Reflections #2: Travel Technology

Computing in our apartmentThis is a post that I have been meaning to write for a while but lack of time and / or access to the laptop have caused delay. I thought it would be helpful to record the technology that we use whilst travelling – the rationale for the decisions we made along with the lessons that we have learned – in order to provide some pointers for others in the same situation. Whilst I think that broadly we made the right decisions, there have been some surprises, so I hope that this is useful.

As ever, please give us feedback or ask questions using the comments section below the post.

Mobile Technology

The obvious place to start is with the key pieces of technology that travel with us:

Laptop

We thought long and hard about what computer / device to take with us for our primary computing workhorse. We made an early decision that the iPad would not be sufficient if we were going to be maintaining a blog and managing the photos we were bound to take. This has proven to be a good call (though there is a question as to whether we should have brought both).

Harder was choosing what laptop to take – even our smallest laptop was too heavy (2kg inc. charger), netbooks were too small in screen and keyboard (and too underpowered), and MacBook Air like Ultrabooks too expensive. In the end chose an Acer Aspire One 725 – AMD processor adequate (ish), 1.2kg inc. charger (the latter helpfully integrated into the plug), 11″ screen and c. £350 from John Lewis.

This has proved to be a godsend – it has been used every day (with the exception of the Inca Trail where it got left in the hotel) – and it is always in demand. Both of us would have liked to have more use of it. It is principally used for writing blog posts, managing photos (we are taking an average of over 60 photos per day),  booking transport and accommodation, tracking expenses, keeping up with email, Skyping family.

Phones

Because of the demand for the laptop, we don’t use it much for keeping up with news on the Internet. Before we left, we had many discussions as to whether to bring our smartphones with us. I was initially hesitant because of the possibility of losing or breaking them and because I thought we might value long battery life and SMS ability more. I was wrong and we are really glad we brought them with us.

These are our primary devices for browsing the internet, reading email (not necessarily writing them though) and checking on Facebook and Twitter. Because of their portability they can be carried with us most of the time and so we can jump on a WiFi hotspot in a pub or cafe. It also means that one of us can be browsing the Internet whilst the other is using the laptop.

They have also been pressed into use as emergency cameras. There have been several occasions when we have gone out (usually for evening meal) and left the cameras behind in the hotel only to come across something worth photographing. Never be without a camera!

Janet has kept her UK SIM in her phone with the intention of using it for urgent texts and emergency phone calls. We have not had a need for either yet. I don’t have a SIM in my phone. Essentially, we both entirely rely on WiFi (of which, I have more to say below).

One deficiency in both my (Samsung Omnia 7 – Windows Phone 7) and Janet’s (Samsung Galaxy SII – Android) phone is in mapping. Because neither phone have downloadable maps or turn-by-turn navigation software, we need to be connected to the Internet in order for maps to work well. The current plan is for us both to upgrade to Windows Phone 8 phones once we get to Australia and this will fix both problems (so long as one of the phones is a Nokia).

Kindle

I have been a Kindle user for some years now and absolutely love it. Janet is a more recent convert but for both of us our Kindles have meant that we have an inexhaustible supply of books for very little weight.

Overall, I find reading on the Kindle at least as easy as reading a paper book, but one area where Kindle books don’t work quite so well is travel guides. Lonely Planet have published a number of their guides in Kindle format and we have bought the South America and Pacific Island guides. Because you tend to read the guide in a non-linear manner – you want to jump in to read about the town you are going to next – it means that we are constantly going back to the contents page.

However, this is a small price to pay and the Kindle is still much lighter than even a single Lonely Planet guide.

Pen & Paper

Some things don’t change, however. I brought with me an A6 notebook with a hard plastic cover and spiral binder that was just big enough to slip a pen in. I had been using this to keep notes for my Spanish lessons but when we went on the Inca Trail and I couldn’t take the laptop, I kept notes for the blog in my notebook.

It was so useful that I have now bought a separate notebook that I carry around with me all of the time and I use for jotting notes – particularly on my blog days. This is one area where old technology still beats new.

Janet has 3 smaller notebooks that she uses for different purposes, the prime one being to track our expenditure by noting the cost of anything we buy, the second for Spanish and the third for notes for future destinations and occasionally blog notes and plans.

