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HP Palmtop Helps Save Time & Money

HP Palmtop Helps Campus-Roaming Technical Support Expert Save Time and Money

The 200LX palmtop helps this technician cut down on costs by keeping vital information at his fingertips.

By Bob Clark

At first glance the problem seemed simple enough to solve. Because my job as a technical support person was transferred to Utah, my spouse and I expected a separation of four to six months. I wanted to find a tool that would allow me to send and receive e-mail with her, track expenses, and act as a decent personal information manager. I anticipated using whatever new toy I bought for six to twelve months.

After looking at a variety of handheld computers, I selected the Hewlett-Packard 200LX. That was an act of serendipity. Today, I practically cannot conceive of performing my job without the 200LX. The little box enables me to manage the cost of my output effectively.

 I cut down on the cost by limiting the time I need to research solutions to problems. Reducing the amount of time I spend on a problem lessens my customers cost of doing business. Time is money, and there is a finite amount of both to accomplish any particular task. Those minutes I shave off resolving a problem are minutes that reduce the overall cost of my customers products.

Keeps 4,000 PCs running

 I am part of the technical support staff that services the small-computer needs of approximately 4,000 PCs and a dozen or so NetWare and Windows NT servers.

 The boon and bane of small computer technical support are multiple standards for small computers. Every customer expects me to know or be familiar with every standard that applies to his or her unique computing environment. In the previous six months I resolved problems with three different network clients, five telnet applications, three asynchronous communication applications, three operating systems, five operating system environments, two business application suites, four different types of print servers, and two significantly different types of file servers.

Obviously, all technicians carry small notebooks containing tips, tricks, and memory joggers. But notebooks have several weaknesses. They are clumsy tools for rapid retrieval, input, and transmission of information. Also, integration of data contained on several sheets of paper into one sheet is a time-consuming and error-prone process.

 More than 6-Mb of data

 To manage the cost of my output I focus on several benefits of my 2-Mb 200LX. First is its portability. Second is storage capacity. I have six megabytes of technical support data stored on a SanDisk 10Mb FlashDisk. (Actually, I have two SanDisk 10Mb FlashDisks.) Appointments are stored on my C:\ drive. You can imagine the stack of paper that represents!

Third is speed. Because the 200LX is a computer, it quickly stores and retrieves information. Finally, an intangible strength of the 200LX is its creative community of hobbyist programmers. Three programs that originated from this community are loaded every time I boot my 200LX: HELV200, MaxDOS, and Buddy.

 Screen 1. This is what the screen looks like with the palmtops default font.

 Screen 2. The screen looks slightly different when HELV200 loads its Helvetica-like font. The author prefers this look, finding it cleaner.

 HELV200 makes the HP 200LXs characters more readable, (See Screens 1 and 2). MaxDOS, which unloads and loads the System Manager from memory, allows larger DOS applications like Net-Tamer n to run, while Buddy provides two-button macro execution and battery status information at a glance. All three programs were written specifically for the 200LX and greatly improve its functionality.

 The 200LX allows me to customize a very useful and very personal environment that reflects the way I think.

An appointment that runs a macro

 I have set up a daily appointment in the palmtops ApptBook so that every morning as I am driving to work the appointment runs a System Macro that's assigned to the Fn+F1 function key. (See Screen 3.) This macro, which Vie labeled Morning, (See Screen 4.) opens the three appropriate files in the following three applications NoteTaker, Database and PhoneBook.

 Screen 3. At 6:55 a.m. each weekday this appointment runs the system macro that's assigned to the Fn+F1 function key.

 Screen 4. The author uses a number of different system macros. The macro that's assigned to the Fn+F1 key opens files in his NoteTaker, Database, and PhoneBook applications.

NoteTaker I have an .NDB file that contains frequently accessed tips, tricks, and configurations for software applications, printers, and workstations. The electronic NoteTaker enables me to carry a vast amount of information that can be retrieved quickly. I do not have to lug around a lot of books, and I do not have to return to my shop to research a problem. Right there in the field, at my fingertips, I can see if a similar problem has cropped up before, and what was the solution.

Database Three databases may be used during the course of a day: PUNCHIN, IPIP, and TICKET.

The PUNCHIN database, (See Screen 5) which is loaded first, is a personal time clock which I use to track how many hours I work. (I periodically turn these time sheets in, and they get tabulated and sent to another state. Sometimes, however, the official tally doesn't jibe with my own totals. That's when the PUCHIN database on my palmtop becomes really helpful in resolving the problem.)

 Screen 5. In this customized database, the author logs how many hours he works each day.

 The IPIP database contains everything I need to know to get a clients TCP/IP capability enabled or restored (i.e., to get the client connected to the Internet). (See Screen 6) In the database are the alpha and numeric addresses for a variety of sub-networks, servers, and gateways. Included as record attributes are administrator names, phone numbers, pager numbers, and other like data. This database is extremely practical, and allows me to quickly get a system going. Even if the customer knows only the nickname of the system, I can still retrieve its IP address.

