Unexpected tech lessons learned on a camping trip

Wi-fi is just about ubiquitous now but connections aren't always very good -- and that's just one of the problems you can run into on the move.

Technology performance is not always as lovely as the scenery when you're on the open road. Image: visuall2
I recently returned from a 10-day trip in a camper-van, in Northern Italy and Südtirol. Before I go into the discussion of technology, I would like to recommend that area if you are interested in natural beauty. It is fantastic. I live in the middle of the Alps, but this was my first trip to the Dolomites, and I absolutely loved it.

When I travel, either on business or pleasure, I always take a laptop and/or netbook along. I know that a lot of people who are much younger than I are able to travel with only a smartphone, but you have to realize that being a dinosaur, my very short arms make it difficult to use a mobile phone for much more than making a phone call.

I suppose that some kind of a tablet might be a reasonable travel option, but I am hopelessly prejudiced against them. I have tried them several times, and I always find the combination of limited storage and crappy/non-existant keyboard make them unusable for me.

Combine these points with the fact that I might actually have to connect and login to work while I am traveling, and I pretty much have to take a 'real' computer with me. In fact, the sad truth is that I often take two, but that is mostly due to paranoia. On this most recent trip, though, having two laptops along gave me the opportunity to make some comparisons, and perhaps learn a few useful things which I can now share.

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The two computers that I took along this time were my two favorites: an Acer Aspire E11 and an Acer Aspire V3. The E11 is particularly small and light, and has no CPU fan so it is extremely quiet, while the V3 has a larger (13" vs. 11") display and larger disk drive.

Both are loaded with my usual variety of Linux distributions, and while the E11 also has Windows 10, the V3 still doesn't even have Windows installed on it.

The first issue I want to discuss is wi-fi connectivity. It seems that wi-fi coverage is becoming so common as to be practically taken for granted these days. Hotels, restaurants, coffee shops, and even campgrounds now offer free or low-cost access: but offering coverage and actually being able to connect can be two different things. At the beginning of the trip there were several times when my traveling companion was able to connect and use her smartphone, but I couldn't get a stable connection on the Aspire E11.

This got me curious. How could a scrawny little thing like a mobile phone get a better connection than a laptop? The E11 has a Broadcom wireless adapter, which is well known to be a pain in the rear, but could it also be weak or unreliable? I got out the V3, and saw that the wi-fi signal strength it reported was significantly better than the E11. Sure enough, I was able to connect with no problem, and stay connected without a lot of dropouts or reconnects, and the throughput was much better than with the E11.

So, lesson number one: There are significant differences in wi-fi performance between systems. I don't know if this is entirely down to the Broadcom wireless adapter, but I suspect not. There are certainly differences in antenna design and quality as well.

The next point I want to look at it is peripheral connections. First, obviously, if one of the reasons you are taking a laptop along is to offload/save pictures from a digital camera, make sure that the laptop has the appropriate camera card slot. I know that this one deserves a very large 'DUH', but still, with SD cards of various size, density and capacity (SD/SDHC/SDXC, standard/mini/micro), and Memory Stick the same way (MS/Pro/Duo/Micro/M2/XC), and CompactFlash (CF/CF+/CFast)... well, it can get pretty hairy.

Lesson number two: Make sure that you actually test the specific memory card, from the specific camera, in the specific computer and running the specific operating system you expect to have with you on the trip.

Also in the category of peripheral connectivity, the number and placement of USB ports on the computer can be an issue. You may think that you are only going to do simple things, like copy digital photos to a USB stick for safety, so just one USB port might seem like enough. I have never seen a netbook with no USB connection at all, but I know there are some tablets which have none, or which need an adapter to connect a USB device.

The place where this might unexpectedly trip you up is the placement of the ports. First, if the USB ports are on the back of the computer, they can be a pain to reach. That sounds trivial, but believe me, it gets old pretty quick. Another situation that might surprise you, though, is if you are already using a USB port for something like a mouse receiver, or a wif-fi or Cellular/3G/4G adapter. If there is only one port, you obviously have a problem, but even if there are two ports you still might have a problem, if the ports are right next to one another on the laptop, with minimal separation, and you want to use a USB stick or adapter which has a bulky body.

It might be cool or funny to have a USB stick shaped like camera, or football, or whatever, but those things always block an adjacent port, so beware.

This is not just a problem with 'novelty' sticks, either. There are quite a few sticks in my sack which look normal, but are actually bulky enough that I can't plug two of them in side-by-side.

Lesson number 3: Make sure that you have enough USB ports for the things you need to do, and that you will be able to plug multiple things in together if you need to.

Finally, power connections. There seem to be two different approaches to laptop/netbook power adapters, either with the electrical plug integrated in the power brick, or with a socket on the brick for a separate electrical cord.

One of the most obvious and most common ways of dealing with different national power plugs is to carry a universal power adapter -- and these can also be useful as boat anchors, and defensive weapons in case of a wild animal attack. In particular their size and bulk might be a problem if your electrical outlets are in tight places, as they often are in a camper or caravan.

The same might be true of the integrated plug power brick, some of those are very large, and might have the body of the brick going off in a direction which is inconvenient or which blocks other plugs. On the other hand, for the separate cord bricks you can have a country-specific cord which has a much smaller and more convenient plug. If you are traveling to multiple countries, having a lot of different cords can be tedious, though.

One other solution I have found to be very convenient is the universal laptop power supply, the best of which will have multiple input and output options. The best of these will even take their input power from the utility plug in a vehicle (dinosaurs call this the "cigarette lighter"), so if you happen to be in a camper or caravan that doesn't have 110v/220v outlets, or you are not in a place where you can plug in, you can still power and recharge your laptop.

Lesson number 4: Pay attention to power needs, both the electrical part (220v/110v/12v source) but also the physical part (size, shape, placement of plugs and power bricks).

So, those are the things that I had to deal with on this trip - and believe me, every one of these four issues arose at some point in the ten days. I'm sure there are others which I haven't run into (yet), or haven't thought of, so if you know one, feel free to mention it in the comments.

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