Mobile Computing Tips: Traveling Overseas? Read This FirstPlugs, adapters, and other hardware you'll need when traveling abroad.
James A. Martin
Feature: How to Power Your Notebook Overseas
On a recent trip to Rome, I plugged my camcorder's AC adapter into what I thought was a universal power outlet in my hotel room. A minute later, so much smoke was seeping out of the adapter, it looked like I had wandered into yet another cigarette-choked European coffee house. I quickly unplugged the adapter, but not before blowing a fuse in my room.
Chalk that up to another lesson learned: When traveling with equipment overseas, particularly notebooks, camcorders, and other power-hungry gadgets, do your homework before you leave. Electric voltage standards and power plugs vary by country, and your equipment might not work unless you've got the proper adapters.
Here are some tips and resources to help you stay powered up abroad.
You'll Probably Need to Adapt
There are two devices you may or may not need when traveling abroad with a notebook or PDA: a power plug adapter and a power converter.
A plug adapter makes it possible for, say, a B-type plug (common on many notebooks from U.S. manufacturers) to work with an E-type power outlet (the standard in France). For help figuring out what you'll need, make a trip to the World Electric Guide. This indispensable Web resource includes a detailed list of all international power standards and plug types, complete with photos for easy identification. The guide also includes tips and links to telephone and electrical travel accessory retailers online. World Electric Guide is part of Steve Kropla's Help for World Travelers.
But You May Not Need to Convert
Separate from an adapter, step-down power converters and transformers adjust the 220/240-volt power used in many countries to forms usable by standard 110/120-volt U.S. appliances. By turning off the power every other quarter cycle, converters halve foreign power into a form usable by electric appliances such as hair dryers, even though the voltage is not actually limited. Converters generally cost $10 to $30. Bigger, heavier, and more expensive, transformers generate power that doesn't exceed 110 volts and is usable by both electric and electronic appliances that would fry if exposed to 220 volts, even if just for half the time (such as most computer equipment). Neither of these devices changes 50-hertz power to 60-hertz power, making them unsuitable for appliances that use power cycles for timing, such as record turntables.
Luckily, however, most notebook AC adapters today are actually "universal" power supplies, making them safe to use without a converter. A Dell Inspiron AC adapter, for instance, works with any voltage from 100 to 240 volts. As a result, it would be safe to use the Inspiron AC adapter in many countries. But as previously mentioned, you'll need a power adapter to connect the adapter to a foreign power outlet.
If your notebook's AC adapter isn't a universal power supply, a surge protector might solve the problem. American Power Conversion's travel-size SurgeArrest Notebook Pro is geared for notebook users. It suppresses power over 330 volts, protects a modem/fax/phone line, and is inexpensive, costing about $30. Two- and three-prong versions are available. In fact, even if your notebook AC adapter is a universal power supply, it's wise to use a surge protector anyway, as power in some foreign countries can be unreliable. APC's portable surge protector is available online from retailers such as PC Connection.
Recharging Your PDA
Small devices such as PDAs don't always need universal power supplies or converters. The AC adapter for the Hewlett-Packard Jornada 560 Pocket PC, for example, accepts from 100 to 240 volts, so a power converter wouldn't be necessary overseas. But the Palm M515's standard power charger can't take more than 120 volts, so you'd need Palm's $40 Travel Charger, which handles 100 to 240 volts and comes with plug adapters for the U.K., Europe, and Australia.
You can check the PCWorld.com Product Finder for the latest prices on the Travel Charger.
If you always travel with both a notebook and a PDA, consider purchasing a USB cable recharger for your Palm device or Pocket PC. USB rechargers let you juice up your handheld using your notebook's power. Among the companies that make USB rechargers are Targus and Electric Fuel. Targus makes $30 USB cables that let you both charge and sync the HP Jornada, Handspring Visor Prism and Visor Edge, Sony Clie, Palm M500 models, and Compaq IPaq. Electric Fuel's USB PDA Charger Cable provides battery recharging for a variety of handhelds. The cable is $20 and is available at the Instant Power site.
Check Before You Go
If possible, check with your hotel before you leave. Some business-class hotels have in-room universal power outlets with U.S.-compatible plugs, so you won't need an adapter or a power converter. Others keep power plug adapters and converters on hand for guests, though that doesn't guarantee they'll be available when you check in.
Power on the Plane
While you're in transit, you can recharge your notebook or PDA batteries on some airplanes. Several airlines today offer in-seat power outlets, especially for first- and business-class international passengers. Platypus Computing Rental Services' Web site offers a detailed list of airline in-flight power and data ports.
To use an in-seat power outlet, though, you'll need yet another adapter. Sometimes airlines offer adapters to passengers for a fee or at no charge, but you can play it safe and an buy in-seat power adapter from Targus and other retailers. The Targus Universal Auto/Air Power Adapter ($119) works with notebooks from HP, Dell, Sony, Apple, and others.