Backup

We have too many important documents – not to mention unique photos – to go without a backup strategy. I hope what we have is belt, braces and extra braces – I’ve seen too many computer disasters in my professional life. Our backup strategy is 3-fold and best of all 2 parts of it are automatic and require little intervention from me:

  1. We have (now) got a 500GB portable hard disk with a USB connection that the computer automatically backs up to (thank you Windows 8 File History);
  2. We use Microsoft SkyDrive to automatically copy our photos and key documents (itineraries, scans of passports, etc) up onto the Internet. See further below for more on SkyDrive – it really is incredibly useful.
  3. I periodically copy photos onto spare SD cards which are to be sent home in the post or with friends that we make along our route;

This is what we need!Software We Use

There are some key pieces of software that we use on the laptop, most of which are free.

Live Writer

Our blog posts are all written off-line using Live Writer which is one of the programs in Microsoft’s Windows Essentials suite. Using this software, we can draft, review and edit our blog entries including positioning and aligning the pictures and any videos or ancillary elements to the blog.

We take it in turns to write diary blog entries, but we review each other’s posts – an old work habit that helps fix silly mistakes and improves the consistency of the blog. Once reviewed, Live Writer transfers the post up to the blog site where I do a final check on the layout (and add the Google map addresses) before publishing the post.

Photo Gallery

On average, we take over 60 photos a day – we are currently around 7,000 photos taken. We quickly realised that if we didn’t stay on top of sorting out the photos, we would have an impossible task when we get home.

So, every day as part of our blog writing process, we import (copy) photos from our cameras onto the computer, tag them with the country and city/town where they were taken and rate – on a 1* to 5* basis – the days haul of photos. (1* photos are blurred or otherwise unusable, 2* are placed in an archive probably never to be looked at again. About half of our photos are 3* or better).

To do this, we use Windows Photo Gallery (again, part of Windows Essentials). This cracking little (free) program also allows us to do some basic manipulation on our photos – many photos are improved by cropping and some by straightening or tweaking the brightness or contrast. Tagging the photos with country, town or place also gives us a fighting chance of being able to find and sort photos when we get home.

Skype

Another program in the ‘how would we manage without it’ category is Skype. As well as allowing us to talk (for free) to our family, we have also used the Skype-out facility to call UK landlines (including O84X numbers). This has been used to call the airline to change flight times and by friends to call their bank when their credit cards stopped working. Much much cheaper than placing international calls and much simpler than trying to work out how to make and pay for calls in strange countries.

Office – Excel & OneNote

The only non-free software that is on our essential list is the Microsoft Office Suite. We particularly use Excel (primarily for tracking expenditure but for tracking other things too – e.g. backup of photos). The new version of Office (2013) also makes good use of SkyDrive – helping with backup and allowing documents to be shared between us (and others if need be).

OneNote is a note taking and sharing application that we have been using since the very early days of planning the trip. We have used it to jot down notes on itineraries and shopping lists and even places that we want to visit. I’m even using it to track the films and TV programmes that I want to catch up on when I get back. There are OneNote apps for both of our phones and so we can always view and update any of the pages.

In The Cloud

Important as the technology that we have brought with us is, we rely on some key technologies that are in the Internet.

Blog Hosting

Most obviously is the web site for our blog. Our blog is hosted by SGIS and it costs us £30/year. I chose SGIS because the responded promptly to my sales enquiry and also some support requests. The blog uses the WordPress platform and we customised the Travel Blogger them from www.freetravelwebsites.com (yes, really).

We previously tried the prepackaged blog sites (www.wordpress.com, www.squarespace.com & Travelpod) and found that they didn’t give us the flexibility we wanted and if we wanted to have them on www.thehornseys.com they would cost money anyway.

Starting the blog a year or so before we left allowed us to fine tune the layout and gave me time to explore how best to set up the Google maps and Facebook integration. (The former seems to be much more useful in practice than the latter).

SkyDrive

SkyDrive has been a real revelation, particularly as it has improved dramatically over the last year (or less). Microsoft provide 7GB free (25GB if you have previously used SkyDrive) and more for low cost. You can then backup, synchronise and share files from your computer (or phone) up to SkyDrive.

We use this to back up all of our photos, music and documents needed for the round the world trip. Even if all our our luggage is lost or stolen, I know that our key documents won’t be lost. Also, because of the phone integration, I can view and edit documents on my phone if need be.

Money

Whilst we have brought credit cards with us, they are for emergency use only and are stored with the passports. Instead we have a Caxton FX Currency Card, which can be used like a credit/debit card but only has accessed to funds that are loaded onto it through the web site. In this way, if the card is stolen or cloned, there is no link to our bank account. We do, however, need to keep topping up the funds on the card and periodically downloading statements.

