Hardware

Ready for the road: Preparing your laptop

There's more to taking your laptop on the road than just shutting down and taking off. During this Guild Meeting Mike Jackman led a discussion in which TechProGuild members shared what's worked for them when it comes to computing away from the office.


There's more to taking your laptop on the road than just shutting down and taking off. On August 23rd Mike Jackman led a discussion in which TechProGuild members shared what's worked for them and what hasn't when it comes to computing away from the office.If you couldn’t join us then, enjoy the transcript and we hope to see you on our next live Guild Meeting. You can find a schedule of Guild Meetings in your weekly TechProGuild Notes TechMail, or on the Guild Meeting calendar.

There's more to taking your laptop on the road than just shutting down and taking off. On August 23rd Mike Jackman led a discussion in which TechProGuild members shared what's worked for them and what hasn't when it comes to computing away from the office. If you couldn’t join us then, enjoy the transcript and we hope to see you on our next live Guild Meeting. You can find a schedule of Guild Meetings in your weekly TechProGuild Notes TechMail, or on the Guild Meeting calendar.

Note: TechProGuild edits Guild Meeting transcripts for clarity.

Welcome to Tonight’s discussion on laptop batteries
MODERATOR: Welcome ladies and gentlemen! Today we bring you the soothing sounds of Mr. Mike Jackman, who will be telling us how to get the best out of our batteries.

MIKE JACKMAN: I feel a little run down, today, but I'll be happy to try to spark a discussion on batteries.

MODERATOR: Please feel free to bounce any questions off Mr. Jackman.

MIKE JACKMAN: Just don't bounce them too hard.

Any battery will do
MIKE JACKMAN: I'll begin by stating something I was surprised to learn, though it's obvious: That is, we think of batteries for laptops as specialized, specific items, but in reality, any power source that delivers the right voltage to the laptop will do. I can't exactly say it's counterintuitive to think this way, but we're used to laptop batteries as something that plugs in to a specific slot, on a specific model.

MODERATOR: So you're saying that I could stick my laptop on a bicycle-generated power source and it would work?

MIKE JACKMAN: Yes, Jack. You could, conceivably, hook up a car battery to a laptop.

JSHEESLEY: What about a hamster on a wheel?

MIKE JACKMAN: I suppose if the hamster had electrodes implanted in it for clipping to, but generators aren't really batteries. Besides, they tried that in the ‘70s, but then they decided it was impractical because you had to feed the hamsters. Anyway, it just wasn't that obvious to me right away that as long as you put the right voltage and amps in, you get laptop power. In the back of my Compaq Armada 500 is a DC in switch, and on the bottom label, there's the input requirements—18.5 V, 2.7A—as long as that's coming in, you're OK.

How to wake a sleeping computer
SWILSON: What about the "Sleep" mode as a power saver? I've had nothing but bad experience with it.

MIKE JACKMAN: Sleep mode is terrible with a lot of laptops, especially if you're running NT. I bet your computer wouldn't turn back on, or it crashed. Sometimes there's a fix if you check with the vendor's Web site. Sometimes, it can be a conflict between BIOS settings and Windows' settings.

Jack, our moderator, is a Linux expert and can probably tell you if Sleep mode is even supported under Linux.

MODERATOR: Yes, Linux does support Sleep mode. Well, at least GNOME does. With KDE, you can configure when your screen saver will start, but it will go on indefinitely. With GNOME you can use power management.

SWILSON: My boss, who is less than technologically inclined, is constantly turning off his power button, thinking he was turning it on because the laptop had gone to sleep. That causes all kinds of problems.

MIKE JACKMAN: It's hard to be patient for the computer to come back up. There's Hibernation mode as well, and it's against the grain to hit the power button, which ought to turn the laptop off, but it is really turning it back on.

SWILSON: I'd like to turn that power feature off. Could that cause any problems?

MIKE JACKMAN: Swilson, the only problem is that you lose a potential power saving feature, but in light of your other problems, it's safe to turn this feature off. I guess it's possible that some CTO or IT manager will have to go to a country where power isn't reliable or where he or she might be away from a plug. In that case, you can send extra batteries, including maybe a large external battery to help with the laptop power problems.

How long will it live?
JCARLISLE: What’s the average lifespan you can expect on a laptop?

MIKE JACKMAN: Jcarlisle, do you mean a battery lifespan?

JCARLISLE: Yup.

MIKE JACKMAN: Jcarlisle, do you mean a lifespan of continuous power or a lifespan of how many times the battery will last?

JCARLISLE: Yup.

