Buying a computer system/Buying a System

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QUESTION: Dear Bobbert,

I can't find a category which fits my question, but yours seems to best approximate it.  I'm trying to put together a package that includes a portable computer and/or tablet, and portable phone and portable printer, in the most economical package (and not having to pay many different service providers).  All items in the package should be compatible with each other.  I already have a small laptop (a five-year-old Gateway), and a smart TV for movies. I'd guess I'd like a very large screen (7-9 inches) smart-phone, one that I could use as a computer, and that can be connected wirelessly to a portable printer. (I'd hoped to pay only one internet provision fee.) Can you suggest a combination with which I could also have software programs such as Word and Excel?  As one example, I know that Samsung has a phablet, but I don't know if it can be connected to a printer, what is the largest screen I can get in a smart phone, and if the device can accomodate Word and Excel. Also, if there exists such,  what printer makes and models would be compatible with it? (I'd use the phone portion very seldom, so I wouldn't want to pay a big-bucks service fee for the phone portion of a service.)  

Any help you can provide will be appreciated.

Thanks,

Katie

ANSWER: In general what you're looking to do, at least in the manner you're looking to do it, is not economical in the least. The majority of your workload should be put on the computer - not a smartphone or similar device. You will pay relatively high monthly fees to operate a smartphone, and tethering the smartphone to provide Internet service for the computer is generally quite expensive as well (most providers now require you to carry a small business plan due to the bandwidth requirements often associated with tethering).

My advice to do this economically would be to look into a cellular modem for the computer (Verizon provides such a service; I'm sure Sprint and AT&T also have offerings), and run Skype on the computer for phone calls (assuming the computer has a microphone and, if needed, camera). This will essentially accomplish everything you've described (as the computer will run Excel and Word) with a single device. If you need better battery life, an Ultrabook would be a wise upgrade. In general I would never suggest a tablet for heavy office productivity work (such as editing and working with spread-sheets), as their UI is not really able to accommodate such functionality. This goes double for a smartphone.

The portable printer is the only remaining "gotcha" as they are generally quite expensive to purchase and operate (they generally require specialized paper and inks). Something like the HP OfficeJet 100 Mobile would accommodate your needs; it connects via Bluetooth and brings its own battery and will enable you to connect to a variety of devices. Unfortunately, the list price is around $300 - http://www.shopping.hp.com/en_US/home-office/-/products/Printers/HP-Officejet/CN (it does appear to be on sale currently). It appears to use fairly conventional paper, but the ink is fairly expensive.

If you must integrate a smartphone with this package, I would suggest a BlackBerry - especially a model with a true keyboard, as it will be designed for business/productivity tasks more than multimedia entertainment and "cool" factor like the various Samsung/Apple product offerings. The true keyboard will also aid in typing or manipulating documents on a regular basis. However in general what you want to accomplish can be entirely handled by a computer with a cellular modem (and if your existing machine gets good battery life (better than 6 hours) you shouldn't have to buy much beyond the printer and modem). If you need a more basic mobile phone just to handle things like phonecalls, being an alarm clock, and perhaps carrying a personal schedule, that can be added for a relatively low cost (basic mobile phones don't cost as much as they used to, and you can often purchase something that doesn't carry annual contracts - for example equipment from Virgin Mobile).

Depending on how much this equipment has to be carted around (I'm assuming you're looking to pack a mobile office here), I'd also suggest a robust carrying case - my first goto would be Pelican. Use their case calculator based on the rough size of your equipment to figure out what would be appropriate: http://www.pelican.com/search.php

While it may not offer the aesthetics of conventional luggage, it will be substantially more durable, and provide better protection for your equipment (EMS and military users select Pelican with good cause).

My secondary suggestion would be Gator - they produce cases and hardware for transporting professional A/V equipment, and have a few offerings for laptops and other small devices.

If you cannot go with a hard-case, I would suggest Briggs & Riley - you won't have the same of level of protection that a quality hard-case offers, but their cases are of high quality and will stand up to regular use better than typical department store luggage.

