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Electronics

About the gizmos

In 1990, in a visionary essay called "Lines of Horizon", Jacques Attali was one of the first persons to use the term "Nomad" applied to people in the future and to the objects surrounding them: "I call them nomad objects because, amongst common characteristics, they will be light, without attach, and carried by everyone."

15 years later, the long-distance motorcycle traveler - a nomad by excellence - has a range of nomad objects to choose from. If you already like them at home, you will enjoy them even more on the road.


"The White Man! He never stops inventing new things!"
(3 guys in Cameroon to whom Pierre was explaining the GPS)

iPod

The iPod? Not just for music!

Everybody knows the iPod as a music player. It's been a godsend to the traveler since its release in 2001. Merritt and I bought the very first edition in preparation for our trip: finally we could be away from home, carry our entire music collection with us, and still have enough room to collect local music on the road...

Nowadays with the increase in capacity and the appearance of the color display, an equally important role is to backup the pictures from your digital camera, or even backup the hard-drive of your computer for those of you who carry a laptop. In fact, there is so much room that you can use it as a digital wallet to store all kinds of programs and documents that would take quite a bit of space and weight in your suitcases. Finally with some accessories, the iPod can become a FM radio or a voice-recorder.


Don't forget to collect some local music during your trip
iPod as a music player

I'm not going to explain how to actually play music on the iPod: everybody, their kids and their grandmas know how to do that. The trick I'm going to talk about here is how to add music to your iPod during the trip, which is not normally possible.

When you load your iPod with all your music at home, the iPod becomes linked to the music library on your computer, and you cannot plug it into another computer to copy the songs between that computer and the iPod. It's a protection that Apple has put in place in order to prevent the exchange (ie. the theft) of music between users.

There are however some very legitimate reasons why people might want to do so. For instance, you might hear some really good music in the street and you would like to buy the album, add it to your iPod and ship the CD back home. The problem is: with iTunes, you cannot go to an internet-cafe, import the CD and add it to the iPod because your iPod is still linked with the library of your computer at home... What I'm going to describe here is a trick to do exactly that, on Mac and Windows.

Macintosh:
The first thing to do as soon as you get your iPod is to reformat it for PC. It's very important. It will not affect at all the way it works when connected to your Mac (Mac can read both formats, while PCs can't read Mac format) but it will allow you to plug your iPod into any machine, Mac or PC, that you have access to during the trip.

Mac & Windows:
When you go to an internet-cafe, make sure iTunes is installed on the machine you are using (otherwise
get it here and install it), then launch it, insert your music CD and import the songs into iTunes. When it's done...

* If the machine at the internet-cafe is a Windows machine: install a utility called vPod and run it. Go to "iPod -> Select iPod Drive..." and select the iPod. Wait until it is complete. Go to "File -> Add Files To Library", select the folder that contains your music CD (it is inside the iTunes music library). Et voilą! vPod shows you all the songs that are not yet inside you iPod, and asks you which ones you'd like to transfer.

* If the machine at the internet-cafe is a Mac (MacOS 10.2 minimum): install a utility called iPod.iTunes and run it. Then it should be straightforward and you can copy the music files imported from the CD onto your iPod.

Mac & Windows (advanced users):
A more technical but efficient way to copy songs from Windows to an iPod is described in this article from Hack Attack. The main idea is to set the iPod as a removable hard-drive, store on it 2 utilities and use them in a way that no files are ever installed or copied onto the machine at the internet-cafe.

iPod as a backup system for pictures


Imagine being able to show people the pictures of your entire trip on the iPod (and not just the last ones inside the camera...)
Digital cameras are great but the problem on the road is to know what to do when the memory card is full. Most people go to the internet-cafe, burn their images onto a CD and ship the CD back home. This solution has 2 major problems: (1) you must find an internet-cafe before the card is completely full, and (2) you can't see your pictures until you come back home. The iPod offers a nice solution for both with an accessory from Apple called the Camera Connector.

When the card is getting full, it's very simple: plug the iPod on one end of the Camera Conector, plug the USB cable from the camera on the other end... et voila!, the iPod sucks in all your pictures. Just make sure before you start that both the iPod and the camera have enough battery to complete the operation (it can take 20 minutes). That's it. You can reformat your card and continue shooting.

This simple gadget allows you to wait several days (or several weeks, if you are confident that your iPod is not going to get lost, stolen or destroyed in the meanwhile) before going to an internet-cafe and burning onto CD the pictures that are on your iPod. And the best part is: you can display the pictures on the iPod. You can even put it in slideshow mode and listen to music while browsing through the thousands of shots you took during your trip!

iPod as a backup system for laptop


Don't store the laptop and its backup disk in the same suitcase.
I'm not going to get into the details here. If you are geek enough to carry a laptop, you probably know what to do. Here are just 2 advices:
- Don't store the iPod in the same suitcase as the laptop (you don't want them to get crashed or stolen at the same time) and pack them in waterproof Ziplock bags (because bikes do fall in rivers from time to time).
- If you have an iPod 5G, make sure your laptop has USB 2.0 (the 5G doesn't support FireWire at all and USB 1.0 is way too slow for backups).

iPod as a digital wallet

Travelers often have to carry a big load of photocopies: passport front pages, visa pages, visa applications, health and vaccinations certificates, driver license, motorcycle title, insurance coverage, bank forms to wire money, invoices and maintenance contracts on expensive items (cameras, latop) etc...

