Reporters, the future is about to drop into your laptop

Laptops have never seemed to deliver all they should for journalists. In theory, a laptop allows any journalist to write copy, produce and edit audio and video, and send it to the office from almost anywhere. In reality, this has rarely proved to be the case.

The spread of wireless internet and mobile broadband has started to fix communications problems, but most shortcomings have stayed the same – laptops are too heavy, expensive and fragile to be everyday kit for many journalists. When battery life on most models is, at most, around three hours, no laptop can get through a day without power. Models coming on to the market are starting to signal a major shift, however. Following the publicity generated by the One Laptop Per Child scheme, which aims to deliver basic, bright-green machines to third-world schools for under $100, a new breed of small, light and cheap ultra-portable computers (UMPCs) is surfacing.

The first of these to generate real attention is the Asus Eee PC. Though not nearly as powerful as high-end machines, it packs a webcam, microphone, wireless internet, and full office and internet functionality in a unit about the size and weight of a hardback book. Better still, it’s cheap: Units start at around £220.

The Eee is one of the first laptops that’s good to grab-and-go – small enough to fit in a normal bag or satchel, and not heavy enough to be a noticeable burden. It’s also unusually sturdy. Most laptops need to be treated with care because of their fragile hard disks. The Eee comes with flash memory – fast, solid-state storage that is not sensitive to vibration or knocks. The downside is that these drives are much smaller, with current models having no more than 8GB, which is not nearly enough to store anyone’s music or video libraries.

A laptop like the Eee can be treated as a tool, rather than a piece of expensive technology to be coveted and handled with care. Operations running on a tight budget – and that’s most newsrooms – may not have the resources to equip all reporters with a laptop, especially if it may only be used for blogging, or on occasions when copy is needed rapidly from the scene of an event.

Allowing each reporter to have their own UMPC would give them a new degree of flexibility. Staff who maintain blogs can use travelling time to upload content more frequently and rapidly. The camera and microphone allow reporters to attach basic multimedia content to their copy. The ability to file from out of the office might allow more time to report from the scene.

Such low cost units obviously have some failings. The small chassis of the Eee PC means that the keyboard is far smaller than a typical laptop’s keyboard – and it takes a good deal of getting used to. An external adapter is needed to connect to mobile (3G) broadband, which means that out of the box the Eee relies on nearby wireless networks.

To save on cost, the Eee ships with a customised version of the open-source operating system, Linux, rather than Windows. While Asus has been careful to make the computer easy to use, and include almost every application a typical user will need, many will miss the familiar Windows interface.

Many of these issues will be fixed as UMPCs become more popular. Within a few years, cheap, powerful, always-online units will be the norm. When that happens, the notepad and pen could finally be put out to pasture.

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