What I Use (Home Swap): What Worked, What Didn't

What I Use (Home Swap): What Worked, What Didn't

Paul 1, Europe 0

Near the conclusion of our home swap each year, I always survey the pile of stuff I brought along and try to determine which were well-used and which were not. There are always surprises, items I think we'll use frequently but never do, and items that don't seem important but become critical to the success of the trip. The goal here, of course, is to do a better job each time we go away and become more efficient, and lighter travelers.

With regards to traveling light, I saw a phrase recently that I really like: "the toothbrush test." In my slightly modified version of the test, you can measure the necessity of anything you bring with you by comparing it to a toothbrush, which you use every single day. Some items prove their worth, some don't.

On the other hand, a home swap is a three week trip, and we're not carrying on our bags or lugging them from location to location throughout the trip. So this trip is also the one time I allow myself to bring a big bag and over-pack a bit. (I always carry-on bags domestically.) That big bag going to be checked with the airline anyway, so what the heck.

Pile o' tech junk in Europe

I won't bore you with non-tech items here, though I also evaluate non-tech items like clothing and so on each year too. But here's quick rundown of most of what I brought along for this trip, and how it fared in the toothbrush test.

Surface Pro 3. It's thin, light, and powerful and it gets great battery life. I used it virtually every day on this trip, and took it on a days-long trip to southern Spain and Morocco because I would be carrying everything in a backpack and every pound counted. Surface Pro 3 isn't perfect, but it is the perfect travel companion if you need a real PC that doesn't weigh as much as a real PC or take up a lot of space in your bag. Verdict: Win

Surface Pro 3 Docking Station. This seems like an odd thing to bring on a trip of any kind, and honestly if it hadn't just arrived right before I left, I never would have even thought of doing so. On that note, it was a huge win: Not only does the device let me connect a number of peripherals, it's also worked as wonderful device charging center for my entire family. With six USB ports including the one on the tablet, we have a single place to charge devices that only occupies one wall outlet (with European power adapter), which is huge since this home, like many in Europe, isn't exactly swimming in wall outlets. Verdict: Win

Yes, there are smaller multi-port USB chargers. But I had this with me, so why not?

Ultrabook. I also brought my 2012-era Samsung Series 9 15-inch Ultrabook to Spain and have used it most days as well. I like the bigger screen and keyboard, and it gives me more of an "at home" vibe than the Surface. I didn't bring it on the road trip, of course, as it's too big, but it was a nice bit of redundancy, since I could sync all our photos across both PCs and to OneDrive. Verdict: Win

iPad mini with Retina display. This one was more happenstance than anything else, and it wasn't actually optimal because the version I bought has only 16 GB of storage, severely limiting how much content I can put on it. (Oh, to afford a 64 GB device.) But I used this for movies in-flight, e-books (Kindle, Kobo) and periodicals (NYTimes, USA Today) during the trip. Its thing and light and I prefer the bigger 8-inch screen size. And the moment I can replace it with what I hope is an 8-inch Google Nexus 8, I will. Verdict: Win (with an asterisk: Any similar Android tablet would have worked about as well)

Catching up on the news each morning (I use a Kindle Paperwhite at home)

Nokia Lumia 1020. As you may recall, I had intended to use this phone with the Camera Grip accessory as my camera for the trip. And as you may recall, AT&T wouldn't unlock it so I ended up going with the Lumia 1520. So it's been sitting here doing nothing. Not it's fault—it's a wonderful smart phone—and of course I should have done the unlocking requests before I left. But ultimately, it's just taking up space. So there's only one conclusion. Verdict: LOSE

Nokia Lumia 1520. Stepping confidently into the 1020's shoes, the Lumia 1520 has performed admirably as both a smart phone—using an Orange 4 GB SIM for local Internet access—and a camera. I've always found the 1520's 6-inch screen to be far too big, but forced to use this device all day long every day, I've gotten used to it. (Indeed, other phones, even those with 5-inch screens like the Icon and S5, seem small to me now.) And the pictures are fantastic. Verdict: Win

