Today's remodeling industry exists on jobsites and in-home sales calls, doing business from work trucks and home offices. The days of being tethered to a desk computer are over, so get mobile.
Desktop vs. laptop: Unless you never visit a jobsite or never meet potential customers at their homes, you need a laptop. Bigger is not better; look for travel weights of 5 pounds or less and long battery life. Lenovo's ThinkPad X60 ( www.thinkpad.com) and Panasonic's Toughbook W4 ( www.panasonic.com/toughbook) both fit the bill. ThinkPad has the better keyboard, but the Toughbook has a built-in DVD player/CD-burner tucked under the keyboard — unheard of in a laptop in this weight class.
Don't let a small screen deter you from purchasing a truly portable unit. You can plug in an external LCD monitor or take along a palm-sized projector, such as the 1-pound Mitsubishi PocketProjector, for presentations.
PDA? After seeing what you can do with a 3-pound laptop, you'll probably find a stand-alone PDA more trouble than it's worth, but I'm still a fan of “smartphones.” Basic PDA features such as a calendar and address book are faster on your phone than booting a computer. Despite their quirks, Handspring's Treo products still offer the best mix of feature-functionality. The new Treo 700p (Palm OS) can double as a high-speed modem to get your laptop online. Just remember that you won't be able to talk and surf at the same time.
Tablet PC? The “digital clipboard” idea is appealing to service people, estimators, and other “on-your-feet” professions, but only if you need software specially designed for the tablet platform. Also, beware that just a few of the currently available units perform well outdoors in direct sunlight.
Staying connected: Staying online means staying connected to your office, to product Web sites, and to Web-based applications when you need them. Wireless networking (WiFi) is built into most laptops, but that won't keep you online everywhere. For that you'll need a cellular wireless card. In major urban areas high-speed networks connect at speeds rivaling wired broadband, but even if you're not in high-speed territory, the ability to stay online nearly anywhere is worth the $60 to $80 per month that most services charge for unlimited access.
Mobile printing and scanning: Remodelers also need a way to print contracts and product cut sheets, and to design work while out of the office. Canon and HP produce mobile printers small and light enough to fit in your computer bag and of good enough quality to print color photos and renderings. Look for battery-powered operation and wireless connectivity to your computer via Bluetooth or WiFi.
Some of Canon's mobile printers offer a scanner cartridge option that will morph the printer into a portable scanner and fax machine. Otherwise, consider investing in the tiny DocuPen RC800 from Planon ( www.docupen.com). Instead of feeding the page through the scanner, you move a “stick” scanner across the item you want scanned. It works surprisingly well and won't take up much space in your bag.
Mac vs. Windows: For reliability, ease-of-use, and productivity right out of the box, you can't beat a Mac. The problem has always been incompatibility with specialty software that remodelers use. But don't rule out the Mac: The new Macs will let you do (at extra cost) a tandem installation of Windows XP, so you can have the best of both worlds.
Next time we'll look at software for your mobile office.
— Joe Stoddard is a process/ technology consultant to the building industry, firstname.lastname@example.org.