Things We Rely On

We do rely on access to both WiFi and electricity – it sounds obvious, but I hadn’t appreciated some of the details.

WiFi Lessons

WiFi is pretty ubiquitous everywhere we have been so far, with the exception of Cuba. Most hotels, bars and restaurants have (free) WiFi as well as most airports and even some parks or public squares. We have, however, learned that not all WiFi hot spots are created equally.

Many smaller hotels and restaurants seem to go out and by one or more wireless routers intended for home use. It seems that these just can’t cope with having tens or hundreds of people drift in, connect up and then move on. There have been many times where one or all of our wireless devices either haven’t been able to connect, or once connected haven’t been able to download web pages. Where we have been able to convince the proprietor to switch the router off and then on again, this has always worked.

Open hotspots are oddly more trouble than secure (password protected) hotspots. Its easy to ask for the password, but open hotspots sometimes more hoops for you to jump through (provide an email address or even require payment).

Whether open or secure, I am very nervous about WiFi security – basically you should assume that there isn’t any and that you are just broadcasting your passwords (thank you LastPass) and bank account / credit cards to anyone who wants to listen. The only protection is to use Virtual Private Network (VPN) software. We use Kick Ass Proxy which I hesitate to recommend as it has not been entirely problem free – other people recommend HotSpot Shield.

It is extra work and hassle, but not as much hassle as having bank account emptied or credit cards cloned.

Electricity

Skross Universal Power AdaptorWe did know that we would need access to electricty to recharge batteries on the laptop, cameras, phones and Kindles. The good news was that everything other than the laptop charges from a USB port and so we bought a Skross World Travel Adaptor with 2 USB ports.

It has been incredibly useful, especially in countries that use a US style 2 flat pin mains socket, where we have been able to have the USB section and the main section in different sockets. In Argentina and Chile where they have different mains sockets, things have been more problematic and we have had to choose whether to charge laptop or USB devices. This has needed more planning and forethought!! (Hopefully, todays purchase of a 50p mains adaptor will help that dilemna!)

A more fundamental problem has been that the hotels we have been in have been uniformly short of mains sockets – sometimes only one available socket in the room (and that after unplugging the bedside light). Once this was in the bathroom. Also, because the plug converter and the power adaptor are quite tall when connected together and quite heavy, there is sometimes not enough purchase in the mains socket to stop it all falling out. We have been known to wedge the whole lot in place with the leg of a table or prop them up on a daypack.

 

Basically, we have been surprised by the need to think and plan ahead and to keep the batteries on our electronic gadgets topped up whenever possible.

From A Professional Perspective

Finally, some thoughts and observations that tie back to my work life. Most people know that I am a user of Microsoft technologies, that I am a fan of Windows Phone, that I think Microsoft are innovating rapidly and that their approach is a good middle ground between the tight control of Apple systems and the lack of control in Google systems.

My background is in corporate IT systems and so I am used to dealing with people who know, understand and (more often than not) use Microsoft systems and technologies. Microsoft wants (and in the long term, needs) to be a technology supplier to consumers as well as business users. And so it has been fascinating to spend time with other people and to see what technology they use and how they use it. It is clear that Microsoft has a big mountain to climb if they want to achieve their goals.

Whilst some people have Hotmail email accounts and a few others have brought Windows laptops on their travels, nobody thinks about Microsoft in the way they think of Apple. (I’m not even sure that people know that Hotmail or Skype are Microsoft brands – but everyone knows that iPad is Apple).

Nobody seems to know about SkyDrive – they use DropBox instead. People use Google for their searches and don’t worry that their privacy is being compromised. They are excited about Apple stuff – and seem to think they have paid less for it than they really have.

A strange world and if I were Microsoft, I’d be worried.

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One Response to Reflections #2: Travel Technology

  1. Gavin says:

    Check OsmAnd+ on the android for offline maps, I have not mastered it and needs to be learned rather than being intuitive but does claim offline maps. Good post, other tools I like Carbonite for automated cloud backup but needs good internet for the first full backup. Dual sim phones if you need a local cheap Sim and UK one for emergencies, I have a cheap Nokia one but have since invested in an android one for work / personal sims in the same device. Kindle ++++, great invention. Assume you keep the USB drive and laptop in different bags 🙂 Keep up the posts.

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