Geoffrey Meredith
Thoughts on Technology


(posted on 14 Apr 2008)

I've always found that my productivity really suffers when I need to go mobile.  I have to squeeze a subset of my office desktop's functionality onto a notebook computer.  The time and effort required to get setup and low productivity environment that I end up with would generally make it not worth the effort.  Well, I just came back from a 9 day stay at The Banff Center so before I left, I was determined to experiment on how I productive I could become in such an environment.  The Banff Center is an academic and conference center that has a world class reputation for media, arts and management events.  I was told that they had a great computing resources so I thought that this would be a best case test.

Hotel Mobile Office Once set up in our room, I tested out the WiFi.  The signal was better than in my office!  I continued to set up the 5 computers that I brought.  A 14" Dell notebook, a MacBook, an eee PC, an OLPC XO and a Nokia 770 Internet Tablet.  The Dell was to be my main workstation and I brought my office mouse and MS Natural Keyboard to give me a feeling that was as much like the office as possible.  The MacBook and eee PC are my wife's computing devices so they were not an important part of the experiment.  The XO worked well as an email station for around the campus and the N770 was easy to carry around Banff.  With the large number of hotels/motels and coffee shops, it's wasn't too hard to find WiFi in town.

To add an additional screen to the mix, I uses a S-Video cable to create a secondary desktop from the Dell on the room's TV.  The quality wasn't great but worked well for Twhirl Twitter client and for playing movies at other times.

At the workshop that my wife was attending, she won a Tangent WiFi Table Radio so we ended up with 6 WiFi devices in the room at times.  They all worked really well.  The one problem that I did have is they seemed to be capping the bandwidth of any individual WiFi device to about 100Kbps.  It was low latency so it was fast enough for using VNC, SSH and general web surfing but made downloading my daily podcasts a pain.

Bringing my comfortable mouse and keyboard really helped.  I use a natural keyboard because of it's split layout.  It has really helps keeping chronic carpel tunnel syndrome at bay but it makes the transition to the cramped space of a notebook keyboard a real pain (literally).  I think that I almost prefer the little rubber keys on the XO to the notebook keyboard because I don't even try to touch type but switch to a 4 fingered hunt and peck.

The two things that I did miss from my desktop environment is the 4 screen setup using a 22" and 19" monitors on my desktop, and controlling the Dell using Input Director from the desktop and the little XO sitting above my monitors scrolling logging information.  The second things is text size.  The text on the 22" seemed monstrous when I got home.  It felt like you do after getting off of a long flight sitting in a middle seat.

Another problem that developed relates to a particular ergonomic requirement that I have.  In my office, my keyboard sits about a foot in from the edge of a corner disk.  I can then put my elbows on the desk.  I find this to be extremely comfortable and I can spend long sessions typing without fatigue.  The room at The Banff Center was very well equiped but it did only have the standard 24" deep desk.  The notebook with only the natural keyboard in front of it left only a couple of inches of desk to rest my arms on.  Not nearly enough for me and I ended up with very sore arms.

Because most of my work involves websites and the internet in general, I often working on remote servers vis SSH so working from Banff was not much of a hindrance.  A VNC connection to my office desktop and other office machines were pretty effective.  I found I could get light coding done remotely with no problem.  I've moved most of my productivity apps to the cloud (GMail/GDocs,,, Twitter, etc) so as long as the connectivity is good, those are no problem.

All in all, I think that I came pretty close to a good mobile setup.  It was fairly productive but I don't think that I ever really got into the "groove".  There are reasons for this that go beyond the nature of my setup (maybe the beautify mountains!)

I did have some thought about the dream mobile office setup would be but I'll leave that to another post.