The Minimalist Road Warrior's Guide to 
"Traveling Light" using a PocketPC

© Beverly Howard, Austin, Tx, 2003, 2005
This Page Formatted for Viewing with PocketPC

Taking the Plunge as a Flyweight Road Warrior

The 2003 Microsoft "MVP" Summit provided the ideal test for making an extended trip using only a PocketPC and leaving the laptop at home.  For the record, I had already made a few short trips taking only the PPC and a few before that taking both the laptop and PPC, but this was the first extended trip where I knew I would need most of the functionality that the Sony PictureBook had provided for over three years.

At the summit, in a single room with 750 other techies, there were a lot of computers being "lugged" and the majority appeared to be standard sized laptops with even a few Macs attending.  Before discovering the PocketPC and having lugged a series of "portables" around which included a thirty pound Kaypro, my feet, back and shoulders constantly gave me adamant demands to reduce the load until my most recent traveling companion had been the two plus pound Sony Vaio "PictureBook" which yielded an acceptable laptop "carry weight" total of 7.5 pounds (3.4 kilos) when the minimal essential laptop accessories were included.

My educated guess at the summit would be that the majority of attendees were hauling about 15 pounds of computer and gear with some likely approaching the 25 to 30 pound range.  That works out to around 5.6 tons of gear making unreasonable transport demands on 1496 sore feet and other parts of the human frame, not to mention that those tons were transported by air from around the world for this event alone.

I was the only one of 30+ Mobile MVP's who did not bring a laptop and, the increase in my mobile freedom was evident.  While the majority of the PPC and Smartphone folks were equipped with some of the latest and lightest silicon iron laptops, I would still guess that they were transporting at least 10 pounds (4.5 kilos) of computing hardware from meeting to meeting for a full week.

Since 911, security screening issues are also at the front of my trip planning motivations.   The decision to travel without laptop yielded rewards here as well since the "code orange" alert during the Summit was requiring that all laptops be removed from their cases and powered up for manual inspection.  When I pulled my PocketPC out of my belt pouch, the inspector's observation was that "PDA's were not computers even though their owners think they are..." so, wasn't even asked to turn it on.

If you feel the need or want to travel significantly lighter, read on.  The tips and discoveries below reflect both two decades of learning to travel light as well as learning to travel in a light plane as a kid that had absolute maximum travel weight limits.

Practice Pays Off

Several previous "practice" trips were essential in laying the foundation for learning both exactly what hardware is essential and what I needed in the way of software.  The first couple of times out, have your trusty laptop along as you are sure to find needs that you are not prepared to meet using a PPC until you get more practice and perhaps add software and connection options.  There are some tasks that will absolutely require a PC, so don't strand yourself until you are comfortable meeting needs with a tiny replacement.  If you are an it professional or need a full set of development tools, your laptop will probably always tag along but do so in your luggage and remain behind in the motel room as you roam.

You have to plan a bit to come up with your own "Kit" based on your specific needs.  The following images show the three groups that fit my needs, and the group generally defines how the items will travel with me, on my person, in carry on luggage or in the checked bag(s)

Today's PocketPC's (with some notable exceptions ;-) are generally very good at providing a full travel day's use on battery alone with significant reserves and most provide replacement or extended battery options to meet any concerns.

This return trip from Redmond began at 7:45 am using a 568 with extra capacity battery to reference Pocket Streets in the rent car, then at least 50 percent of the remainder of the 12 hour day it was used to listen to an Audible book with the screen off as well as a number of notes and other references without using any power adapter enroute and I was surprised to find that the battery meter was still at 75% when I arrived.

The Jornada 548 in the original version of this page has already been succeeded by three PocketPC's and the current IMate PDA2K has built in wifi, camera, bluetooth, keyboard and the ability to connect via cellular, so the "carry kit" has already been reduced even more.

I do miss the Jornada's CF slot which provided modem and wired NIC connectivity.  As a result, I normally carry a Netgear Travel WIFI Access point which provides wired network connectivity.

The "Must Carry" Group

The first group is my "carry weight" group... those items that I feel are important enough to be either on my person or easily accessible when traveling for the reasons listed below but at the absolute minimum weight to lug around while traveling on foot.

