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Travel Connections

How to keep in touch when you're on the road.

By Joel Snyder

How do you keep connected while wandering the globe? I've been grappling with that for over a million frequent-flier miles. Here's a few of the things I've learned about the hardware and software designed for Internet users on the move.

Travel Accessories

One of the most impressive new offerings is a handy new computer that has replaced my old notebook: the Newton MessagePad 2000 ( http://www.newton.apple.com). The name may sound like something out of The Jetsons, but the MP2K (as the cognoscenti refer to it) is a heavy-duty portable computer that only weighs about 1.5 pounds--six pounds lighter than my laptop--and runs for a week on a set of batteries. This means no more wondering if I'm going to make it through a flight. And if the power gets low, AA batteries are available anywhere in the world. With the Newton, I no longer need to drag along a battery charger, floppies, or any other cumbersome laptop accessories.

The MessagePad is about the fifth generation of Newton, and this time they finally got it right. The 160MHz CPU runs fast enough to keep it up to speed, the backlight makes it usable at night, the handwriting recognition works even for my sloppy script, and it has all the applications that I find necessary on the road: e-mail, Web browser, word processor, Quicken, spreadsheet, calendar and scheduling, address book, and a VT100 terminal emulator (OK, you may not need that last one, but I do).

I've traveled with the Newton for three months and have yet to find a single reason to trade it back for my laptop. In fact, I've already written three Internet World columns on this computer. I bought mine for $1,050, but you will probably be able to get it for less by the time you read this.

Nevertheless, MessagePad does not replace the laptop in every aspect. For one thing, you're trading the desktop's 2GB hard disk for a 10MB flash RAM card. And, unlike a Mac or Windows machine, you don't have a choice of zillions of different applications.

Switching to the Newton for road trips also requires a change in philosophy. Before, the more fully loaded the portable computer, the better: lots of memory, disk space, applications, and I certainly couldn't live without a full-color display. Then I realized that much of what I was buying was going to waste on the road. Did I really need access to the last seven years of my checkbook in my hotel room? My 800-page Ph.D. dissertation? Postscript maps of every country in the world? Probably not. The MP2K is not the equal of a desktop computer; it's the complement to one. The Newton is easy to link to a desktop system and I've had no problems moving Microsoft Word documents and Now Up-to-Date scheduling information between systems.

Aside from weighing less, costing less, and running continuously on a long plane ride to Asia, the MP2K does some things a lot better than my old laptop. For one, it turns on in a fraction of a second. And if I want to take quick notes during a phone call, it's just as easy to write them on my Newton as on a piece of paper. As a travel assistant, the Newton outperforms my old laptop for all those little mundane tasks, like remembering when my flight leaves and where my hotel is located.

In addition, there's a new crop of Windows CE handhelds--WinCE is Windows on a handheld--comparable in size and weight to the Newton (http://www.microsoft.com/windowsce). However, the WinCE machine I tried didn't fit my needs nearly as well. I was glad to get the power and flexibility of Windows, but it felt more like a Windows system that had been crammed into a tiny box--I couldn't type on it without cramping my fingers. Of course, your mileage may vary.

Mobile Access

In any case, the Newton is just part of the picture. The next thing I needed was a way to stay online wherever I was. For some time now, my solution has been Sprynet, CompuServe's best-kept secret ( http://www.sprynet.com). Sprynet combines the best features of your local ISP with the breadth of a multinational network like CompuServe's.

Sprynet doesn't sell content the way that CompuServe does. Similar to a local ISP, it provides raw Internet access. With Sprynet, you dial up the local CompuServe access number and get directly on the Internet. No zany AOL, Prodigy, or CompuServe client between you and the Net--run whatever software you want.

Sprynet isn't the only one with global reach. IBM, MCI, AT&T, and others have similar offerings. But Sprynet's $4.95 price is the most economical. Sprynet has another edge for the business traveler: fewer busy signals than any other international carrier. I've dialed in from all over the United States, Spain, Germany, Switzerland, Ireland, and Italy, and have always gotten a great connection at a great price.

