Walt Mossberg

Imagine It: The Sun, Some Ancient Ruins, You With No Laptop

Laptop computers have been steadily gaining in popularity in recent years, and are expected to account for a majority of PC sales in a few years, overtaking desktops.

But, just as the laptop is nipping at the heels of the desktop computer, another smaller, more mobile computing product is nipping at the heels of the laptop. It’s the hand-held digital device, including top-of-the-line cellphones and portable media players, notably Apple’s iPods.

The high-end cellphone is rapidly gaining functionality formerly reserved for the laptop. Phones like the Palm Treo, RIM BlackBerry and T-Mobile Sidekick have full keyboards, and are getting better and better at email, instant messaging, Web browsing, and even displaying and editing office documents. Other companies, like Motorola and Nokia, are racing to market with new entries in this category of do-it-all phones.

Apple’s iPod is nowhere near as versatile as the cellphone, and is mainly an entertainment device. But it is hugely popular, and includes nonmusic functionality found in laptops, such as large-scale file storage, playback of videos, and display of contact and calendar information.

Increasingly, it’s possible to leave a laptop home on some types of trips and rely on a combination of a high-end cellphone and an iPod, devices many people carry anyway for their core functions — making phone calls and listening to music. The added capabilities in these gadgets are, in effect, bonuses.

To test this theory, my wife, Edie, and I recently went on vacation to Ireland and Scotland without a laptop. I carried only a digital camera, a new video-capable iPod and a new, enhanced BlackBerry phone I was testing, the 8700c, which will soon be sold in the U.S. by Cingular.

Why I would even consider carrying a laptop, or anything to replace a laptop, on a vacation? I had a couple of business obligations to perform in the middle of the trip, and I needed Internet and email access for those. Also, I wanted some way to back up the photos from my digital camera, in case the camera was lost or stolen, or its memory card was accidentally erased. I needed to at least scan my email daily, so I wouldn’t be faced with literally thousands of unread messages when I returned. And, I like to be able to use the Web when traveling, to look up information on the places and sights I encounter.

A laptop can easily handle all of these tasks, but it’s a pain to schlep on a vacation and, sitting in your hotel room, it provides a major temptation for a tech addict like me to become screen-bound instead of enjoying the sights.

To my surprise, the no-laptop vacation worked really well. The experience convinced me that even some short, light-duty business trips could be conducted without a laptop.

The iPod was my solution to backing up my digital photos. Each night, after a long day of picture snapping, I connected my camera to the iPod using a $30 accessory called the iPod Camera Connector. The iPod quickly and easily sucked all my pictures into its large hard disk, without having to delete any music or videos. By the end, it held over 400 high-resolution photos of our trip, which it was able to display as a slide show.

The only downside to this process was that the iPod wasn’t smart enough to remember which pictures it had already backed up, or to allow me to select only the new ones. So, each night, it backed up the entire contents of the camera’s memory card, duplicating all the pictures it had already copied. But it worked.

I relied even more on the BlackBerry. The new 8700c model, which will cost $300, is the best BlackBerry yet. It is lighter and smaller than prior full-size models, and has a dazzling color screen.

Because my test BlackBerry used the same cellphone technology employed in Europe, it worked great in Ireland and Scotland for both phone calls and data. Before leaving for Europe, I set up my trusty Treo, which is a U.S.-only model, to forward my calls to the BlackBerry, and set up my email service at home to forward emails to the BlackBerry.

Stealing moments while waiting in lines, or riding in cabs, or sitting in the hotel room, I was easily able to use the BlackBerry to scan a deluge of email. I couldn’t have done this as conveniently, or with as little interruption in sightseeing, if I’d used a laptop, or relied on visits to Internet cafes or hotel business centers.

To my surprise, the Web browser on the new BlackBerry was very good and fairly fast. I was able to follow the news from home, and look up details of Irish and Scottish history and culture using the small gadget.

The only drawback to the BlackBerry was that I had to constantly monitor the email capacity of Cingular’s BlackBerry Internet Service, which governs how much email the hand-held can receive. It has a paltry limit of 25 megabytes, in an era when Google and others offer two gigabytes of capacity.

Still, my hand-held experiment turned out well. I was happy to see my beloved laptop when I got home. But I didn’t miss it on the road.

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