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Life with Portables: Is It IN or Zen

COW Library : Apple OS X : Reg Harris : Life with Portables: Is It IN or Zen
Life with Portables: Is It IN or Zen -- Reg Harris

Reg Harris: User At Large

John Reginald 'Reg' Harris, Jr.
Omniscient Productions Inc., Seattle, Washington USA
©2001 John Reginald Harris, Jr. All Rights Reserved. Used at by kind permission of the author.

Ron Lindeboom

Article Focus:
Reg Harris, longtime contributor and co-founder of the WWUG, looks at Apple's "Get 'em to buy two" strategy when it comes to their new Titanium G4 PowerBook and G3/500 iBook portables. In addition, Reg explores some of his own ups and downs in the world of multi-systems use in managing his own video production and media business, his career as a surgeon and his home life as a husband and father who has learned that some: "...very scary stuff lurks in Sprite" -- proven when his son decided to give his PowerBook 3200 a drink...

The release of the stunning Titanium PowerBook G4 and the beautiful new iBook breathes fresh life into Apple's portable lineup. Packed with features, small size, and attractive pricing, this pair of notebooks could change the computing strategies of diehard Mac-desktop fans forever.

Since I can only speak from my own experience (and do so while exercising the columnist's right of speculation), this particular column represents my thoughts on how things could play out. Readers are welcome to send in their own ideas and comments. Interesting ones may make a future column.

Let's start with my own story...

This month I celebrate my tenth anniversary of Mac ownership. Beginning with a Mac IIci, I've owned or used a large number of Macs and PowerBooks over the past decade, touching on practically every generation. Along the way, I've gained a great deal of insight into the pros and cons surrounding portable versus desktop computing. My first laptop was a PowerBook 165c, purchased in June 1993. I bought it with a single goal -- to facilitate research and writing away from my desktop. It was never viewed as a desktop replacement but as a supplement.

There were drawbacks to portable computing. This new and pricey laptop ran no faster than my 2 year old IIci. Upgrade options were limited. Moreover, the working environment was far from ideal. My PowerBook had a tiny 9-inch 256-color passive matrix screen that could not display full 640 x 480 resolution. The trackball, though useful, wasn't intuitive. Networking was limited to LocalTalk. Despite these issues I was happy. The PowerBook did everything I asked. I carried it to conferences, libraries, vacations, day trips, to emergency room shifts, and around town. I took notes and organized my thoughts anywhere. This mobility was immensely freeing.

I loaded on my PowerBook a skinny version of Microsoft Word, an even slimmer text editor, a dedicated note taking application, a copy of Filemaker Pro, a slimmed down spreadsheet application, and a copy of Final Draft, the screenwriting software. Six months later at MacWorld SF, I added an internal modem, a carrying case, and copies of AOL and CompuServe. At that point I could accomplish almost any research, organization, or writing task on the PowerBook. Ultimately, though most of my work was done on a desktop, I conceived, researched, composed and wrote on the laptop.

The PowerBook's facilitation of creative thought triggered most of my projects that later were finished on my desktop. I rarely did the reverse, reducing my synchronization issues. This approach served me well until 1997. By then I'd upgraded my home system to a PowerMac 7600/120. I'd also moved my digital media company out of the basement to an office a half-hour away. It seemed practical to work on company records in the evening, and bring work home. To do this I could either use a desktop at work and ferry a portable drive around, or depend upon a laptop. The laptop plan made more sense. Unfortunately, my aging PowerBook wasn't up to the task.

After reading several reviews I bought into the idea that the then-new PowerBook 3400c was well suited as a desktop replacement. I focused on the still pricey but feature packed mid-range model. Pushing away the anxiety associated with such an expensive purchase, I trusted my instincts and ordered one. That act permanently changed my view of laptops. The 3400 performed as promised, running as fast as my home desktop machine. No longer were laptops mere supplements; this machine stood strong as my primary and only computer. Every non-high bandwidth task required of me was soon performed on the 3400 -- building web sites, creating web graphics, working with Quickbooks, managing our network, web browsing and email, word processing, spreadsheets, etc.