1  - DC (automotive) cigarette lighter charger/power supply
2  - Airline plug to cigarette lighter adapter
3  - USB Card Reader
4  - PDA2k Audio Adapter
5  - Serial Cable and Power Connector Adapter
6  - Cellular/Stereo Headset
7  - Dual 1/8" Mono to 1/8" Audio Stereo Jack adapter
8  - Audio Cable Volume Control
9  - Spare Stylus
10- Extra Memory Cards

The airlines have, to a large extent, realized that fully occupied passengers need less "maintenance" and arrive much happier and less frustrated.  Many, if not most, full sized aircraft now offer some way to provide a portion of their seats with access to a 12vdc power supply socket.  , but even if your flight is on a "regional jet" or prop jets that don't offer them, the PPC's battery advantage over laptops will keep you smiling through a long flight.

One trick is to make or change your seat assignment in advance to get on one of these electrified rows if they are available.  If you can't specify it beforehand, and do end up on a socketless row, it may be  possible to connect to a socket in the row in front of you and pass the power cord back under the seat.  When I first discovered the existence of these outlets,  I also discovered that the cabin crew didn't know where the sockets were, but today, check the seat numbers on the overhead racks as they should specify where the outlets have been installed.

American provides the same cigarette lighter sockets found in all cars for the last half century and locates them under the front edge of adjacent seats, generally on every other row.

Other carriers use a much smaller "airline standard" connector located in the armrests which can be converted to a standard cigarette lighter socket using an inexpensive adapter cable (#2 above) available at Radio Shack (best price) or computer and electronic stores such as CompUSA.  Take the "airline" adapter even if the airline you booked on uses the cigarette lighter socket for the eventuality that flight delays bounce you to another carrier.

Audio Comfort Planning

If you are a frequent flyer and not familiar with the #7 adapter above, take another look.  On aircraft that offer "tubular" audio headsets, there are normally two 1/8" mono audio jacks near the tube headset "plug in point" and these each provide one audio channel each.  This inexpensive adapter (Radio Shack again, but I have seen them from other sources) allows you to use your own personal and comfortable headset instead of the ear numbing hard plastic ones provided for your in flight entertainment.

While the PocketPC provides great audio output, adjusting the PPC's volume level is not at all convenient.  The short volume control adapter cable allows you to easily adjust any headset's volume even if the PPC is buried in your pocket.  Audio "ear buds" are too hard on my ears to make them my preferred choice, but their size means that they can always accompany the PPC, since, sooner or later, I will need a headset when none is around.

"Standard" PocketPC's offer the universally standard 1/8" stereo audio plug jack which almost every stereo headset uses.  However, PocketPC "Phone Editions" such as the IMate PDA2k shown use special four conductor jacks in order to provide both stereo audio and microphone connection, so, it is essential that you carry an adapter which will allow you to connect standard 1/8" audio cables for both headset and speaker capabilities.

Portable Megabytes Gigabytes

"USB Keys" are a hot status item these days, but most PocketPC's don't have standard USB capabilities or connectors.  Adding a USB "card reader" to your kit allows you to leverage your PPC's memory card(s) to give them the same functionality as a memory key.  The USB readers now provide a broad base of commonality as XP computers will normally accept the USB readers and their cards without complaint.  Mac and other Win systems that support USB will access the reader although you may have to install their drivers which I carry on the 3" utility CD that's an essential.

Laptops also have the option of using a pcmcia adapter, but, while this was an essential item even a few years ago, it's been replaced by the commonality of the USB reader.

Carrying one or more memory cards with a lot of free space is a no brainer, but packing a spare stylus might not seem important until you loose one in the middle of a trip, especially since most PPC's will only store the stylus designed specifically for each unit.  There are now a number of multifunction stylus "pens" that offer a pda stylus along with two or more other pen or pencil options... easier to use and reverts the stored stylus to a backup item.

WIFI  has become a permanent partner of PocketPC's, either built into the device or by using a WIFI card.  There are not that many available access points in the world, but enough have appeared to have provide great, fast internet access in a number of settings, so consider WIFI an essential too.

At the MVP Summit, it was a blast to observe a hall full of connected people taking care of business during every break.  It was easy to spot the PocketPC users... they were the ones who didn't have to find an empty place to sit to begin, run and complete a connect session.  At one social gathering located at a private residence, if the nearby neighbor who was running an open AP was home, they were likely cursing their service provider as a dozen plus excited MVP's used it to connect wirelessly to sites around the globe, including one who demonstrated his ability to control his home stereo in Germany from Seattle using only his WIFI equipped PPC.

