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Trip tech triage: Ireland

Since I had previously blogged about my travel technology for our home swap this month in Ireland, I thought I'd also share a few related thoughts now that we're leaving. Every time I travel, I try to optimize what I bring across the board. And is so often the case, technologically and otherwise, I always miss the mark. Maybe someday I'll get it right. In the meantime, a few tech-related notes now that we're getting ready to come home.

Television. When we traveled to France last summer, the house we stayed in didn't have a single TV. (French hippies, basically. Don't ask.) This wouldn't be a concern on a normal vacation, but it was an issue for two kids away from home for four weeks. I had brought a number of laptops, so they watched a lot of Simpsons DVDs. This year, I made sure we had plenty of movies for the kids. But I had sort of forgotten about whatever TV might be here, probably because of what happened last year. As it turns out, this home is mostly very modern: They have an HDTV, numerous DVD movies, and even left us instructions for renting movies locally. So the kids didn't watch much of what I brought.

Even more stupidly, I brought several iPods but didn't think to bring cables that would have connected them to the HDTV, allowing us to watch the various movies and TV shows I did bring on the big screen. And if you're looking for the ultimate in shame, my friend Jeff showed up with--get this--his Zune 80, and he did have the required cables. (And he's not even particularly technical.) So while he was visiting, we had access to the movies and TV shows on his Zune.

Laptops. As noted previously, I brought two laptops, a Lenovo ThinkPad SL500, which is awesome, and a Vista-based Macbook, which is adequate. Needless to say, I barely touched the Macbook, except to work on some iPhone/MobileMe review stuff. This ThinkPad is a great machine.

Digital camera. I have a Panasonic DMC-TZ3, which I absolutely love because it can take wide screen photos at a decent resolution and great quality. It also has a spy camera-like 10X optical zoom, which is insane. It's bulky, though. I'd like to get a smaller camera, but one that takes similar wide screen shots. Panasonic makes such cameras, and I will begin looking into those when I get home. It would have been nice to have had something that just fit in my pocket. (Even better: A phone that could take killer photos so I could have just one device. But it has to be at least 6 mega-pixels. I know, it's not happening anytime soon.)

Photos and backups. And speaking of the camera, one thing that worked out really well here was the ability to backup our photos each day, both to Google PicassaWeb and to our Windows Home Server back home. (And once there, the photos are then backed up each night to Amazon S3 via JungleDisk.) I suppose some people leave their photos on the camera or download them to a single laptop, but I like shipping them offsite. (I also backup to one of the two USB-based WD Passport drives we brought. And for what it's worth, work-related documents I completed were also pushed back to the home server over the Net. Sometimes technology just works.

Live Mesh. I use Live Mesh to replicate a number of important folders between my PCs. While in Ireland, I updated my "Articles I'm working on now" and "Docs" folders pretty regularly. Those changes were replicated from the ThinkPad to the Macbook and to my PC back at home. Good stuff.

Internet. Despite the modern nature of the curiously McMansion-ish house we stayed in this year, some old-fashioned issues remain. (The worst: The toilets. Do not get me started on the toilets, the toilets which require physical effort, don't always flush on the first try, and seem to do more churning of water than removing of contents. OK, sorry.) The Internet connection is a good example. I believe it's a DSL connection. It's slow, not as slow as the ISDN (yes, you read that right) connection we suffered through last year, but slow. When we were in rural Northern Ireland staying at a no-name hotel, I bought a 24-hour pass to BT wireless that was as good as my fibre-optic connection at home. The connection in this house, alas, was weak.

On a related note, while Apple has since added the Data Roaming switch I begged for last summer to the iPhone, I still find it horribly problematic that I can't buy an international data plan and use it overseas. You get used to constant (if slow, on EDGE) Internet connectivity when you have an iPhone. When that gets taken away, it's amazing how useless this thing is. It can tell the time, make expensive phone calls, and maybe play a game or two. Neat.

Wireless. I did think to bring a small wireless access point with me in case the wireless here didn't work out. I even thought to bring what I thought was a lengthy Ethernet cable so I could move the wireless signal further into the house if needed. However, it all came to nothing: The existing wireless was OK, but stuck in the corner of the house, meaning no signal in half the house, upstairs and down. But the cable I brought wasn't actually long enough to extend the signal because there were no power plugs in the required positions. Long story short I had two wireless connections in the same room with the same distance problems. A waste of time.

Power adapters. One of the big issues coming to Europe is that you need power adapters for your electronics. You also need to make sure your electronics can work at a range of AC voltages. I have plenty of adapters. Jeff, the Zune genius mentioned above, returned to form by traveling to Ireland with exactly 0 adapters, so we had to share, creating a nightmare of alternatively charging devices while he was here.

By the way, last year we brought an Xbox 360 to France. After discovering that the home had no TV, we borrowed a small screen from some friends how lived nearby. Then we plugged in the Xbox 360 power supply and ... BAM! It fried instantly. So get this: That humongous Xbox 360 power supply doesn't switch voltages. It's hard-coded to America's 110 volts. Seriously, they could fit an entire electrical plant in that thing. It never even occurred to me to check.

Car. A lot of people stress out over driving on the wrong side of the road, but I love it, and the fact that these guys have a vehicle with a manual transmission only sweetens the deal as far as I'm concerned. (Both of our cars back home are sticks too.) But I wish I had brought a few recordable CDs with me: We could have listened to music, audiobooks, and podcasts on some of the long drives instead of the inane Ireland talk radio shows. (If I hear someone use the word "brilliant" so incorrectly again and so frequently, I will scream. Brilliant!)

We also have a wonderful power adapter for the car. It works just as well overseas and it lets us charge our various devices via a standard US-style three-prong plug or USB. It's small, light, and hugely useful. We were glad to have it.

Kindle. The Kindle is brilliant. (Sorry.) I love it, and it once again proved its worth on this trip. You can't automatically download daily newspapers and other content as you can in the US because the Kindle uses an EV-DO based wireless network that's not available overseas. But no matter: You can download new issues manually via the Web and copy them to the device via USB. I read the New York Times and Wall Street Journal every morning here just like I do back home as a result, and was able to keep up with the news. News on the Web just isn't the same.

Video games. Stung by our Xbox 360 defeat from last year, we went the mobile route this time. Mark has had a Nintendo DS for a long time, and he prefers it over the Sony PSP. We grabbed a second DS (and a few new games), and it kept the kids--and Jeff's kids, while they were here--very busy, especially on car rides. I will say this: I ridicule Nintendo for what I feel are obvious reasons, but there is a feature in the DS version of Mario Kart that is quite impressive. With just one copy of the game in one DS, my kids can race together on the same track with two different DS's using some sort of automatic, local P2P wireless network. And they were able to figure this out on their own, without any intervention from dad. They spent most car rides in their own virtual race. That's pretty impressive, I have to say. But I'm going to have a hard time explaining why they can't do this on the plane.

We’re flying home tomorrow (Monday).

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