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Road trip!

need to check e-mail, file reports, and generally stay in touch while you’re traveling. Fortunately, there are many ways to keep in touch.

When you’re on the road researching a book about some of the weird things in Pennsylvania (and who isn’t?), two things strike you right away. The first is that Pennsylvania is a pretty weird place–and I have several thousand pages of research to prove it. The second is that when you’re on the road anywhere, you’re not in front of your office computer.

Being separated from your main working computer poses a problem if you need to check e-mail, file reports, and generally stay in touch while you’re traveling. Fortunately, there are many ways to keep in touch–even if you’re a working author stuck somewhere between Venus and Mars (yes, Pennsylvania has towns named after the second and fourth planets). The best way I’ve found–one that avoids the whole business of having to synch up data between two systems–is to use a remote access Web service such as GoToMyPC or I’m In Touch from 01 Communique.

Both these services install a piece of server software on your home base PC and let you log in quickly from any Web browser on any computer, anywhere. Once you’ve logged on, you can mess around with whatever files and features you need while you’re on the road–including checking your e-mail. They use a log-in procedure that takes you through secure Web servers maintained by the two companies–and for that reason, they are both subscription services that you pay either monthly or yearly. Both of these services have their merits, but I like I’m In Touch a little better for two reasons–it costs only $100 a year, as opposed to GoToMyPC’s $180, and it works faster on slower connections, a feature that makes it very appealing for remote dial-up users.

In touch by mail

When you log into I’m In Touch, you jump through a couple more hoops than you do with GoToMyPC–for one thing, you need to remember the Web address, which is Compared to this, the simple is pretty easy to remember. But once you’re past that hurdle, any computer that handles secure socket connections (pretty much any computer with a Web browser) just puts you through.

With GoToMyPC, you need to download a player to view a scaled-down but accurate image of your home PC’s screen. This can either be a permanent plug-in, or for library or other public access machines that don’t allow you to install software, it’s a Java player. Either way, GoToMyPC asks a little more of you. And because GoToMyPC downloads a working image of Windows across your Internet connection, you experience slight delays when you move the mouse or click in the application–something that gets old fast.

Once you’re logged in via I’m In Touch, you see a prosaic-looking menu screen, not a reasonable facsimile of your home PC’s screen. But this series of links gives you really speedy access to all the features you want on your home PC–e-mail, file transfer, and file management. Because this approach doesn’t require a constantly updated graphical image of your home computer’s screen, it’s much more responsive–fast enough even to use on a slow dial-up line (which, you’ll shortly see, proved a real deal-maker). Certainly, you can click a link to get a remote-control screen, but if all you want to do is get a file from your home system or do some quick e-mail business, why bother with the delay?

Wireless wonder

So here I was in central Pennsylvania with a story to file on a notebook computer. Deadlines have a nasty way of striking when you’re driving somewhere without a convenient broadband or Wi-Fi access point. (Pennsylvania may put its state Web address on its license plates, but it doesn’t provide Boingo service on the turnpike.)

However, I do have a cell phone and a gizmo from that enables me to use it as an on-ramp to the Internet. Gomadic’s ComCube is a $50 set of cables that go between either a notebook computer or a Palm or Pocket PC handheld and many popular cellular phone brands (even my bulky old Kyocera 2255). You can configure it without having to install any software, and before you know it, you’re able to dial out and get online. It’s not the speedy connection–it’s actually an ancient 14.4Kbps connection–but for a quick e-mail check it’s adequate to the task.

In fact, I did manage to connect to I’m In Touch using the Gomadic setup and check my home PC’s e-mail, which meant that I didn’t even have to download any bulky attachment-laden messages. I just opened the messages I needed to, composed and sent the ones I had waiting, and got back to my research road trip.

So here I am in the wilds of the Keystone State. If anybody has any stories about weird happenings in Pennsylvania that I’ve not yet encountered for myself, drop me a line at I’ll pick up your mail while I’m on the road.

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