On the Road Again: Travel Tech That Makes Sense

Like many of you, I spend a lot of time on the road, and thus a lot of time thinking about how to best optimize the travel experience. So I do things like always carry my bags onto planes, book direct flights were possible, and travel as lightly as I can. But since this is by nature a technology column, and the technology I travel with changes pretty rapidly, I thought it might be worth discussing some recent trends and how they've impacted my own travel.

Connectivity

Years ago, when Wi-Fi was uncommon, we had to put up with dial-up connections at hotels, but that's no longer a concern. Of course, once you've achieved a certain level of connectivity you tend to expect it everywhere. And the rise in 3G access points, whether they're built into a PC, part of a standalone Mi-Fi type device, or provided via a 3G smart phone, provides a way to fill in the connectivity gaps. But I recommend a slightly different approach. The problem with the preceding 3G access points is that they come with expensive montly charges and often require a two year contract where you pay for connectivity whether you need or use it.

I prefer a pay as you go alternative like Virgin Broadband2Go. It's a standard USB-based external 3G access point, but it costs less than $80 and you can buy connectivity on-the-fly, whenever you need it. There are four options: 100 MB of usage for $10 (expires in 10 days), 300 MB for $20 (30 days), 1 GB for $40 (30 days), and 5 GB for $60 (30 days). (And if you're worried about getting other devices online and have a Windows 7-based portable computer, you can share that connection, for free, with Connectify.) Best of all, if you don't need it in a given month, you don't pay a thing.


Smart phones

No one traveling for work should be without a smart phone these days and there are many excellent devices to choose between. I currently use and prefer Apple's iPhone, but phones based on Android are gaining in popularity, and RIM Blackberry devices are always a good option, especially for those businesses that wish a bit more control over mobile access. Rather than get into a smart phone platform war, I'd like to just recognize that more and more people are using their phones for both work and play. And that means you're going to run into a very serious issue around battery life limitations.

Battery life is particularly problematic when you're traveling. While there was once a time when you could hop on a plane and be sure you'd be able to get work done, cramped quarters and overbooked flights have pretty much nixed that luxury. So I work when I can, but when it's not possible, I try not to get stressed out. And that means playing a game, listening to music, or watching a video on my phone. Which would be fine, except that the battery can be depleted by the time you get to your destination, forcing you to hunt for an outlet.

You could just get an iPod touch or Zune HD, of course, but another device can be expensive. A simpler and thriftier choice, perhaps, is to get an external charger. There are many alternatives, but I bring along two: The 3G Juice, which is just $50 and is iPhone/iPod-touch specific, and the Kensington Battery Pack and Charger ($70), which is advertised for the iPhone, but has a USB port for charging any mobile device. I'll use one of these on the plane with the iPhone, ensuring that I have a complete charge when I land at my destination.

iPad

I get a lot of questions about the Apple iPad but unlike most starry-eyed reviewers, I'm not caught up in the excitement. If you're reading this column, you don't need an iPad and, perhaps more important, it almost certainly can't help you get your job done better than a real PC. That may change in the future, but for now, the iPad is almost exclusively a "consumption" device, that is, one that is designed to help you enjoy digital media, eBooks, and so on.

But the problem with the iPad is that it's not ideal for these scenarios either. The screen is so reflective you could shave with it, and that makes the movie watching experience terrible, especially on a plane. And while I do use and recommend a dedicated eBook reader like Amazon's Kindle, the iPad is not an option here. The screen, again, is too reflective, and its brightness will lead to eye strain. Compared to the Kindle, the iPad is also far too heavy to hold comfortably for long periods of time. And let's be honest here, it's really expensive.

Hold out for v2 if you can stand the wait. I'm sure Apple will mop up any issues by the time the second generation iPad ships. They always do.

Remote access and cloud storage

I'm compulsive enough that I don't feel safe leaving the home office without some technological backup plan. In the old days I used to travel with a set of backup CDs (and then DVDs) that would let me reinstall my PC from scratch, along with applications, and then recover data. More recently, I've stopped giving into these urges, but I do ensure that the data I need is accessible when I'm on the road.

There are many solutions for retrieving corporate data on the go, and if you're using SharePoint, you're probably all set already. For my own purposes, I have a server at home with all my important data, and I use LogMeIn Pro for remote file retrieval and, when needed, remote desktop access. While there are free options available, LogMeIn has always been secure and reliable, and I feel that the $65 annual fee is reasonable.

Cloud storage solutions like Microsoft's free Windows Live Sync can be valuable as well, and you can and should think of these services like USB memory keys that are always available. I no longer carry physical memory keys with me.

There's a lot more, but I'm out of space. If you have some tech travel tips and advice, however, please send them along. I'll try to use the best ones in a future follow-up.

An edited version of this article appeared in the June 29, 2010 issue of Windows IT Pro UPDATE. --Paul