Computers: Essential kit for the lightweight traveller: Richard North investigates how to stay on-line while on the road

Click to follow
The Independent Online
For years, I have cherished the dream that computer technology would help me write and send copy on the road without fuss.

Recently, I have thought how useful it would be to be able to send and receive faxes and call up Compuserve, the computer information and messaging network, and get into data banks from hotel rooms. And as the years have gone by, I felt strongly that it must be possible to do all these things with machines which were really small and light. So I set myself to do some window-shopping.

Modems first. These are the devices which let computers talk to each other over telephone lines. The first problem here is that ideally, one plugs them into a telephone socket. But hotels have an infuriating habit of screwing their telephone leads into the socket, so you cannot get at them. Really serious Anoraks get round this by dismantling bits of the telephone and hot-wiring their modems on to the bare wires within. I am not temperamentally suited to this activity. Besides, in many cases one is stuck in a conference foyer where the telephones are vandal-proof.

One way round this is to use an acoustic coupler, which sends the modem's signal through the handset. Years ago we used to lug around vast couplers which cupped over the telephone's mouthpiece and receiver. They would only work with round-ended handsets, only send data slowly and were an inconvenient piece of baggage for those of us who like to travel light.

The modem and acoustic coupler problem has now been solved. Firstly, there is the Tricom Pearl modem. This neat little device is an acoustic coupler and modem combined (125mm x 80mm x 39mm when closed; double the length when opened and has a matchbox- sized component on one cables).

It looks as though it would work with most telephones. It sends and receives faxes and is pretty well ideal for someone who is going to be working in hotel rooms or distant offices where the acoustic coupler might have to be used often, thereby justifying the slightly larger size of the device.

Unfortunately, the connectors between the Pearl modem, the computer and the telephone are a fiddly and cannot be snapped or screwed tight. I would not like to use it in a hurry in a telephone booth.

So I kept looking and found a firm called TeleAdapt. As I rattled off the various sorts of problems I had encountered, they enthused about their Road Warrior kits. The company seems open to consultation on specific problems and I have some confidence it may know how to convert me from a Road Wimp.

It offers, on a pick and mix basis, solutions to nearly everything its customers have reported over the years - they run an informal information network and welcome reports on the different situations encountered.

Most obviously, they reckon to be able to provide an adaptor to make a BT telephone plug fit into almost all the eccentric telephone sockets foreigners proliferate. They have hot-wiring devices, but also kits which allow you to hot-wire while using the telephone normally. They have devices which allow modems to use even those lines which run through modern digital local exchanges and scramble normal signals into garbles - these are a curse in the US.

Fine. But I fancy I want to invest neither the expense nor the effort of struggling up a learning curve involved in being tooled up in that way.

The solution, then, looks to be to have a small modem, backed up by an acoustic coupler for the awkward moments. TeleAdapt offers various modems and have made an extraordinary acoustic coupler, the robust- looking TeleCoupler II Universal (185mm x 50mm x 55mm). True, carrying two separate devices adds up to more bulk than carrying the Pearl by itself. But the tiny extra seems worthwhile granted how often I would carry and use the portable modem by itself.

TeleAdapt like the Pace Microlin fax modem and so do I. It is tiny (122mm x 82mm x 25.7mm), fast and sends and receives faxes. It would do perfectly well and elegantly as a desk-top device. For tricky situations, the real advantage is that connections between the computer, the Pace and the TeleAdapt acoustic coupler are industry standard, secure and screwable. The latter can be Velcro- strapped to the dangling handset, say, of a call box telephone and then you have your hands free to fiddle with the computer even if there is only a small shelf.

And so to the computer. I know there are various A4-sized machines and everyone has their favourite. Frankly, most of them are more powerful than they need be for my journalistic purposes and their bulk and weight are not worthwhile sacrifices to make. I wanted something smaller.

I looked at the Psion Series 3 and found them to be really no more than clever personal organisers - with elegant communication systems. One could not seriously type extensive amounts of copy into them with standard, male, European fumbly fingers.

So I was pleased when I found the Mitac 1600A Palmtop (230mm x 115mm x 30mm). Its keyboard is small, though virtually the full width of the machine, but it is tolerable. Miracle of miracles, it comes with the MS-Dos 5 operating system and Works integrated software (word processor, spreadsheet, database, communications program) ready-loaded - though in in Works mode, the text is minute. But you can write files in the 'memo' programme which has a zoom command to enlarge the text and then transfer it to Works for formatting for printers, or for communicating through the modem.

The Mitac 1600A runs on ordinary dry-cell batteries - the AAA, or penlight, kind - has an easy interface programme to talk to PCs and has good clip-in cabling. It also takes industry-standard PCMCIA add-on memory cards, so can be expanded from its in-built 300,000 bytes of usuable memory.

Vital statistics

The total weight up of my chosen combination is 1.3kg (2.9lbs) and the cost pounds 760 (including VAT).

The Mitac 1600A Palmtop, cost pounds 234,including comprehensive connectivity kit and software. Mitac: tel 0952 207200, fax 0952 201216.

The Tricom Pearl, pounds 370, supports data speeds of up to 9600 bits per second and sends or receives faxes at 9600 bits per second, on Pearl's own fax software. It comes in a case 230mm x 210mm x 73mm (with mains adapter, cables and so on). Tricom: tel 0494 483951, fax 0494 485213.

Pace Microlin fax modem, pounds 292, supports V21, V23, V22, V22bis, V27ter, V29, V42, data protocols and faxes at 9600bps. Comes with Winfax Lite for Windows or DOS. Pace: tel 0274 532000, fax 0274 537029; or from TeleAdapt: tel 081 421 4444, fax 081 421 5308

TeleAdapt TeleCoupler II Universal, pounds 188, TeleAdapt offers its BT-to-foreign TeleDaptors at from pounds 23.50.

The 'ultimate' Road Warrior kit plus travelling bag, costs pounds 821, but TeleAdapt can tailor kits to people's requirements.

(Photograph omitted)

IndyBest product reviews are unbiased, independent advice you can trust. On some occasions, we earn revenue if you click the links and buy the products, but we never allow this to bias our coverage. The reviews are compiled through a mix of expert opinion and real-world testing