 Screen 6. In this database, the Notes field is really important because it stores the application nicknames. This record contains data for an IBM mainframe which hosts several unrelated applications.

 For example, if you look at Screen 6 you can see in the Notes field a line saying sable=b01 comp. If I go to a user and load a terminal emulator on his PC, Ill say to him, What is your application? Since users tend to know only their application name, he may answer, Sable. But from my vantage point, that's almost useless information.

Searching the database

 However, if I press F4 (find) on the palmtop and enter sable,, the database application searches the .GDB file until it finds the text sable. (In the IBM mainframe example, the mainframe is host to at least two applications, sable and X01. The actual name that the IBM mainframe uses for the sable app is b01comp.)

If the customer knows only the name of his application, I can use the Find function to identify the IP address and point of contact.

Is using this database more expensive than paper? Yes, but the advantage is that I do not waste the users time, and I do not waste my time researching the problem. My palmtop allows me to solve the problem right in the field.

 The third database is named TICKET. At my place of work, technical support tasks are assigned to technicians by a ticket, which is an 8.5x11 sheet of paper. Unfortunately, with the current system, once Vie completed a task, the ticket gets returned to the person who sent it to me. Technicians like me are then unable to answer with precision simple queries, such as, What did you do for ticket 83240? The TICKET database on my palmtop enables me to answer that type of question by using the databases Find feature.

Hers how I use the database. First I open the database application and load the TICKET file. Then I press F4 (find) and enter the ticket number Imp looking for, and the database application searches through the .GDB file for the number. This can take some time, especially if I have the database search through the notes, and/or I have a large database.

 Occasionally, the work that I need to do to complete a job takes a long time and requires a lot of different tasks. Its at these times that my palmtop really helps out with the paperwork part of my job.

 Printing the Note and Time fields

 The 8.5x11 paper ticket for each job has printed information on only half of the page (i.e., the other half of the page is blank). After completing the job, I place the sheet of paper into a dot-matrix printer, scroll halfway down the sheet, then tell the 200LX to print the tickets Note and Time fields.

 To print just these two fields, I create a smart clip, which I call Notes and Total Hours (See Screen 7). Then I bring up the print dialog box by pressing MENU File Print, and make the appropriate selections.

 Screen 7. This smart clip will cause only the Total hours and Notes fields to be printed.

PhoneBook This is the last application affected by the Morning macro. A PhoneBook file dedicated solely to work is loaded which contains phone numbers, pager numbers, e-mail addresses, and organization names of people whom I may have to contact. This file helps me reduce my time in the field. If I am in a location without access to the centralized directory, I can still quickly contact a variety of people.

 My place of work doesn't print telephone directories. Instead, all phone numbers are stored on a mainframe in a database that's called the centralized directory. I keep a PhoneBook database on my palmtop which is a subset of the technical groups phone numbers. This PhoneBook is very helpful because the network can be flaky (or be down) and I can still call people who can help me, or contact people who need to be informed of the problem.

 In the afternoon, another System Macro on my palmtop, called HOME, is executed. It loads a different set of files into the NoteTaker and Database applications.

 NoteTaker now contains memory joggers and jots, such as Evanston, Wyoming: food, fun, and freedom, and Lees Chinese Food.

 These are ideas, words and phrases I don't want to forget. They are a form of mental short-hand, like having a string tied around my finger.

 Lotus 1-2-3 calculates time worked

 The PUNCHIN database is loaded so I may log the time I stopped work for the day. I then execute a System Macro that loads Lotus 1-2-3 and automatically calculates the hours and minutes worked for that day.

The hours and minutes information is then dropped into the correct field in the PUNCHIN database. Finally, my personal PhoneBook of businesses, friends, and so forth is loaded.

 Other programs that I use for work, HexCalc, HPCalc, and the Appointment applets, are native 200LX applications. No one who installs, maintains, and repairs PCs can avoid arithmetic, in general, and hexadecimal math, in particular, for very long. The two built-in calculator applications allow me to solve problems in the field without relying on the customers resources.

For example, I was to repair the cash registers in a cafeteria. The machines were interesting devices. A cash register communicated to a PC via a serial connection. The PC, in turn, communicated with a Unix host via packet driver. Somehow, the configuration files for the network and serial connection became corrupted.

By the time I received the ticket, two teams had tried to fix the machines, but had failed. The problem was that the communication driver gave error messages in hexadecimal, but expected input to be in decimal. Switching between bases was a snap, thanks to HexCalc.


 Moving around from building to building on the campus where I work can be an adventure. Several site maps of the complex are available, but none of them have indexes. In a way, that was a stroke of good luck, because if the maps had indexes, I would have overlooked a nifty little program for the palmtop called LXMap. (See Screen 10)

 Screen 10. LXMap is displaying a map that helps the author get around the large campus on which he works.

 Computers are particularly suited to rapidly retrieve static information, and LXMap does this with maps. Better yet, a person can link map coordinates to just about any identifier (i.e., you can link a word or a phrase or a number to a position on a map).