At work I added a 17" monitor and standard keyboard. Elsewhere, the built-in active matrix screen and keyboard were all I needed. With 80 MB of RAM and a huge 2-gig drive I stored reams of information and boosted my productivity. Built-in modem and Ethernet support eliminated the need for pricey add-ons and allowed me to drop the 3400 into my network and go to work. Despite the upfront cost, it remains one of the best purchases I've ever made.

Workstations became solely for specific tasks such as video editing, compression and 3D work. The rest belonged to the PowerBook. Thankfully bringing work home was no longer a compromise. Strangely enough as much as I enjoyed it, my growing reliance on this PowerBook bred anxiety. Because of the cost, I couldn't afford to lose it. Insurance can't protect against downtime. Since I no longer had a desktop, if the laptop were damaged or stolen I'd have no computer until it was replaced. I worried about reliability.

Laptops by nature are both delicate and exposed to risky movement and environments. With normal use they're abused; the hard drive's frequent power cycling increases the chance of failure. Even ports are at risk, since cables plugged in and out frequently cause damage. Desktops don't see this type of abuse -- and desktop parts are cheaper. The concern about travel related loss or theft increasingly weighed heavily upon me. More often than not, I'd pick and choose which trips merited the PowerBook. Eventually my laptop rarely traveled anywhere other than between work and home. I even stopped carting it around town. Because I drive a Jeep, which has no trunk, a visible laptop case is an open invitation to car prowlers. Let's just say I didn't want to tempt fate.

Then one day something actually happened. My son accidentally spilled a glass of Sprite into my running PowerBook. The machine replied with a groan and crash. At first it appeared to be just a simple lock-up of the system. I tried to laugh it off since the 3400 had never failed me. But after cleaning and rebooting my trusty PowerBook seemed different - almost possessed. It repeated keys endlessly, attempted to both boot up and shut down on its own, and once spun its screen 360 degrees while spitting out rancid pea soup. Obviously very scary stuff lurks in Sprite.

Of course this happened at the worst possible time. My company had moved to a new location a month earlier. Our backup server failed after the move. With so many things to do, I hadn't found the time to get it back online. So my PowerBook wasn't backed up for over a month. Visions of data loss dancing in my head. Naturally I started panicking. Rapid thoughts raced through me head. Would I have to buy a new laptop? Would I also have to buy a new backup server? Would I recover any of my data? And what about Naomi? Questions I'm sure everyone has asked at one time or another. The only positive aspect to this incident was I'd moved much of my development work to a G3/333 workstation. This machine became my choice for website development, large graphics, compression, and programming. And it was now perfectly positioned to substitute for the 3400. Still all the company business, my contacts, email, and tons of project files were locked away.

It's the files that ultimately count.

Serious problems require serious solutions. I got very serious about fixing that laptop. It was a lot of work, but after 10 days of careful cleaning of the motherboard and components, replacing the keyboard, and lots of prayer and chants, I restored the laptop with no data loss. I was very lucky, losing only time and money. Thanks to this episode, I see the utility of combination computing -- a laptop for portability and desktops for workstation power and security. I also now espouse the need for computing redundancy. Without the G3 I would have been shut down. Having a spare machine around (or the ability to make an emergency Mac purchase) is a necessity if you can't afford computer downtime. A good lesson to learn.

I currently work with the PowerBook AND the PowerMac side by side. My laptop handles the majority of correspondence, the company books and business issues, and network resource management. The workstation handles processor-oriented tasks such as rendering, programming, image editing, as well as project specific related email communications. I've moved a few tasks from the laptop to the workstation, and I'm duplicating a few files on both systems.

This setup is not perfect.

File synchronization is a headache. And let's not forget about application licensing. While files can be duplicated without worry, duplicate functionality requires duplicate applications. Though some licenses allow loading on both a desktop and laptop -- when used by the same person -- this is not universally true. Fortunately I've managed to avoid overlap in areas where I didn't own sufficient license seats or where the license does not allow both laptop and desktop installation. The bad news is I've lost the freedom to work anywhere.

