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My Toolbox: Laptop

My Toolbox series is about my tools for working on machines, including some stories.  I’m going to talk about my tools; your toolbox will be different, but hopefully I’ll give some useful ideas.

Yeah, I’m a software guy, but as the automation software guy, I have the privilege of understanding the whole machine and making sure it is all working right.  That’s why I have a toolbox filled with mechanical tools and electrical test equipment, but I’ll start with service laptops.

Service Laptop

  • I’m using Win7 64-bit on my own laptop, but Win7 32-bit is probably the best choice for a field service laptop,  since you should not need >3G RAM, and many device drivers are still not available for 64-bit Windows.
  • Since almost all automation software is Windows only, you really have to use Windows.
    • Siemen’s SoftComfort Logo! development environment is a notable exception (it’s written in Java).
    • However, if you can talk to all your equipment via USB (including USB to serial converters) and Ethernet, you could use Linux or Mac OS X as your host OS and run the Windows software in a VM (Virtual Machine) with networking and USB pass through for outside access.  Or you can dual boot.
  • I’m partial to Lenovo Thinkpads because of their excellent keyboards and overall quality.  Besides, most Thinkpads support using a FDE (full disk encryption) hard drive, which is a good idea when venturing out with gigabytes of proprietary information.
    • Not all Thinkpads come with with FDE drives, but it’s an affordable do-it-yourself upgrade.
    • Thinkpads are more affordable at the Lenovo Outlet, and you still get a 1 year warranty.  If an older Thinkpad is good enough, and a shorter warranty is OK, then TigerDirect often has great deals (<$400) on off-lease Thinkpads.
  • Of course there are plenty of other good possibilities.  My advice is always get a business class laptop; I’ve seen way too many problems with consumer laptops.

Don’t forget the cables

  • I typically bring along an extra RJ-45 cable, a standard DB9M/F serial cable, USB extension cable, USB A to micro-B cable, Panasonic FP0 serial cable, and USB to serial port converter (since my laptop doesn’t have a serial port).
  • I normally don’t bring along all the special serial stuff, like null modem (laplink) cables, DB9/DB25 cables, and assorted gender changes.  I’ve only needed something weird once in the past 5 years.

Other Computer Hardware

  • A 4G or larger USB memory stick.
    • I frequently have to transfer files without using a network.
    • If you work with really old computer systems, a USB floppy drive would be useful.
    • Don’t forget the memory stick!  Always remember to put it back in your bag or pocket.
  • 3G/4G wireless is a nice option, so you can access the internet to research problems, download files you forget to do earlier, and such without needing access to the customer’s network.
    • On the other hand, 3G is another monthly fee (typically $40-$80/month in the US) for a service that’s typically not often needed.  If AT&T does complete its acquisition of T-Mobile, expect prices to go up.
    • Pre-paid (from Virgin Mobile and others) gives the option of paying only when needed, but pre-paid is more expensive for heavy data use. Walmart probably has the best pre-paid deal: $20 for 1G for 1 month.
    • Another option is tethering (via USB cable, Bluetooth, or WiFi) to a cell phone with 3G/4G.  However, tethering usually adds another monthly charge (often about $15) on top of the data fee.


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