Computing On The Road? Get Ready!

With the Intel Atom and the Core i series of processors, laptops featuring up to 7 hours of battery life are now available. Which means you can leave the power supply home and walk out with your laptop into the sun or go to a coffee shop.

In fact I’m typing this article sitting in a train. But battery power is not the only thing you are going to need to make your laptop road worthy. I share some tips and caveats I encountered when first getting my laptop ready for the road for a day out.

Size matters

You are going to need a laptop measuring no more than 15.6”. Actually 15.6” is still on the large side. The optimal portable size is 13.3” or 12.1”. These sizes keep the screen usable while reducing the size and weight of the machine to under 2 Kgs. A 13.3” laptop is about the same length and width as an A4 paper folder. It is optimum for carrying around without making you feel uncomfortable. You can also comfortably enjoy a movie on such a screen size. Anything larger than 15.6” means your laptop will spill over into the lap of the person sitting next to you, besides you will need to be a regular gym goer to carry it around without developing a backache.

Battery life

Of course you are going to need a sporty battery and if your laptop is from the new breed as I’ve mentioned before then you are all set for a day out. For older laptops ensure you are getting at least 2 hours from your battery. Unless you are absolutely certain you will have access to a charging point, remember that finding a charging point while travelling is not easy even if you decide to carry your charger with you. Also I do not recommend you attempt to massively under-power your laptop by switching off devices and applications on it in a bid to increase battery life. For Windows users, it should be able to run on the “balanced” power plan for up to two hours with whatever common applications and antivirus program you have running. My reason for this is that reducing processor power or switching off necessary peripherals or software to increase battery life will only make your laptop sluggish and harder to operate on the road and tie your hands with what you can do. Being on the road is a limitation in itself and by turning off features you are normally used to, you are likely to make your experience worse. If your battery gives you anything less than two hours of juice then you will be disappointed and will most likely find your laptop has turned itself off even before you have had a chance to do something useful with it. Ultimately your success with using your laptop on the road will depend on its battery life. If your laptop has a good enough battery life, leave the charger at home (or in the luggage). It is tempting to carry the charger together with your laptop, but laptop chargers are quite bulky and add weight, besides as I said before, it is usually hard to find a charging point while on the road anyway. You may be able to recharge your laptop once you reach your final destination, at your workplace or in a hotel, but it is not required while you are moving about so you may want to keep it out of sight.


Yeah you will need a good carry bag for your laptop. Not a massive backpack, something light and easy. Girls look here. My favourite is this padded 13.3” bag, which will fit 13.3” laptops and Macbooks1The size mentioned in the Maplin product title is incorrect, this case will fit laptops upto 13.3″. It is expensive but excellent quality, brilliant inner lining, smooth zips, sturdy, and has a soft lining all around including the bottom, which allows for light bumps and nudges without hurting the laptop. There is also an inner pocket which allows you to stow away a small mouse, headphones and a security lock. There is no place for the charger in this bag.

Teach your laptop to sleep

I’m going to discuss Windows in general as this is the most common system people have installed. However the advice below applies equally to other systems. But first, I will briefly deviate from the topic at hand and recount an experience to you. Around an year ago I was sat in a large software developer conference in London. The speaker announced there was free internet in the conference room and you could go to their website and check the conference schedule, speaker biographies and even find out who was sitting next to you by putting in your seat number. Milliseconds after the announcement was made, several (well 80%) of the crowd pulled out Macbooks from their bags flipped them open and started checking out the website and tweeting about the conference. I didn’t have a Macbook, I still don’t (not that I have anything against Macbooks, they make fantastic personal computers), so I sat and observed. Here is what I learned from the Apple fans in that room. None of them powered on their Macbook, it was already switched on!

