Portable Computer Gets a `Test Drive'

THE call I didn't want came on a Wednesday.

John was on the line from AT&T. He wanted his Safari back. Safari is AT&T's portable computer, which the company had loaned to me for an evaluation. I've never been so sorry to see computer equipment go back to its owner.

The Safari made me a believer in portable computing.

It's easy to see why notebook computers are among the hottest-selling items in a dreary market. They're powerful and lightweight (about 5 to 7 pounds). They do almost all the work of a desktop computer. You can take them anywhere.

For example:

* Carolyn, a college professor, once gave a final exam in American Literature while she tapped away on her Zeos 386SX machine. "I hadn't been aware that it made any noise," she says. But the occasional beep didn't seem to bother the students.

* When Apple Computer introduced its new notebooks late last year, Jim, the president of Macworld Communications, got his hands on a top-of-the-line PowerBook 170.

"To have a real Macintosh that weighs six pounds and works with everything is just phenomenal," he says. Rather than stay late at the office one day near Christmas, he took his children and his PowerBook to the movies. While they watched the movie, he typed. "I was banging away on the PowerBook in the darkened theater," he says happily.

Regular readers of this column may remember that I'm still in the Dark Ages of portable computing. My laptop - a TRS-80 Model 100 from Radio Shack, circa 1983 - has been trusty, if limited. For nearly a decade, it stored my keystrokes and transmitted stories to Boston editors when I was on the road. But it couldn't run my databases and other information software.

The Safari, an NSX/20, changed all that. Its 80-megabyte hard drive and four megabytes of random access memory (RAM) equalled my desktop's capacity. Its 386SX microprocessor was just slightly less powerful. I could call up a source from my databases while traveling just as easily as I could from the office.

Not surprisingly, AT&T has built the Safari to be communications friendly. Its built-in software links nicely with AT&T Mail. The modem doubles as a fax machine that receives and sends documents.

Safari has its quirks. The first day I used it, I put the batteries in upside down and quickly ran out of juice. The machine automatically loads so much communications software that I had to disable it before my large programs ran. The software for the fax modem offers no way to rotate the image. If someone sends a fax sideways, you have to turn the machine that way to read it.

I also used the Safari less than I expected to. Sometimes the myth of portable computing outruns the reality.

My maiden airline flight with the Safari was supposed to conjure up those color ads of relaxed businessmen and women computing at 30,000 feet. But my seat was so cramped that I had to tilt the machine and ram my elbows into the back of my seat, just to keep from overreaching the keyboard.

Hardly relaxed. I felt like a trussed-up chicken.

For a week or so, I used the Safari in lieu of my desktop. No go. The screen wasn't as sharp or as big. I couldn't link to other computer peripherals like my scanner. I suspect that notebooks won't replace desktop machines for most people.

Instead, these machines will create new markets and niches. Bruce Stephen, an analyst at International Data Corporation, likens the phenomenon to sneakers. Once there were a few all-purpose brands. Now, there's footwear for every occasion - basketball, running, walking, aerobics, tennis, racquetball - and several companies competing in each category.

Less than a decade ago, only a few transportable computers were available. Now, there are laptops, notebooks, color portables, and "palmtops." An emerging class of portables, called "pentops," use styluses instead of keyboards. Several companies are working on a lighter version of notebooks - 2.5 to 4 pounds - called sub-notebooks.

Safari brought me out of the Dark Ages. I'm still looking for my niche.

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