Best Tools for the Job

The $700 Portable Mobile Office with Internet

- 2007.04.04 - Tip Jar

Last month I made a change in the way that I practice law. While I still have my primary office, I've also started working at remote locations. I won't go into the changes at the government agency I deal with that have placed far more people in need of legal assistance - suffice it to say that a large portion of my clientele are located in rural areas, far away from the court where they (or more often their children) face trial.

What this meant to me was that in many cases I didn't have access to my office and all of its modern office machines when I was meeting with clients. I still needed to print out retainer agreements, make copies of their documents, and print out legal forms for them to sign. All of this function is required whether I'm sitting at a comfortable table in someone's home, or, just as often, working from the tailgate of my truck.

What I needed was equipment that was cheap, compact, and rugged enough to live full-time behind the drivers' seat of my truck and survive the rigors of dirt roads, blazing California heat, and, of course, the ability to run either on batteries or through a low-wattage AC power inverter through my truck's DC power jack.

I finally settled on a laptop computer, an HP portable printer (Canon's is even smaller, but I already had the HP), and a Canon Lide 70 USB scanner. At 101,000 miles, my 2001 Mercedes Benz C240 was getting tired, and all of the miles I'm now driving necessitated a new vehicle, which was also purchased with mobile office use and occasional week-long trips in mind.

A Pickup Truck

I'll start with the vehicle. A regular sedan like my Mercedes was more than up to the task, but I didn't like using the painted trunk lid as a work table. I just wanted something that would be more comfortable for outdoor work. I decided on a pickup truck for both office use and because I've had to rent them dozens of times per year for normal homeowner stuff. Of course, it helped a lot that modern pickups have become nice and comfortable - and that Ford and General Motors are in huge financial trouble, especially Ford.

Ford's financial troubles are so great that even on an F-150 truck that lists for $21,000, I was able to negotiate them down to their invoice of $19,400 and then take off $4,000 in rebates. My 6-year-old, high mileage Mercedes was worth almost $9,000 as a trade in, resulting in very low truck payments.

Now this isn't a fancy truck by any means, but it's more than adequate for piling on lots of mileage in air-conditioned comfort, and with only 17 miles on the odometer when I bought it, I'm sure it will last a good long time.

A Laptop Computer

The next piece of my mobile office was a laptop computer that would be up to the stresses of an automotive existence. Yes, I have my tablet PC, but I just wasn't comfortable with the idea of using my primary computer in direct desert sun, dust, and other rough environments - plus I'm a firm believer in redundancy, so if the truck computer fails, I'd still have the tablet (and vice-versa).

I already own a few older Toshiba laptops and originally thought about using one of them, but looking at their construction, I just didn't think they were up to the demands of outdoor use and living inside a truck cab that frequently bakes in the sun. I then went looking for ruggedized laptops, old and new.

HP is doing a lot of advertising on its Toughbook line, and they are impressive, though expensive. A bit of investigation found that used Toughbooks from the Pentium III era can be had in the $400 range, which was very attractive - but still more than I wanted to spend on something that would do nothing more than make scans and print slightly modified versions of the same five Word documents and a few PDFs (Acrobat Professional).

This made me think seriously about what features this computer would need and what would be best to leave off.

Sturdy construction was a given. Pentium III or Power PC G3, 192 MB of RAM for Windows NT4 or 2000 or 256 MB for either Windows XP or OS X 10.3 "Panther" (I won't use a Mac OS older than Panther or any non-NT-based version of Windows), a 1024 x 768 screen of at least 12", and a fairly comfortable keyboard. The option of a long-life battery would be nice, but it's not essential since I can run it from the truck's DC.

The original clamshell iBook would have been perfect if only it had better screen resolution. These are cheap, fast-enough for Panther and Word, extremely rugged, and run for a long time on their batteries. Sadly, I just couldn't deal with the 800 x 600 screen on my PDF forms, which would require horizontal scrolling.

The Dual USB iBook was also considered, but I never liked the keyboard, and it seemed to command prices out-of-touch with their usefulness - in the $300 range for one with adequate RAM and in good condition.

Looking at the Windows side, I found a nice Toshiba Portegé 7200CTe for $140 that fit the bill perfectly. The thing is very sturdy, actually feeling stronger than the new Panasonic Toughbooks I looked at, and it works well with either Windows 2000 or XP with its 600 MHz Pentium III and 320 MB of RAM. It has a 13" screen at 1024 x 768 resolution and weighs less than 5 lb., though it lacks a built-in optical drive. With the 12-cell battery that mine came with, it runs a real-world 5:30, give or take a few minutes. In short, it was cheap, strong, and adequately capable. Not bad for $140.

A Printer

The most important tool by far is my printer, and I'm thinking about upgrading to the portable Canon Pixma, which is about the size of a typical hardbound novel (or half the size of a Harry Potter book). I'm not sure about print quality or battery life - or if it even runs on batteries - but the size alone is very tempting.

What I'm using now is a three-year-old HP DeskJet 450, which is about the size of one of those fire logs you buy at the supermarket. What I like is that the ink lasts more than 100 pages, and it will print that 100 pages on its battery. It also has both USB and infrared ports, meaning that with the Toshiba I can print without messing with any wires by placing the printer next to the PC - very convenient on the tailgate of a pickup truck. It's a bit bulky and semi-delicate, so I keep it in its own padded case. It actually lives under the seat instead of behind it, for just that little extra bit of protection. HP doesn't make this printer anymore, but current models cost in the $300 range with batteries.

A Scanner

Rounding out my equipment is a USB scanner chosen more because it is bus-powered than for any performance or feature reason. I typically scan at 300 DPI, so any cheap scanner will do, but the ability to connect it to the computer with one short USB cable and not plug in anything else is a tremendous convenience. The scanner cost $60.

A File Box

Living behind the passenger seat is a a legal-sized file box with two compartments. One is where I keep the case files I'm working with, along with a few blank files that I can create in the field. In the other compartment is a plastic box with 100 sheets of white paper and about 40 sheets each of blue and green (for specific legal forms); a large zippered case with pens, clips, stapler, and the like; and at the bottom (the case is tall) I keep an extra ream of white paper.

I can even connect to the Internet through my Blackberry and a USB cable - or WiFi (when available) through a cheap 3Com X-Jack card, which has an antenna that retracts into the laptop when not in use (I hate cards with protruding plastic antennas). I'll be adding a WWAN PC card soon, which is an easy and cheap way to have wireless broadband Internet access anywhere that I can get a cellular signal, including Virtual Private Networking to my server at the office. With internet added, I can even access my Exchange calendar and email from anywhere I happen to be. I can get the card for about $130.

A Complete Portable Office

There it is, a complete, connected office that fits in the small area behind the front seat in a regular-cab pickup truck. Total cost (not counting the truck) was $600 plus perhaps another $100 for office supplies for a grand total of $700 - the price of a new el cheapo laptop from your favorite big box store. LEM

Andrew J Fishkin, Esq, is a laptop using attorney in Los Angeles, CA.

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