Windows, starting with Vista, gives you the same capability. It is called Sleep or Suspend mode. Your Windows laptop can be shut down, hibernated or put to sleep (suspended). The last option was always a bit of a mystery to me until that day in the conference. The shut down and hibernate options cut off power to your laptop, so it needs to boot up again load the operating system and all drivers. Then if you hibernated it needs to reload all content back into memory. It is an exhaustive process even if your zippy laptop can do it fast it will still take 3-5 minutes. Worst case it will take 7-12 minutes. Sleep does not cut off power to the laptop, it puts it into an extremely low power state, just enough to preserve data in the memory. So when you wake it up, it springs back to life in under a minute.

To achieve perfect sleep and wake up you will firstly need Windows Vista or higher, because it can truly handle sleep mode like a pro, plus you will need compatible hardware. Sleep is a two way contract between the operating system and the hardware. Both need to understand and follow the protocol for it to work correctly, otherwise your sleeping laptop may not wake up or it may wake up only partly. If it wakes up only partly, you may find your keyboard, wireless card or other devices no longer function correctly after wake up. As I said before Vista supports sleep mode correctly and most new laptops come with fully compatible hardware and drivers so this should not be an issue. Best to test it out though, put your laptop to sleep from the shut down menu, wait a while, then press any key on the keyboard or wiggle the mouse or quickly press the power key once and the laptop should wake up and let you get back to business. Since the laptop is not turned off when sleeping it is still consuming power from your battery, but that’s ok because its just a trickle and remember I imposed the minimum 2 hour battery life requirement before because you will lose some battery to sleep mode.

So if sleep works with your laptop you are doing pretty well so far. There is one caveat for Windows users, it is possible for a installed program to wake up your laptop. This is usually true for scheduled tasks which are setup via Control Panel > Administrative Tools > Scheduled tasks. Any task that has the option “Wake up the computer to run this task” needs to be looked at and disabled or that check-box unticked. This option is good only for desktop PCs that may be fall asleep due to prolonged inactivity, it is not good for your laptop. By default all Microsoft tasks have this option turned off, however your antivirus or other installed programs can create schedule entries (especially for checking for updates or running scans) with this option ticked. Another clever way to get around such tasks is to use another option, also provided by the Windows scheduler, “Run this task only if my computer is on AC power”, so when your computer is on battery the task will not run and therefore will not wake up your laptop. In case you haven’t figured it out already this option is bad because such tasks can run when the scheduled time comes and wake up your laptop if it is sleeping. But that may not be the best time for it to wake up. You don’t want your laptop waking up when it’s in the bag as it won’t go back to sleep automatically and consume full power, so when you actually come to use it, it will have drained the battery. Besides it will start whirring and heat up while inside the bag without enough ventilation. You want your laptop to wake up when you wake it up, when you take it out of the bag and pop the lid open.

Finally you need to configure your laptop to sleep when the lid is closed. This can be done via the Control Panel > Power Options in Windows. Similar power options can be setup in other operating systems.

The ideal settings are:
On Battery: Sleep when the lid is closed. Hibernate when battery is critical. If Hibernate is not available, your only option is to choose shut down.
On AC power: Do nothing if the lid is closed.

Now your laptop will go into and out of sleep automatically when on battery. Close the lid and it will sleep. Open the lid and it will wake up, and you get to stay logged in all the time. Perfect!

Caveat: Don’t shut down Windows while on the road unless you absolutely have to. Windows has a nasty habit of installing updates at shut down and configuring them at startup. This means that shut down and startup can take more time than they usually do and you cannot cancel the update process. This can catch you off guard especially if you are in a rush. Also Windows takes longer to boot up and become ready for use, with multiple programs trying to check for updates when you login, so shutting down and starting up a Windows laptop can take up valuable time and battery power while on the road. Avoid it.

Get on the internet

Now this is the cool part. There are a few ways to do this.

You can use free WiFi if one is available around you. Also read about working securely from wireless hot spots.

