Today's laptop computers are lightweight, convenient and increasingly powerful. So business travelers are more frequently packing computers-to-go.
But this portable convenience creates its own set of problems. For example, what do you do with all the files you accumulate on the road when you get back to the office and the old desktop PC? By the same token, how do you get the files you need from your desktop machine when you're ready to travel?
If your desktop machine has a 3 1/2 -inch floppy disk drive like the one in your laptop wonder, you can always use floppies to make the transfer. If you're not moving much data, it's a quick if not particularly elegant solution.
But many older desktop machines don't have 3 1/2 -inch drives, and even if they do, using floppies to copy large quantities of data is awkward and time-consuming. Hence the popularity of utilities and hardware designed to connect laptop and desktop machines.
While almost all of these programs will do the job, File Shuttle Xpress, from GetC Software, stands out from the crowd on a couple of counts.
First, it's fast. It uses the computers' high-speed parallel ports, 00 normally used by printers, instead of the slower serial ports generally used for communications. This makes it useful for transferring large amounts of data -- including the contents of entire hard disk drives -- between any two computers as long as they're less than 15 feet apart.
In fact, File Shuttle Xpress is a great way to use spare hard disk capacity on one desktop computer to as backup storage for another machine.
Second, the package comes with two versions of the company's software, one that runs under DOS and one that runs under Microsoft Windows. If either machine runs Windows, you can transfer files in the background while you do something else.
The heart of File Shuttle Xpress is a little adapter called the "Rocket Socket," which fits on the end of one computer's printer cable and connects it directly to the parallel port of the second DTC computer. You don't have to carry special cables, as long as one of the computers is normally connected to a printer.
While parallel ports are rarely used for two-way communications, they're perfectly capable of it. They're also inherently faster than serial ports.
This is so because your computer's serial port uses only two wires for communications -- one to send data and one to receive. When your computer uses a serial port to send a byte of data, which consists of eight binary digits (bits), each bit is transmitted separately. The parallel port uses eight wires, one for each bit. They all leave and arrive simultaneously.
The limitation of parallel communication is distance. If the computers are more than 15 feet apart, you may start to lose data. So parallel ports are most frequently used for printers, which are kept close to home.
While File Shuttle Xpress can also use the computers' serial ports if you supply a null modem adapter, you'll get much better results using the parallel port and Rocket Socket.
Installing the File Shuttle software was as simple as copying a handful of files from a floppy to the hard disk of each machine.
When you run the program on each computer (you generally work on the machine that's doing the transmitting), you'll see a list of hard disk directories on the left side of the screen, a list of files in the current directory on the right side, and a menu of commands at the top.
While the user interface of the DOS version isn't beautiful, it's straightforward and serviceable. The Windows program uses a spiffed-up version of the DOS user interface, with the usual Windows pull-down menus and commands.
To transfer files, you can select whole directories, with or without sub-directories, individual files, or the contents of a whole hard // disk. The program also has a wide variety of options for preselecting files and saving your settings, which automates backups.
There are also settings that will automatically create directories if they don't exist on the target computer's drive, or allow you to "prune and graft" existing directories from one computer onto the hard disk of another.
Once you've selected the files you want to move, all you have to do is issue the "transfer" command and let the software and hardware go to work.
The speed depends on your computer and disk drives. The real limitation is how fast the receiving computer can write data to its hard disk, since writes are much slower than reads. GetC claims transfer rates ranging from one to three megabytes per minute.
When I transferred a 4-megabyte directory from an 80386 computer to a standard 80286 computer, it took 2 minutes, 22 seconds. This is far less time than it took to back up the same directory to a floppy disk using PC Tools' high-speed backup program. Had I used the floppy disk backup program to transfer the files to another computer, I would have had to double that. File Shuttle Xpress is plenty fast.