More than a flash in the pan

People prefer to use their laptops at the office because it lets them work more efficiently.

By DAVID SHAMAH
September 24, 2005 16:23

 
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There is something about carrying your work around with you, on your own computer, organized the way you like it, that has undeniable appeal. Hence the popularity of the laptop. Lots of people who work in big offices with hundreds of desktops, in fact, prefer to use their laptops, even at the office - because it lets them work more efficiently. The only problem, of course, is the cost. Not everyone has $1,500 or so to shell out for a decent laptop. If you're a nudnik, you can try to wheedle one out of your boss, but even accomplished nudniks have been known to fail at this task. Is there any way to enjoy the benefits of laptop computing without the laptop? Strangely, there is. The fun of a laptop at a fraction of the cost Think about this: What people really like about laptops is the freedom they offer people to work their way. The hardware isn't as important as the content. If there were a way to attach their content to other machines that was a lot cheaper without the expensive hardware, it's likely that lots of folks would embrace such a solution. Well, there is a way to easily move your documents, e-mail, browser favorites - and even run your own operating system on someone else's hardware, without pulling the hard drive out of your computer and reinstalling it elsewhere. Just get yourself a USB flash disk keychain device, and you're on your way to laptop-style computing at a fraction of the cost. Most people know about USB "disks on key," and may have used them to transport files from home to office or school, and vice-versa. But you probably didn't realize you could run a host of "portable" applications off a USB disk - word processors, spreadsheets, even a separate operating system. Disks on Key are an easy and cheap way to take your work on the road - and it's a good idea for your kids, as well. Each school year, the computer projects the kids are assigned get more sophisticated, requiring more "comp time" and disk space. In many computer classes, the kids start their project at school, copy it onto a floppy disk or CD and bring it home for further work. For a couple hundred shekels, you save yourself hours of CD burning work, not to mention copying, organizing, and pruning required when the kids invade your disk domain. Plus, they can wear the thing on a string around their neck. USB flash disks come in a variety of shapes and sizes these days. In fact, you may even own one without realizing it; all those small 128, 256 and 512 MB MP3 players you attach directly to computer USB ports will work not just with music, but also with files and applications. There are a number of applications that are specifically made to run on USB disks, while others can be easily set up to run from one. The whole Mozilla suite, including the Firefox browser and Thunderbird e-mail client, for example, is available in a mini USB disk-friendly version. Protect your key Before you save or copy anything onto your key disk, though, make sure the computer you've attached the disk to has an up-to-date anti-virus program. Because they're mobile, disks on key can act as infection agents - with the virus almost certain to end up on your home computer. To be safe, download a copy of a free anti-virus program like AVG (http://www.grisoft.com) and keep it zipped up, ready for installation on any unprotected computer you find yourself working at. At http://johnhaller.com/jh/mozilla, you can download the portable versions of the three Mozilla programs that will give you mobile productivity for Web browsing, e-mail (Firefox/Thunderbird), and contact/scheduling, using Mozilla Sunbird, which works like Microsoft Outlook, but without the e-mail. How do they work? It's not that these are "stripped down" versions of the programs - they have the same functionality as their "big brothers" - but that the programs' innards have been reconfigured to not work off a computer's main hard drive. The site even gives you instructions on how to copy your user profile and enable it when you plug your Disk on Key into a "foreign" computer. Instant messaging is also an option for portable computing folk. While I haven't seen ICQ or AIM in mini-versions, Trillian instant messenger covers messages using those two programs and a host of others. At http://www.trilliananywhere.com, you'll find an easy-to-use wizard that will tell you exactly what to do in order to set up your version of Trillian (Pro or Basic) for a USB key disk. But for most people, having a word processor - and not just some no-name Linux import, but one that works like MS Word, is a priority. And while Word itself probably wouldn't be deployable on a Disk on Key, you can use the free Abiword, which is fully 100% compatible with Word files (i.e., you can open Word files and save text to Word format), in both its junior and adult version. You can get Abiword for Thumbdrives, as the pared-down USB disk program is called, by clicking on http://sourceforge.net/projects/abiwordftd. But what if you want more than just word processing? What about the big wide world of spreadsheets and Powerpoint style presentations? It's not for the faint of heart, but you can set up OpenOffice to work on a USB disk. OpenOffice, of course, is the free office suite that opens Microsoft Office files, and saves to Office's formats as well. Complete instructions on how to go about doing this are available in an on-line PDF document at http://documentation.openoffice.org/HOW_TO/various_topics/USB_key.pdf. Don't try this on a USB key disk smaller than 512 MB. This works under Windows, but if you really want to be adventurous, set up your key disk with Linux (all the programs listed here have Linux versions). Install Puppy Linux (http://www.goosee.com/puppy) for free on a 128 MB flash disk, and you'll get an operating system that you can boot up from the key disk on any computer, as well as AbiWord, a desktop publishing program, calendar, e-mail, browser, instant messenger - even a DVD player! Who would have thought that something so small as a disk on key could be so productive - or entertaining? Ds@newzgeek.com

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