Essential tech: What keeps one ZDNet writer on the road?

Writing isn't just sitting at a desk waiting for the news to happen. It often requires a prepared bag of kit for travel to report at the source. Here's what Zack Whittaker keeps in his on-the-go bag.
By Zack Whittaker, Contributor
1 of 20 Christopher Elison/Flickr.

Writing and reporting often involves waking up before business hours to scour news wires and agency reports, and filtering out the seemingly unlimited stream of emails from pitchers and spammers alike just to find a story. It's far from a 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. job, and often results seeps into personal and family time. The news cycle never stops, but thankfully nowadays we don't have to be everywhere at once.

But sometimes we have to get out there, be places, see people and find the story amid the hurricane of public relations folk and spin-doctors. It doesn't matter where you are in the world: a media on-the-go bag has to have every piece of kit you may or may not need, regardless of whether it's a product launch in San Francisco or an international felon leaning out of an embassy building in London.

What keeps us on the road? It's not the tires in our cars or the railroad tracks below our feet. It's the technology in our bags that keep reporters grounded to our news desks wherever we are in the world.

This is what's inside my on-the-road bag. 

2 of 20 Zack Whittaker/ZDNET

MacBook Air (11-inch)

The Mac/PC preference divides much of the technology world. For me, an operating system agnostic, the platform that I use is way down on the list of things that matter while on the road.

At the time of buying, the MacBook Air was the lightest and thinnest laptops available on the market for the price. The batter may not last as long as a traditional netbook, but it lasts long enough when Wi-Fi and other networking connectivity is turned off. The 128GB SSD drive results in breakneck response speeds, and the aluminum shell keeps the laptop cool.

And that's why I bought it -- because on the road, compactness and battery life means everything. Now the market has shifted in favor of the ultrabook, a Windows-based ultra-thin laptop may be an avenue to explore later down the road. Until then, reliability must prevail. 

3 of 20 Zack Whittaker/ZDNET

Apple USB Ethernet Adapter

Hotel rooms rarely offer Wi-Fi. You're often left with a pokey Ethernet port and often a free cable on the desk in your room and expect to reach barely dial-up speeds as you attempt, often in vain, to file your copy.

But the drawback to a MacBook Air is the lack of Ethernet support. You have to own a USB adapter or pay the steep price of uploading your work via a tethered phone. Your hotel room is your office away from the bureau, and when you're working on a shoestring budget you have to work with what you can. This little adapter goes with me everywhere -- just in case. 

4 of 20 Zack Whittaker/ZDNET

BlackBerry Bold 9790

My iPhone escapades on a February trip to New York and San Francisco was far from a fruitful endeavor; I ended up spending more than four-times on the cost of data (along with the cost of the iPhone itself) which left me almost $2,000 down in the space of a fortnight.

Email is my primary motivation for keeping my BlackBerry, with data compression and a physical keyboard second and third. It churns through only a fraction of my monthly data tariff, and the mini-keyboard means my MacBook, which would normally be used to write emails, can stay in my bag conserving power. Above all else, phones are for talking with: I've never known call quality to be so good. Many callers thought I was permanently in a tunnel or a bathroom with the amount of echo my iPhone kicked off when I had it.

Plus (see later) for encrypted emails, a BlackBerry is a must. You never know which government's are looking in, and when dealing with occasional matters of political importance, it's better to be safe (and paranoid) than not.

5 of 20 Zack Whittaker/ZDNET

Micro-USB cable

Sometimes the most important piece of kit doesn't have a screen, light up, play music, or connect to the Web. It's the bits in-between devices that keep everything ticking over. Without this tiny cable I wouldn't be able to connect my devices together.

That's it. It doesn't need a song and dance about it because that's all it does -- but I would be lost without it. 

6 of 20 Zack Whittaker/ZDNET

BlackBerry Wired Stereo Headset

Simplicity is key to being on the road. The single reason why I keep a handsfree kit with me is so I can avoid pinning my phone to my shoulder as I type because my right-arm starts to goes numb after a few seconds. (I'm not kidding. I know -- it's probably something I should get "checked out.")

A handsfree headset is a plug-and-play kit without pairing, interference or worries about battery, unlike Bluetooth alternatives. It's no myth that men can't multitask but there are times where you have to bring in an often unthought-of piece of technology to bridge that gap.

7 of 20 Zack Whittaker/ZDNET

Grado Labs SR80 headphones

A handsfree kit doubles up as headphones for your phone's media, but when you just want to blast out some tunes in your hotel room while writing up your copy, a handsfree kit just doesn't quite cut it. You need something heavy duty and powerful enough to knock you off your chair.

The bass is incredible, the headphones are comfortable, and are not heavy. They come with a 3.5mm jack so they're compatible with the very vast majority of audio devices. If you want a boogie, the cable is long enough to stand back from your laptop and rock out while no-one else is looking.

