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.
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.)
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