Mobile Computing: Traveling Without a Notebook

Restrictions on carrying liquids on board airplanes have recently been eased somewhat. But the fact remains: Business travel by plane is still challenging at best. And all too often, it feels as if traveling with a notebook is even more of a pain, what with the extra poundage; the security checkpoint delays; and the worries over loss, theft, or damage.

So this week, let’s imagine how it would be to take a business trip by plane — without a notebook. At first, this idea may feel completely alien, like attending a sporting event without your giant foam finger. But it’s worth a try, right?

Of course, some of you are already traveling without a notebook, relying instead on Palm Treos, Research in Motion BlackBerrys, or wireless PDAs. But if you need to work on documents like spreadsheets, a handheld device isn’t terribly practical — though adding a full-sized, external keyboard certainly helps. (Read’s “Phones outsmarting laptops” for a perspective on where that’s going.)

What follows are strategies for leaving the laptop at home and finding another computer to use at your destination.

Take Your iPod Instead Say what? Believe it or not, your MP3 player can become a laptop replacement, to some extent. RingCube’s new MojoPac software lets you use any USB 2.0 compatible portable gadget to store your Windows XP computer’s profile — such as Microsoft Internet Explorer favorites and language settings – -as well as applications and files. Among those devices are iPods (though not iPod Shuffles) and several other portable media players, USB thumb drives, and a few cell phones.

Here’s the idea, according to RingCube: Copy your desired apps, files, and other settings onto your iPod or other supported device using MojoPac’s PC software. Connect your device via USB to another computer, such as a PC in a hotel’s business center. MojoPac software automatically launches on the borrowed computer, giving you access to the files and data you’ve stored on your gadget. When you’re done, log out of MojoPac and eject the USB device properly, by clicking on the Safely Remove Hardware icon in your system tray. Your files, apps, and settings disappear from the borrowed computer, as if you’d never been there.

MojoPac isn’t the first such program to let you temporarily transplant your PC’s personality onto another computer via a USB device. Products from companies like Lexar and U3 let you do much of what MojoPac promises. Read “Take Your PC on a Thumb Drive” for more on Lexar’s PowerToGo. For info on U3 products, read “U3: Portable Programs on a USB Drive.”

The difference is that MojoPac lets you run any Windows XP application directly off the USB device. By comparison, applications must be U3-compliant to be run from a U3-compatible device.

I haven’t tested MojoPac, which costs $30. It’s available for a 30-day free trial.

Store Your Files Online While online backup and storage isn’t new, Mozy is. The service offers a $5-per-month plan that lets you store up to 30GB of data online. Mozy also offers a free plan for storing up to 2GB of data online. I’ve informally tested Mozy’s free plan. It’s easy to use, promises a high level of security (with 448-bit encryption), and you can access your backed-up files from a Web browser on a borrowed computer. The initial backup can take a while, but that’s most likely true with any online backup service. For more online backup options, read “Store It on the Web.”

Access Your PC Remotely Remote-access software has been around for years, too. But the allure of these programs has probably never been stronger, in view of the mounting headaches that laptop-toting business travelers face.

Remote-access software lets you access your entire computer, not just selected files, from another computer. Windows XP Professional includes Remote Desktop Connection, but to use it you must have a virtual private network connection, according to Microsoft–something many small businesses don’t have.

Probably the best-known remote-access product is GoToMyPC, which has frequently earned a World Class Award. GoToMyPC lets you access your PC using any other Internet-connected computer through a secure, private connection. In my experience, performance with GoToMyPC and other remote-access programs can be sluggish at times, particularly when accessing bandwidth-hogs like video files.

In most cases, you’ll pay a monthly fee; GoToMyPC’s least expensive rate is $20 per month. Also, you must leave your PC running and connected to the Internet in order to access it remotely. Still, if you travel frequently, or you often want to grab some files off your work PC while at home, remote-access software may be the way to go. Read

“Speedier New GoToMyPC 5” for more about GoToMyPC 5.

Be Prepared All of the strategies I discuss this week assume you’ll have access to a computer on your trip. You should find out in advance if your hotel business center has PCs. Then you’ll need to ask a few questions:

  • How many computers do they have?
  • What does it cost to use them?
  • What are the hotel business center’s hours?
  • When are the best and worst times to go? (In my experience, hotel business centers tend to be most crowded in the mornings.)

If you have a lengthy layover, before you leave you’ll want to find out if the airport you’ll be stuck in has a business center with PCs. For example, eight U.S. airports currently have one or more Laptop Lane stores. Laptop Lane is a small chain of retail stores/business centers equipped with T1 lines, printers, fax machines, computers, and such. I whiled away part of a layover in Atlanta in a Laptop Lane, because I needed to print and fax a document from my notebook. The staff was playing music, which made it a bit difficult to concentrate. But the rates are reasonable: $5 for the first 5 minutes and 65 cents per minute thereafter, which includes your Internet connection, printing, cubicle space, and unlimited international and U.S. calls.

What’s Your Strategy? Do you fly without a laptop when on business? Aside from relying on smart phones and the usual suspects, what’s your secret to staying productive? E-mail your tips to [email protected], Editor,

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Jim Love, Chief Content Officer, IT World Canada

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