You can use a fairly advanced mobile phone and which can connect via USB to your computer if you have free unlimited internet access on your phone. You need to check if your mobile phone has an inbuilt modem, if so look for software from the mobile phone manufacturer that will let you use the phone as a USB modem and allow your computer to treat the phones internet connection as a dial-up connection. I have a Nokia N8 and Nokia provide this option on the phone itself. Just select “Connect PC to net” option on the USB connection settings. Nokia also had the same option on the E71. Their software is Windows only and configures a dial up connection for you.

If you don’t have a phone with an inbuilt modem another option is to use a tethering software like JoikuSpot or PdaNet which will make your phone a WiF access point. This is slower and has more restrictions, plus you will need to buy the software for unrestricted internet access.

Finally the last option is to buy a USB mobile internet dongle. I have one from Three UK, and it works similar to the Nokia phones internal modem, but is is much simpler to use and allows you to keep your phone free for calling. Of course you have to buy internet add-ons for such a dongle which may be expensive depending on the provider you choose.

Ubuntu Linux on the road

I have a dual boot Windows and Ubuntu setup on my laptop. And after having tweaked Windows for the road I decided to give Ubuntu a try. Frankly having tried various Linux flavours in the past, including Ubuntu, I was not hopeful Linux could pull it off. I used Ubuntu 10.04 LTS (Lucid Lynx). LTS stands for long term support release and the LTS releases of Ubuntu include only very stable and well tested Linux software. For laptops you intend to use on the road I recommend you use only stable Ubuntu releases. I was very impressed with Ubuntu 10.04. Installation has been greatly simplified and all hardware and drivers for my laptop were identified and loaded correctly. However Ubuntus hardware support for the bleeding edge laptops is usually sketchy. Usual problem areas are brightness controls, power/battery management, wireless LAN and touchpads. This is because most opensource drivers are retrospective – the hardware is released and if it is popular among enthusiasts a driver gets written or modified to support it. Hence older more popular laptops tend to be better supported under Ubuntu. So if your hardware is not supported, you may now be able to use Ubuntu. Note that Ubuntu can be run from a CD without affecting your laptop, however for regular and reliable use you need it installed on your harddisk.

In my case, I found this version of Ubuntu to be surprisingly road worthy. There were clear benefits of using Ubuntu over Windows while on the road. Firstly Ubuntu’s boot-up to ready-to-use time was much smaller than Windows. Ubuntu also consumed less resources and only ran programs I asked it to run. Notably, I found Ubuntu loaded and ejected USB drives more easily than Windows, programs started up faster and shut down was also quick. Ubuntu also flawlessly handled sleep

2Ubuntu uses the term Suspend instead of Sleep.

and wakeup operations. Most importantly Ubuntu came with plug and play support for Nokia N8, Nokia E71 and my USB mobile broadband (modem) dongle. No drivers were needed and in two clicks I could dial up and connect to the internet. Just like that! This I believe is due to the research the Ubuntu community did when Ubuntu was released for netbooks because netbooks usually come paired with mobile broadband dongles. The main quibble was that Ubuntu did not correctly detect battery status for me. So it would think I was on AC power while I as on battery. This meant the automatic ‘sleep when lid closed’ did not always work. I could ofcourse manually put the laptop to sleep and that was a slight inconvenience. Overall though I was very impressed and I now use Ubuntu as my system of choice when on the road.

What about Macbooks?

Macbooks are simply excellent for on the road computing and OSX comes preconfigured with nearly all of the options I have discussed here. Macbooks running OSX also offer top notch battery life, so there is not much in the way of setup that needs to be done. Just pop the Macbook in your bag and away you can go. However mobile broadband dongle support for in OSX isn’t plug and play like Ubuntu so remember to install drivers and configure the device before you try and use these. Mobile phones with Bluetooth connect better with MacBooks running OSX 10.6.8 (SL) or higher and usually do not require additional drivers. I found the Nokia N8 connects very well with a MacBook and allows Internet connectivity using the phones 3G modem both over USB and Bluetooth (setup via Network Preferences).


1 The size mentioned in the Maplin product title is incorrect, this case will fit laptops upto 13.3″
2 Ubuntu uses the term Suspend instead of Sleep.