An idea is to keep only a few photocopies of what you know you will need. For instance, you don't want to show any cop your passport and driver license: in cities or at a random roadblock, only present photocopies (in some places in South America, fake cops are well-known to ransom you to get your documents back).

All the other documents can be kept in electronic form. Scan them or take a good digital picture of them, make sure the file is readable and can easily be printed (no blur, good contrast) then set your iPod as a removable drive (in the iTunes preferences, select "Manually manage songs and playlists") and copy all the files in there. By precaution, you should also burn a CD with a copy of these files to carry with you, and leave a set of photocopies at home with someone who could fax them to you, should you lose everything at once (bike stolen, for instance).

Another good use of the iPod as digital wallet is to store all the programs you might need on the road, such as GPS-related applications or image-editing software. You can burn these onto CD or DVD but it's still a good idea to have a copy of everything on the iPod. First, it's much faster to install things from an iPod than from a CD. Second, if you see anything of interest at the internet-cafe, you can also copy it to the iPod right away. Finally a note for Macintosh users: always take the Windows versions of the programs you might need on the road, as you will very rarely encounter at internet-cafes anything else than sad Windows boxes.

Which iPod?

Unless your music collection is less than 1,000 songs and you don't carry a digital camera (but who doesn't nowadays?), you will want a high-capacity iPod.

Of course, if you are planning a trip that lasts just a few weeks, you can grab a big handful of memory cards for the digital camera, get yourself an iPod-Nano for the tunes, and you will end up with the coolest ultralight solution around. There are two things to consider however: first, it will cost you about the same as buying a big iPod and 1 or 2 memory cards; second, this guide is for real long-distance travelers and a few weeks doesn't quite qualify. This is one of the many aspects where a solution that can make-do for a certain time just doesn't fit for longer periods.

So the choice is between the 30Gb model and the 60Gb: it will depend on how long you are going to travel and how many pictures you take in average each day. The 30Gb represents for instance 10Gb of music (2500 songs) and 20Gb of pictures (5000 shots on a 6Mb camera with the resolution set on "Fine"). The 60Gb takes twice that so (again depending on the music you load on it before departure) a 30Gb iPod might be good enough for 1 year worth of pictures while the 60Gb will be sufficient for 2 1/2 years.

You often get discounts at Amazon, but if you buy your iPod from the Apple Store, you can get a free engraving on the back. A useful message to write is "Stolen from [your email address]": it gives you a chance of recovering the iPod in case of theft or loss. On the other hand, it makes it impossible to resell later. Your choice.



Which accessories?

Once you have an iPod, you'd better carry it in a case to absorb the shocks and avoid scratches. There are thousands of them. Amongst the best ones are those from XtremeMac. They are made of either strong clear plastic (which preserves the look of the iPod) and come with 2 backs (with and without belt clip). It's the best protection you can get for the screen. Here are 2 cases: one for the 30Gb, one for the 60Gb.

And finally, as mentioned at the beginning, there are hundreds of accessories for the iPod but the only two that are likely to be of some use for the traveler (besides the Camera Connector, of course) are:
- The Apple Radio Remote: it turns the iPod to an FM radio, which is neat to listen to local news and music.
- The MicroMemo Digital Voice Recorder (not released yet): it turns the iPod to a voice recorder which is great for doing a podcast or interviews, recording local noises as soundtrack for a slideshow (jungle, streets, markets, conversations, music...), or simply to take oral notes before writing your journal or sending emails. There are other voice recorder solutions on the market but they are all for the previous generations of iPods. Besides, the MicroMemo should be of a much higher quality than what we have now.


MicroMemo Digital Voice Recorder
Not Released Yet

GPS


He didn't have a GPS.
The GPS? Not just for the Paris-Dakar!

Merritt and I bought a fancy GPS to cross the Sahara. Then we bought a second one, a cheap one, just in case the customs would want to confiscate something. Previous travelers were describing a scam where the customs in Tunisia would ask "Do you have a GPS?": if you answer yes, they confiscate it ("This is regulated satellite equipment!") and if you answer no, they don't trust you and make you open everything.

In the end, neither of the 2 GPSs served its original purpose. The cheap one did not get confiscated (the border guards were waving everybody through inside the country) and the fancy one hardly got used in the desert ("600 kilometers in that direction, 300 kilometers in that other direction, it's very easy, please don't get lost"). Still, the GPS ended up being one of the most useful gizmos we had with us. Why? Because of a plethora of uses we had not thought about.

