Biomeds have multiple uses for notebook computers, from handling email to synchronizing data.

Sure, mobile computers (laptops or notebooks) cost more than do comparable desktop computers, but, as they say, “You can’t take it with you” (the desktop, that is).

Several biomedical equipment technicians contacted for this article described multiple productive uses for their electronic sidekick: handling email, installing software upgrades, word processing, downloading error logs, configuring devices, carrying service manuals on hard drive or compact disk, and troubleshooting equipment.

Steve Erdosy, clinical engineer at Indiana Heart Hospital near Indianapolis, asserts, “A laptop isn’t a toy; it’s a tool. Even though it is more expensive than a desktop, it should be part of every technician’s toolbox.”

 IBM ThinkPad T Series

In addition to using laptops for diagnostic service work, some computerized maintenance management systems (CMMS) also use them to synchronize data. Mike Kauffman, biomedical equipment manager at the Reading (Penn) Hospital and Medical Center, reports that their mPro3 software from Mayer Computer Services implemented laptop synchronization earlier this summer. Personal digital assistants (PDAs) are also a popular choice for CMMS. The Association for the Advancement of Medical Instrumentation (AAMI) has recently published a new edition of Computerized Maintenance Management Systems, which contains information on new technologies and best practices, including BMETs’ use of PDAs and laptop computers.

Can We Not All Just Get Along?
The biggest issue when using a notebook for diagnostic work is compatibility with testing software. Which operating system (OS) is the best fit? Without debating the relative merits of Macs versus PCs, we will just say that Apple is not going to be BMET’s notebook of choice. Bob Larkin, senior technology planner at NBBJ in Columbus, Ohio, sums up the Apple dilemma: “A lot of the recording and management tools use databases that aren’t available on Macs. Jeff Goldblum took down an alien mothership with an Apple Powerbook. You’d think troubleshooting an x-ray system would be a piece of cake!”

Depending on what needs fixing, most manufacturer-supplied diagnostic software is probably written for a disk operating system (DOS) or an older version of Microsoft Windows®. Ted Cohen, manager of clinical engineering at the University of California, Davis, Medical Center in Sacramento and author/editor of AAMI’s new CMMS guide, explains: “Compatibility problems run the gamut from Windows 95 to 2000 to XP. We have had some systems that [require] Windows 98 or even DOS. Companies write proprietary test software at a particular time; sometimes the new operating system is compatible, sometimes not.”

Most BMETs interviewed for this article agree that Windows 2000 is probably a better choice than Windows XP for compatibility with most existing test software. One could partition the hard drive and create a dual- or multiboot system, but they would then have to purchase an extra OS separately.

Other compatibility concerns for field-service applications are the physical input/output connectors. Both serial and parallel ports are getting harder to find on notebooks: They are now referred to as “legacy” ports. One is more likely to find two to four universal serial bus (USB) ports and an Institute for Electrical and Electronic Engineers (IEEE) cable (Fire Wire) on their new machine. Adapters are available to connect USB ports to serial or parallel connectors, but they do not always work. Larkin notes, “Adapters can be a little squirrely and the drivers unstable. It’s always better when the port is part of the original machine.”

Processor Pandemonium
Intel® processors rule the market. The Pentium® M, which replaces last year’s Pentium 4-M, is the current top of the line for mobile computing, while Intel’s Celeron® is a “value”-level processor. Mobile processors by AMD and Transmeta are generally available at a cost lower than that of the Intel products. Each of these processor lines is available at several speeds in the 1 to 2 GHz range.

The mobile or “M” version processors use lower voltage and run cooler than do desktop versions, and they prolong battery life. They are also able to slow down when their maximum speed is not needed or go into a

sleep mode to conserve power. One should not assume that a notebook has a mobile processor, though. Some, usually those larger, heavier models marketed as “desktop replacements,” incorporate nonmobile processors and pack a cooling fan.

Many BMETs have been exposed to Intel’s Centrino™ marketing blitz. Centrino is not a processor; it is Intel’s brand name for a mobile technology package that includes the Pentium-M processor plus a specialized Intel chipset family and an Intel PRO/ Wireless 2100 network connection. The Intel chipset family includes a discrete memory controller hub and an integrated graphics memory controller. The processor has been described as the computer’s brain and the chipset as the heart, both of which manage the flow of data between processor, RAM, hard drive, optical drives, and ports. There are notebooks that contain Pentium-M processors and non-Centrino chipsets with wireless capability.

Disk Drives and Dongles for the Data
New notebook designs are dumping the floppy disk drive, but there are more options than ever for storing files much larger than what one could fit on a floppy. Universal serial bus-connected memory drives, including IBM®’s memory keys, allow one to store up to 256 MB of data for about $150. PC cards provide yet more options.

Hard drive sizes are commonly 20 to 60 GB or larger. Onboard drives are called “spindles.” A typical two-spindle notebook will include a hard drive plus an optical drive. A combo drive (including CD-RW and DVD-ROM) allows the user to read information from either CDs or DVDs and write large data files to CDs for storage or transfer. Multidrives, which allow one to write to DVDs, are a premium option. The bay or slot that contains the optical drive is often user swappable, for either another drive or an extra battery pack. Floppy drives, also, are still widely available as an external option and connect via USB.

Internet Connectivity
Both 56 K modems and a local area network (LAN) interface and connection port are standard on just about all current notebooks. Wireless connectivity is more likely to be available as an option, either as an onboard wireless fidelity (WiFi) radio chip (802.1x IEEE authentication framework) or a PC card wireless feature. Indispensable for some, but if no WiFi LAN is available, it can save money and the drain on batteries.

