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You Can Take it With You

Mobile technology at its finest. When I caught myself disconnecting the ergonomic Salvador Dali-style curved keyboard from my desktop computer and stuffing it in my laptop case, I came to a stunning conclusion: No matter what time of year it is, it’s always travel season. If I needed to take along my trusty 101-key insurance policy against wrist problems, I was clearly spending a lot of time working away from my desk.

And to make that happen, I was taking more and more stuff with me. Travel isn’t just about taking your work life on the road: It’s also about providing yourself with creature comforts. And that’s exactly what my new Travel Pack o’ Technology is all about. It’s everything I need to keep my sanity and work together when I travel. And that’s no small feat.

Video to Go

It’s no secret around here that I have a serious movie habit. In the right company, I can spend half an hour in a conversation that consists of nothing but movie quotations. I made a T-shirt after watching The Shining that drives my wife to distraction–it consists of nothing but the words All work and no play makes Jack a dull boy in a typewriter font. So when I’m on the go, I like to take movies with me. But I don’t like to take the actual discs, and I don’t always want to drain my notebook battery to watch them.

Fortunately, I found a neat program for getting all kinds of video stuffed onto a Sony PSP that I commandeered from a stray teenager I found in the house one day. (He says he’s my son, but he looks older than I remember.) Diversified Multimedia’s $40 Video Vault takes video from all kinds of sources and shrinks them to fit on the PSP. I’ve ripped the content from DVDs and VideoCDs, MPEG files from the mighty, AVIs, ASF, WMV, and TIVO footage and slapped them onto a 512MB Memory Stick ready for the PSP, and enjoyed hours of small-screen entertainment in the process. Better yet, the video is also catalogued in a vault on my notebook, so I can watch them on a larger screen too. The program has its own quirks, but as a quick way to get film onto the PSP, it’s hard to fault.

Audio to Go

As you drive, there’s nothing that quite beats listening to music or books on CD–but actually carrying the CDs is a real nuisance. If I can blag an iPod from somebody, I’ll use that, but it’s against the law in most states to wear earphones or earbuds while driving. I’ve test-driven several FM modulators that plug into iPods and broadcast the signal on a radio frequency for your car radio to pick up.

Many of these modulators are prone to static, though, which ruins the experience. One exception is the Sonnet PodFreq, a $50 cradle with a large and easy-to-read LCD to display the frequency. It’s not the cheapest device, by all means, but it comes with a car charger and cradle that make it a good deal.

Trouble is, I don’t actually have an iPod of my own. So if I can’t borrow one, I use my own 1GB MuVo from Creative, a $130 USB memory stick with an LCD panel in it that slots into its own audio playing sleeve. With a single AAA battery, it plays WMAs, MP3s, and a whole lot more. And since it’s basically a memory stick, it’s also a great data shuttle.

Of course, it’s still a portable stereo, and iPod radio transmitters won’t work on it. So I added a RoadMaster VRFM modulator to the mix. This device slots into a cigarette lighter and accommodates a USB memory stick or audio from a line-in socket, and broadcasts it on your choice of FM radio channels. Tune your car radio to a matching channel, and you get to play any WMA or MP3 track on your memory stick, or anything from a Walkman or Dictaphone through its headphone socket. Very handy stuff, especially for cars with CD players but no cassette decks.

Just a hint though: The Roadmaster line (also marketed under the brand name V3) had some less capable models in it: The minimum device you’ll want is the $35 VRFM8, which enables you to recall the last FM channel used and the last song played on a memory stick, and to shuffle tracks.

Custom Covers

Companies have a habit of issuing everyone with the same laptop, which can lead to “Is this mine or yours?” sessions at the end of meetings. Since I’m not afraid to stand out in meetings, I added a distinctive look to my laptop. SkinIt has made custom fit vinyl covers for cellphones and iPods for yonks now, and they’re also throwing notebook skins in to the mix.

Their designs vary from fine art to rock group logos to comic book images, and you can also have your own digital photos made into a really customized skin. The IT department can’t complain because it’s completely detachable, and it’s a good way to gussy up the dull gray of most laptops. Skins for notebooks aren’t particularly cheap–they start at $25 and can go a bit higher for licensed images.

…and One Bag to Rule Them All

Of course, too much tech takes up too much space, and the classic laptop shoulder bag just doesn’t accommodate it all. You end up crushing everything into the zippered flap pocket, and the thing gets more unsightly bulges than you see at the beach at Ocean City. That’s why you should look into bags from TenbaGear or Roadwired. These sister companies know how to cram all kinds of tech into properly padded pockets, and can accommodate entire pro camera or LCD projector rigs in carry-on friendly sizes.

Far and away my favorite bag of all time is a Tenba PBC line of backpack with pockets for 15 or 17-inch laptops, Velcro pads to create custom wells for digital cameras and lenses, and space for all the rest of the gear in this column–the smaller model PBC 15, contains a full 110 cubic inches of space.

With a little creative work, you can get the Velcro-fixed pads to fit around your favorite keyboard and all your essential travel tech. Now that makes for a great trip.

Contributing Editor Matt Lake writes SOHO Advisor monthly for ComputerUser.

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