diminutive
keyboard size. Complaints about connection quality and difficulties in logging into
networks from remote locations also abounded.

But for most notebook users GCN talked with, assets outweighed liabilities.

“I wouldn’t know what to do without it,” said Tim Hancock, a Federal
Aviation Administration project manager in Washington, whose 320CDT notebook from Toshiba
America Information Systems Inc. is a constant companion.

“It’s my desktop and my notebook,” he said. “I travel constantly.
I’m on the road about 300 days a year and didn’t want to keep two sets of files.
When I’m in the office I’ve got a LAN card and I plug right in. The rest of the
time, I’ve got everything with me, and I dial in.”

Hancock’s biggest beef concerned connecting to his office LAN while traveling.

“My remote log-in problems probably are not specific to this computer but to the
servers I’m trying to log in to, so I’d be hard-pressed to say that it’s a
Toshiba problem,” he said. “When I call up and yell at our help desk, it always
seems to clear itself.”

Herb Hitney, a scientist with the Naval Space and Warfare Systems Command in San Diego,
uses a Toshiba 700CT. He has had trouble connecting to SPAWAR’s LAN from overseas
locations. “It’s always complicated to find the right connections to make,”
he said. He now finds it easier to check e-mail via the Web on PCs at overseas sites he
visits—and leave the notebook at home.

On the plus side, Mike Hansen, an auditor at the Health and Human Services
Department’s Administration for Children and Families, said enhanced productivity was
the key asset of his notebook.

“It makes good use of dead time,” said Hansen, who uses his notebook from
Micron Electronics Inc. of Nampa, Idaho, to prepare and modify presentations, or review
work done by the audit staff. “I can work on flights or in the hotel.”

Hansen said he has “bigger fingers than the keys.”

Poor battery life drew by far the largest number of complaints: about 18 percent of
those polled.

Some users I talked with simply avoid relying too much on batteries. “I take the
thing back to the hotel and plug it in,” Hansen said.

Users were suspicious of manufacturers’ battery-life claims.

“When they say you’ll get four or five hours, yes, you will if you let it sit
there and go to sleep,” Hancock said. “But if you’re actually using it for
anything, an hour and a half or two hours is all you’ll get, and that’s not
enough for a cross-country flight.”

“When I whip out the notebook to do several hours worth of work in my hotel room,
I might as well get the power cord out because I know the batteries just aren’t going
to last,” he said. “It’s a rare occasion to get all my work done without
eventually having to plug it in.”

At the Army’s Picatinny Arsenal, N.J., Robert Allan, integrated logistics support
manager for the Tank-Automotive and Armaments Command, finds coping with his
notebook’s limited battery life especially frustrating.

“I have to limit my [notebook] usage because sometimes I’m out for days in
the field,” said Allan, who shares a Hewlett-Packard Co. notebook with office mates.
“When I travel, I go out to places where I don’t have a chance to plug it

Allan said he must limit computer work to two to three hours, depending on the
applications he’s using.

At the Air Education and Training Command at Kirtland Air Force Base, N.M., unit LAN
manager Gene Mercer uses a GoBook notebook from Micron to check e-mail and run
applications on the LAN from remote sites. “It’s very good at that,” he
said. “It works excellently.”

But he was critical of the GoBook’s pointing device.

“The touchpad is so sensitive,” Mercer said. “You usually have to turn
off the double-click feature. Otherwise when you’re typing along you’ll activate
the touchpad accidentally with your thumbs. The problem is where the touchpad is in
relation to the keyboard.”

Mercer also was one of about 12 percent of users who complained about having to lug
heavy notebooks everywhere. “Weight is always a factor,” he said.
“When you go on a temporary duty assignment and have to carry [the notebook] through
an airport, and you’ve got the spare batteries and all your software and everything
else in the bag, it weighs 10 to 15 pounds.”

At the Navy’s Coastal Systems Station in Panama City, Fla., project engineer
Teresa Floore uses a notebook while on the road to check e-mail and write trip reports.

She recently resolved some peeves she had about a notebook from Samsung Electronics
America Inc. of Ridgefield Park, N.J., by trading it for an IBM Corp. ThinkPad 600.

“The ThinkPad was a major improvement,” she said, noting that it’s much
lighter in weight, the touchpad is easier to use and more responsive, the screen is
brighter, and the battery lasts longer.

One user’s comments, though not altogether serious, summed up the supreme paradox
of growing notebook use.

What the user liked best about his notebook was: “I can work anywhere.”

Here’s what the same user disliked: “I cannot get away from

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