Looking for a Good Fit
Several computer manufacturers were contacted and asked which of their offerings would be a good fit for a BMET. The computers had to meet the following criteria: Windows 2000, serial and parallel ports, an onboard optical drive, a wireless connectivity option, and some degree of ruggedness. Dell, HP, and Toshiba have options that seem to fit, and IBM has some Thinkpads worth considering. The following have 14.1-inch displays, lithium-ion batteries, and Pentium-M processors unless otherwise noted.

Dell is the leading seller of notebook computers with 32% of the nearly 9.8 million shipped in the United States last year, according to the research firm Gartner. The Dell model that seems to fit the specs is the Latitude™ D600. It weighs 4.8 pounds and has a four-cell battery, which typically lasts 3.75 hours. It incorporates those legacy ports that BMETs still live with every day. There is a multipurpose bay for a swappable drive—either the standard CD-ROM or a second battery or hard drive. Hard drive sizes range from 20 to 60 GB. Centrino wireless connectivity comes standard, and even if one chooses the less costly non-Intel wireless option, they will still pay $1800 or more, so if wireless is not needed, the price is steep. The Latitude D600 has a magnesium alloy frame inside, which improves its structural rigidity.

 Compaq Evo N620c

HP, the second-largest seller of notebooks, recommends their Compaq Evo n620c, a “thin and light” selection from their “enterprise and corporate” lineup. It’s highly configurable; prices start at $1,450 without wireless capability. At 12.1 inches x 9.8 inches x 1.2 inches, it is a tiny bit smaller and about the same weight as the Latitude D600, but it boasts a longer battery life (up to 6 hours with its eight-cell battery) and starts with a 40 GB hard drive. The Evo n620c also has a multibay that allows “hot-swapping”—exchanging the optical drive or battery pack while the system is powered on.

 Toshiba Tecra M1

From its business performance line, Toshiba offers the Tecra M1. Prices start at $1,892. Tecra M1 includes integrated WiFi—either Intel Centrino or an alternative. The bay can accept either an optical drive—from CD to DVD multi, an extra battery, or a second hard drive from Toshiba’s Slim Select Bay options. In addition to the legacy ports, the 5.7- pound Tecra M1 has three USBs to play (or work) with, 2 GB of memory, and a 32 GB graphics controller. Working time for the standard six-cell battery is up to 4.3 hours.

IBM’s ThinkPads have a good reputation for service and reliability. The mainstream T series features a durable case made from titanium metal alloy mixed with plastic. The newest generation has eliminated serial ports, however, although the T40 still carries a parallel port and two USB ports. It comes in several different configurations, all with Pentium M processors and some with the Centrino wireless package (the Thinkpad is available without wireless capability). It is small, approximately 12 inches x 10 inches x 1 inch, and weighs only 5.3 pounds and comes with an optical drive. Prices start at $1,849. Some T30 models are still available. The T30s run Pentium 4-M processors and are somewhat bigger and heavier than the T40s, but they are also less expensive and have a serial port.

The Also-Rans
Acer touts their TravelMate 800 model as a possible match, but it comes with Windows XP loaded and lacks a serial port.

Sony Vaio® notebooks, which tend to emphasize music and entertainment functions, come loaded with home editions of Windows XP and lack the legacy ports.

Fujitsu’s Lifebook P5000 series—“the world’s smallest full-featured notebook”—cannot fit legacy ports onboard, but one can get it with Windows 2000, and since it has two USB ports, one could try using a USB-to-serial adapter. This Lifebook has plenty of expandability, with slots for compact flash, secure digital cards, memory sticks, and a PC card. Fujitsu allows several processor configuration options for the Lifebooks, enabling users to save as much as $300 by choosing a Mobile AMD processor over the Intel Pentium-based Centrino package.

NEC does not offer a true notebook for sale in the United States (although their Versa® C150 model, available in the United Kingdom, seems to be a good fit). Comparing NEC’s Mobile Pro 900 handheld to a true notebook is a little like comparing apples and pomegranates, but the Mobile Pro’s Windows 2000 OS, CD drive, and almost full-size keyboard make this device worth considering for those who want something between a PDA and a laptop.

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Panasonic Toughbook CF18
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Panasonic Toughbook CF 73

The Case for a Tougher Notebook
Panasonic Computer Solutions Company sells a line of rugged and semirugged mobile computers called Toughbooks® for approximately $2,900. The semi-rugged Toughbook 73 weighs only 4.8 pounds, including its battery; carries both combo and floppy drives standard; and has a 13.3-inch display. For about $3,000, a fully rugged Toughbook 18 weighs 4.4 pounds and has a screen that rotates, enabling it to function as a tablet PC. Both models feature a touchscreen display and include a 40 GB hard drive, wireless LAN capability, Pentium M processors, a serial port, and two USB ports. They come loaded with either Windows 2000 or XP. Panasonic’s field automation sales team national sales manager, Scott Thie, acknowledges that Toughbook prices are higher than those for nonrugged devices, but he contends that industry research groups “such as IDC, TBR, and Gartner Group all agree that the average annual failure rate for typical notebooks is about 25%. Once those computers move out of the office and are used by people such as field service engineers, the failure rate climbs to 35%.” Thie claims that Panasonic’s annual failure rate is impressively low—less than 5%. Therefore, he says, “The cost to own Panasonic over 1 to 3 years is far less.”

Barbara Hein is a contributing writer for 24×7.