The Newton comes with a TCP/IP stack and a simple Web browser as well as a fairly strong e-mail client. If you're a Eudora fan, Qualcomm also has a version for the Newton ( http://www.eudora.com/newton). The MP2K has two PC Card (the format formerly known as PCMCIA) slots, so dropping in a modem is no problem. The only advice I'd give here is to stick with a well-known name brand. A cheaper, less reliable modem will cost you in the long run in terms of frustration and slow connections.

My ISP recently did a survey to find out what brands of modems work best on its dial-up service and discovered that US Robotics' Sportsters outperformed all other modems. The people who got slow connections almost always had some brand you never heard of or one of the new "Winmodems" (modems which use the Windows CPU to do some of their work, which keeps costs down), while the people who got consistently high-speed connections generally had name-brand modems, with the Sportster leading the pack. I'm not saying that the Sportster will always perform best, because every ISP and phone company will be different. I'm just pointing out that name-brand equipment will make your life easier for minimal cost difference.

The Wireless Way

The best part of my new on-the-road setup, though, isn't the Newton. It's wireless e-mail. With this feature you can go anywhere, turn on your computer, and download your e-mail.

That's all there is to it. Wynd Mail ( http://www.wynd.net) combines some software it wrote with easily available hardware and a wireless communications network that stretches all over the United States. The service receives mail on my behalf at its San Luis Obispo, Calif., offices and holds it there.

At my end, I bought a Megahertz Allpoints wireless PC Card. It's about $500 and looks like a normal PC Card with a wart on the end about the size of a 9V battery. Stick a battery in the wart, pull up the antenna, turn on the Newton, and wham! Down it comes. All the e- mail that's been sitting in California gets downloaded to my computer. I can read and respond to messages and send them out the same way.

This isn't full Internet connectivity. You only get e-mail. There are some wireless services that offer online Internet access, such as Ricochet ( http://www.metricom.com), but these are only available in a small number of cities so far.

But much of the time, e-mail is enough. I can get off the plane, turn my Newton on, and by the time I get to the other end of the airport, my outgoing messages will be on their way and incoming mail is downloaded and waiting to be read.

Wynd offers some other exceptional value-added services as well. Not only can you send e-mail to a fax machine, you also can deliver a message to someone who doesn't have an e- mail address. To do this, you compose a normal e-mail message and send it to the phone number of your recipient. The computers at Wynd will call the phone number and vocode the e-mail into voice. The resulting voice messages sound like a slightly inebriated Swede, but they're very understandable. And, if you can't live without your Web fix, you can even send Wynd a URL and it will mail you back a text-only version of the Web site.

Of course, this is not cheap. You pay by the packet, and the more you e-mail, the more it will cost. Wynd starts at $30 a month and goes up from there.

To get the most out of this service, I used a series of scripts on my mail system to filter mail when I'm out of town. Some goes wireless; some gets filed at home in Tucson for future reference; some goes both places; and some goes directly into the bit bucket. Before leaving, I activate the script (called "deliver" on my system; your ISP may have something similar called "procmail") and just the mail I want follows me.

Another reason I like Wynd mail is that it is not client-specific. I can use a Newton, a Mac Powerbook, desktop, and WinCE Windows machines all interchangeably. However, there are a few rough edges: Because Wynd mail isn't Internet mail, you can't use high-quality clients like Eudora. Instead, you have to use the client software Wynd gives you, which is far from bug-free. But even with the aggravation of buggy software, I still find wireless e- mail an invaluable tool for keeping in touch.

One last travel tip: Michael Shapiro's new book NetTravel: How Travelers Use the Internet (Songline Studios) is a well-researched guide on all aspects of traveling and the Internet ( http://www.songline.com). Although Shapiro's section on access to the Net while traveling is thin, he's done his homework on pre-trip research. The obvious down-side of any book containing URLs is that it can quickly become obsolete. Shapiro has, with varying degrees of success, tried to avoid that trap. He has included not only the de rigeur pointers to Web resources, but also text which gives anecdotes about travel and the Internet as well as general advice garnered from the sites he reviews. If you're planning business or leisure travel, NetTravel offers an easy way to get an overview and review of Web resources on the topic. Buy it and use it now, before it goes out of date.

Joel Snyder is a senior partner at Opus One in Tucson, Ariz.

Reprinted from Internet World magazine Vol. 8 No. 9, (c) 1997 Mecklermedia Corporation. All rights reserved.