Taking Your Macintosh on the Road

First Published: Internet World
Date Published: June 1995
Copyright © 1995 by Kevin Savetz

So you're taking your Mac on the road with you? The thought of going a month (or a week, or a day!) without so much as a byte of e-mail makes you long for home...or perhaps your business can't survive unless you have ready access to the Internet. Fear not -- pack your bags, take your Mac with you, step aboard that roomy airliner, and use these tips to save money, time and your sanity on the way.

The Call

Once you and your Powerbook have arrived, having braved fierce flight attendants, x-ray machines and baggage handlers, it's time to settle down in your hotel room and dial in. But it will cost you.

If you've ever made a call directly from a hotel phone, you know that hotels usually overcharge for phone calls. Local call or long distance, hotel phone charges can be venomous. They know you're at they're mercy, so they charge you the highest phone rates imaginable. (The fine print on the "guest services" card of one hotel I recently stayed at noted that the hotel charged AT&T's highest daytime, operator-assisted rate, plus 25 percent. Ouch.) Your best recourse is to avoid using the hotel's long distance service.

Instead, consider these two options: use a long distance calling card or dial into an Internet provider with an 1-800 number. Both require pre-planning but will save you money.

With a calling card, charges are billed to your (or your office's) phone bill rather than the hotel's line. It's simple and (relatively) cheap. Instead of simply dialing your service provider, your modem will have to dial the phone company, an access code, a password, then your provider. It can be a challenge to get your modem to dial all those digits with the precise timing of a dual tone multifrequency tap dancer but, with patience, it works.

On the other hand, if you're traveling within the in United States or Canada, you may find it easier to log in using an Internet Service Provider's toll-free 800 number. An 800 number can be dialed from just about anywhere -- the hotel, an airport pay phone, or a colleague's office -- without racking up any long distance charges at all. As you might expect, there ain't no such thing as a free lunch: 800 numbers are expensive. Your service provider will charge a stiff fee for using the 800 line, usually from $8 to $10 hourly. (MCI Communications offers Internet via an 800 number for $6.50 for each hour of access.) Depending on your phone company, this may be more or less expensive than using a calling card for access.

The Connection

Once you're connected, what will you need to do? Most Powerbook-toting Internauts just want to stay in touch using e-mail, and don't need to use the Web, Usenet news, and FTP while on the road. Do you really need SLIP or PPP access while you're away? Although it's not particularly elegant, a simple command-line account is enough if you just want to check your e-mail.

If you do need a graphical Interface, you'll need to laden your Powerbook's burgeoning hard drive with all the necessary tools: MacTCP, a mail program, a newsreader, telnet, a gopher client, a Web browser and the like. One strong benefit of this scenario over a command line account is this: you can dial in and retrieve your e-mail with Eudora, then read and compose mail offline, while you're not racking up phone charges. If you get a lot of e-mail, this practice will save you a few dollars.

And if you don't have the time or patience to hobble together a collection of freeware and shareware Internet tools -- Eudora and InterNews and Anarchie and so on -- you might prefer to buy a commercial, integrated package like VersaTerm or MicroPhone Pro. These are complete Internet products that provide all the tools you'll need in one package, complete with manuals and technical support. That alone may make them well worth their $150-ish price tags.

The Modem

Your Powerbook's internal modem draws power whenever you're running a terminal or modem application, even if you're not online. To conserve battery power, remember to quit your modem program when you're not actively using it.

Even more importantly, know what you're plugging your modem into. Many modems are incompatible with the phone systems at some hotels. If your hotel's PBX sends a charge down the line, plugging your modem into the wall jack could fry it -- the modem, not the PBX. If your hotel offers a phone jack labeled "data" or "modem", you can consider it safe to use. If not, ask the hotel manager if the phone system is safe for your modem. Some hotels charge a little extra for a special modem-ready jack ($5 to $20 is typical.)

If you need to be read for anything, get an adapter that will covert your hotel's digital signals to analog signals your modem can understand. For instance, there's the Konexx acoustic coupler (available from Unlimited Systems, 619/622-1400), which attaches to the handset of your phone to provide data transmission at up to 9,600 BPS. Who cares if it looks like something from the 1970's, as long as it works?

The Insurance

If you're half as forgetful or klutzy or paranoid as I am, get your computer insured That way, if the unthinkable happens when you're on the road (or at home) you'll be financially protected. My computer insurance, from Safeware (800/SAFEWARE) guards against theft, fire, accidental damage -- just about everything unless my Powerbook is lost in an earthquake or stolen from at unattended vehicle. This insurance runs less that $70 a year, and the peace of mind is well worth the price tag.

Your Powerbook, Internet connection, cellular phone and all the insurance in the world won't help if your battery runs dry. To insure your previous battery power remains stable during long car trips, get one of those nifty cigarette lighter adapters. One end plugs into your car's cigarette lighter, the other end is a 120-volt power plug that providers regulated power for your computing needs. There are various devices available, each priced at about $100. (One source is Electronic Design's Automobile Power Adapter, 612/927-6303.)

The End

Keep a travel case on hand with those essential, but easily-forgotten things: floppy disks, a spare Disk Tools disk (to boot from should your hard disk go wonky), a long phone chord, a backup of your communications software, and your Powerbook's battery charger. Don't forget to include, at your discretion, other travel essentials: your favorite caffeinated beverage, scanned images of your sweetie, and a good electronic book. Those things should keep you entertained while you make your journey.

Having your Powerbook on hand while traveling can be incredibly useful, so don't fret about lugging that extra few pounds across town, or across the country. It pays to be connected.

Articles by Kevin Savetz