Before hitting the road this summer, make sure your laptop is ready for the trip--assuming you really want to lug a computer with you on vacation. As a seasoned road warrior, I've learned a few tricks that might help.
To begin with, prepare your system before leaving by making sure it has the necessary software and files. Transferring files from a desktop PC to a portable is easy if both machines are connected to the same network. If not, consider spending $69 for either PCSync from Laplink at http://www.laplink.com or FastLynx 3.1 from Sewell Development at http://www.sewelld.com. Both programs come with a cable to connect the two machines and transfer data.
If your desktop has a recordable CD-RW drive and your laptop has a CD-drive, copy files to a CD and then to the laptop.
There was a time when I would carry a screwdriver and alligator clips to connect my modem to a hotel phone line. That's rarely necessary anymore. I do, however, carry a 25-foot-long telephone cord and a phone jack with a "Y" connector to plug in the PC and the hotel phone at the same time.
I also carry a grounded extension cord with three outlets. If I plan to go overseas, I make sure I have the right telephone and power adapters. You don't have to worry about the electrical current--all laptops come with a universal power supply that adapts automatically, but many countries have different-shaped plugs than we do. You can find adapters at electronic and travel stores or on the Web at http://www.travel-arts.com.
If traveling by car, consider a 50-watt or higher 12-volt DC inverter. They cost about $40 and recharge a laptop battery while you drive.
To sign on to the Internet from a laptop, you need access to an Internet service provider with a local or toll-free number. Many ISPs have local numbers throughout the United States and in some foreign countries. Some have more extensive networks than others.
I've traveled to almost every continent, and I've had no trouble dialing in via America Online in most countries. There's no extra cost if you're in the United States, but you might have to pay a surcharge if you're abroad.
The cost depends on the country, but it's usually pretty reasonable. It's $3.95 an hour from Britain, Mexico and most other heavily traveled countries. You'll pay $6 an hour if in Beijing or Nairobi. Before you go, find out the local access numbers by going to keyword "access" on AOL.
Even if you don't usually use AOL to check your mail, you can probably still access your company or ISP mail server. Once you connect to AOL, the software establishes a TCP/IP session, which means you can still use Outlook, Netscape and other e-mail programs.
The only trouble you will probably have is in sending mail from your regular e-mail program. Check with your ISP or company IT department to see whether they have an easy fix. Otherwise, you can get your mail in the usual way and send out mail from AOL. If you don't have an AOL account, you can take advantage of the 45-day trial period and decide later whether to keep the service.
Even AOL doesn't have local numbers in the boonies. But in the U.S., the company offers an 800 number for 10 cents a minute.
There are also ways to get online without carrying a PC. Cybercafes.com has an international guide to Internet cafes, but it's worth calling first to make sure the ones you want are still in business.
Hotel concierges can also help you find a cyber cafe. You might be able to get free access from a library. Before you leave, set up a Web-based e-mail account at http://www.hotmail.com, http://mail.yahoo.com or another free services.
You might be able to use these accounts to check your existing e-mail. If not, see whether you can have your mail forwarded to one. MailStart.com costs $6 a year, but lets you check or send mail from any POP3 e-mail account.
Technology reports by Lawrence J. Magid can be heard between 2 and 3 p.m. weekdays on the KNX-AM (1070) Technology Hour.