MIKE JACKMAN: Indeed. OK. With good power management, a brand-spanking new battery will last anywhere from two to four hours per charge. That's a large variation, but it's hard to do better than that.

How long your battery will live depends on the type of battery and how well it is conditioned. Lithium Ion batteries last the longest, roughly three times the amount of charges as Nickel Metal Hydride, for example.

TLSNC: Battery life also depends on what you are doing doesn't it? For example, are you using the CD drive?

MIKE JACKMAN: Yes, Tlsnc. Any service or device will add drain to the battery.

MODERATOR: Within Linux, many of the larger desktop applications, like StarOffice, will consume a battery very quickly.

TLSNC: Would that be the same with StarOffice on a Windows machine, Moderator?

MODERATOR: Yes, both the Linux version and the Windows version use the same amount of resources.

MODERATOR: I've heard about conditioning a battery. Can you explain the process and why it works?

JCARLISLE: What kind of conditioner do you recommend?

MIKE JACKMAN: Conditioning does two things. In some computers, like Compaqs, it helps adjust the battery meter so it's more accurate. Second, with NiCad batteries, conditioning forces the battery to discharge and recharge. This breaks down crystals that form, and the crystals cause the battery to not hold a charge past a certain point after awhile.

SWILSON: Is it true that letting a battery run all the way down will extend its life?

MIKE JACKMAN: Swilson, that is true with the Nickel type batteries, but as far as I know, Lithium Ions do better in all cases.

JCARLISLE: Do LIon batteries have the same memory problems as NiCads?

MIKE JACKMAN: No, Jcarlisle, LIon batteries have no memory effects.

Finding your local battery shop
MIKE JACKMAN: Getting laptops to last on the road can be a real challenge. A few things I've picked up include: PC cards drain slight amounts of power, so remove them to save battery life. The new ones use less.

TLSNC: Are they more expensive?

MIKE JACKMAN: For some computers, and I think Dell fits this description, you can buy a generic battery. There are, believe it or not, battery shops. I found one nearby, called Battery World!

SWILSON: We have a Batteries Plus in our area.

TLSNC: There is also a battery shop with mail order, but I don't have the name handy.

MIKE JACKMAN: If you wait a few moments, I'll look up some Web sites for you.

TLSNC: Glad to get it. I didn’t know you could use other sources.

MIKE JACKMAN: OK, www.cadex.com/cfm has links for two great resources—the battery book and the battery FAQ. There isn't much more you could want to know about batteries that they don't answer.

MODERATOR: There's also a Linux laptop how-to on http://howto.tucows.com/LDP/HOWTO/Laptop-HOWTO.html. This Web site has a nice section on battery life.

If you need your Linux fix, just send me an e-mail at jwallen@techrepublic.com and I'll give you some good relief!

New battery technologies
TLSNC: Can you replace NiCads with LIon?

MIKE JACKMAN: Tlsnc, as long as the battery gives the right amps and volts in, your laptop will run. But unfortunately generic batteries just won't fit a Compaq. Each model has a different design. For one trip I had to buy nine extra batteries, and they were about $100 each.

TLSNC: Was that for the lithium?

MIKE JACKMAN: Oh, there's also a company that's making flexible Lithium Ion batteries, meaning they're thin and you can roll them up. They claim to last eight hours.

MODERATOR: How are they making them that flexible? Is this for traveling purposes or just so you can say you have a battery-flavored fruit rollup?

MIKE JACKMAN: They're doing it by suspending the Lithium in a gel. And yeah, it's kind of a battery fruit rollup.

JCARLISLE: How much will those batteries weigh?

MIKE JACKMAN: They're lightweight.

TLSNC: How do you connect it to current laptops? Do you have to buy a laptop that supports this technology?

MIKE JACKMAN: No, just connect the battery in.

Transferring files
SWILSON: Changing the subject...is there anything better to use than My Briefcase for transferring files from network to laptop and back?

MIKE JACKMAN: Ack! My briefcase! Run for your life!

TLSNC: MOD, will GNOME work for this sync too? Thought we could convert him to Linux to do his file transfers without My Briefcase.

MODERATOR: What type of sync are you speaking of? Laptop to laptop?

MIKE JACKMAN: Swilson, do you mean transferring or coordinating file versions?

SWILSON: I guess coordinating is a better word.

MODERATOR: Transferring files from machine to machine, in Linux, is amazingly simple. Syncing a laptop to another laptop would only be a matter of tar'ing the directory to be syc'd, transferring the tar file to the destination laptop, and then untarring the file. You can make the transfer via Ethernet.