The workstation provides ample computing power, but I have to be in the office to use it. Still this setup works, and life is truly a series of problems, choices, compromise, and consequence. Now that I've adjusted to the new workflow, new portables arrive to change the game rules. With the new PowerBook G4 Titanium, Mac users have real workstation power in a portable package. Better still this power user portable solution costs as little as $2500. Add the right software and a portable video editing solution is born. Moreover managing large graphics, programming, or heavy database work is no stretch for these new PowerBooks.

The new PowerBook G4 Ti represents a solid desktop replacement, capable in almost any situation. Two additional factors favoring PowerBooks makes this even harder to resist:

  1. A growing perception that the only true upgrades worth buying for any computer are hard drives and RAM, and
  2. Firewire and USB support make adding accessories amazingly easy.

Probably the only thing I'd add would be an additional or more powerful graphics card to improve performance when used with external monitors. But with the PowerBook G4's gorgeous wide screen, this may not matter. Toss in it's support for Airport Wireless Ethernet, and it's hard not to run out and buy this thing right now.

With the brand new iBook, you've got a stylish and powerful machine well suited for travel. It's actually smaller and lighter than the PowerBook G4. Plus Apple added useful features for business use, most importantly video mirroring for presentations. Airport support further enhances its business use. The iBook also has attractive features for editors and digital media creators, including large hard drives, better RAM capacity and both USB and Firewire ports. The built in iMovie 2 is a great editing tool on its own and Premiere or Final Cut Pro can be substituted for a true power solution. The 500 MHz G3 processor provides performance similar to the previous PowerBook G3. Apple's positioned the new iBook as perfect for students, schools, and the rest of us.

My always fuzzy crystal ball says the new iBook looks to be the perfect roadwarrior tool -- lightweight, powerful, and price friendly.

By now you can see where this is heading. For someone like me, a G4/Ti PowerBook easily replaces my development workstation, allowing me to carry complex projects home. That could really help; I pick up our 16-month old son from daycare and can't work late. The G4 PowerBook is easily carried wherever a portable workstation is required -- including job sites, meetings, or business events. It's bigger, slimmer, yet lighter than my 3400, making hauling it less daunting. It's practically a perfect fit. But for out of town travel, conferences, trade shows, and the like, the new iBook is the better companion. It's lighter and takes less space. It's also less expensive. That reduces the fear of loss for people like me.

Best of all, for the cost of ONE mid-range 3400, I could buy both the 400Mhz PowerBook G4 and an iBook and have funds left over for extra RAM and accessories. This dual laptop strategy is actually simpler than my current setup. Synchronization is less of an issue, if the iBook is used mainly for travel and presentations. In between use, the machine lies in reserve, always ready to substitute for a fallen comrade or make a trip around town, or the world. While to some this may seem wasteful, there's significant benefit to having a machine in reserve. Normally, older machines are perfect for this role but with Mac OS X's arrival, older machines are no longer fully compatible. The iBook can work as an emergency backup for either an OS 9.1 or OS X based machine. Plus it's got to be the easiest backup Mac to store -- if you can put it down.

Whether I'll adopt this plan remains to be seen, but I'm sure others are considering this idea. Desktops may deliver more computing power per dollar, but if you're on the go portable solutions are unbeatable. Apple has uniquely created a portable pair combining style and substance, enticing laptop lovers to purchase both. Their secret? In the elusive questions of Zen versus IN, answers depend on where balance lies.

Somehow Apple knows.

-- Reg Harris
User at Large™


John Reginald Harris, Jr. MD is the President/CEO of Omniscient Productions Inc. a Seattle Interactive Media firm (, and the founder of the GSMUG-SAEG user group ( which meets several times per year to discuss Media 100, After Effects and other digital media tools. --The User At Large column is published bi-monthly by the Greater Seattle Media 100 User Group / Seattle After Effects Group and syndicated via Readers may send feedback, information or column suggestions to All reader feedback is welcome. Feedback may be used or referenced in future columns. We apologize in advance that individual replies are not possible. ©2001 John Reginald Harris, Jr. MD

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