News: Highly Portable Storage Options
Need a little extra storage space on the road? New pocket-size options from FujiFilm and SanDisk might be just the ticket.
FujiFilm's USB Drive is a tiny flash RAM drive available in capacities from 32MB to 256MB. Measuring less than 4 by 1 by 1 inches and weighing only 0.7 ounces, the USB Drive plugs directly into a USB port and requires no battery or AC adapter. The drive has a built-in processor, allowing it to work without requiring a driver in many cases. Prices start at $50.
SanDisk recently began shipping The Cruzer, which also plugs into a USB port. The Cruzer saves data on removable Secure Digital or MultiMediaCard flash memory cards. About the size of a cigarette lighter, The Cruzer is one of the more flexible ultra-portable storage devices, as SD and MultiMediaCard media can be used in a range of devices from digital cameras to PDAs. I found a 32MB model for $38 on PCWorld.com's Product Finder.
News: MicronPC Wants You to Feel Secure
MicronPC's new T1000 offers a unique security feature for notebooks: an embedded biometric scanner that lets you log on using your fingerprint instead of a password. The fingerprint scan is embedded into the computer's BIOS, which the company says is more secure than USB-enabled fingerprint scanning. Sensitive documents or folders can be decrypted via fingerprint scan as well. And for levity's sake, the T1000 lets you play audio CDs without having to boot up the computer.
News: Big Screen Debut from NEC
NEC claims its new Versa Pro notebook line is the world's first to offer an LCD screen with a resolution of 2048 by 1536 pixels. The QXGA resolution is four times that of standard XGA (1024 by 768) screens found on most notebooks and is aimed at those who work with graphics, computer animation, design, and desktop publishing. The screen measures 15 inches diagonally. The price tag is equally large: a typical configuration of a 2-GHz Intel Mobile Pentium 4-M processor, 128MB of DDR SDRAM, an ATI Technologies' Mobility Radeon 7500 graphics card, a 20GB hard drive, a 24X CD-ROM drive, and Windows XP Professional will set you back $3750.
News: New BlackBerry Software Alternatives, Devices
Research in Motion's BlackBerry e-mail pager comes with its own proprietary software. But a startup company, Good Technology, will soon be offering BlackBerry addicts an alternative. Good's software runs on BlackBerry devices and includes an e-mail synchronization service that routes your e-mail straight to your pager, bypassing RIM's redirect service. There's no cradle or desktop client required, and you can set up the server behind a corporate firewall to provide continuous e-mail transmission. Rates begin at $40 per month per user, which is less than what RIM charges.
Meanwhile, RIM recently introduced three new handheld devices and new services. Among the devices is a dual-band GSM/GPRS handheld that can operate in the U.S. 1900-MHz band and the Europe/Asia Pacific 900-MHz band. Among new services, the BlackBerry Web Client allows you to access multiple existing e-mail accounts from your BlackBerry device. Both are due later this year.
News: Are We There Yet? Ask Your GPS
You've spent hours driving to an out-of-town business appointment, and now you're wondering: How much longer is this @#$# trip going to take? Solution: Ask your Global Positioning System device. The ETA feature in TravRoute's Pocket CoPilot 3.0, a GPS for Pocket PCs, displays a trip's remaining time based on current speed and distance to the destination, according to the vendor.
Other new Pocket CoPilot features include specific audio instructions with distance and street names, detour route calculation, and the ability to enter addresses stored in a Pocket Outlook contact database as destinations. Pocket CoPilot 3.0 offers mapping software and a GPS receiver for $299 to $349, depending upon hardware configuration.
News: Software Improves Palm-Outlook Syncing
Lots of people sync their Microsoft Outlook contact info with their Palm OS devices. But KeyContacts, a replacement for the Palm OS Address Book, captures Outlook information that often gets lost in translation. The $25 application supports Outlook's folders, transferring to your Palm OS device the folders you set up to organize Outlook contacts. KeyContacts also adds more than 40 fields that the Palm OS Address Book lacks, such as pager number, birthday, and anniversary. You can remap your Palm OS device's Address Book button to instantly access KeyContacts. The program doesn't offer any help syncing Outlook and Palm OS calendars, however.
News: The Wireless Net? Yawnsville
Surprise: The number of people interested in the wireless Internet has dropped from 39 percent of Net users in January 2001 to 22 percent in January 2002, according to a new report from research firm Solomon-Wolff Associates. Why? Initial "Internet in your pocket" claims turned out to be mostly hype, with the wireless experience substantially different--and slower--than what users expected. High-speed wireless networks such as 2.5G and 3.5G should help change that, though some believe it may be too little, too late.
Got Questions? I'm Here to Help
Don't know the difference between Bluetooth and Wi-Fi? Can't figure out where to find the lowest notebook prices? Send your questions about notebooks, PDAs, and wireless services to firstname.lastname@example.org for possible publication (with answers, of course) in future issues of this newsletter.
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