Most people think of maps that list street names, but I configured my maps to identify the names of buildings (e.g., West Hall). To be honest, I think the value of LXMap is in developing a custom index. Remarkably, the process is simple and fairly quick. Hers how to do it.

 Using LXMap to Develop a Custom Index

 First, scan a map and save it in .PCX format. Using your scanner software or LXPIC, get the height and width of the image in pixels.

Then create an index file using any text editor which supports carriage returns and line feeds. Keep the original map handy. LXMAP comes with an index you can use as a template. The next thing to do is execute LXMAP. (The format is LXMAP <indexname>. In my case, I type LXMAP CAMPUS.IDX.) After LXMAP is running, press the F5 key to put LXMAP in editor mode. Enter the street name, building number, or any identifier you wish, then press the Enter key. Next, using the Shift-Arrow key combination, scroll around the image until you find a place you want LXMAP to go to when you enter the identifier. Press F6. You have just added a coordinate to your index. When you are finished, press F9 to save your work.

For my job, just knowing the approximate area of the site where a building is located is good enough. Now when I get a ticket for a building that I am not familiar with, I enter the buildings number or name into LXMap. LXMap searches its index and identifies the section of the site where the building is located. If I need finer granularity, I will load a map of the specific area.

 The HP 200LX is not strictly for work. I also use it after-hours as a very thin communications terminal (i.e., it has a small footprint).


One of the most interesting programs I have run across is Net-Tamer n. Net-Tamer allows me to upload/download e-mail, post/ read newsgroup chatter, telnet to hosts, and surf the Web. For my Net-Tamer text editor I use WordPerfect Offices ED program. (ED has a built-in macro language that allows me to automate repetitive tasks.) Being able to read or compose notes on the run enables me to spend more time at home with my family.

To really get the most out of the 200LX as a thin communications terminal, I use several utilities. An extremely clever utility is LXPic n. LXPic allows pictures to be viewed on the 200LX, whether they are stored in .JPG or .GIF formats. It is great to have for those times when friends send their children's latest photos.

But how does a person get the photo into a usable .JPG format after the senders e-mail program transformed it into yet another format? For those occasions, I use three utilities.

If the message was UUENCODED I use the UUDECODE utility in UUENCODE/DECODE 96 n. If the received message was encoded in a MIME format, I use the capabilities of MPACK/MUNPACK v. 1.5 for DOS.

Finally, if after decoding the attachment I find it is a compressed file in a .ZIP format, I use the PKUNZIP utility from the PKZIP v. 2.04g package.

 Prefers ProComm to DataComm

 Sometimes I have to get the 200LX to emulate a Digital Equipment Corporation VT100 terminal, such as when I dial into the Kitsap County or Weber County library systems. For a while I used the built-in DataComm program, but lately I have switched to ProComm Plus 2.01. (I prefer ProComm because it has a scripting capability which is more flexible than DataComm.)

 Typically I use ProComm Plus for connecting to the library or for testing out communications with serial devices like modems or printers.

 As if using all those applications were not enough, I found several other programs that broaden the usefulness of the 200LX. For task switching, my solution is MS-DOS DOSSHELL, which I use in conjunction with MaxDOS.

Task switching with LXMAP

 Hers how I use these two programs with LXMAP n. The original campus map was too large to put on a regular sheet of copier paper. The solution was to divide the original map into sections that were then put on multiple pieces of 8x11 copier paper. The map was divided into eight sections. An overview of the whole campus map was put on one sheet, and on that sheet each section is outlined and labeled (section one, section two, etc.).

I can have several instances of LXMAP running on my palmtop at the same time, and I can switch from one to the other. For example, Ill load the overview sheet, then enter 3 (for Building number 3). LXMAP will go to that part of the overview image that is marked section one, where the building is located. Then Ill swap out the overview session, launch the instance of LXMAP which loads section one map, then enter 3 again. LXMAP will then locate where building 3 is on that map. Incidentally, this is taking much longer to describe than it takes LXMAP to actually locate the building.

 Transfile Win200 allows painless backing up of the 200LX and simple file transfers over a serial connection. I used it extensively prior to purchasing Greystone Peripherals CardDock PC Card reader. Transfile Win200 is a wonderful program, but being able to backup my SanDisk FlashDisk in a matter of seconds rather than hours made the CardDock worth the price! Just to put the value of CardDock into perspective: I was able to install, configure, and test the CardDock and back up my FlashDisk in less time than it takes to back up the FlashDisk via a serial connection.

 When I have to run a large DOS application that could use (or requires) expanded memory, EMM200 makes those applications feel right at home on the 200LX.

An especially fun program is Vertical Reader n. I use this application when I fly from Salt Lake City, Utah, to Seattle, Washington, and back. Flying coach on commercial aircraft is an exercise in the economy of movement. The combination of the little 200LX and Vertical Reader is perfect for this environment. I can read a classic novel and still be able to drop my book in my shirt pocket when refreshments are served.

 I hope that by reading this article you can see how I improved my efficiency at work, and increased my fun at home. Gathering and integrating the programs took some effort, but it has been well worth it. I hope my ideas will help you get the most out of this remarkable little machine.

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