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Portable computers have become slowly but increasingly popular since the Osborne 1 was introduced shortly before the IBM PC made its debut almost 20 years ago. Early portables, including the Osborne t...

April 1, 1999  By Pulp & Paper Canada

Portable computers have become slowly but increasingly popular since the Osborne 1 was introduced shortly before the IBM PC made its debut almost 20 years ago. Early portables, including the Osborne that we once owned, required external power, usually the normal 110-volt supply from a wall plug or a generator. Our old Osborne had a connection on the front panel that would allow running with a 12-volt and a 5-volt input. Osborne never got around to selling a conversion unit for a car, but we cobbled one together for about $15, and surprised people by running from the 12-volt battery on our sailboat. I initially learned how to use a spreadsheet on rainy days at anchor.

By the early 1990s, battery driven laptops had replaced the suitcase size portables, and 4 kg was the normal weight, instead of the 15 kg we initially lugged around. Today, the ultimate is the Palm Pilot that we discussed in the February issue. It lasts several weeks on a penlight battery.



Most laptops to-day are advertised as being able to operate for two to three hours on the battery. A few boast of “coast-to-coast” capability, which means about four hours working time on a flight across the US. Nobody claims coast-to-coast for Canada.

Unfortunately, the battery life tests are often performed on the minimal configuration of each computer, whereas most users have more than the minimum RAM, and tend to work the computers harder than the marketing test crew does. I have found that with a brand new battery, I get something like 75% of the advertised life, and it’s all downhill from there. Even when the computer is guaranteed for three years, the battery guarantees are normally for a year. After a year of our kind of use, I find that the battery degrades to rather less than half its advertised life. After a couple of years, the battery is only sufficient for moving from one power outlet to another.

A new battery is normally good for about two hours, with a double battery system being genuinely capable for coast-to-coast flights.


First, read the computer manual, and make the most of sleep modes, automatic shut down of the hard disc when not in use etc.

Second, buy a new battery when the old one is tired.

New batteries are not cheap, typically about $250 each. Third party vendors are cheaper than the computer suppliers. We recently purchased from 1-800-Batteries (www.1800batteries.com), primarily because they gave us the best price for a pair of batteries for a Gateway portable, and charged about two-thirds of the Gateway price. The batteries work fine, but are not physically as well made as the original.

Many laptop computers can accept a second battery. Normally you remove the CD or floppy drive and plug in a separate battery. This is very effective, doubling the battery life, and is a feature to consider when purchasing a laptop computer. You can buy several batteries, but consider the practicalities of charging more units than the laptop can hold simultaneously when you are travelling.

Some computers allow “hot-swap” of the battery, so that even with a single battery socket, you can change without shutting down.


Most vendors sell a “auto adapter”. The simplest plug into the cigarette lighter socket, and are actually inverters that produce 110-volt AC power. You simply use the 110-volt plug that you would normally insert in the wall outlet. This is effective and works with any computer. Car batteries can be set up at remote locations, and will drive a laptop for a few days. Charging the battery can be accomplished in many ways, from running the car to solar cells.

We use an $80 converter from Radio Shack, rated at 80 watts. It runs for 12 hours/day in the car without difficulty.


Until recently, the only solutions were to carry lots of batteries or to buy your own Lear Jet, which comes equipped with 110-volt power outlets. Solar cells are sold that can be charged against an airliner window, but the ones I have seen do not produce sufficient power.

Recently, several airlines have started installing “Empower” seats. These are equipped with a power outlet, which looks like a PS/2 plug, as used for many mice. An airline-approved adapter is required, which costs about $125. With this arrangement, your laptop can be used for as long as you wish, subject to the usual constraints on computer use during landing etc.

It would be ideal if all airlines had an identical approach, but this is not (yet??) the case. The most popular seems to be the Empower standard, mentioned above, but some use cigarette lighter sockets.

We called a number of airlines and received an amazing variety of responses. Air France advised that the whole idea of having a power supply for passenger use was impracticable. Air Canada is not installing power outlets.

Canadian Airlines is steadily installing Empower seats and the service is scheduled to be available on most flights longer than 2.5 hours by mid-1999. American is following the same approach as Canadian, perhaps more aggressively. All business and first class seats will be equipped, with Empower outlets scattered through economy. Passengers can request an Empower seat.

Delta and United are installing Empower outlets on first and business class sections of some aircraft on overseas flights. US Airways has no plans for installing power outlets.

Many airlines have installed (very rarely used) telephones in each row seats. When I see the number of travelers using computers, I suspect that the money would have been much better spent on power outlets. Considering the very modest demands on the power adapters for the Empower seat outlets, I expect the price will drop rapidly. You can buy a hard disc for the price of an adapter cable.

It will be interesting to see how many airlines restrict the outlets to business class. I would definitely select Canadian over Air Canada for a flight across the country, just because of the power availability, but I would not pay business class rates for it.

So far, the adapters are available only for Dell, IBM, Panasonic, Toshiba and Apple computers. These adapters will probably work with other systems, but I notice that the power supply on my Gateway is 19-volt, and I have not yet found a suitable adapter. Since it appears that power supply outlets will become normal on airlines over the next few years, this is probably another point to consider when purchasing a laptop.

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