Ready for rough and tumble

Panasonic has added several new models to its lineup of rugged Toughbook computers, including the Toughbook 34 and Toughbook 25 laptops and the Toughbook 01 handheld computer. The company is marketing these computers to utilities, law enforcement offices and other industries that need computing power that can stand up to less than pristine environmental conditions. Display and keyboard parts are moisture- and dust-resistant, and they can survive being dropped from heights of almost 3 ft. The laptops have sealed port and connector covers and gel-mounted hard drives.

The 3.8-lb. Toughbook 34, which sells for $3,400, includes a 700-MHz Pentium III processor, an 8.4-in. screen and a 20-gB hard drive in a squat, 7.4 × 9.0 × 1.7-in. full magnesium alloy case. The 9-lb. Toughbook 28, which sells for $5,000, includes an 800-MHz Pentium III processor, a 30-gB stainless steel-encased hard drive and a 13.3-in. display. The Windows CE-based Toughbook 01 has a 3.5-in. color active matrix screen, a 38-key keyboard and an optional GPS module. It sells for $1,000. You won't find these computers at major computer retailers. For more information and a list of authorized resellers, call 800/662-3537, e-mail sales_support@p2c2.com, visit www.panasonic.com/toughbook.

Skinnier than ever

Laptop computers are continuing to slim down as computer makers miniaturize components. For those who like to travel light, Toshiba recently released the Portege 2000 laptop, which the company claims is the thinnest ever. When closed, the front edge of the 2.6-lb. computer is .6 in. high and the back edge is just .73 in. The 9 × 11.4-in. magnesium alloy case makes room for a 12.1-in. color screen. The computer is powered by a 750-MHz, ultralow-voltage, mobile Pentium III processor and includes a 20-gB drive that measures just 1.8 in., which Toshiba claims is 49% smaller than any main hard drive on the market. Other features include integrated Ethernet and wireless (WiFi IEEE 802.11b technology) networking capability.

This skinny laptop, which sells for $2,199 (and included a free 24X CD-ROM drive in early February) is geared primarily for road warriors for whom smaller and lighter baggage contributes to quality of life on the road. But it hints at the future of laptops. For more information, call 800/457-7777, visit www.csd.toshiba.com.

Wireless networking

In 2001, wireless networking of computers in home offices became a reality with the release of so-called WiFi devices from several manufacturers. With these devices, you can network several computers without stringing wire, which can be difficult in existing construction.

WiFi is a trademark name for industry wireless fidelity standards known as IEEE 802.11. WiFi uses radio waves in the 2.4-GHz range (the same range used by high-end cordless telephones) to network computers and peripherals, such as printers and modems. Typically, computers hooked to WiFi devices can communicate up to 300 ft. indoors (100 ft. is typical) and up to 1,600 ft. outdoors.

To set up a WiFi network, you need a base station (for example, the WAP11 Instant Wireless Network Access Point from LinkSys) and wireless network cards for each computer and peripheral device you want to tie to the network. Typically, the access point, or base station, can be plugged directly to a modem to share Internet access.

The LinkSys WAP11, which is available from major computer retailers, has an estimated price of $159. LinkSys wireless network cards for desktop and laptop computers sell for $90 to $100. For more information, e-mail info@linksys.com, visit www.linksys.com.

Electric-grid networking

Electric and telephone wires already snake through our homes and offices. This hasn't escaped the attention of technology companies that see opportunity in piggybacking computer networks on these existing wire grids. First-generation devices suffered from slow information transfer rates. Several technology companies are introducing devices that overcome the speed barrier when using the electric grid to network computers.

Phonex Broadband Corporation claims its NeverWire 14, high-speed, home power line networking device will be the first on the market, though it won't reach computer store shelves until April. It can transfer data at up to 14 megabits per second, in the same range as common Ethernet- and WiFi-based networks. To set up an electric grid computer network, each computer and peripheral (including high-speed modems) is connected to a separate NeverWire 14 device, which is about 7 in. square and 2 in. thick. In turn, the Neverwire devices are plugged into electric outlets. Voila. You have a network. The suggested retail price for each NeverWire 14 is $129. For more information, call 800/437-0101, e-mail customerservice@phonex.com, visit www.phonex.com.

Converging PDAs

Personal digital assistants (PDAs) are morphing into full-fledged communication devices, not just handheld computers. In late January, Palm, which pioneered the PDA, introduced the i705, which features always-on e-mail and a full set of PDA functions. In February, Handspring, which makes Visor Palm OS PDAs, introduced the Treo 180, which marries a cell phone to a PDA. Microsoft also is working with Hewlett Packard, Audiovox and HTC (the company that makes Compaq iPaq PDAs) to develop Pocket PC-based PDA cell phones that reportedly will be on the market in 2002.

The Palm i705, which sells for $499, offers always-on “push” e-mail from up to eight e-mail accounts, Web browsing and access to America Online's Instant Messenger, plus full PDA functionality. For large enterprises, Palm also will offer firewall-secured access to company e-mail. The i705 features a built-in antenna and wireless modem that operates over the Cingular Wireless nationwide Mobitex packet data network. Monthly service charges range from $19.99 for 100 kB of data transfer to $39.99 for unlimited use.

The potential utility of the i705 to areas of rural America depends on whether Cingular provides service in those areas. The Palm i705 is available through major retailers. For more information, visit www.palm.com.

The Handspring Treo 180, which sells for $399, comes in two versions: one with a built-in keyboard for text input, and the 180g, which allows Graffiti text input. The Treo is slightly smaller and lighter than Handspring Visor PDAs, measuring 4.3 × 2.7 × 0.7 in. and weighing 5.4 oz. It includes a flip lid that serves as the telephone earpiece when open and as a protective cover when closed. The Treo also can send and receive text messages and e-mail and browse the Internet. Handspring says its Treo service plans initially will be offered by Cingular and VoiceStream, the two major providers currently using Global System for Mobile Communication (GSM) technology. Handspring says later in the year it will offer a version using Code-Division Multiple Access (CDMA) cellular technology that will work on the Sprint network. For more information, visit www.handspring.com.

Both PDA communicators have limitations in rural America because Cingular and VoiceStream coverage areas tend to be mostly near large urban centers. But these products hint at the future of PDAs as computers and telephone technologies continue to converge.