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On the Road with Windows 2000

With a trip to New York for PC Expo 99 looming, I figured I'd try to take advantage of the new mobile features in Windows 2000 Beta 3. These include the following:

  • Offline Files and Folders -- Files and folders available on the network are cached locally so that you can access them while disconnected to the network. For example, you might mark a network folder and its contents as available while offline; you can still access this content while you're on the road. But it goes further than that: You can modify and delete files in that folder while on the road, or add new files. When you get back home, Windows 2000 automatically synchronizes for you. Previous versions of Windows include a weaker step-brother to this feature called My Briefcase that no one seemed to use.
  • Offline Web pages -- A poorly-named follow-up to Subscriptions in IE 4.0, this feature allows you to mark Web pages and Web sites as being available offline. It's harder to use than it should be.

The goal here, of course, is to give the mobile worker access to network and Internet resources when a pervasive connection isn't available (such as at 30,000 feet). Let's see how (or if) they work.

Offline Files and Folders

This feature has the ability to make or break Windows 2000 as a mobile computing platform because the risks are so high: The goal is lofty: Give the mobile user the ability to mark folders and files on the network as being available offline (Figure 1). If you are marking a folder for offline access (the norm), you can then choose to make only the folder or the folder and all of its subfolders available (Figure 2).  The first time you do this, all of the files and folders you've chosen will be synchronized automatically (Figure 3). And each file and folder you've marked for offline availability is marked with a special double blue arrow overlay (Figure 4) that indicates its status.

OK, so far so good. But the real proof of concept comes when you actually use the feature. And I did so, fairly heavily, on my trip to New York. When I'm at home, I store all of my files on a network server (a Celeron 400 with 256 MB of RAM) called, ahem, Paul, which stores all of my databases, documents, Web sites, downloaded files, and the like on two Ultra Wide SCSI-III hard drives. On my daily use workstation (a PII- 400 with 128 MB of RAM), I point the My Documents folder to the documents folder on the server so that I can transparently access these files as needed. With the laptop (the cunningly named Laptop, a PII-266 with 160 MB of RAM) things are a little different: I know that it won't always be connected to the network, so I kept the My Documents folder pointing to its default location (C:\Documents and Profiles\Paul Thurrott\Desktop) but placed a shortcut to the data drive on Paul right in there for quick access (Figure 5). No biggie, just one of those little things that makes life easier.

Navigating to the data drive on Paul, I marked the appropriate folders (and a few individual files) as being available offline and Windows 2000 automatically synchronized the files and folders every time I logged on or off the network. During the trip, I could still navigate the network, sort of, but My Network Places only showed icons for those resources which contained Offline folders (Figure 6). Any files or folders that were not available simply didn't show up, which was kind of cool. And a new icon was added to the system tray that monitored the Offline Files Status (Figure 7). I made extensive revisions to a few files (for books I'm working on), created a slew of new Word 2000 documents (for a Visual Basic class I'm teaching) and worked on WinInfo, of course (this is a Word document, if you're wondering). I was somewhat (pleasantly) surprised that it let me create new files on the non-existent network while I was away, but I threw caution to the wind and went with it.

The moment of truth came when I got home and hooked my laptop back up to the network. What can I say, it worked. As soon as I logged on, the files synchronized and all was well. I checked out the new and modified files from my workstation and everything had synchronized correctly. Overall, I'm extremely impressed by this feature which, by itself, is reason enough for mobile users to upgrade from Windows 98 assuming you've got the horsepower for Windows 2000 Professional. 

Offline Web Pages
The Offline Web Pages feature, alas, was not so impressive. Of course, we can't actually blame this on Windows 2000 per se, as this feature is technically part of Internet Explorer 5.0. Mobile users are probably already familiar with the cheap way of caching Web sites for offline use: Simply visit the pages manually and then "work offline" while you're in the air and you can go back and visit those same sites because they'll be stored in the browser's cache. It's actually kind of a cool feature, really, but doesn't offer the kind of automation we've come to expect from Windows. In IE 4.0, a feature called Subscriptions was introduced, which allowed users to subscribe to Web content using a settable schedule where online content would be downloaded and stored locally for offline viewing. The feature was fairly successful but confusing to users, who found the term "subscription" confusing and, perhaps, connotative of some sort of requirement on their part.

Enter Offline Web pages. In Internet Explorer 5.0, Subscriptions has been replaced by a similar feature which allows you to make Web content available offline. The difference this time around is that the "Offline Files Wizard" purports to make setting up Offline Web pages easier. I just don't see it. When you first choose to make a new Favorite, you can click the "Make available offline" choice, which will give you the default settings for an offline Web page. This isn't what I want, however, so I can access the Offline Files Wizard (Figure 8) by clicking the Customize button. And here's the problem with this Wizard: I always change the first two options it presents: Why can't it remember these as the default settings for Offline Web pages? The first choice is whether it should make pages available outside the Web site of the favorite available. The default, for some reason, is yes. The second choice allows you to determine "how many links deep from this page" should be saved. The default is 1, but I always want 2. In the second step of the Wizard (Figure 9), you can choose the schedule for downloading offline pages. The default choice requires the user to manually choose "Synchronize" from the IE 5.0 Tools menu, a ridiculous requirement. You can optionally use an existing schedule, or make your own (Figure 10). I recommend letting it download these pages on a regular basis (which I'll explain shortly). The first time I did this, however, I accepted the defaults.

Knowing that I'd be flying and might want to access certain Web sites while on the road, I created a folder called "Offline sites" in Favorites and started adding favorite sites to the folder. I marked each as "available offline" and manually setup their properties one at a time, which I found to be laborious. When it was all said and done, I had about a dozen Web sites, each ready to be synchronized.

And my God, the wait. When I finally clicked "Synchronize" in the Tools menu (Figure 11), I was treated to a 45 minute wait as it actually did the job (Figure 12). Yes, 45 minutes. And I have a cable modem! I hesitate to think how long this would have taken on a dial-up connection. In fact, the wait was so long and the benefit of this feature so negligible, that I didn't repeat the action for my return trip: Instead, I simply visited each site manually and clicked on the stories and articles I knew I'd want to read later. It was actually faster and less of a hassle.

It shouldn't be this way.  And, frankly, I'm at a loss over why it took so long. It's not like I was downloading the Guttenberg Bible in multiple languages. I'll look at this more closely over the next few weeks; perhaps one of the sites wasn't responding properly. If this is the case, Microsoft will need to review the way it downloads content for offline viewing. All in all, however, I must say that I was disappointed in this feature.

You win some, you lose some
Overall, Windows 2000 is a champ on the road, beating (with Offline Files and Folders) or at least meeting (with Offline Web pages) its Windows 98 competition head-on. For a mobile user, Windows 2000 is the clear winner, however, because of a host of other features I've not covered here, such as better power management with full ACPI support, a cleaner interface for detachable hardware, and a more intuitive way of working with docked/undocked hardware profiles. In short, Windows 2000 is the ultimate mobile platform, but as always, I must add the following caveat: My praise here assumes you have the appropriate hardware. Windows 2000 is a beast when it comes to hardware requirements, and I don't recommend anything less than a Pentium II 233 (or AMD K6-2 350) with 128 MB of RAM for mobile users. If you're still running an APM-based Pentium or AMD with 64 MB of RAM (or less, God forbid), just give it up: The improvements you'd otherwise experience in Windows 2000 will be lost in a sea of poor performance and disk thrashing.

But for the power users out there (or at least the mobile users with newer hardware), Windows 2000 can't be beat as a mobile platform. I'm already looking forward to my next trip.

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