A Camera is Always Available

Since the Jornada, I have had two PPC's with built in camera's, both of which, unfortunately, pale in comparison to the HP CF camera's sharp image and it's ability to refocus for close objects, but, the fact remains, the camera is always with me and always ready to record information in seconds.  Because a high percentage of my needs were for close images, a small magnifying glass is now part of the travel kit which is not perfect, but does allow me to document small items when necessary.

Don't Leave Your Tools Behind

While I used to carry a  CD containing a number of pd utilities and tools plus installs for useful applications, the arrival of super cheap SD cards ($10 for 2 GB Feb 08) allows carrying them all in an even smaller package.  USB slots are now the "norm" and most will automatically install the generic ide drivers the SD cards and reader use.

I also carry the config and associated files for workhorses such as TextPad so that within a few seconds after installing it on a PC at the destination, it's configured identically to my home PC install.  I have found that other apps can be installed directly to an SD card so they are available when a borrowed or public computer is available at the destination.

Serial communications may be aged, but it remains all around us.  If you are a techie, it's simply a matter of time before you will need to make a serial connection and the combo cable (#5) will be worth it's weight in gold the first time you need to configure a router in a hot cramped network closet.

The Luggage Set

This next group is essential, but I'm comfortable packing it away where I can't get to it enroute.  In truth, the items take up so little space, they can easily ride in your "carry on" but delegating it to your checked baggage simplifies the current security check in process.

1 - Portable Speakers
2 - Stowaway Keyboard (now a Stowaway Bluetooth Model)
3 - Audio Amplifier (also serves additional headset connections)
4 - Small AC adapter/charger

The PocketPC allows you to carry your own music and other audio content such as audio books but, while headphones are great when mobile, having speaker listening options at the end of a long day has essential soothing benefits.  Amplified speakers are a good solution and they are available from Radio Shack and other electronic stores.  The smaller folding speakers are much easier to carry, the PocketPC can't drive them to provide sufficient volume.  The pen shaped "BoosterRoo" amplifier compliments them perfectly and provides a better traveling kit solution, plus, in the air or on the road, it allows a traveling companion to share the tunes.

Many PPC's now sport a "thumb" keyboard, but, if you may have the need to do any writing or code revision during the trip, having an external keyboard such as the Stowaway along is a priority.  I have just purchased the Stowaway Bluetooth keyboard and with my limited experience with it has been very positive.  One possibility that other keyboards don't offer is the ability to open an app such as Word with the keyboard activated, then put the PocketPC in it's pouch or pocket and then continue typing using only the keyboard which I have found works well even with the keyboard on one's lap.

The onscreen and thumb are sufficient in cranking out brief email responses and keeping notes on the go, but if the client needs a report, you will do well to have on a full set of keys spaced the same as your desktop.  In addition to the Stowaways, there are other models available.  With the IR models, know before you buy that positioning the PPC can be critical to impossible due to the IR window location on the PPC..

The AC adapter used to be a "must carry" but it has become pretty hard to find an available ac outlet in today's airport terminals so it now normally travels in steerage.

Not Shown

  • WIFI Access Point
  • Thin Ethernet Cable
  • Mini Ethernet "Crossover" cable
  • RJ-45 Coupler



    Concerning "connectivity" the primary questions are "What's your Budget," "Who's your Provider" and "Are you traveling Internationally. PPC's such as the PDA2k offer cellular internet connectivity to meet most needs, but the cost could be crippling, so the decision to carry an access point relates to your specific needs and situation.

    While Ethernet ports or wifi may be available at airports (with a few expensive exceptions,) more and more hotels and motels are providing them in all rooms at reasonable rates or, in some cases, for free.  Here's where carrying an access point pays off as it provides WIFI access to a wired Ethernet port.  Each hotel may have it's connect issues but they are getting easier as time progresses and experience grows.

    Cable or dsl modem connections are becoming commonplace in households and it has been possible to easily establish a fast connection at friends' places who may not have even owned a computer several years ago.  An access point can also provide a connection to a client's network, but, remember, there are security issues when you connect an access point to anyone's private network.

