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High-Tech Travel: Not What it’s Cracked Up to be

by Marie Javins, 2005

Producers of PDA’s, digital cameras and laptops make grand claims to portability and lightweight access for the traveler.

In truth, unless you’re traveling for less than a month in only “western” countries, there’s still a lot to be worked out before portable computing fulfills its promises. PDA’s and digital cameras are reliant on home base computers, and laptop computers come with weight issues.

One obvious problem is that there’s no such thing as a global ISP. Many internet providers, such as AOL, offer phone numbers in other countries, for an enormous increase in cost per hour. This is helpful in some places, but if you are going on an extended trip, you will no doubt encounter many countries that your ISP is not present in.

Furthermore, unless you are on a tour of the Sheratons and Hyatts of the world, you will not have phone jacks in every hotel that you stay in. To complicate matters even more, there are many different kinds of phone jacks around the world, and the wired traveler must travel with an adapter for each telephone system. Add this to the fact that different countries run on different voltages, making a converter necessary to run a PDA, and your lightweight, tiny PDA with accessories is as portable as a small brick.

PDA’s and digital cameras also require a home base computer to download onto, and that computer must have product-specific software loaded onto it. In other words, the traveler must find a cybercafe, load software onto their machines, and then download the files to date. At that point, the traveler must either move the downloaded information to a disk or e-mail the files home.

Few cybercafes will let travelers load new software onto its machines. And so the traveler is stuck with full PDA’s and digital cameras, and no way to get the info off of the device. Infrared modems, while giving manufacturer’s bragging rights, are no help whatsoever if you cannot load the supporting software onto the host PC.

The cellular phone alternative
Some mobile phones work in more than one country or region. If you are going worldwide on your trip, this won’t help you any more than AOL’s access numbers, but if you are visiting just a few regions, you can get a mobile phone that works specifically in that region.

You could get around the converter issue by purchasing a PDA that runs on batteries, and while you couldn’t synch with anything, you could at least have e-mail access.

The short-term solution
For the short-term traveler, the PDA and digital camera fulfills its promises in spades. You, the traveler on a 2-week holiday, can take as many digital photos as your storage disks can handle. You can type entire stories into a PDA, which you will then download into your home computer at the end of your holiday. Again, make sure your equipment takes normal batteries and you won’t need to worry about voltage.

The heavyweight solution
When I told my tech-head friend Marc about my issues with portable computing, he said that he would insist on carrying everything he’d need, no matter how much it weighed.

So, for tech-heads like Marc, I recommend the following, in addition to a digital camera and PDA:

  • a lightweight laptop with dual voltage
  • the laptop must have a floppy disk drive (Apple devotees should buy a slightly older model or get a floppy module for their extra bay)
  • load your photo editor (such as Photoshop), your digital camera and PDA software onto your laptop before leaving home. Bring only a first aid disk and some blank floppies (pre-formatted for PC, no matter which platform you choose, as most cybercafes feature IBM-compatibles)
  • make sure your accessories run on batteries, thus eliminating the need for a converter
  • bring a wide selection of plugs, trying them out beforehand.

You can then download your photos and information to your laptop, process into a portable format such as JPEG or RTF, copy to a floppy and go to a internet cafe to print or to e-mail stuff home. Be sure to add any other software you might need to your laptop, such as MS Word, games, or a GPS program.

The ultimate solution
Remember when Iomega drivers had to be installed onto your system? Now Iomega drivers come with new computers. Hopefully, as PDA’s and digital cameras become more standardized, their drivers will automatically be built into system software. Then, PDA’s and digital cameras will live up to their lofty portability claims.