-bob


---------- FOLLOW-UP ----------

QUESTION: Hi Bob,
Thanks for your thoughtful answer.  You’re right, I would like a portable office.
I understand and take your points about the portable printer, and instant access to a printer is not really all that important to me.
I think I can do without a smartphone, but there are a few things I’m not quite clear on.  
Do all the devices you discuss depend on wi-fi?  What if wi-fi is not available, such as in an automobile?
There’s a lot I don’t understand about technology—for example, if I use Skype, why would I need a cellular modem?
(I looked on the internet, but I didn’t see a clear and simple definition of what a BlackBerry does.  Is it not a phone and computer, but with a small screen?)
I looked into the Ultrabooks, but they’re a little bigger than I wanted. I came across something called a “Smartbook.”  – Are these available? I’d never heard of it.  Is it not possible to have a portable office with just one device, with an 8” or 9” screen?  
Any clarification or information you can provide will be appreciated.
Thanks a lot for your time and patience.
Katie McNally

Answer
Ah, yes I can address those questions.

WiFi - WiFi is a wireless local area networking technology, it is designed to provide similar functionality to Ethernet. The "local area" part is the key - it will not be available wide-range anywhere, it is instead provided by routers or access points that cover areas the size of a house or small shop. Some large campuses will have site-wide WiFi provided by many such devices that are linked together. I would not expect to be able to use this service in an automobile, on the street, etc. None of the devices I've mentioned will require WiFi to operate - the printer relies on Bluetooth to connect to devices, but otherwise everything else will (more or less) work all by itself independent of a local area network. This is not, however, true of all tablets - some of which (especially many of the Amazon and Barnes & Noble models) absolutely require WiFi in order to function.

Cellular modem - the cellular modem will allow your computer to connect to a given carrier (like Verizon or Sprint) for wireless data service - this will allow you to access the Internet anywhere you can get a reasonable signal. This is where you'll get Internet in the car, on a bus, etc. It will also work in places with WiFi, because it is a separate device and signal. You will pay a monthly fee to use this, but if you need portability, it is very likely worth it.

Blackberry - Blackberry is a brand of smartphone (just like an iPhone or Samsung Galaxy), but they primarily (and historically) target business users, which is why their hardware includes real keyboards, among other features. I suggested them because of this.


Skype will require an Internet connection to work - so you either have to be somewhere that provides you with WiFi, or provide your own Internet connection (cellular modem) to accomplish that. Once Skype is online, however, it allows you to use your computer as a phone. It does this by sending and receiving the data via the Internet.

I probably wouldn't bother with a smartbook - they were a short-lived trend a few years ago, attempting to combine a netbook and smartphone into a single device. My advice would be to just buy a netbook or compact ultrabook (I believe they go as small as 11" screens nowadays; 13" is very common). The 8-9" screen will be very cramped for doing office productivity tasks, like spreadsheets, which is partly why I wouldn't suggest it. I understand the drive for mobility and light-weight equipment, but I would suggest compromising a little bit there in order to ensure the device will still allow you to be productive. If you've never tried computing on an 8" screen, I'd suggest finding a store that will let you demo a compact Netbook and seeing if its for you.

Regarding "is it possible" - yes, a Netbook could do what you want, but again I'm concerned the small screen will be a problem. An Ultrabook would also do what you want; again both systems would require some form of wireless data connection - the cellular modem will give you the widest range, but if you're almost exclusively in places where WiFi is available (office buildings, coffee shops, airports, etc) you may be able to get away with just using WiFi. Although do note that in many cases this is not as secure a connection (for example in an airport) because anyone within range of the transmitter can access the network. This isn't so much an issue of your computer "being hacked" as it is an issue of the data being sent and received between your computer and the Internet being vulnerable. With a cellular device this issue is also plausible, but the equipment required to intercept and record cellular signals is very expensive, and some of it is only available to law enforcement (at least within the United States).

If you have further questions, feel free to ask.

-bob

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Bobbert

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I have nearly two decades of experience in IT, computer repair, and related fields and will attempt to provide the most solid, brand-agnostic advice when it comes time to purchase a new computer, or upgrade an existing machine. I can answer anything from the seemingly basic to the downright complicated - and will do my best to provide this information in a clear and concise manner.

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I have been an enthusiast of PC's for many years, and can answer questions about the purchase/use of a new computer or the purchase, installation, and use of upgrades for existing computers. There probably isn't a whole lot related to the home computer that I haven't seen over the years.

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15+ years of experience

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