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ATPM 12.11
November 2006


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Mac About Town

by Mike Chamberlain,

On the Road Again

Fittingly, I’m writing this column at the Park Cities Hilton in Dallas, Texas, where I find myself spending a quick evening and day in meetings. I don’t travel nearly as often as I did in my former career, but there is still the out-of-town requirement that occasionally takes me away from hearth and home. This summer, however, was a different sort of a trip as I used a portion of a summer-long sabbatical to head back to Europe and see things that I had missed during my assignments there. That meant time in Oxford visiting my son, a week in a peaceful rental in the south of France, five full-throttle days in Rome and, finally, two weeks exploring selected parts of Spain. The trip totaled five weeks, and I knew there was no way I was going to be without my computer for that long. OK, the truth is I never travel without my computer. I know, it’s a weakness, but it is a Mac!

Base Equipment

As I planned the electronic portion of the trip, I remembered the last time I was in London scurrying around trying to find a replacement cord that I had left behind. I was determined not to suffer a repeat. At the same time, however, my wife and I had made the commitment to travel light. Since I had the smaller of the two bags (no surprise there), I had to be practical and space/weight conscious. I decided to take my G4 PowerBook, a digital camera, a PDA, and my 40 GB fourth-generation iPod. That was the base requirement. Minus the camera, that’s what I carried to Dallas this afternoon. The more difficult piece of the techno-puzzle was deciding what peripheral and supporting items I might need. What follows is my thinking on “the way to go.”

The “Must-haves”

Clearly, the first thing that you need to take along is the power cord for each of the items in your equipment list. With laptop connectivity, however, there are some space savers. No need, for instance, to bring anything for your iPod other than a FireWire or USB connection cable. Apple kindly provided a common syncing/charging solution. On the PDA side, most PDA-makers market a USB syncing cable that does the same thing. When shopping for a PDA cord for travel, though, beware of buying a “travel kit” that terminates in a plug instead of at the computer. If you get the plug version you will still need to bring a sync cord if you plan on connecting to your computer, and if you are traveling to a foreign country, plugs will be an issue—more on that in a minute.

I am unaware of any cameras that charge using USB, so don’t forget that you will need your camera’s battery charger. If you are leaving the country, that may well mean that you need to buy a new charger that is designed for the electrical system of the part of the world to which you are traveling. A bit of surfing will lead you to a number of possibilities, but I recommend, if you will be using a car, that your charger include an auto lighter charging option. Additionally, if you haven’t already sprung for an additional battery, do it before you depart. In fact two extras wouldn’t be a bad idea. You don’t want to run out of power standing in front of Big Ben. Naturally, you will also need your camera-computer connection cord. That connection is one of the main reasons for taking your computer with you. I took over 3,000 pictures on our recent trip and was able to see the results each day. iPhoto is a great friend for the picture-taking traveler. By downloading every day, I automatically had a date-stamped record of the pictures I’d taken and was able to organize with ease.

Chief among the reasons for taking peripherals with computer connections is that, in so doing, your Mac acts as a power converter for them. All you need to do is plug your Mac into the local wall outlet and you’re home free. But plugging into the outlet raises the issue of plug adapters. There are standard generic plug adapters but I recommend you stick with the Apple World Travel Adapter Kit ($40 in the power section at the Apple Store). The kit contains prongs for six different power systems around the world. Since your Mac’s power system senses and adjusts to the power it finds, all you need is the replacement prong for your power brick—that’s why the prong part is removable. I took two different prongs to Europe: one for England (nice people…weird plugs!) and one for the continent. I recommend that when you get the adapter set, you use a permanent marker to indicate on each prong the region it supports. Some of the plugs look almost identical. They’re not! By the way, using the adapters also means that you don’t need to take the thick power cord. Save the weight. Also, if you’re only taking an iPod, the kind people at Apple have standardized the plug assemblies on all the Apple power bricks, so this travel kit will allow you to charge your iPod as a stand-alone as well.

The Other Stuff

In addition to the basics, I decided to add a few extras. All of them were light-weight, and I thought they would be good to have along. As it turned out, some yes-some no.

The first item I added was a Belkin Digital Camera Link. About the size of an iPod, it allows you to insert a media card from your camera and upload your images to your iPod through the dock connector. I thought that there would be times when I was out for the day and would need to dump my pictures to make space for more. I did it once in five weeks. A much better solution would have been to use the $80 (they’re now $40) to buy another media card.

Another not-so-good idea was the purchase of an airplane power cord. I had visions of connecting to aircraft power and having my own in-flight movies without worrying about battery life. I carried the cord from the US to England to France to Italy to Spain to England and back to the US and never saw a power outlet that looked remotely like the “universal adapter” in my briefcase. Can you spell e-B-a-y?

The most expensive extra item I purchased for the trip was a SecuriKey. The SecuriKey package (Pro package—$130 at the Apple Store) consists of two identical USB “keys” and associated software that allows you to restrict access to your computer or chosen files unless one of the keys is present. I have a lot of important and sensitive information on my laptop. I felt that I had to have a means to protect the data if I was going to carry it along with me, so I thought the expense was worth it. Did I use it? Almost all the time, and especially when we were moving from place to place. I would have hated losing my computer but I would have really hated somebody getting into my Quicken files.

I normally travel with two sets of earbuds: my Apple buds and a pair of Shure E3c’s. The Shure pair is primarily for flights as the buds are very effective at blocking out ambient noise (they’re great for lawn mowing also), but for sitting around I prefer the Apple set for comfort. As my wife was traveling next to me, I also brought along a splitter for my iPod headphone jack as well as a cassette interface for our car rentals. All the cars had CD players only—thanks.

The final thing that I added to my electronic kit was a headset with a boom mike so that I could use Skype VOIP. When I had Internet access, that was a real savings, as phone calls from Europe are ridiculously expensive.

So How Did It Go?

With the exceptions noted above, everything went pretty much as planned. I had absolutely no problems with computer power or using my computer to keep both iPod and PDA well charged. For the most part, I used my computer to keep photos organized and stored, as a Skype VOIP tool, and to record my travel journal while actually traveling.

Internet access along the way was a function of where we were at the time. In Oxford, a university town, I had no problem. In rural France, I had nothing. In Rome it was Internet cafes. In Spain it was hit or miss. A few cafes had wireless access points but not many. Wireless access is much less common than in the States.

Finally, one last word. Before some thoughtful person sends me e-mail suggesting that if I was serious about “getting away from it all” I should have left my computer behind, let me state for the record that I did take my office e-mail offline before departure, put up an away message, and didn’t check my inbox until I was back home. I think that it’s helpful to take a lot of things along for a trip, but there are absolutely some things that need to be left behind.

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Reader Comments (2)

sylvan bluestein · May 17, 2009 - 19:43 EST #1
when I am away from home and wish to access my stuff on my Mac from my friends' can I get there ?
I did it so many years ago, now I've forgotten. Please remind me. SB
Lee Bennett (ATPM Staff) · May 17, 2009 - 23:12 EST #2
Sylvan - the quickest, free way of doing so is:

1. Go to the Sharing section of System Prefs on your Mac and enable file sharing.

2. If you are using a network router in your home, be sure to open port 548 and direct it to the local/internal IP address of the Mac you wish to reach while away.

3. Make note of your public IP address (the one assigned to you by your internet provider) or, even better, utilize a dynamic DNS service (I'm personally fond of to assign a named address to which you can connect. Many even have a small application you can run which will check your public IP at regular intervals and update the dynamic DNS name to point to the correct IP.

4. Connect to your IP address or the dynamic DNS name using the Connect To Server command in the Apple Finder's Go menu.

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