Technology on the Road - Keeping your electronics running

Introduction

This is becoming a huge subject, as more and more electronics are becoming useful - and usable - on the road. Sat phones are working towards reasonable prices, GSM phones are popular, and GPS is growing fast in popularity. Laptops are popular too, but many travellers are finding that Internet Cafes are almost uibquitous, and cheap everywhere, so it can make more sense not to take a laptop and it's attendant weight, bulk, fragility and fear of theft. PDA's are useful for note taking and transfer to internet cafes.

GSM phone information - 2006 World coverage map here. (NOTE: 9.5mb PDF)

Ants BK asked on the HUBB:

"Dear All,

Is anyone out there an expert on how to deal with things like laptops, the internet, SAT phones, mobile phones etc whilst on the road. ANY tips would be much appreciated as this is not my forte and since my friend and i are going to drive from Bangkok to the UK in a few months its pretty important! Thanks, Ants"

Joachim Gjølberg ("Wheelie" on the HUBB, Oslo, Norway) responded:

You are asking a "spoon feed" type question which is difficult to answer as I don't know which info is essential to you.

Tips:

1) Harddrives are prone to break from the vibrations generated by a motorcycle, as well as from elements like dust and moisture. Avoid fixing this type of equipment to the bike directly and running it at the same time. If you need to run this type of equipment, i.e. an IPOD, wear it on your body (it will absorb most of the vibrations - but still not foolproof). If you for instance plan to build a motorcycle computer, have the computer or harddrive suspended by bungee cords, and/or wrap it in memory foam (or the like). When simply transporting a laptop, you should always wrap it in some type of memory foam or other soft material which will absorb the vibrations. If you do bring a lap top, IBM's harddrives offer better protection from dropping it, etc (they sense shocks or falls and stop rotating). Some people will tell you that they have had their IPOD fixed directly to their bike with no problems. I'd say that they have either been extremely lucky or not been riding long enough, it will eventually break.

2) Sat phones may not work inside cars, buildings or under tree canopies. Keep it turned off and save the batteries for emergency use only.

3) Attach a cigarette lighter outlet to your bike to power your gadgets. Make sure that it is protected by a voltage regulator so you don't risk frying your equipment. Also make sure that it is attached to a circuit which will shut off with the ignition (or you may otherwise risk draining your batteries). You should also add a fuse.

4) The most common batteries you will use on your trip is AA and AAA batteries. There are battery chargers available that can both hook up to your 12V cigarette outlet and 230v house outlet. There are some that can even charge DV cam batteries. Some even have alligator clips and other attachments for different types of batteries. Such a charger may save you lots of space and weight and costs of batteries. Make sure you only use rechargeable batteries.

5) Running lots of auxiliary power from your bike, i.e. to power electric wrests, heated seats, heated boot liners, heated handlebars, auxiliary lights, etc, may require that you upgrade your stator (rewire or purchase a high output stator).

6) Changing bulbs to LED bulbs (not headlight) may save you lots of power and you will likely not have to change a single bulb your whole trip (these last a looooong time). A special relay might have to be fitted for the turn signals.

7) For your GPS, purchase a lockable bracket, this way you don't have to take it off just to walk to the cashier to pay for your fuel. A GPS will never outperform regular maps for planning, reliability, etc. Bring laminated road maps... and they will never fail due to lack of batteries, and are also less prone to be stolen.

8) A great alternative to a pc is a hand held pocket pc (pda/palm). You can find ones that have WLAN, 3g, Bluetooth, GPS, quad band gsm, web camera, high resolution digital camera, full keyboard... all in one! As these use memory cards for storage rather than a hard drive, they are less prone to break. You can save lots of space and weight. You can use these for e-mail, writing a diary, watch movies, play games, surf the web, place calls, listen to mp3, or whatever your hearts desire. If you need to do touch up on your photos or store massive amounts of info, this is not your best bet. The Qtec9090 is one such device. If you find the keyboard too small, you could always bring a foldable full size cordless keyboard.

9) If you are a freak about security, bring a backup device to backup your entire hdd (mirroring), or at least your most cherished files. You can also use CDR(W) or DVDR(W) to burn your files onto discs. Keep one copy with you and ship the other home by mail. You can also load up your files by FTP to a server somewhere, but internet connections some places may be reaaaaaaaaly slooooooow. Do remember though those regular CDR discs are more versatile as finding pc's supporting the other formats might be more difficult (all computers supporting the other formats support CDR, but not the other way around).

10) You get sat phones that combine as a GSM. I don't see that sat phones provide much of a necessity for most travellers. I'd say you only really need it if you got so far away from civilization that your life would be in danger if you broke down, i.e. in the middle of the Sahara (even then it might not help you out of your situation, though people will know where you died... if you had the GPS coordinates and the satellites were properly aligned for you to place the call).

11) You can effortlessly fully integrate your bike to bike radio, your phone, your GPS, your MP3 player, etc by using a communication system like the one offered by Autocom. Attach the circuitry to your brake light feed and it will shut off when you turn off the equipment (other feeds can also be used).

12) Purchasing a GPS, purchase one which has a transflective screen that you can see in the daylight, has exchangeable memory cards (allows you to store maps on different cards and not have to be dependant on a pc), it should of course be weather proof. Remember that most GPS don't actually have a built in compass. The compass function is usually dependant on you moving in a single direction for some time to work. Some have built in compasses, but these are very small and inaccurate (bring a separate compass if accuracy is important). Stopping too long at an intersection and you might loose your bearings though you still have your location (often happens when hiking). Your GPS should in addition to be able to auto route you, be able to work as a trekking GPS. Buy a hand held GPS with these functions. The Garmin 60scx or 76scx is a good option.

