Why let the nerds have all the fun?
Common-sense tools now include laptops

By Aaron Ladage
Staff Writer

If RAM reminds you of your last pickup truck and a hard drive is how you describe a long day on the road, it might be time to bone up on your computer knowledge. 

For truckers, the most common-sense computer to take on the road is a laptop – a smaller, self-enclosed, portable version of a desktop computer. And truckers aren’t alone – in May, laptop sales surpassed desktops for the first time in history, accounting for more than 54 percent of all computer purchases for the month, according to market research firm NPD Group.

Buying a laptop does require a few more considerations, but that doesn’t mean it has to be a mystifying, painful experience. Dan Gookin, author of the book “Laptops for Dummies” and creator of the “For Dummies” series of how-to books, has some rational advice for truckers about to spend their cash on a new computer.

Think smart, not hard (ware)
Gookin’s first piece of advice is to buy enough computer to run the software you want to run. Many people make the mistake of checking out the hardware only, and forgetting that it’s the software that does the job.

Specifically, he suggested evaluating the business and financial software you will be using, and then selecting the right hardware to run it.

“You don’t necessarily need to buy the fastest laptop in the world,” Gookin said. “The fastest microprocessor is usually the cutting-edge technology, and you pay a premium for that. 

“Sure – there are some geeks and nerds out there who love to have the latest and fastest of whatever, but for practical purposes, you really want the step below that. You’re going to still get something that’s fast, but you’re going to get something that doesn’t have that premium attached to the price tag, because it’s not bleeding-edge technology.”

Memory and storage: size does matter
“You can’t know what the future’s going to bring,” Gookin said. “I always say meet your needs now, and you can guess about future needs.”

But when it comes to guessing, there’s one area Gookin said you can be sure of – the bigger the hard drive (the library where your software, documents, music and movie files are stored) and the more RAM (your computer’s short-term memory), the better.

“The biggest thing you should be concerned about is the amount of memory in the computer, and the amount of hard drive space. As long as you’re not being skimpy on those two things, especially with a laptop, you’ll be okay,” Gookin said. “Most software has pretty much stabilized, and there’s not going to be that many surprises in the future with regards to new programs that require more memory or more horsepower.”

Shed those pounds
Besides the fact that laptops’ guts are relatively integrated, there’s really only one issue that makes them unique – portability.

“Most laptops typically weigh between four and six pounds,” Gookin said. “If you’re going to be carrying it around all the time, weight is going to add up. Even a lightweight laptop is going to be heavy carrying it around for a while.”

Get a (battery) life
Almost every truck on the road today has a way to charge a laptop battery. Then again, with crackdowns on engine idling, and even APU usage in some areas, it never hurts to plan for no power.

“If it’s something that you plan to use away from a power source, you need to have a battery life that lasts a good long time,” Gookin said. “The battery life – they can boast that it’s nine hours, but realistically, it’s only about three.”

Why buy Wi-Fi?
Let’s face it – you’ll never have your very own dedicated line for an Internet connection on the road. This leaves you with two options: an air card, which uses the same towers and signal as your cell phone to connect to the Internet practically anywhere (but often at a slower, more unreliable speed), and a wireless card, which can latch on to existing, short-range wireless networks (such as the ones at truck stops).

Gookin said he did not have enough experience to recommend a specific air card; however, he suggested getting a wireless card that could handle both 802.11b and 802.11g wireless connection standards. 802.11b is slower, but more standardized, while 802.11g is faster, but harder to find out on the road.

“I would recommend (a dual card) just so you cover all your bases, because you never really know where you’re going to be going,” Gookin said.

Tough enough?
Call it an old wives’ tale of the computer industry: Buying a computer that can take the bumps of the road is worth taking into consideration, but unless your suspension is in serious need of adjustment, Gookin said the added cost of a rugged laptop just isn’t worth it.

“They do make some nice, rugged laptops, but you do pay more for that,” he said. “As long as the laptop’s in a nice, stable place, it’s going to be okay. You can use a laptop in an airplane, and an airplane can be much bumpier than a truck.”

Laptops: A real steal
What is a real concern, Gookin said, is security.

“If someone’s going to be breaking into a truck, they’re going to look for something to steal,” he said. “And a laptop – that’s like finding gold in a mine.”

Gookin said most laptops are constructed with a secure connection point, which you can use to wire it to something big and heavy – like the truck – so it can’t be stolen.

“Get some kind of a security device that allows you to connect or permanently anchor it so that it will not just be picked up and walked off with,” he said.

Don’t skimp on service
For a laptop, Gookin highly advised spending the extra money and getting the maximum manufacturer’s warranty, so that it is covered for the life of the computer – usually three to five years.

“I don’t recommend that for regular computers, because computers are modular – you can generally replace any piece of the computer that breaks, and you’re not going to be out a hundred bucks,” Gookin said. 

“But with a laptop, the whole thing is integrated. If the screen breaks on a laptop, it’s $1,000 to get it replaced, because they have to pretty much replace most of the unit.”

The bottom line
Above all else, Gookin said, pick a laptop that fits your budget and needs, not those of the guy in the next truck over.

“My experience shows me that most people buy a computer because they want to use it, not because they want to be a computer scientist,” Gookin said. “For people who are out there trucking who need a laptop, this is a business, and they need to make a business decision.”