TLSNC: Some people I know use PCanywhere to sync their files. This software also provides compression, so transfers take less time.

MODERATOR: The good thing about Linux is you don't need third-party apps to do it. All you need to do is know the tar command. Using the tar command -cfz newfilename.tgz directory_to_be_tarr'd will give you a single file to transfer and once it's transferred you simply run tar xvfz newfilename.tgz and it will overwrite the old directory on the target machine.

Switching from networked to modem NT
MIKE JACKMAN: Anybody running NT on a laptop?

TLSNC: I’m supporting them.

MIKE JACKMAN: Tlsnc, how do you handle switching from networked to modem NT?

TLSNC: We use hardware profiles, and then train the users well.

MIKE JACKMAN: Yes, exactly right, but I think a lot of people don't know about it in NT. Which brings me to another point: how hardware profiles help get those laptops ready for the road. I imagine that one hardware profile has the NICs disabled, is that how you do it?

TLSNC: Yes. We disable NIC in one.

MIKE JACKMAN: Right, one great way to reduce power use is to disable all devices not needed for the road, so they're not running. In Win 98 that could mean IR ports (which NT doesn't support), and maybe sound.

TLSNC: In some we even disable the CD as it is housed in the docking station.

MIKE JACKMAN: Good point.

TLSNC: We found if we didn't do it that way users would have trouble accessing it when they returned from the road.

MIKE JACKMAN: I don't really like those little Compaqs and Dells that have the docking station with the peripherals.

TLSNC: They can be a pain to support that is for sure.

MODERATOR: One thing I do while on the road is do most of my typing and e-mail in Linux console mode. This saves more battery life than you can imagine.

MIKE JACKMAN: Moderator, that's true, and if the telecommuting staff can use Outlook Express instead of Outlook, they'll save a bunch of processor overhead.

JCARLISLE: Which is better for longer battery life? 9x, NT Workstation, or Win2k Pro?

MIKE JACKMAN: Jcarlisle, I can't say. If we’re going by lines of code, I think Win2k Pro would lose, but if we're going by power wasted while rebooting, 98 is definitely the loser.

JCARLISLE: How would lines of code affect battery life?

MODERATOR: If codes were poorly written, it could allow memory leaks, which would eat up CPU cycles.

TLSNC: I have not tried it yet, but at least you are supposed to get better power management on W2K.

MIKE JACKMAN: Anyway, the long and short of it is I don't know, Jcarlisle, but the best bet is to use all the tricks. For instance, Compaq's power management lets you cut the CPU speed in half. And tiled backgrounds, fancy bitmaps, screen savers, true color eat up power, regardless of OS.

MODERATOR: If you're using Linux, don’t use enlightenment as your window manager with a battery laptop!

JCARLISLE: Can you control the speed on the fly?

TLSNC: Yes, that is one tip we try to stress to users.

MIKE JACKMAN: Yes, you can by opening up the power management icon, usually from the Control Panel. Just choose the configuration you want. You can customize CPU speed, as well as the brightness of the LCD screen, which also saves you some power.

MODERATOR: If you have to use a GUI on your laptop while it's on battery power, use AfterStep, fvwm, or sawfish.

MIKE JACKMAN: Use less startup programs, and display less programs in the task bar because they consume CPU cycles even when they're asleep.

TLSNC: But most users don't want to give up their family wallpaper and Hi res color.

MIKE JACKMAN: I know, it's tough.

Using a battery manager
JCARLISLE: Are battery managers or monitors good ideas or do they just waste power?

MIKE JACKMAN: Jcarlisle, that's a good trade off. I like a battery monitor because it lets me know when I'm about to shut down. I think, if I’m remembering correctly, that the laptop shuts off when about 12 percent of the battery is left. You never get to drain it completely.

JCARLISLE: Won't a running monitor just draw down power faster?

MIKE JACKMAN: Yep, a monitor draws down a little faster. On the other hand, I want to know when I'm about to become toast, so I always leave the monitor running.

TLSNC: That can cause problems when trying to restart on a Toshiba.

Thanks for coming
MODERATOR: Well, ladies and gents, time’s up!

MIKE JACKMAN: Well, folks, I hope this was a positive and not a negative experience.

TLSNC: Thanks so much. This has been very good info today Mike.

MIKE JACKMAN: Now I hope we're all recharged before getting back to work. Bye all.
Our Guild Meetings feature top-flight professionals leading discussions on interesting and valuable IT issues. You can find a schedule of Guild Meetings in your weekly TechProGuild Notes TechMail, or on the Guild Meeting calendar.

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