8 of 20 Zack Whittaker/ZDNET

iPod nano (sixth-generation)

Depending on how long I'm out somewhere -- it can be an overnight job or a few days -- I take my downsized iPod with me for the sole purpose of listening to music when I head out for my morning run. Sure, dismiss the idea as hilarious, but despite my smoke-shattered lungs I still enjoy a good run at daybreak to get the endorphins in the right places for the stressful day ahead. 

The iPod is small enough to clip onto my t-shirt and has skip/next-track functionality built into the hardware buttons, making it easy to maintain a good speed while bumping a song for another. 

But its in-built fitness app is what separates it out from the rest -- including other, larger iPods (see next). It measures calorie count, run duration and distance through its accelerometer. The online Nike+ service is far from great, but the data can be reviewed in the device's history and added to your own online fitness service.

9 of 20 Zack Whittaker/ZDNET

iPod touch (fourth-generation)

Yet another Apple product. I can't deny that keeping the Apple ecosystem -- hardware and software -- has made my life somewhat easier and in-sync across devices, but again it falls down to simplicity and value for what you need.

The iPod touch is my sole companion to-and-from places; that's all it's used for. My working hours often push my social life to the back-end of the day, meaning I miss out on much of the traditional television hours. I often digitally-record or catch up through on-demand services, but travelling is an ideal time to catch up on your back catalog of television.

8GB is enough: my music collection is rarely transferred in its entirety, but there is plenty of space for a good half season of television to get me through a flight or a two-hour Eurostar journey. 

10 of 20 Zack Whittaker/ZDNET

O2 3G Mobile Broadband Dongle

Thankfully a lot of the places I need to go on the road means travelling from my home in Canterbury to London, or other places around the U.K. When I am on my home turf, or travelling from my house to the office or elsewhere, I can plug in the dongle and connect. Despite the U.K.'s somewhat patchy 3G and EDGE coverage, it generally powers me through the journey.

I have the option to tether my BlackBerry on my O2 mobile data plan but often choose not to. Tethering hits my BlackBerry's battery which could be used for other things during the day, and while many U.K. trains have Wi-Fi, I can't afford to churn up my Mac's battery on slightly-more-reliable Internet access, which often costs as much as a healthy kidney on the black market.

11 of 20 Zack Whittaker/ZDNET

Electronic cigarette

I know: shame on me, a smoker.

Though many European member states still allow smoking inside hotel rooms and public spaces, it's a good rule of thumb that smoking is not permitted anywhere inside.

However, electronic cigarettes often do not fall within the scope of the law set down by various legislatures because it does not burn and only odorless vapor is produced, therefore it's a solid bet you can 'smoke' in hotel rooms and the like without setting off the smoke detectors and forcing an entire building to evacuate.

12 of 20 Zack Whittaker/ZDNET

Sony Voice Recorder ICD-BX700

The difference between "will" and "should" can make the difference between a scoop and soup. Particularly when people are speaking at events, it's vital to be able to recap what someone has said for written transcription. Even the fastest writers cannot pick up every single word depending on the speed of speech, and

This voice recorder is plain and simple, and the battery has lasted so long that in more than six months it has not seen a single battery change. It plugs in via a micro-USB port and encodes in MP3 format making it easily transferrable across devices and transcription software. It's record, plug, play, and go. 

13 of 20 Zack Whittaker/ZDNET

Parker fountain pen

Perhaps the least techy yet most important piece of kit for a writer: a pen. In any occupation you would want the best tools and equipment to do your job. For me, it's a Parker fountain pen, and it's second to none. Refillable with specialized ink cartridges, its precision nib allows me to write for dozens of pages of A4 without thinking twice about changing the ink. 

14 of 20 Zack Whittaker/ZDNET


My eyesight has deteriorated ever so slightly over the past few years -- probably something to do with being fixed to a computer monitor or television for more hours of the day than I probably should have done during my teenage years.

These glasses are nothing too fancy and have no branding. The lenses are designed for my shortsightedness which prevents me from seeing things at a distance. During a European Union midday briefing around a year ago, I thought "enough was enough," and would get my eyes checked. Behold, the need to wear glasses; otherwise I can't see a damn thing more than 20 meters away. 

15 of 20 Zack Whittaker/ZDNET

Ibuprofen (200mg)

If I were to ever end up stranded on a desert island, I would have a near-unlimited supply of ibuprofen. There's nothing worse than being in a foreign country and either not speaking the language or know where you're going with a headache so heavy that it could kill a small elephant.

My personal trouble is that I suffer with Tourette's syndrome. Dozens of times a day, I violently twitch my head which not only strains my neck and back muscles but also often results in an excruciating headache. My cure: ibuprofen, because for some reasons paracetamol doesn't quite take the edge off.

