It wouldn’t be a geeky travel article without some kind of laptop recommendation. While I’m of the Mac persuasion these days, I’ve previously traveled with several excellent Lenovo notebooks, all of which were running Ubuntu.
Size is important. Keep in mind that the largest you can easily open during a flight is 14″ widescreen. My 13″ MacBook Pro is just the right size for Southwest Airlines’ Boeing 737 aircraft. Others prefer netbooks or tablet PCs — I have seen a plethora of iPads on planes and in the airport.
It’s important to ensure that your OS is in a stable state before you leave. Run updates and consider taking something else if the laptop is prone to overheating or other shenanigans. There’s nothing worse than apps crashing or Windows blue-screening during a presentation.
Power is a great concern, too. That, and battery life. Ensure that your devices are fully charged before leaving the house and minimize unnecessary activities which might drain the battery. Games will kill the battery, as will watching movies on optical media. Don’t be afraid to search around the airport or train station for a plug, but don’t be That Guy and unplug something.
Moreover, keep it clean. I have on more than one occasion observed folks watching porn or watching extremely violent movies in the company of strangers. While not illegal, it sure as hell won’t endear you to your fellow travelers.
When it comes to travel pointing devices and keyboards, I find my Macbook’s trackpad and keyboard to be sufficient. I do however bring a tiny generic travel mouse in the event I want to do a little bit of stress relief with Team Fortress 2.
Relying on hotel Internet is a poor life decision. Hotels generally have a pretty decent Internet connection, but in populated areas, it’s rarely free. Plus, when hundreds of people are using it simultaneously, it will be unbearably slow. Hotel WiFi is even more pernicious: some systems are sufficiently meshed to supply enough bandwidth, but the contention of the signals is bound to make everyone unhappy.
There are two solutions to the problem, aside from the obvious and inconvenient “go to a coffee shop” mantra: smartphone tethering and cellular modems.
Most smartphones can supply Internet through WiFi or Bluetooth tethering. Hell, even standard “dumbphones” have been able to tether via wire since at least the early 2000s. Watch out, though: many carriers charge extra for official tethering. However, in small amounts, they seem to rarely care. T-Mobile seems pretty cool about it, even when I’ve racked up ~500 MB down, ~100 MB up in a weekend. Needless to say, though, it’s not a safe solution unless you’re paying extra for it.
The other option is a celluar modem. These are commonly called “3G cards” or “AirCards” or the like. My employer provides these for traveling folk, with our choice of Verizon or AT&T. I’ve found that the AT&T network can get very congested in DC and that the drivers for my specific model cause infrequent crashes on OSX. I’ve never had a crash with the Verizon one, but the control panel for it is overbearing! That said, at their best, the AT&T one is faster, but the Verizon one is more reliable.
If you’re using a company device, make sure you know its whereabouts at all times and keep personal use to a minimum. Every company has it own policy. Some folks have a company device and a personal device. I hear that Virgin Mobile has a great month-to-month contract-less service with a cheap device, and it runs on the Verizon network.
If your hotel Internet is great or you have multiple folk traveling with you (or just hate having a dongle on the side of your laptop), consider a mobile router. These devices have a single Ethernet jack for connecting the main Internet connection and usually have a USB port for a cellular modem. Some have dual wireless cards so they can join a hotel network as a client and share a paid wireless Internet connection to a secure sub-network.
There’s another point: security. Under no circumstances should you consider hotel, airport, or other Internet secure unless all traffic is encrypted. Say that out loud, and memorize it. If your connection to a site isn’t SSL, your session could get highjacked (a quick Google search for “Firesheep” will reveal all). Better yet, use a VPN. You can sign up for VPN service from many vendors, use your company’s, or set up your own with DD-WRT. I run a PPTP VPN from my home router running DD-WRT. While not super secure, it is enough to deter casual or even somewhat determined malfeasants. Regardless, it’s best to do your banking and such when you’re home or on a direct Internet connection you can trust.
Colin Dean has been a writer for ThinkComputers since 2006.