Taking it on the road

the portable project manager


The purpose of “Concerns of Project Managers” is to share expert knowledge and opinions on topics of general and continuing interest to PM NETwork readers. The opinions expressed in these columns are those of the respective author. They are, in no way, to be construed as official positions of PMI on an issue or endorsements, either positive or negative, of any product or service mentioned herein.





Fred’s microcomputer is in his office. Using Advanced Utopian Project Manager VII, he faithfully plans and updates all of his projects, But is that the best place for him to do this work? Not always. First of all, his projects are not being executed in the office, and Fred spends most of his time out in the field. It’s at his four field offices that Fred does most of the data gathering and problem solving. But Fred cannot justify the expense of a computer and software in each trailer. Nor would that be effective, as he needs to have all four projects in a common database to plan and review resources being shared across multiple projects,

Not to worry. Today’s computer technology can provide Fred with a computer in a “lunch box,” In fact, that’s what they call one of the two popular configurations of portable computers. The other is called a “laptop,” Compaq started the popularity of portable computers in the mid-‘80s. I wrote my book using a Compaq Portable Plus, a heavy hard-disk model with a blurry green screen, Compaq’s Portable III, with a gas plasma (orange) flat screen and a 40MB hard drive, became the model for the lunchbox configuration and is still copied today by the clone makers. Still considered heavy and cumbersome) other manufacturers, namely Toshiba, introduced a flatter and usually lighter configuration-the laptop.

Today, laptops are available from “notebook” sized, battery operated units to plug-in model with 386-20 CPUs. The slightly larger lunchbox types with 386-25 chips, cache memory, and a half dozen slots for add-in boards can compete with most desktops.

Having outgrown my Compaq Portable III (I wanted a faster processor and high resolution graphics), I went shopping this year for a replacement, I’d like to share what I learned with PM NETwork readers.

To start, I performed a needs analysis. I wanted at least a 286 chip, but a 386 system would better set me up for the future. I absolutely required either EGA or VGA resolution. Almost all new and upgraded project management software is being designed to use these high resolution graphics modes, I specified at least one half-length slot for add-in cards. I decided that I did not require battery operation. My system had to operate in an office, a field location, or my home. But, it did not have to operate on a plane or fishing boat. Actually, a battery can be a disadvantage. You will need to carry a converter (or extra battery packs) which add weight to the package.

After eliminating the IBM and Compaq offerings (for several reasons), I decided to look at portables from Dell, Toshiba, and Micro-Express. Dell has earned its way into the corporate office as a leading mail-order supplier of computers. Toshiba has established a position as the leading designer and vendor of laptops. The less well known Micro-Express has earned excellent reviews of both its desktop and portable clones, which it sells at very attractive prices.

Attempting to obtain evaluation loan units from these three vendors turned out to be an exercise in frustration and futility. Dell said that the PM NETwork readership wasn’t significant enough for a review loan. Toshiba sent me on a merry-go-round until I finally hooked up with their PR firm, which promised me a loan unit, but never delivered. Micro-Express was cooperative, and I eventually reviewed three different units.

First, I looked at the Micro-Express Lyte-Byte 3400. This unit has a 286 chip rated at 16MHz, a 40MB hard drive, an EGA gas plasma screen, and 1 MB of RAM. It also comes with an external 5 1/4” floppy drive to supplement the built-in 3 1/2” drive. The unit performed well, and I especially liked the keyboard. It was laid out in a traditional configuration, which made it easy to move between computers, and its feel was better than many desktops.

I decided to look at a higher power unit because of some work that I was doing with a fairly slow Beta program. I tried the Micro-Express Regal II, in a lunchbox configuration, that included a 386-25 MHz chip with cache memory, EGA screen, 40MB hard drive, a 3 1/2” floppy and 2MB of RAM. Like all three of the Micro-Express units tested, it included the external floppy drive and a padded carrying case. The Regal II is a speed demon. But its bulk and weight became a disadvantage during extensive air travel. It could be a good unit for people whose travel between offices (and home) is primarily by car.

Next, I looked at the Micro-Express Lyte-Byte 5400, which is configured in the same laptop case as the Lyte-Byte 3400. The 5400 uses a 386SX chip with a 16 MHz clock speed. This chip is very popular this year, providing 386 compatibility at close to 286 prices. I configured this unit with a 100MB hard drive (same Conner unit as in the Toshibi T5200) and 2MB of RAM. The 5400 has a VGA screen, which is becoming the corporate standard in most locations. This is important as you would prefer to have your laptop drive an external color monitor rather than its internal gas plasma, when possible. The Lyte-Byte 5400 ran all of my software at acceptable speeds; the internal and external drives supported all of my storage and media needs; and the keyboard, weight anti overall size were more than satisfactory. The base price (with 1MB of RAM and a 40MB drive) is $2995. Add shout $700 for the extra RAM and drive capacity of the test configuration.

I eventually compared the two Micro-Express laptops to their closest comparable Toshiba models, the T3200 and T5200. I found the operation of the Micro-Express units to equal or exceed the Toshibas. Also, the Micro-Express units provide a separate port for the external floppy drives. For the Toshibas, the extra-cost external drives must share a single port with a printer. The mail-order price of a Toshiba T5200/100, configured like the Lyte-Byte 5400, would run about $6000, even with the 30% to 40% discount from list. You do get a slightly more powerful chip (386DX running at 20MHz) in the Toshiba but, otherwise, they are quite similar.

What about accessories for your laptop. You may wish to purchase a deluxe carry bag, with extra compartments. I chose the Targus Lappac 1 ($54.95 at Fry’s). It has zip or velcro closure compartments for floppy disks, papers and manuals, etc. It also has an external expansion pocket that is sized to hold the Kodak Diconix, a 3-pound dot matrix printer, made especially for laptops. I use the pocket to carry See’s chocolates home from California.

If you’re going to be operating your computer away from your home office, you should give some thought to the “help” function in the software that you use. It should provide most of the information that you need without requiring you to carry your manuals around with you.

Quite frankly, I’m so happy with my laptop (I bought the Lyte-Byte 5400), that I use it more than my 386 desktop. In my office, I hookup my external VGA monitor, my DeskJet printer, a Bernouli Box (to the card in the half-slot), the external floppy drive, a mouse, and an external modem. To travel, I disconnect everything but the mouse, and I know that I have all of my programs and all of my data with me. Just lead me to a 110 volt outlet and I’m ready to compute ... Your place or mine?



Harvey A. Levine, President, Project Knowledge Group, (35 Barney Road, Clifton Park, NY 12065) has been a practitioner of project management for over 24 years with General Electric Company and is a past Chairman of PMI. Mr. Levine has been Adjunct Professor of Project Management of Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute, Troy, N.Y., and is the author of the book Project Management Using Microcomputers as well as several articles.

July 1990



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