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A Tech Travelogue

At the end of a business trip, it's good to do a couple of things. One is to luxuriate in the rediscovered pleasure of bathrooms in which the soap isn't shrouded in a little paper bag. The other is to take stock of what kinds of technology worked and which ones did not, so the next trip can run a little smoother.

So here's how I went about covering CES and Macworld this time around.

The most important tool for a reporter on a road is a laptop, and this time around my computer was a Dell Latitude D420 loaned out by The Post's IT department. This was a pretty good machine in most respects: Its battery life was excellent (I didn't clock it, but I could have left the power adapter in the hotel for most days), its SD Card slot simplified photo transfers from my camera and it weighed a shoulder-friendly 3.3 pounds with the CD/DVD base detached.

And yet: Every USB port sat at the back of the machine, forcing me to turn it around every time I plugged in a flash drive; its non-illuminated keyboard was difficult to type on during keynote addresses in darkened theaters; and its copy of Windows sometimes failed to go in or out of sleep mode when I closed or opened the screen. (My hopes of watching a movie saved on the hard drive were dashed when I opened the computer on the plane and saw that it had gotten stuck on the "Preparing to enter standby mode..." prompt earlier; after two or three hours in that undead state, the machine had only 42 minutes of runtime left. I read a book instead.)

For Internet access, I relied on a mix of WiFi and wired Ethernet. My hotel in Vegas only provided Ethernet in the room (at $11.99 a day), and in the CES pressroom, only Ethernet worked with any reliability. (That show may feature the collective brainpower of most of the computing industry, but it's still where WiFi goes to die.) My connectivity was much better in San Francisco, between the free WiFi at the hotel and the reliable wireless at the Moscone Center press areas. Of the five (!) airports I had time to wait in before departures, only one offered free and useful WiFi, which I was even able to use from my seat on the plane until they closed the door: Las Vegas's McCarran. National's and O'Hare's free WiFi only extends to looking up airport and airline info. All other access costs extra. LAX and Oakland didn't even offer that.

(Read after the jump for another misadventure with wireless networking.)

The other tool I used most often was a battered old Palm Treo smartphone, on which I kept my schedule and took notes whenever I was standing up. I'm starting to feel like some kind of freak for doing so -- even developers at Google repeatedly expressed disbelief that such a thing was possible, so I kept explaining that it was worth mastering thumb-typing to be able to come home with electronic notes that I can easily search, share and back up.

The next time I think a handheld phone keyboard is easy, I'll have to scale my assessment to a more typical user's dexterity with tiny buttons.

I took along a second Palm on the trip -- the Centro smartphone I'd reviewed back in October -- to see how well it would do under intense e-mail and Web use. To my amazement, it never crashed or froze while browsing Web pages; its e-mail software, however, was not so swift, taking way too long to check for new mail and often locking up the phone when logging onto my home account.

I shot the photos and video that accompanied my blog posts with a Canon PowerShot A570is. About the only negative comments I can make here are that this camera is a little thick, even for one using AA batteries, and that its video files were inconveniently large. A longer-range optical zoom than 4x would have been nice too. Otherwise, this cheap, capable machine did everything I needed. Its optical image stabilization was particularly handy, making most of my indoor shots possible in the first place.

I can endorse one other item I used almost daily -- the pair of Ecco shoes I'd bought a week or so before CES. Those things may be on the expensive side, but they look good and didn't hurt my feet after a day of tromping around the Las Vegas Convention Center.


The friends I stayed with in L.A. had a wireless network that, left in a default and unsecured state, offered a weak, sometimes intermittent connection. So they asked if I could fix that -- and if I'd stuck to changing a few settings on their old Netgear router, things would have been fine.

But noooo, I had to download a firmware update that required a factory reset of the router -- after which neither it nor the Verizon-issued DSL modem would even see the Internet. A 12-minute phone call to Verizon tech support got the modem reset, but the router still refused to detect the connection -- even though this was the absolute simplest kind of "DHCP" setup, in which the service provider sends down every required address automatically.

It seemed that I had killed my hosts' wireless network instead of fixing it. I felt like I'd just backed over their cats -- with their car.

But when I took one last stab at setting up the router the next morning, it immediately sensed the connection and was back online in a few seconds. The network was a lot more reliable and faster after I'd enabled encryption, in addition to changing the network name and, most important, the router password from the defaults. (After seeing a settings dialog that described a wide-open network as having an "Authentication Type" of "Automatic," I could see how a beginner could think he or she already had a secured network.)

By Rob Pegoraro  |  January 18, 2008; 12:50 PM ET
Categories:  The business we have chosen  
Save & Share:  Send E-mail   Facebook   Twitter   Digg   Yahoo Buzz   StumbleUpon   Technorati   Google Buzz   Previous: Your Macworld Questions, Answered
Next: A Picture-Editing Checklist


Encryption makes the wireless faster and more reliable? That's the first time I've heard that one. In my experience, when people enable the encryption, the odds of people being able to even connect drop to about 1 in 3. Since encryption can be defeated so easily it offers almost no benefit against criminals, I've given up and just rely on MAC address filtering.