13) Cameras are essential on a trip! Just about any digital camera will serve you, but they are all really slow (you push the button and nothing happens for a second or three). These cameras are not that good for capturing movement or immediate moments, they are not that good at capturing anything far away either, but they are still great compact all-round cameras. A digital mirror reflex camera with exchangeable tele-objective lenses are the best if you are willing to spare the space and carry the load (on your body and on the bike). Only a few of the latter have a digital screen which also functions as a viewfinder (most only function for playback). These cameras are large and bulky and you might want to sacrifice them if you don't know how to utilize them. Most regular digital cameras can also capture short video flicks, though not of great quality, good enough for web publication (requires massive storage on memory cards, but a great alternative to bringing another bulky gadget, the DV camcorder).

14) Bring a DVD camera and lots of "film", and keep the film rolling as you can always edited/cut the things you captured that you don't want at a later point, but you can never reconstruct a "Kodak Moment". Purchase an oversized battery. A helmet cam rather than simply attaching the cam to the bike will allow you to film in the direction you turn your head. Fixing any camera to the bike directly may also lead to a distorted picture from all the vibrations. A helmet camera will also be less conspicuous and allow you to capture moments you otherwise would not do (like border crossings... hmmm, still don't recommend it). Do remember though those DV cameras are extremely susceptible to wind noise, even the smallest of butterfly winds. Purchase a separate mike and wrap it in low density foam or looong furry material. Cupping your hand over the original mike while filming also work wonders. If using it on the bike, consider using the mike inside your helmet (will allow you to narrate while filming, but will block out engine sound, etc. It might be better to add narration at a later point using computer software like windows movie maker. You might want to hide your mike out of the wind, but at a location where it will still capture the engine sound... Remember that regular DV cams do not offer TV quality if your interest is in making some sort of production to be broadcasted. There are semi pro DV format cameras out there now that can do this, but three times the size and price of regular DV cams (these are so called HDV cams with 3ccd chip, like the SonyHC 100). There are also helmet cams with sufficient amount of lines for TV broadcasts, even helmet cams that work under water. If you like scuba diving, purchasing an underwater house to your camera???

15) As for electrical equipment going on your bike, you should try to get equipment that can run on rechargeable internal batteries as well as on bike power. If one fails, you've got the other. Also, it allows for utility both on and off the bike.

16) If you have multiple equipment running or recharging by a 230V battery eliminator, you might want to invest in a universal one to save weight and space. In turn you have to sacrifice the ability to run/charge more than one gadget at a time. One issue though, if it fails, all your gadgets it powers are useless until you can replace it.

17) As for storing photos or gps maps, I'd rather bring lots of memory cards and writeable/rewriteable CDs/DVDs. This way you save lots of weight and space, and are less prone to losing your files from a broken computer or having it stolen (memory cards are easy to hide). Whenever you come to an internet cafe, make a backup onto your discs. Make two copies, one which you bring with you, the other which you mail home (using a courier if you are paranoid or in the third world). As for taking notes, a regular lined note book is great! No power needed, bring it to the beach, etc... And no one would want to steal it (well, some might), and it will never experience a crash or blue screen. Memory cards do cost a bunch of dinner roll though, but so does a computer... I'd only bring a computer if I had to work while travelling, edit home pages or video, etc. Hopefully these things can wait until you get home.

18) Another great underestimated gadget are LED only flashlights with a head band. It runs forever on a small battery, weighs less than 60 grams and bulbs never need replacement. It also offer superior white light for working on your bike, cooking, reading maps, or whatever else. Your hands will also be free to do other things besides holding the light. These lights are however pretty useless for signaling others (use your bikes head light) or for illuminating things at a distance more than a few feet (for this you need a regular flashlight). If money was no object and I had to choose between a regular flashlight or a LED only one, I'd go for the LED only. There are of course ones that do both, but these usually have a heavy and bulky battery pack, and odd size batteries that you will use for nothing else.

19) A short wave radio may prove useful to get the BBC or other broadcast where you can understand the language, or for music.

20) IPODs or other harddrive MP3 players offer themselves as a great backup device for your computer files. Purchase one with a large hard drive. It may very well be the only backup device you might need. Remember though, they are adored by thieves and as they have a harddrive, are not a fully reliant backup device. Treat it like the egg of a species on the brink of extinction and you will likely be ok.

I could go on forever, but it is important to remember that technology is often a hassle. Bring only what you really need. Gadgets consume space and weight. They also lend themselves to frequent failure and consequent frustration and worries. Concerns for theft and their monetary value is another issue. Considerable time and effort learning to operate them and utilize them may also take away your attention from more enjoyable activities, like the scenery.

My priorities in terms of technology, in order of priority:

1) Regular road maps, compass and cheap watch
2)  Notebook - yes paper!
3)  A cellular phone (any with SMS)
4)  Digital Camera Equipment
5)  Flashlight (any small and light, preferably one that I can carry on my head and one preferably one with LEDs only.
6)  GPS (but not in place of regular maps and compass).
7)  Spare memory cards
8)  Backup CDRs
x
x
21)  Entertainment (mp3)
x
x
x
x
41)  Computer
42)  Bike communication
x
x
x
x
x
x
x
x
3741)  Sat Phone

Ask yourself why the hell you want/need a sat phone. What problems can it actually solve for you? A phone is usually not too far away, and if it is, don't think for a second that a sat phone will likely get you out of trouble... unless you got lots of money or superior insurance, then maybe... Though it might be nice to have on Christmas Eve in the desert to call home... Nice to have? Need to have? NO!

If you post more specific questions I might be able to guide you further...

See the post on the HUBB for more.



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