The Travelling Salesman’s Guide to Portable Computers

First things first.

A portable computer isn’t just a laptop anymore, portable computing devices (i.e.portable electronic devices that can run computer programs) run the gamut from “smart” cell phones to laptops with 17 or 18 inch screens and enough horsepower to run circles around most desktop computers.

To be useful to a travelling salesman, that portable computing device needs to be able to 1) read and send email, 2) display web pages with embedded programmable content, and 3) produce documents that can be printed or displayed.  The ability to run programs designed for managing schedules, contacts, customer service or sales activities is often important, but it is not essential.  The most important function in any business is communication, so the capability to read and send email is the most important, and the only truly essential requirement for a portable computer.  If you don’t need to check email outside of the office, you don’t need a portable computer. cppc

Even if you don’t need a portable computer, you might want one, anyway.  If most of your paperwork is in digital form, the easiest way to carry all that paperwork with you is to store it on a portable computer.  That is why docking stations and keyboards and mice geared towards portable computers were developed.  In many ways, portable computers allow you to bring the office to your customers, so you don’t have to bring your customers to the office.


Even the dumbest cell phone has built-in computing power; what is called a smartphone is actually a hybrid device that combines a cell phone with a handheld portable computer that can run computer programs that have nothing to do with the cell phone part.  Without a cell phone, handhelds are called PDA’s or Personal Digital Assistants.  PDA’s have been around since 1984 (the term itself was first used in 1992 by John Scully, who was the CEO of Apple at the time). Psion_Organiser_II_-_270404 The first smartphone, a prototype designed by IBM called Simon, was shown to the public in 1992, and in 1996, Nokia released the Communicator 9000, which married a Nokia cell phone to the guts of an Hewlett Packard PDA with a hinge between the two components.  Smartphones weren’t actually called smartphones until the Ericsson R380 came out in 2000.  Close to 150 million smartphones were sold world-wide in 2009; today no one wants a PDA that doesn’t come with a cell phone.  The biggest problem with the old PDA’s was connecting to other computers; with smartphones, the built-in cell phone provides a wireless connection to every computer that is connected to the Internet, in every location with cell phone coverage. Until the mid nineties, not being connected to the Internet was not a big deal, today it is hard to imagine life without an Internet connection.

Oddly enough, the first Blackberries couldn’t be used as cell phones, they could only send and receive email, although they were connected to other computers over cellular networks.  Three years later, in 2002, “modern” Blackberries combined cell phone features with wireless email.  If all you need in a portable computer is the ability to send and receive email, I would suggest going to this page for some of my advice on what to look for in a smartphone.


Until Apple Computers launched the iPad on January 27, 2010, there would have been no need to add this topic.  Hopefully, in a couple of years, the iPad will be such a failure, I can remove this section.


The idea of using a computer display the size of a piece of paper to replace books and magazines is nothing new.  The iPad takes the computer part of an iPhone, including the touch screen keyboard and marries it to a book-sized display.  The bigger display should make it easier to view email, but the touch screen keyboard makes the iPad useless for creating documents.  It uses cellular networks to connect to the Internet, but the iPad has no cell phone capabilities (it is hard to imagine putting an iPad to your ear, anyway).  The iPad is slightly cheaper than an iPhone, but more expensive than the mini-sized laptops (also called netbooks) that have taken the portable computing market by storm in the last 2-3 years.  It has the wrong dimensions for viewing wide-screen movies, and transferring files to and from a memory stick requires a special connector.  No one has ever successfully marketed a tablet computer, and it highly doubtful that the iPad will be the first.


With the lid closed, a netbook is smaller than a tablet, but still too big to fit in your palm or pocket like a smartphone does.  Generally speaking, a netbook is a laptop computer with a screen that is less than 13 inches diagonally, and is too small to have a built-in CDRom or DVD drive, but still has a keyboard with physical keys and a built-in touch pad to function as a mouse.  There is some overlap in price between  netbook computers and regular laptop or notebook computers, but in general terms netbooks are still $100 cheaper than entry level notebooks.

If the key feature of a smartphone is the ability to send and receive email, the key feature of a netbook is the ability to surf the Internet.  Full-featured web browsers such as Internet Explorer, Firefox and Google Chrome will work adequately on netbook computers.  Netbooks will fit in purses, where bigger laptops won’t.  Within the limitations of the netbook’s small screen, it is suitable for viewing videos, and typical screen dimensions are well-suited for viewing wide-screen video (if you get close to the screen).  If you are a thirteen year old girl who spends a couple of hours every day updating your Facebook, has access to wireless networks at home or at school, and has no desire to ever use a word processor or spreadsheet, you will like owning a netbook.  If that profile doesn’t fit you, you should spend the extra money and get a real laptop computer.

LG X110 netbookThere are companies that have seriously considered giving netbooks to their sales force.  That is not recommended here.  Netbooks have no advantage over larger laptops in getting connected to the Internet, it still depends on the availability of a wi-fi connection.  The keyboard on a netbook is too small for typing more than 40 or 50 words, and the screen is too small for working effectively with a word processor or spreadsheet program.  Netbooks lack the graphics capability to properly drive a digital projector or high definition display.  The increased productivity of a salesperson with a decent laptop will easily justify the extra expense, compared to a netbook.  Size does matter, and the performance gap between netbooks and larger notebooks is growing while the price gap is shrinking.

