Techniques: Off the Shelf

A small metal box can harness the energy of your vehicle to keep your laptop running long after the computer's batteries have fizzled out

In March 1984 I took a road trip to major-league-baseball spring training in Florida. I rented a car in Boston and stopped overnight in Washington, D.C., where I picked up my best friend, who then drove us the rest of the way down. While he drove, I sat in the front-passenger seat with the glove compartment open. Inside I'd placed my aqua Underwood portable manual typewriter. I was on deadline for a story and needed to finish the draft and mail it before we reached Coco Beach, our first ballpark stop. I typed nonstop for 12 hours, stuck the results in an envelope, and mailed them when we pulled into the Houston Astros' spring-training parking lot.

Portable manual typewriters don't run low on batteries. But they are a bear when it comes to making corrections and revisions and using really swell yet often-unnecessary typefaces. That's where laptops come in. So when my wife and I headed out last Thanksgiving to visit my daughter-in-law's family in New Jersey, it was a sleek black Dell Latitude laptop that I propped in front of me. Problem was, the computer had only two hours of battery time and I had at least four hours of work to do.

As the guy who writes the Road Warrior column for Inc. Technology, I am frequently griping about power shortages and often finding solutions. For example, in " Power Brokers" ( Inc. Technology 1, 1996) I wrote about the time I left my power cord for my Toshiba Satellite in a hotel room in San Diego, only to discover it missing when I was halfway to Burbank. I found a solution on the road (with someone else driving, of course) by plugging a car power cord into both the computer and the car's cigarette-lighter opening. When I got rid of the Toshiba, the cigarette-lighter rig went too because it didn't fit into my new Dell.

That's where the Tripp Lite PowerVerter Ultra Compact Inverter came in. Tripp Lite is a 76-year-old company that was founded by Graham Trippe to sell automobile headlights. In the 1960s the company started selling large battery-operated DC-to-AC power inverters for emergency use and recreational vehicles. Now Tripp Lite has introduced compact versions of its inverters with cigarette-lighter plugs. The 140-watt version has one AC outlet and a 20-amp fuse (one of the little plastic fuses used in cars). The 300-watt version features two outlets and a 30-amp fuse. Each is encased in sturdy metal housing so you can, for example, drop something really heavy on it and not have it bust into pieces. There's an illuminated on-off switch on the box. And the 300-watt version has a built-in cooling fan.

I chose the 300-watt PowerVerter because, of course, two outlets are better than one, even though I never plugged anything into the second outlet. I could have, mind you. Say in addition to powering up my laptop I needed a shave of the electric variety. Or a blended drink. Or juice for a power drill. The packaging assures me that my PowerVerter is perfect for those appliances as well as for "television sets, kitchen appliances, stereos, and more!"

I took the 300-watt PowerVerter out for a spin one weekend when my wife and I were driving west in search of shoes. Having personal experience with my sense of direction in the western part of Massachusetts, I figured we could count on several hours in the car.

The hardest part about getting the PowerVerter to work is opening the hard-plastic packaging it comes in. Once that was accomplished, I plugged the little box into the cigarette-lighter hole while the ignition was on and turned on the inverter. It worked flawlessly. I booted up the laptop and worked away with no fear of losing power. Well, maybe a little fear. Once, when we parked and my wife went into this huge warehouse of a shoe store, I stayed in the car with the engine off and the ignition on and kept working on the laptop. When she returned, hunched over with boxes and boxes of shoes to add to her already-large collection, she got into the driver's seat and turned the key to start the engine. This caused the inverter to turn off momentarily, but fortunately, I still had power in my laptop battery, so no damage was done.

The PowerVerter is one of those products that I've been looking for for years. (I'd scoured the shelves at Staples and OfficeMax looking for something like it--"You know," I told the salesclerks, "a power strip you plug into your cigarette lighter"--before the Thanksgiving road trip, to no avail.) When I'm the Road Warrior, it will come in very handy in a car when I'm not the driver. On a personal level, it will allow me to work while my wife shops, so we both get to do what we like to do the most.

The Product: Tripp Lite PowerVerter Ultra Compact Inverter (300-watt and 140-watt models), from Tripp Lite Worldwide, in Chicago (773-869-1111;; $89.95 and $61.25, respectively)

Reviewer: Jeffrey L. Seglin, executive editor of Inc. magazine and Road Warrior

Requirements: Vehicle with cigarette lighter that works