Computers


A geek will drag his laptop everywhere: you're not one of them, are you?
My precious!

Something should be very clear: if you are not a complete computer geek with your own web site, if you are not a professionnal photographer working on the road, or if you are not a dedicated writer reporting about your trip in magazines...

YOU DON'T NEED A LAPTOP
(but keep on reading: there is something for you)

How to do without a computer?

Most of you would love to have a web page to publish your journals and show your pictures but you don't want the hassle of carrying a laptop and maintaining a web site. Waiting for (hint hint) a soon-to-come blogging service dedicated to long-distance travelers, there are already some perfectly acceptable solutions. The simplest way by far is to go with Horizons Unlimited. They take all the hassle off of building the page, and they give a good exposure to other motorcycle travelers (meaning fellow travelers are most likely to read your stories on Horizons Unlimited than on any other site). Another solution, if you want photo galleries and a fancier presentation, is to store your stories on services such as Blogger and your pictures on Flickr. All these solutions are free.

Publishing pictures:
Often the pictures don't look that good straight out of the camera. You need to crop them a bit, or adjust color and contrast etc... A solution is to take with you an image-editing program that you can install on the machines at internet-cafes. Picasa from Google is such a good simple program and it is completely free. Real photo buffs will prefer Adobe Photoshop CS2 or Photoshop Elements. Buying Photoshop can be quite expensive (from $100 to $600!) but the links I'm giving you point to the free tryout versions. They only work for 30 days but you don't care: since you are on the road, you can give it a free 30-day tryout at every single internet-cafe for the next couple of years. Photoshop is a bit of a drag to install (the CS2 version easily takes 20 minutes) so you might still want to take a small Picasa along. Choose your programs, download them using a right-click (or control-click), save them on your machine, then burn them onto a CD (and maybe store a copy on your iPod's digital wallet as described in the Electronics page). Et voilà: you are ready to edit your photos almost anywhere and upload them to your favorite blog or photo-gallery...

Publishing stories:
Before publishing, you need to write - and to write, you either need to remember everything that happened in your busy traveler's life, or to take notes on the spot. The best way to take notes is to carry a small notepad and the best notepads are from Moleskine. They have been considered the Rolls Royce of notepads by generations of writers, and rightly so. You can go with a pocket-sized Daily Planner (one page per day) completed with a couple of squared notebooks for when the stories of the day don't fit on a single page, or just a large Daily Planner (which you might find a bit bulky, though). The 2006 Planners are gone already so here are the links to preorder the 2007 versions, plus the regular squared notebooks (small and large):

But even if you take notes on paper, you might not enjoy the long sessions typing everything at a smoky internet-cafe on virus-infected machines, trying to avoid system crashes and smutty pop-up windows. A good solution is to use a PDA, and that's what we describe in the next chapter about Personal Digital Assistants...


Which Computer?

If you are taking a laptop to manage a web site, the features you want are probably a CD burner (to upload your site at internet-cafes), a dialup and ethernet connection (to occasionally plug into an the network at a cafe), maybe a WiFi card (same reason), FireWire or USB 2.0 (for backups), and a DVD reader to watch movies once in a while. The good thing is: almost all modern laptops have all of these now. So the main criteria to select your machine will be reliabily, size & weight, and (of course) price.

I worked 15 years on both Mac and PC, with a strong preference for Mac, but when we left on our trip I was open to any solution as long as it got the job done. Once all the features were added in, the Apple iBook was far ahead in terms of size, price and reliability. At that time, only the Sony Vaio was a tad smaller but it was also much more expensive and users were reporting number of problems. Four years later, I'm still using the same iBook and the situation did not change a lot.

Macintosh laptops continue to arrive first in reliability: they have the fewest repairs and the best tech-support. There is also the AppleCare 3-year maintenance contract that gets you free repairs at any Apple outfit in the world. The best reason, though, to buy a Mac is the quality of the programs: for sound and image editing, presentation programs and web editors - basically for everything you want to do on the road - you will find the best choice on the Mac. You can even install Windows if you want to check once in a while how your web site displays under Explorer, but the rest of the time you will be happier with MacOS. The new 13.3" MacBook recently replaced the iBook at a slightly higher cost and weight ($1200 with DVD Burner and around 5.2 lbs or 2.3kilos), but it packs much more punch and won raving reviews at its release.

On the PC front, according to PCWorld and Consumer Reports, the best choices in terms of reliability are IBM, Dell or Toshiba. Not surprisingly, the only laptops we saw on the road in other people's suitcases were Apple, IBM and Toshiba.

A good machine from Dell is the Inspiron 710m. It weighs a bit more than 4 lbs (slightly less than 2 kilos) and comes with a 12" screen that displays 1280x800. You might prefer the $1400 version (after $300 mail-in rebate) with DVD burner and Microsoft Works. You have to order it directly from Dell.

The Toshiba Satellite M55 is good all-around machine: 14" hires screen, around 5 lbs (2.5 kilos) at less than $1000 (you probably won't need the more expensive versions).

