Tom Wilkie took a Compaq laptop to Newcastle to report on a conference about the advancement of science, but he never even managed to log on
What better way for a journalist to road-test a modern, powerful Compaq laptop than to use it to report on the annual meeting of the British Association for the Advancement of Science? How appropriate a symbol of the marriage of science with technology to be able to condense and transcribe the top forum for displaying Britain's scientific prowess using one of the most modern portable computers. Alas, I would have done as well to have taken a half-brick - better, in fact, since the Compaq is much heavier.

"You'll want Windows 95 on it, won't you?" the ever-helpful young lady at Compaq's PR company asked rhetorically. I supposed so. The machine arrived just before I was due to go off to the meeting at Newcastle University at the weekend (so no technical support over the telephone).

When I switched the machine on, the full-colour screen shone with the Windows 95 logo. Then the problems started. Because the laptop had no CD-Rom player, it told me I could not have the Windows 95 "tour" that would have taught me the salient differences between Windows 3.1 (which I use at home) and this new, oh-so-desirable Microsoft product.

The absence of a CD-Rom drive was from choice: they are heavy and I do not see how a journalist on the move, writing to tight deadlines, will benefit from a comparatively slow, read-only source. So I had deliberately asked for a model without a CD-Rom drive. On the other hand, when out on assignment I need to keep in constant touch with the office and home, so a modem is obligatory. Oddly, in a world where more and more professions rely on communications, most laptop manufacturers (Compaq included) offer CD-Rom drives as standard but modems as optional (and expensive) extras. I wonder why?

The ever-helpful PR person said she could fix that: the machine would have a credit card-sized modem, known as a PCMCIA card. I know these are sometimes temperamental, so when I failed to get it to work (just before setting off) I put this down to a defect in the card itself. I could save my urgent prose on to a floppy disk, and transfer that to a colleague's machine for transmission back to the office. But when, on the train to Newcastle, I tried to use the word processing program, it managed "The quick brown fox jumps" before the machine collapsed.

Unfazed, I tried the "three-fingered salute", well-known to Windows users - press Control, Alt and Delete buttons simultaneously to "warm boot" the machine (restarting it without the time-consuming hardware checks). This usually works. Not with this Compaq. I had to press Control, Alt and the off switch before I got any reaction - the power went off - and then I had to switch the power on again.

I still do not know what Windows 95 will do for me, because every time I tried to use the machine, it froze and had to be rebooted, only to freeze again. I can only presume that either the Compaq issued to me was not powerful enough to run Windows 95 properly, or that the company did not fully test the machine before dispatch.

By the time the train arrived in Newcastle, I was nearly in tears at the thought of reporting such an important conference without any modern equipment. In the end, the university came up trumps and lent me a Gateway desktop machine running Windows 3.1, which worked perfectly.

I dream of the day when computers are like cars, where you turn the switch, the engine starts and you are off. Cars were not always like that, of course. They, too, were once temperamental beasts that would refuse to work for reasons no one could decipher (sometimes this still holds true). The Compaq may have had a full-colour screen and energy-saving, automatic switch-off refinements. But it did not work when I needed it. Such a configuration will remain to me the Model T Ford of information technology; 20 years after the invention of the personal computer, it seems things are not improving as fast as they should.

The machine Tom Wilkie failed to get to work was a Compaq Contura 430CX, fitted with an 8 megabyte 32-bit memory module and Windows 95.