Notebooks and/or laptops

As portable computers have become more popular than desktop computers, the variety of what is available has grown tremendously.  Once the screen is more than 13 inches across diagonally, it becomes feasible to provide a decent keyboard (a separate numeric keypad will require a 17 inch screen) in the same case, along with an optical drive (CD-ROM, DVD or Blu-Ray drive).  Thinner, lighter laptops used to be marketed as “notebooks,” to differentiate them from laptops that weighed more than 5 pounds and were more than 2 inches thick.  Today, some of the most powerful laptops on the market are thin and light enough to be considered notebooks, and marketing departments everywhere are dropping the “laptop” nomenclature, to prevent their product from being viewed as being heavier and more cumbersome than their competitors.

Five or six years ago, wireless adapters were optional, at least on the less expensive models; today I can’t find any models for sale without wireless capability built-in.  What has been dropped from many “budget” priced notebooks is a telephone modem, the fastest dial-up connections are still too slow for much of the content being viewed on the Internet.  Until about three years ago, the performance gap between energy efficient CPU’s and graphics processors suitable for notebooks, and what could be installed in less-expensive desktop computers, was big enough that some high-performance laptops were limited to less than two hours of use on a fully charged battery and weighed 7 to 8 pounds.  Then multi-core CPU’s were developed that generated much less heat (because they used much less power) as well as performing better, and now there are plenty of choices for buyers looking for a laptop with a 15 inch screen that weighs less than 5 pounds and runs for at least three hours on a single charge.  Laptops still cost more than equivalent desktop computers, but the difference is well below the 100% or greater premiums that used to be the norm for laptops.Apple MacBook Pro

Since laptops have become the computer of choice in the home as well as on the road, it is worth pointing out that what makes a particular model your first choice at home may not be suitable for life on the road, especially for those of us who work as travelling salespeople.  Just as I did for smartphones, I’ve put together a detailed guide to picking the right notebook.

To repeat myself…

There are three reasons why a salesperson would need a portable computer.
1) To send and receive email,
2) to display all kinds of content contained in web pages and
produce documents for other people to see.  Of these three justifications for getting a portable computer, the strongest is sending and receiving email when you are away from the office.  The essence of commerce is communication, and businesses that don’t communicate with email at all are getting rarer and rarer.

The discovery that documents could be attached to emails instead of being faxed or mailed has led to the near-extinction of secretaries, which has resulted in salespeople having to generate their own paperwork.  If you are a travelling salesperson, that means you have to produce documents while you are away from the office, which makes a portable computer extremely useful.  A document becomes useful when it can be passed from one person to another, and the capability to display documents (as output from a printer, or shown on a screen) is important in determining how useful a portable computer is to a salesperson.

The full impact of the Internet on business communications is still to come, but this public network that connects millions of computers all over the world has already  dramatically changed the working environment for salespeople.  Not only is the Internet a powerful tool for communicating with customers, potential and existing; it also works exceptionally well as a conduit for the flow of information between the “field” and the “office.”  The Internet is more than web pages from websites displayed in web browsers, but web browsers are the common denominator for virtually all the information available online, and if a portable computer can’t properly display that information, it is much less useful.

Do I need a smartphone?

Well, you certainly need a cell phone, and if you need to send and receive email before you get to your hotel room, office or home, a smartphone is the only portable computer that can do it  effectively.  A smartphone can also replace a portable GPS device, and if you are willing to give up a lot of convenience and flexibility, it can replace your DayTimer® and paper address book.  Anything else that can be done with a smartphone can be done better with a different electronic device, but some people seem to prefer using one thing to do many tasks poorly, instead of using different devices to do different tasks very well. Hence, smartphones with built-in cameras, multimedia players and games.

One more factor in favour of smartphones is the ability to “tether” them to another portable computer, such as a laptop, which gives your laptop a connection to the Internet wherever you have cell phone coverage.  You don’t need a smartphone for tethering, most cellular service providers will sell you a “cellular modem” for much less than the cost of a smartphone.  The same argument applies to GPS, the devices that only do GPS have better screens for less money.  However, once you have the smartphone, you don’t need to get a GPS device as well.

So it really comes down to how often and where you need to check email.  Personally, I have a problem with people who can’t wait until the next morning to get a reply to their emails, but those people are out there, and they don’t seem to be going away.  And now that I’ve been using a Blackberry Curve for six months, I’ve come to appreciate the “gadget” value of a smartphone, and I doubt if I would ever go back to a regular cell phone.  As always, YMMV (Your Mileage May Vary).  If you haven’t already done so, you should check out “Picking the right smartphone.”

Do I need a laptop?

Yes.  Only a laptop can effectively perform the three functions you need from a portable computer (email, Internet, and documents). My article “What to look for in a laptop” is right here.

Anything else?

Making presentations to customers is only a small part of selling.  Managing anything that can hinder the exchange of your customer’s money for the goods and services you have to sell is also part of selling, so you need to get involved in everything from billing corrections to supply issues to monitoring your competition.  As I outlined in “When did I stop being a salesman and become a CSR?,” salespeople have become the only point of contact between customers and suppliers, and the level of support from the office or the warehouse is no longer sufficient to allow you to simply pass on a message on behalf of your customer.  If you don’t get involved to get the right answers for your customer, your customer will go looking for another supplier.

Technology is not a panacea for maintaining good relationships with your customers, but portable computers make it possible to keep all those essential, but out of sight, resources within reach when you are travelling.  I might not be able to give you better advice on negotiating or closing a sale, but I can offer advice on using computer technology that you won’t be able to find elsewhere.  If you have questions on using technology to help you sell, please email me.

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