From IBM, the 12.1" and 3.7 lbs (1.7 kilos) Thinkpad X40 is the best you can get but the version with a CD burner and enough memory is priced at... $1950. So you might want to settle for a ThinkPad R52 at a around $1100 for a 15" screen and a weight of 6.7 lbs (3 kilos).

PDAs (Personal Digital Assistants)


There is no need for a laptop if all you want is a keyboard to type your stories.
All I need is a keyboard...

A Personal Digital Assistant is some kind of small computer that fits in a pocket and lets you do basic tasks such as keeping a phonebook, an agenda, keep track of expenses and exchange data with a real computer. One of their most dictinctive features is that you can write on the screen with a little stylus. They have evolved a lot in the past few years: most have multimedia capabilities now, and can also access the web through a WiFi wireless connection.

As a traveler, though, the most appealing aspect is that it allows you to type your journals with a small external keyboard almost anywhere you want (at the terrasse of a cafe, in your hotel room at night) and update your blog in just a couple of minutes at the internet-cafe. Many internet-cafes, especially in South America, are shady smoky places where the machines are used mostly for chatrooms and porn. You will be happy to reduce the time you spend in there.
Which PDA?

There are two major families of PDAs: Palm and PocketPC. Palm were the first ones in the market, they struggle a little bit to survive now because of the competition with modern cellphones that can do 80% of what the average person needs of a PDA, but they are still doing the nicest and most usable product.

PocketPC is the response from Microsoft. For many years they were lagging behind Palm with a half-baked prone-to-crash device but by pouring enough money into it, they finally managed to get something nice. It communicates well with Windows applications (especially the ones also written by Microsoft) and it offers more functions but the user interface isn't as intuitive and the stability is still an occasional problem.

Since you are on the road and don't care about synchronizing the latest Excel spreadsheet with a home computer, you will have a more enjoyable time with a Palm. All you want to do is to type some text into the PDA, transfer that text to a machine at the internet-cafe and use it to send an email or update your blog. You can also copy emails you received and transfer them to the PDA to read later if you wish.

Of course, there are many other things you can do with a Palm like keeping track of your bank accounts with
PocketMoney, or recording everything you do on your motorcycle with Auto Slate. The most important thing to keep in mind is that since your PDA will be kept away from your home computer, it means that nothing will be backed-up. You should either avoid to keep in the PDA any vital information, or make regular copies of it some place safe. For instance, if you start writing a real book on it, transfer the text once in a while to a machine at an internet-cafe, send it to yourself by email and keep it in a separate mailbox.

In the end, you have the choice between two PDAs: the Tungsten E2 at $170 and the Palm TX at $270. The TX has a larger screen (320x480 instead of 320x320), WiFi (which might be really nice for occasional web browsing) and other things you will probably not use on the road. I would go with the TX.
Then you also need...
- a keyboard: these keyboards have regular sized keys and fold in half to the dimensions of a small notepad. They work really well (as long as you use the drivers from the Palm web site, not those from the included CD).
- a small memory card to store the text files that you are going to exchange with the computer at the internet-cafe.
- a USB reader for that memory card (few internet-cafes have one).
- a bag to store it all.

Packing


Don't store the laptop and its backup disk in the same suitcase.
Keeping it cozy

Some people swear by Pelican cases. These things are indestructible, waterproof, and completely padded: of course, it's ideal for a notebook but we don't know how they manage to fit them in their suitcases.

The solution we found was the following: The padding at the bottom is the most important. Don't use bubble wrap exclusively because the bubbles will blow up over time. A small pillow (airline type of pillow) worked nice for us. Keeping the laptop in the middle of the suitcase is important for the vibrations and in case of crash, of course, but also for the heat. The walls of an aluminum suitcase in the middle of the day become so hot sometimes, you can't leave your fingers on it.

Finally, the things a laptop fears above all is humidity. If you are on a tropical beach with 95% humidity, you might want until you leave the area before opening the ZipLock bag. Humidity can also be created by the air conditioning. On a very hot day, if you come from the outside into an air-conditioned bedroome, wait at least an hour before turning on your laptop.

Besides that, no problem: we used the machine sometimes at 4000 meters above see-level (13,000 ft), sometimes by 40 degrees Celsius (105 Farenheit), and after Africa and the Americas, it's still here with us.

Backup

Better safe than sorry

As we wrote in the Electronics page, the iPod is a perfect solution to backup the hard drive in your laptop. The only condition: keep the occupied space on your disk below the available space for backup on the iPod (ie. if you have a 60Gb iPod with 10Gb of music, make sure you don't use more than 50Gb on the laptop - and if you do, burn some CDs or DVDs, send them home, and delete the files when you know the CDs have safely arrived at destination).



Otherwise LaCie always had excellent bus-powered plug&play hard-drives. We had a 40Gb the entire trip and we still use it. They just released a new family of Rugged All-Terrain hard-drives. The 80Gb is at a reasonnable price ($200) but the 100Gb and 120Gb are way too expensive ($350).