Posted by: slar | January 18, 2008 1:05 PM | Report abuse

Re: Slar's comment: Encryption will certainly make your network faster and more reliable if it keeps your neighbors from using your Internet connection for their BitTorrent downloads.

Posted by: Jonathan Tappan | January 18, 2008 1:29 PM | Report abuse

I had a similar problem trying to upgrade the firmware on my router. After I did it, some of the router's functions stopped working and speeds dropped in half. So I ended up reverting the router to the old firmware and everything worked fine. I'm too wary to try upgrading the firmware anymore.

Posted by: dgc | January 18, 2008 1:36 PM | Report abuse

Rob - Canon A570 is a good camera but if you want smaller and thinner with more zoom, look at the Panasonic Lumix® DMC-TZ3. 7MP 10x optical zoom AND Optical Image Stabilization. Reviewers highly rate the picture quality. Almost bought one myself but went with the larger DMC-FZ18 with 18x optical zoom, because, you know, bigger is always better!

Posted by: DLD | January 18, 2008 2:09 PM | Report abuse

So far I haven't noticed any extra connections on the DHCP table. Unless someone has mimiced my MAC address (in which case I'd be powerless to keep them out anyway...) that doesn't explain mediocre wireless network stability.

Posted by: slar | January 18, 2008 2:13 PM | Report abuse

Some lamer hijacked my router yesterday. I know because they reset the WEP key. Why, I don't know, as I just used an ethernet cable to plug it into the Mac and fixed it.

I'm not trying to keep everyone out, just trying to keep automatic connections from connecting. If you want to borrow my bandwidth you have to take the extra step, not hard, of breaking the WEP key.

Resetting the key after is just lame and, if done again, will force me to get a new router that does WPA2 with shared keys.

Posted by: wiredog | January 18, 2008 2:58 PM | Report abuse

I love my Eccos too! I'll never buy another brand of dress shoe.

Posted by: BR | January 18, 2008 11:33 PM | Report abuse

Rob, I've got the same Canon camera and love it. It is also one of the last cameras out there with a viewfinder in addition to the screen. Have you noticed that the new Kodak cameras are omitting the viewfinder?!? Clear, crisp action shots can be taken with the image stabilization on the 570is, too. I'm very happy with this -- upgraded from a small Fuji that died. It is great using rechargeable AA batteries after a camera without that feature.

Posted by: rjrjj | January 19, 2008 10:29 AM | Report abuse

My preferred small digicam for everyday use is the Canon SD850 IS Digital ELPH: 8 MP, viewfinder, 4X zoom, image stabilization, face recognition, and more. The viewfinder means 2.5" display instead of the 3" display in the newer SD870 IS, but I like the viewfinder and the longer zoom of the 850 IS.
If you take more short movies than photos, the Sanyo CG 65 is an interesting alternative, though not as good a digicam.

Posted by: TonyW | January 19, 2008 10:50 AM | Report abuse

CES blew MacWurld out of the water!

Posted by: steve ballmer | January 21, 2008 6:54 AM | Report abuse

Fake Steve Ballmer is lame. It isn't even funny.

Posted by: Ed Parsons | January 21, 2008 10:15 AM | Report abuse

Can I ask a dumb question? Why is a build in SD Card slot superior to using a USB cable to suck photos from Camera to Laptop?

I see this mentioned in a lot of computer reviews - often in the context of how Macs don't have the slots. I have a Mac and have never felt like I was hobbled by using a cable instead of pulling the card out of my camera.

Care to enlighten me?

Posted by: Todd | January 21, 2008 3:56 PM | Report abuse

Having an SD card slot can give two main advantages:
1) You aren't using your camera's battery power to transfer pictures
2) You may be able to copy pictures at a rate faster than the camera could support

That said, the disadvantage of the built-in readers on laptops is they can get dirt and dust caught in them--my old Palm had that issue with its SD slot. I personally prefer just using a compact USB reader.

Posted by: BR | January 21, 2008 11:41 PM | Report abuse

Agreed on the Eccos. When I worked as a valet and was on my feet nine hours a day they were the best recommendation I was ever given.

Now, on to your Wi-Fi availability comments. Kind of shows how the MacBook Air is way ahead of its time, to the degree of being a fashion statement that is not going to be very fashionable when it can't get the job done.

Posted by: Mike Barton | January 21, 2008 11:57 PM | Report abuse

Another advantage to an SD slot: you don't have to carry a cable.

Posted by: Dan | January 31, 2008 8:10 AM | Report abuse

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