    To supplement the access point, carry a cat5 network cable made from the smallest possible four conductor Cat-5 cable.  A tiny "Crossover" adapter together with an RJ-45 coupler will also allow you to connect to a single laptop or other computer without the need for a hub.  There are also male/female crossover connectors available, an RJ45 coupler shown will do double duty as a phone cord coupler when needed.  If you still pack your laptop with you, a crossover coupler will also allow you to establish a high speed ActiveSync connection on the road, eliminating the need to carry a USB or serial sync cable.

    The Orinoco RG1000 AP that I have needs a PC based app to configure and monitor it's configuration.  That means that the PPC can't be used for that job, so the ability to configure a AP using only a PPC should be a factor in any future purchase.  Unfortunately, some of the browser configurable AP's such as the NetGear's have added Java to the mix which precludes configuring using a PocketPC.  (Try before you buy)

    Shedding Pounds (or Kilos)

    Ok, it's time for the proof, and numbers don't lie... right??? The following includes everything in the first two groups except the belt pouches.  I didn't include the last group since it's contents will be pretty arbitrary for most people.
    PPC Raw Poundage Stats
    7.5 oz
    212 g
    9.0 oz
    9.5 oz
    268 g
    Items that have
    a high probability
    of using on plane
    or in terminal
    11.4 oz
    1 lb 1 oz
    480 g
    1 lb 4.4 oz
    2 Belt
    4.6 oz
    132 g
    One for the PPC
    Other for Remainder
    of "Group 1" 
    plus Stowaway
    4.6 oz
    1 lb 5.6 oz
    612 g

    1 lb 9.0 oz
    8.0 oz
    228 g
    Only if I "plan"
    to write on plane
    but it's often in
    "carry on" anyway
    8.0 oz
    1 lb 13.6 oz
    840 g

    2 lb 1.0
    14.3 oz
    347 g
    These are items
    that are usable
    "on site" or in
    hotel rooms.
    7.0 oz
    2 lb 11.9 oz
    1187 g
    2 lb 8 oz
    ~16 oz
    456 g
    Average Weight
    w/ Pwr Supp &
    Thin Cable
    No AP
    Map GPS
    8.0 oz
    228 g
    Can't keep
    Getting Lost!
    8.0 oz

    Total w/ GPS &
    Access Point
    4 lb 3.9 oz
     1871 g

    3 lb 0.0 oz

    If those figures don't seem significant, take a moment to weigh your laptop bag with everything that you normally carry with it that's necessary to meet all of your traveling needs.  After you do that, pile on the additional items that get packed in the luggage and compare what you get to the above totals.

    For me, it's interesting that the total weight went up about 30%... a significant increase.  While the "carry weight" went down by 3.4 ounces,  the addition of the WIFI access point added to the luggage total compared to the lightweight NIC and Modem Cards.  The addition of the weight of portable speakers and audio amplifier speak to their value as a calming impact on travel.

    The "Nice to Have" Group

    This is the totally optional and personal group... no rules here and it's going to be structured by who you are and what your job requires.  Just posting some additional items that make my own travels a little easier which might be of value to you.

    25 - Short AC Cable with three outlets and built in surge protector
    26 - Extra PPC battery (if possible)
    27 - DB-9 to DB-25 adapter with gender changers
    28 - 1/8" Audio Jack Splitter
    29 - Mini AM/FM Radio
    30 - Mini Phone with line in and extension jacks
    31 - Sound Blocking Stereo Headset!!!

    I found this great extension cord with an embedded surge protector (#25) about four years ago at an Office Depot in San Francisco after I discovered that my budget motel's AC outlet allocation would allow me to connect my either my laptop or the desk lamp, but not both at the same time.  I shortened it to the minimum necessary to get it clear of most desks, dressers or beds in worst case outlet scenarios and it has been an essential travel companion since.

    The 1/8" stereo audio "splitter" (#28) and a second pair of headphones (with inline volume control) allows you to share content on your PPC with a seat mate, expected or otherwise.

    A small AM/FM radio (#29) is a nice traveling companion, FM for public radio and tunes, AM for the news including the low power road reports that are appearing along the interstates if your rent car radio has gone south.