16 of 20 Zack Whittaker/ZDNET

U.K. passport

Not very techy, one might think. On two fronts, I keep this with me at all times in my on-the-go bag because without it I can't get on a flight to where I need to be. That's a given -- sure -- but it also acts as age identification for when I'm abroad. Some countries still have antiquated laws when it comes to buying over-the-counter drugs, such as headache tablets, or buying liquor.

The more interesting part is the chip in the back of the passport. Where it has my nationality and pretty mugshot, the plastic laminated chip-laden page allows me to walk back through the U.K. border using e-passport gates -- unmanned, automated barriers to re-enter the country -- which is particularly useful during peak-times, such as the Olympics.

17 of 20 Zack Whittaker/ZDNET

Microsoft Office 2011 (Mac)

It's far from an ideal solution considering it crashes at least once a day, but it's still the best service for me. I run an Office 365 (Exchange 2010) cloud email solution (see later). While my Mac's in-built email program, Mail, is compatible with Exchange it doesn't support the full range of Exchange features. 

Again, it's down to what you know best. There are other email programs and solutions out there, but I've always trusted Microsoft software -- even when it's on a Mac -- and with my decade-long experience of using Windows, a Microsoft-powered solution is what I know best and I'm not one to make radical changes to my workflow. 

Sometimes it's a matter of taste and nothing more.

18 of 20 Zack Whittaker/ZDNET

Microsoft Office 365 (BlackBerry Enterprise Server)

The crown jewels of any reporter: access to secure, reliable email.

Trouble is, while Google Apps has a steadier uptime and more reliable service overall, it has yet to support hosted BlackBerry Enterprise Server (BES) unlike Microsoft's hosted Office 365 solution. BES keeps all emails secure, encrypted and almost immune from interception and decoding. When dealing with particularly sensitive topics, it adds an additional peace of mind in protecting the identity of sources.

19 of 20 Zack Whittaker/ZDNET


It's painful having a U.K. phone number when working for an U.S. company. Not only do some people still struggle at the hurdle of working out how to enter a U.K. phone number into a U.S. phone (even I struggle on landlines at times) it also costs a lot for others to ring and sometimes costs me to receive.

The solution? A cloud-based phone exchange. Skype nails it perfectly.

I have two public phone numbers: a London, U.K.-based phone number (+44 208) and a New York, U.S.-based phone number (+1 646) that allows anyone in the world to pick and choose an appropriate number to call me on. For the first five seconds, if I'm at one of my computers then I can pick up. If not, it forwards to my mobile number. Even when I am abroad, my friends can ring a local-rate number no matter which side of the Atlantic they're on and still get in touch. As for the cost? It's a lot cheaper than ringing me directly on my mobile -- and it's all goes on business expenses. 

20 of 20 Zack Whittaker/ZDNET


From wire reports, RSS feeds, and Twitter feeds, all the news sites that I keep in tune with are all brought into one simple and easy-to-read pane on my screen. It uses a fraction of the data than other conventional RSS aggregators, and uses Readability which translates lengthy news articles into text that is extremely comfortable to read.

It costs less than $5 -- but is not available on Windows, which for me isn't so much of a problem -- and connects to Google Reader, allowing you to import all of your feeds from the cloud. And when working with breaking news, it's only a couple of clicks away from tweeting or emailing news fresh off the wire: not only useful for the end-reader, but also crucial for getting snippets of news to editors for internal distribution to other writers. 

Related Galleries

Holiday wallpaper for your phone: Christmas, Hanukkah, New Year's, and winter scenes
Holiday lights in Central Park background

Related Galleries

Holiday wallpaper for your phone: Christmas, Hanukkah, New Year's, and winter scenes

21 Photos
Winter backgrounds for your next virtual meeting
Wooden lodge in pine forest with heavy snow reflection on Lake O'hara at Yoho national park

Related Galleries

Winter backgrounds for your next virtual meeting

21 Photos
Holiday backgrounds for Zoom: Christmas cheer, New Year's Eve, Hanukkah and winter scenes
3D Rendering Christmas interior

Related Galleries

Holiday backgrounds for Zoom: Christmas cheer, New Year's Eve, Hanukkah and winter scenes

21 Photos
Hyundai Ioniq 5 and Kia EV6: Electric vehicle extravaganza

Related Galleries

Hyundai Ioniq 5 and Kia EV6: Electric vehicle extravaganza

26 Photos
A weekend with Google's Chrome OS Flex

Related Galleries

A weekend with Google's Chrome OS Flex

22 Photos
Cybersecurity flaws, customer experiences, smartphone losses, and more: ZDNet's research roundup

Related Galleries

Cybersecurity flaws, customer experiences, smartphone losses, and more: ZDNet's research roundup

8 Photos
Inside a fake $20 '16TB external M.2 SSD'
Full of promises!

Related Galleries

Inside a fake $20 '16TB external M.2 SSD'

8 Photos