With a GPS, you can...
  • Navigate around a city without going 3 times through the same one-way street.
  • Display your speed in miles when your speedometer is in kilometers (and keep it right under the limit when the cops are following you).
  • Reset the stop counter on your bike everytime you refuel, and use the other counters on the GPS for the legs of your trip.
  • Know at what time the sun goes down at your location, and tell if you are going to make it to destination before nightfall (or if you'd better make a U-turn and come back to the last place you saw).
  • Tell if you are heading in the right direction when the map is unclear.
  • Choose between three dirt roads when none of them is on the map.
  • Know your altitude and understand why you are so tired and your bike is running slow.
  • Set meeting points with your partners in case you become separated.
  • Take side streets without hesitation when there is a traffic jam in a city you don't know.
  • Mark the location of your hotel, garage, or anything else, run for errands and come back to the place in no time (even by night in a city with no street signs and no public lighting).
  • Share waypoints of cool places with other travelers.
  • Give the exact location when reporting an accident.
  • Know how long you have actually been riding versus taking breaks (and tell if it's time to really get going now!)
  • Avoid being taken for a ride by an unscrupulous cab driver.
  • Know exactly when you are crossing the Equator and how far away you are from home.
For all these reasons and probably many others you are going to find on the road, the GPS is an addictive gadget. The best part is that you don't even miss on the fun of getting lost while traveling: on the opposite, it invites you to take random turns with confidence. It pushes you to explore because, at least, you know that you will be able to come back where you are coming from.

Which GPS?

All the GPS devices display the coordinates of your current location within a few feet. These numbers, longitude and latitude, are almost meaningless by themselves. What differentiate the devices is what they can do with it.

For the long-distance motorcyclist, the market is limited to 2 brands: Garmin and Magellan (I don't mention the newest and very fancy TomTom because its maps only cover the asphalted world: US, Europe and Australia). Magellan is usually more expensive but it has larger displays and its user-interface is nicer. However for what we want to do, the preference goes clearly to Garmin - the main reason being that their World Map is much more detailed in rural areas. It shows many more secondary roads and dirt roads, and reference points such as rivers and railroads. The Garmin units also record more parameters which at times can be useful, such as maximum speed, moving average, moving time etc...

In the end, the best GPS for us is the Garmin eTrex Legend C. The more expensive models have features travelers would not use or whose price isn't justified. You also need the World Map CD (more explanations below) and a cigarette lighter adapter because these little things would suck dry a brand new set of batteries everyday.


The GPS tells you where you are going to die.
(German proverb)


Along with the GPS unit, you have to buy a mounting system. The best one is from RAM. It's strong and cheap. It absorbs the vibrations. It's easy to insert/remove the GPS and it holds it well in sight. To order, visit the RAM Mount Motorcycle page, enter "Garmin" as Device Make, "eTrexc" as Device Model (that's "eTrexC" with a "C" at the end), your motorcycle information, then click "Get My RAM Mount" and it returns exactly what you need. I recommend the 3-inch Standard Arm: with the additional height of the base and the articulations, it brings the GPS at a correct height on a 650cc dual-purpose.


About built-in maps and the World Map CD:

Other gizmos



A quick review of other electronics you might consider taking...

Intercom System

We wanted a bike-to-bike communication but we did not want to pay the exorbitant price that we saw for dedicated systems in motorcycle stores. So we went to Radio Shack and bought their $30 walkie-talkies + $30 hands-free motorcycle intercom.
What did we expect? It doesn't work at all.

If you want an intercom, I'm afraid there isn't any other solution than
AutoCom.
Shortwave Radio

It allows you to listen to stations from all over the world, which is a nice thing to have in places with no internet access and no local media where the situation can deteriorate rapidly. Merritt and I had one in Africa - that's how we learnt about the kidnappings in the desert just where we were, and about the presidential elections in Nigeria. If you go to Africa, Central Asia or the Middle-East, chances are this little radio will bring you news from far away about what's happening just next to you.

We had a 10-year old Sony radio but they don't make it anymore. Here is the replacement from Grundig.


Battery Chargers

There used to be a time when travelers had to carry a bunch a AA and AAA batteries. They were in cameras, flashlights, radios, tape players etc... It made sense to use rechargeable batteries and carry a small charger that could plug into the motorcycle. That's what Merritt and I had in 2002.

Nowadays everybody uses LED lights that hardly consume anything; iPods and cameras have lithium-ion batteries that sometimes can't even be removed and that all require their own special charger incompatible with the other ones. It's becoming a problem for the traveller: some power converters and cables are heavier and bulkier than the device they plug into. So take that into consideration when deciding to take something with you. Minimize the number of cables. Shorten them if you can, to remove some bulk.