Accessing the Internet on the road requires mastering a special set of skills, finding inexpensive services, and gathering appropriate tools.by Joel Snyder
If you've been watching carefully, you might have realized that I write many of my Internet World columns on the road. Since I spend one day in three out of town, this makes sense. Along the way, I've come to love some technology tools and toys specifically designed for the wanderer--and have learned to hate others. If you're an Internet techno-traveler, these picks and pans might be of interest.
The principal weapon in the arsenal of the roving Internaut is the handy notebook computer. In my case, it's an Apple Powerbook loaded to the gunwales with software. I also carry a little ditty bag of hardware: Ethernet adapter, modem (in addition to the built-in one), cables, phone adapters, European power plug (not a transformer; the Mac doesn't care whether you feed it 120 or 220 volts), and a spare battery.
That extra modem is important. The Powerbook does have an internal modem but it's a miserable excuse for a data communications device. I carry the Telebit Q-Blazer, possibly the finest modem you can buy that fits in a cube about 2 inches on a side, including the 9-volt battery. When the built-in Global Village modem won't connect (which is quite often, particularly when going through hotel phone systems), the Q-Blazer always comes through. With modems, you truly get what you pay for.
By the way, why a Mac and not a PC? For me, the tradeoffs are worth it: The battery life is poor and the Mac weighs more than comparably powerful PCs, but I prefer to spend my time using my computer, not fighting with it.The Mac is fundamentally simple, which is what I need most of the time, yet it can be extremely versatile when required. I bring SoftWindows (which I call "SlothWindows" because of its mind-numbing slowness) to run the occasional Windows program. For Unix, I carry the incredible MachTen from Tenon Intersystems, which gives me a full Unix development system, including X Windows. The Mac even reads and writes DOS-format floppies automagically, which is great.
If you can, get a notebook that you're comfortable using as your desktop computer. Why? Synchronizing hard disks on two or more computers is a headache. The Internet is great, but I like to take my data with me, which means trying to keep track of whatever I've been doing and pulling it down to the portable when I travel. I've been trying to find a good program to automatically synchronize my Powerbook hard drive with the hard drives at home, but I haven't found one that does the job the way I want it done. I can't even remember the names of all the ones that don't work.
On the other hand, I recently discovered StuffIt from Aladdin Systems, the Swiss army knife of file formats. It packs and unpacks, compresses and decompresses, encodes and decodes every file format I need. This program comes in shareware and commercial versions and is the only way I could possibly keep with me all the data and software I need. If you insist on a Windows notebook, take along WinZip, from Nico Mak, which does much the same thing for Windows systems.
A technomad is no good without a Net connection, so finding a cheap, reliable path to the Internet is a top priority. After trying lots of alternatives, I've settled on a personal 800 (WATS) number. Mine's from AT&T, but MCI and Sprint offer similar programs. I can dial my 800 number from anywhere in the United States. One reason WATS is so attractive is that you can dial an 800 number from virtually any place, including most hotels, usually for free. Other ways of making long-distance calls, such as 0+dialing and credit cards, are generally much more of a hassle and often incur fees when dialing from hotels.
My personal 800 number has a password, so I don't pay for random demon dialers, and it costs less than a credit card call--about 19 cents a minute during prime time, lower at night. A nice feature is that the number the 800-number points to doesn't have to be yours.
Mine is aimed at my Internet service provider, which doesn't even know what I'm doing. To set this up for yourself, call your long-distance provider (try dialing 00 at your home phone to get to the long-distance operator) and see what program it has. AT&T's costs me $4.50 a month, plus usage.
Of course, making that dial-in connection requires extending TCP/IP out to the notebook; fortunately, this isn't the same black magic it was a year ago. Apple itself provides the TCP/IP stack, but Mac users have to add a SLIP or PPP LAP (link access protocol) component to tie everything together. I use MacSLIP ( Hyde Park Software) which, despite its name, includes SLIP, CSLIP, and PPP. It's got the most features of all the Mac LAPs I know, which is important for someone trying to dial in from a different strange place every week.
On the Windows side, I've had best results for dial-in service using the Shiva PPP dialer I got with Netscape Navigator Personal Edition. What a deal: $40 on sale, and you not only get a good-karma license to Navigator, but a stack that doesn't take the machine down at random times. The Shiva software is stripped-down, featureless, and inappropriate for corporate LANs, but most of the missing parts aren't useful to dial-in users anyway. I've also had good results with the built-in PPP in Microsoft's Windows 95, which also has a built-in dialer and scripting language.
After connecting, the next important task is e-mail. To optimize your time online, I recommend Eudora from Qualcomm, an e-mail program that comes in both Mac and Windows flavors. Eudora lets you download all your waiting messages, respond to the ones you care about, and upload the responses, all at modem speeds. You don't pay for "think time" while reading or writing mail; you can disconnect the phone line between downloads and uploads. Eudora is available as Eudora Pro (about $50 from your favorite software store or mail-order house) or Eudora Light, which is freeware and 95 percent as good as the commercial version.
I tried the built-in e-mailer that comes with Netscape Navigator 2.x and ran screaming back to Eudora. Sure, it lets you see GIFs someone might have mailed you inline, a feature only slightly more useful than a salad shooter. If you haven't tried Eudora, give it a test-drive. Trust me, it's better than whatever you're using now.
And now for my moment of shame: the Web. I can't tell you what the best Web browser for travelers is because I don't use one when I'm paying 20 cents a minute. Sorry, that's too expensive for my taste. When push comes to shove and I absolutely have to grab something off the Web, I usually fire up Netscape 1.2, but it's a serious hog when it comes to memory, disk, and CPU--none of which are abundant when I'm on the road. Java, the main reason to change to Netscape 2.x, is currently too buggy and insecure to be worth the benefits.
Of course, things are different when I get home. As always, your mileage may vary. In either case, don't forget to pay for your Netscape license. Navigator is not freeware unless you're still in school.
One last thing that's always with me when I travel: a good book. After all, there's more to life than the Internet.
Joel Snyder is a senior partner at Opus One in Tucson, Ariz..
Reprinted from Internet World magazine Vol. 7 No. 8, (c) 1996 Mecklermedia Corporation. All rights reserved.