The Brancatelli File



February 9, 2006 -- The thing about life on the road is that the "little miracles" that make us more productive have a very short shelf life.

Remember the dual-time watch? It was a must until just about everything else we now must carry--cell phones, laptops, PDAs, even music players--started coming with their own clocks. Who needs two watch faces now when you can set your various electronic devices to as many time zones as you need?

Remember the little black box that generated the sounds we needed to get messages off our answering machines? It was a lifeline once upon a time. But who has a black box now that everything telephonic responds to digital tones?

Remember the Compaq and Osborne "portable" computers? I used to have a luggage cart to haul my 30-pound behemoth around. The cart, which I still have stored in the back of some closet, weighs more than my current laptop.

Many other little miracles have gone the way of dual-time watches and 30-pound portables. Remember alligator clips? Acoustic couplers? How many business travelers tote a portable short-wave radio anymore? Leathermans and Swiss Army Knives still have their place, but who wants to fight with security?

I reference these miracles from back in the day to inject some perspective into this column, which offers this year's list of little miracles that make our lives on the road more productive. One day soon all five of these will seem quaint and absurdly obsolete, too...

Like it or not, The Journal is the coin of the realm for virtually all business travelers. Now you don't have to hope that your hotel or airline club has a copy. And you don't have to make do with the anemic European and Asian editions when you're overseas. Why? The Journal offers a miraculous daily E-mail for subscribers called "In Today's Paper." It is, quite literally, a page-by-page list of headlines of every story that runs in the print edition. Just click on any headline and you're brought to the entire story online. How good is it? Even when I'm in my office, I prefer to browse the E-mail. I scan the headlines, click the stories I want and don't ever have to wash ink off my hands. To get your daily dose, surf to the EMAIL CENTER, scroll down to the newsletter section and cleck the box for "In Today's Paper."

I wasn't so much late to the game of VoIP (voice over internet protocol) as unimpressed with the call quality or the ease of use. But the latest version of Skype software has made me a believer. The technology couldn't be easier, the Web site couldn't be simpler or more user-friendly, the call quality is usually superb and the price is outstanding: free when you call other Skype users and about 2 cents a minute to most traditional telephones around the world. You can use Skype well enough with a laptop's built-in microphone and speakers, but I invested in a $20 headset. (Radio Shack sells a Skype trial pack with a headset and 30 minutes of calling credit for about $10.) I've noticed that Skype works best if you have an Internet connection that runs at least at US-standard DSL speed. If you're overseas using ADSL or even dial-up, make sure your laptop has at least 512Mb of memory. Skype has only two drawbacks: Buying the pre-paid credit for SkypeOut, the service that allows you to call landline and mobile phones, is needlessly complicated. And some firms object to the way Skype interacts with their corporate networks. If you use a corporate Internet connection, check with your techies about the rules and risks.

Back in the days of dial-up, we made sure to carry our own RJ-11 telephone cable. Then we added an RJ-45 Ethernet cable to connect to high-speed networks. Then came a USB cable and then a torrent of other wires. Belkin and several other gadget companies have brought some organization and portability to the chaos by creating kits with retractable cables and a myriad of appropriate plugs. Belkin's 7-In-1, for example, has a blizzard of cords, cables and the appropriate tips. And they all fit in a little case about the size of your wallet. sells it for $21.99.

We've seen enough power failures, hurricanes and terrorist attacks lately to understand that the basics--water, emergency power, light--can be the difference between life and death. I threw an $18 RoadWired Micro-Light into my carry-on bag after the 7/11 attack on the London Underground. Now I just keep buying more because they are so light in weight, so bright and so small. I have one on the zipper of my briefcase. I have one on the zipper of my winter coat and one on my walking gear. The device also works as an ultra-portable reading light. I even used it recently to light the keyboard on my laptop in a darkened airplane cabin.

So CNN had this great idea: Sell a package of multiple live feeds of its news coverage over the Internet. The result is CNN Pipeline, a $2.99 monthly product that is still feeling its way along. Introduced last month, Pipeline's promise is seductive: All the news you want, in the amounts that you choose, anywhere you are in the world with Net access. Unfortunately, the viewer software is still a bit balky and slow. And Pipeline barely runs on a laptop with 256Mb of memory let alone the 128Mb machines that CNN says can use the service. Make sure you have at least 512Mb of memory. And while CNN claims to show four feeds at once, coverage during U.S. overnight hours is often just one international feed and a weather map. That's inexcusable for a network that constantly broadcasts at least five live services around the world. Still, Pipeline is a month-old miracle. It should get better and it's already a lifeline if your access to English-language news is limited where you are traveling.

Copyright 1993-2006 by Joe Brancatelli. All rights reserved.