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 The Brancatelli File

joe IN SEARCH OF
HIGH-TECH SIMPLICITY


BY JOE BRANCATELLI

June 6, 2002 -- Sometime during the last five years, and I don't think anyone knows exactly when, travel technology stopped being about which cool new tools we would take along and started being about what unnecessary gadgets we could leave behind.

A decade-long flow of glitzy gear--mobile phones, pagers, portable computers, personal digital assistants, Blackberry devices--has fundamentally changed how we travel. And not all the change has been for the better. We're increasingly bogged down--mentally as well as physically--by all the high-tech tools that we are expected to carry on every trip.

A fully loaded business traveler now often needs a separate piece of carry-on luggage to tote the technology and all its attendant cords, peripherals, batteries and adapters. Yet an extra case is what we need least in these days after September 11. And, boy, doesn't it gets tiresome slapping our laptops on the X-ray belts and watching some latex-gloved automaton at security fondling every other cable or electronic box we carry?

But the mental toll of the new technology can be even more dramatic. We were once blissfully ignorant of what went on back home or at the office. We controlled the information flow on the road and "caught up" only if and when we chose to check in from a pay phone or a hotel room. But the omnipresence of the new technology demands we remain in contact 24/7. Since we now can be effortlessly reached anywhere on the planet, the folks back home expect us to deal on the fly with a never-ending torrent of electronic mail, faxes, phone calls and other data.

Listen to the simultaneous trilling of cell phones the moment the doors open on an arriving flight. Watch the crowd in any airport club bashing away at laptops. Look in the window of a passing cab and see the passenger hurriedly manipulating a PDA. Admit it: We're become tools of our high-tech tools. Prisoners of the very technologies we once coveted.

How do we stop the madness? Simplify. Carry fewer, better tools rather than every fanciful new gadget invented. Travel with one carefully chosen product that can perform a wide range of services. That will reduce the bulk you need to tote. It will also ease the mental strain because you'll be able to channel your information flow through a single device.

Here's the unvarnished truth: There is no one magic box that will work for each and every frequent flyer. But there are several excellent alternatives from which to choose.

If your needs are primarily telephonic, for example, switch to one of the newest generation of wireless phones. I'm now using a tiny Ericsson GSM World Phone that's so small it fits in the watch pocket of my sports jacket. Yet it is capable of making and receiving calls around the world and it does a creditable job of sending, receiving and displaying short text messages. It's allowed me to ditch my pager and, at least on brief trips, jettison my laptop since I can receive E-mail on the display screen.

Of course, nothing replaces a fully functioned laptop for travelers who needs everything in one box. In fact, laptops are a more compelling option than ever now that the latest generation of machines has solved three nagging problems: weight, size and power consumption.

Technological breakthroughs have solved the size problem for the so-called "ultra-light" class of notebook computers. These laptops are each about an inch thick and smaller than a hefty issue of Forbes. They are so tiny you can even open them and use them while wedged in a coach seat! Yet they boast speedy microprocessors, ample memory, large hard drives, fully functioned CD burners, decent keyboards and 12-inch color screens.

Weight is no longer an issue, either, since these ultra-slim machines weigh in at about 3 pounds. How do they do it? Heavier components such as floppy drives and CD-ROM drives are external components. Off-loading the drives not only cuts the weight, it allows us to choose the components we actually need to carry on each trip. I've been toting an ultra-light machine for more than three years now and I have learned that I almost never need to carry the external floppy or other drives.

Even laptop power issues have largely disappeared. Six-hour batteries are optional add-ons for ultra-light machines. Third-party vendors sell cables that connect laptops to a car's cigarette lighter or to the power points that have been slowly popping up at our seats in the premium classes of longer-haul flights. (American even offers power points in selected coach cabins.)

If you refuse to tote even a slimmed-down laptop, however, there are those increasingly omnipresent personal digital assistants. I admit the usefulness of the Palm Pilot and its PDA imitators escapes me, but a lot of travelers I know have forsaken all other technologies. And since the best PDAs allow you to download data direct to your desktop computer, they can replace a laptop in certain circumstances. A new generation of PDAs even has built-in mobile phones. And then there are those Blackberry-type wireless E-mail gadgets. They have won a fanatical following among those travelers who tote them--and can afford the hefty monthly fees.

I don't know what works best for you. Frankly, I'm still learning what works best for me. But I do know this: The road to high-tech hell is paved with too many gadgets. Leave something home on your next trip. Your back and your brain will thank you for it.

This column originally appeared at JoeSentMe.com

Copyright 1993-2004 by Joe Brancatelli. All rights reserved.