Staying connected on the move

23 Nov

November 23, 2006

By Geoff Meeker

Okay, so you travel a fair bit. Or you can see more travel in your future.

And, of course, you’ve got to have Internet and email while on the road. There are a number of ways you can do this. And, while the best solution will depend on individual needs, there is one that definitely stands out from the rest.

When I think about connectivity on the road, I envision a laptop on a hotel room desk, awash in the light of a dingy lamp. Yeah, I’ve been there a few times. And this is the first of three options I will tell you about.

Pretty much every decent hotel in North America offers high speed Internet service, usually through an Ethernet connection in your room (even the cheap hotels have a business centre where you can go online to check email every few hours). You can also use a good old fashioned telephone modem, by buying the service in advance from an Internet service provider. And if you are spending time at a client’s facility, they might allow access to their connections.

The problem with the above options are the limitations they impose. If you are out and about all day, you may need to respond to messages immediately, and not have the luxury of waiting to get back to the hotel. Dial-up is workable, but too painstakingly slow for most business people. And using the client’s Internet can be tricky, due to the security clearances that are often necessary.

Another option with much faster download speeds is Sympatico’s High Speed Unplugged service, which offers superfast wireless connections from anywhere in its 1X coverage area. By all accounts, it performs extremely well inside this coverage area. But that’s the catch – the areas are still quite small, confined to major metropolitan centres. If you want to wander down the highway at all, you lose your connectivity. It is reasonably priced, but only useful if you limit your travel to major cities.

The best option, in my opinion, is the handheld PDA (personal data assistant). Some of you may know it as the Blackberry, but there are other brands available that definitely warrant consideration. In fact, Blackberry is running to catch up with some competitors who are beating it at its own game.

For those who came in late, the PDA is a very smart little device that incorporates a cellular phone, digital organizer and limited Internet access. I say ‘limited’ because until very recently, the Blackberry and other PDAs were really only suited for email applications. And even then, most word and graphic file attachments could not be opened.

That has all changed with the latest generation of PDA, which is equipped with Windows Mobile software and offers full access to the Internet, with high resolution screens, and the ability to receive and view documents, spreadsheets and presentations. Now that is what I need in a PDA.

What’s more, you can access the Internet anywhere you can receive a digital cell signal, something the Sympatico service can’t do.

The latest PDAs, such as the Motorola Q and the UT Starcom, offer even more features, including an MP3 player, 1.3 megapixel camera and Bluetooth capability (which enables wireless synchronization to your home computer and other devices). They also have a miniSD card slot for file transfer and additional memory.  You can connect the PDA to your laptop and download files, so that you can work on them in comfort (the small keypads on a PDA are less than ideal for anything but short messages).

Caught napping, the folks at Research In Motion, makers of the Blackberry, will be introducing a PDA with similar features in the very near future.

These high-end gadgets retail in the $600 to $900 range, but the price drops dramatically if you sign up for extended wireless service.  Note that data transfer is priced above basic voice costs, and will vary depending on how much you plan to download.

People I spoke to for this column swear by their PDAs and I am now actively searching for one of my own. I will share my findings on this in a future column.

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