Nokia Lumia 635 + T-Mobile. I brought this handset along as a media player, and of course so I could write my review. So I use this every day to listen to Audible and podcasts while I shave and clean up, as expected. But the truly welcome surprise is the T-Mobile connectivity. They offer free international Internet connectivity and it's worked flawlessly. What a wonderful, wonderful bonus. Verdict: Win

Lumia 635: I love this little guy

Google Nexus 5. I only brought this phone for one reason: It's unlocked, and I planned to test European pay-as-you-go SIMs, and if nothing else worked, I knew this would. And it has. The Nexus 5 has surprised me in two ways on this trip. First, the photos it takes are much better than they were originally, possibly because of the new Google Camera app, which is excellent. And second, because the antenna(s) in the phone are different from that/those in the 1520 (AT&T), the Nexus 5 often had better connectivity than the 1520, even though both were using the same SIM type. (Sometimes the Nexus 5 worked fine when the 1520 was totally offline too.) This phone has really worked out for us, and it has opened my eyes to going unlocked in the future when possible. Verdict: Win

Apple iPhone 5S, Samsung Galaxy S5, Nokia Icon. I brought these phones along for different reasons, but didn't use any of them all that much. The iPhone has the pre-release version of iOS 8 on it, and I've been upgrading as new betas come out, but nothing much is happening there and I probably won't even write about iOS 8 until I go home. The Samsung was a contender for daily photo-taker, but I quickly found that the shots it took, while generally solid, were far more pixelated than anything on the Lumias. And the Icon, which features the same camera as the 1520, is on Verizon, and since I don't have an account, and the phone is locked, I can't use it here with any SIM. But it still serves a purpose: It's the device I use for screenshots for Windows Phone 8.1 Field Guide. Which of course I've not worked on here yet, not even once. Verdict: LOSE

Chromecast. As I noted earlier, I brought along some small wireless devices to test entertainment services in Europe, which has been challenging in the past. Chromecast works great with Google services and a few other apps. But since you can't change the DNS servers that the device uses—critical for accessing Netflix, Amazon Instant Video and so on in Europe—we couldn't use it. Verdict: LOSE

Netgear Push2TV (Miracast). I wrote earlier about my initial successes with Miracast, which "works" with Windows, Android, and even Windows Phone. But since then, it's played to form, and has stopped working reliably. So we've had mixed success here. Verdict: DRAW

HDMI cable. Sometimes it's the simple things. For years now, we've always brought a long HDMI cable on home swaps so that we can connect a PC to the home's HDTV and watch content on the big screen. With Chromecast and Miracast coming up lame, we've had to rely on old-faithful again. And you know what? It just works. (We have used the Surface Pro 3 for this purpose, with Microsoft's mini DisplayPort to HD(MI) adapter.) Verdict: Win

Power adapters, USB cables, etc. No surprise here, but you want at least one USB cable for each of your devices, at least a few power adapters, and for international trips, some number of power adapters for both two- and three-prong plugs. We have plenty of European adapters, but the smartest thing I travel with, period, is a mini power strip that has four power outlets, so you only need one wall jack (plus, here, a European adapter) to power four devices. Always works. Always happy to have it. Verdict: Win

Surface Pro 3 Docking Station power cable with a European power adapter

Portable router. I purchased a D-Link DIR-510L portable router right before the trip, and I wonder now why I waited so long. I'll be writing more about this versatile device in the future, as I expect it to work very well for many of my trips. Here in Europe, however, my results were mixed because of the unique layout of the home. As I wrote about earlier, my plan to replace this home's wireless network with my own was thwarted because their wireless network has a strong signal. So I've been using it as wireless extender, basically, by positioning it in a central point, and providing better Wi-Fi in the living room. Long story, short: It wasn't crucial for this trip. Verdict: DRAW

Say hello to my little friend, the D-Link portable router

There are of course a few other assorted things. A few USB memory sticks, a mouse, that Lightscribe 3 smart pen I just wrote about. Power adapters for everything. The USB headset I need for the podcasts. A little SIM kit, which has actually been very useful too, come to think of it. But that's the most important stuff, I think.

Now I just have to pack it all again and cart it back to America. Well, not quite yet: We fly home next Monday, so we have a few more days in the sun before we need to head home.

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