Way back in PC Pro issue 125, I wrote about my mobile computing setup and I ended that column with this wish-list of a sentence: “If mobile phone bandwidth ever became wide and cheap enough, I could easily be seduced away from a PC to some kind of thin-client with a decent screen and keyboard, like a ThinkPad X40 with most of its guts removed.” Well folks, after only four years it’s finally happened. I’m submitting this column from my house in Italy over the TIM (Telecom Italia Mobile) Alice mobile data network, admittedly at the modest speed of 380Kb/sec. It may be slow compared with the 8Mb/sec BT Broadband I have in London, but it’s still fast enough to make Flickr usable and to watch YouTube videos without them halting all the time. And it’s not costing me an arm and leg – just €20 per month.
I also have that ultra-slim hardware platform I wished for thanks to Santa Claus, who brought me a Sony VAIO TZ21 this year. This slim and elegant carbon fibre-cased device is proving every bit as usable as PC Pro’s rave review claimed it would be. The screen may be only 11in diagonal, but its 1,366 x 768 resolution and astonishingly vivid colour make it a pleasure to look at. I have no problem with the size of type, because all the applications I read or write in – Opera, MS Word, TextPad, Adobe Reader – permit me to easily zoom to a sensible size. I recently discovered the invaluable Canadian Internet Archive site (www.archive.org), which contains many classic books in a variety of useful formats, including scanned PDFs. Reading the latter in Adobe Reader, full screen mode and two pages up on the lovely VAIO screen comes pretty close to reading a proper book with yellowed pages, margin notes and all.
The small flat keyboard looks as though it might be tricky to type on, but I became accustomed to it quite quickly, and its feel is actually excellent: I’m writing a book on it at the moment with no qualms at all. The sub-1.5kg weight makes the VAIO a pleasure to carry on planes. I stash it in an anonymous-looking rubberised fisherman’s shoulder bag that won’t attract too many laptop snatchers (though it may attract predatory anglers). Battery life exceeds five hours and can even stretch to seven at a pinch, which makes all kinds of outdoor working feasible for the first time. In fact, I wrote this paragraph at 5,400 feet on the summit of Monte Nerone, just to show off.
The only fly in the ointment was that the VAIO came with Vista, but I have to confess that I’ve learned to live with it and am even starting to like some bits, like the improved Explorer views and search facilities. The most irritating thing about Vista (apart from slow file copying) is the way its tree structure of special folders seems to have become more byzantine even than XP’s. Some files seem to get splattered almost at random between the Administrator, Default, Dick and Public user trees and despite the improved search facility I seethe while trying to locate them.
So, a very practical hardware platform then, but what about mobile connectivity to match? Well, the TZ21 has an internal slot to take an HSDPA SIM, and even came with a T-Mobile SIM and software ready to be activated. Trouble is they want £30 per month for the privilege, more than I pay for my BT Broadband, and what’s more it won’t work in Italy where I need it. I’m up in the mountains way beyond the nearest ADSL exchange, but with a stonking great TIM mast right across the valley. For six months I tried one solution after another: various pay-as-you-go GPRS-only SIMs, but despite scouring the forums and downloading the highly recommended free MWconn software, I couldn’t make any of them work. I tried PdaNet, which lets me use my Palm Treo as a modem, but the requisite TIM mobile phone tariff was no more sensible than T-Mobile’s deal. So I went to the TIM shop in my nearest town, where a helpful and knowledgeable young man (how unlike Tottenham Court Road!) strained my Italian to its limits in explaining the options. The upshot was a UMTS dongle that plugs into a USB port rather than the internal SIM slot, at the aforesaid €20 per month. Mobile columnist Paul Ockenden suggests I try swapping the SIM out of the dongle into the VAIO’s internal slot, but at the moment I’m too chicken.