    That tiny $9 phone (#30) has been pretty handy over the four years that I have had it.  On the tech side, it allows you to listen in as the speechless modem tries to make contact plus you have the opportunity to apologize to the grandmother you accidentally awoke at 3am because your area code was wrong.

    When staying with friends or at older places such as B&B's, it's not uncommon to have access to an extra telephone jack, often in the guest room but without a phone to use it with.

    Finally, all of my own personal weight, size and appearance reservations have been tossed out for this sound blocking (not sound canceling) headset (#31.) My open cockpit aviation history exposed me to terrible acoustic assaults for the majority of my life until I observed that other pilots from that era and before were effectively dealing with the problem by loosing most, if not all, of their hearing due to a lifetime spent in the middle of a roar.  I began aggressively protecting my ears in the late 1960's and it is paying off now as I pass my own sixty year mark.

    I have followed and tried a number of the sound canceling headsets since they appeared during the nonstop, unrefueled "around the world" flight few years ago, and while some work better than others, none compares to the silence provided by these huge ugly puppies.

    Two years ago, I experienced my first long flight in a "regional jet" traveling from DFW to Charleston, SC and was literally stunned by the high ambient noise level in the cabin.  Using a normal lightweight headset with the Jornada's volume set at maximum, I was still unable to hear the audio book that I had planned to use to help pass the time during the long flight.

    In Charleston I hit the audio stores looking for a headset that would help but found none that actually blocked outside noise until Radio Shack's sound proof "Race Track" units.  These are the equivalent of those worn by the ground crews walking around outside of your airline window and are designed to block out almost 100% of all external sound waves. The unit is, unfortunately, wired as "monaural" but it was a simple task to replace the monaural cable with a stereo one and rewire it as a stereo headset.  It's also important to note that many similar appearing large headsets do not provide any sound suppression, so, put them on and test and compare, preferably in a noisy environment.

    The contrast on the return flight on the same aircraft was unbelievable... almost total silence under them allowed the audio book to be set to low volume.  The extra plus was that the fatigue generated by the noise on the first flight was gone on the return flight.  While the MD-80's and larger aircraft may be quieter, the peaceful silence provided by this headset is clearly evident, especially when a screaming child in the next row disappears behind the music or novel which is then able to get my full attention in the surrounding silence provided by the headset.

    Entertainment is not a Sin When Traveling for Business

    A pocketpc forum site recently posted this page as a link followed by a discussion thread and I was surprised that one responder offered a very negative rsponse to my including and providing for the "entertainment" aspects of the PocketPC in an article addressed to "Road Warriors"

    To respond, I've traveled extensively for most of my life and have found it demanding and tiring.  Having access to music, audio content, ebooks to meet your own tastes and personal needs goes a long way to making travel easier and survivable.

    Most hotel/motel rooms provide only a TV plus a cheap clock radio and, by comparison, filling the only private space that you can retreat to on the road with audio content which means something special to you, and to do so with acceptable speakers that free you from headsets and wires can make facing each following day much easier.

    Audio on the Move

    PPC's now incorporate multiple apps that need access to audio output, GPS, Music, News, EBooks to name a few.  On a road trip or in a rental car at your destination, the PPC's internal speaker is not up to the task.

    Bluetooth audio is appearing in some high end cars, but it is proving to be PPC incompatible, so, being prepared to easily render your audio output loud and clear enough to be understood and enjoyed on the road has significant value.

    Some input from the various solutions I have tried over the years... as usual, there is no clear winner.

    ===FM Transmitter===

    FM transmitters are small devices the size of a pack of cigrarettes or smaller that take any audio input and "transmit" it at low power to be picked up by any FM radio within a few feet, thereby using a car radio and speakers as an audio amplifier.

    Pros - Simply plug the transmitter into the ppc, tune the transmitter and radio to match and all ppc audio comes out the radio speakers.  These can also be used to transmit to any nearby FM receiver.

    I have one model powered with a 12v Automotive Cigarette adapter that provides the additional bonus of a PPC compatible power tap.

    The prices range from $15-$50... the more expensive transmitters use digital tuning... no drift.

    Con - Can't listen to the radio and GPS directions at the same time. Transmitters may need batteries.  On the open road, blank frequencies often replaced by new stations as you move from city to city.

    ===Tape Adapter===

    Pro - same as above but simpler.  Clean audio, no drift, no batteries, cheap.

    Con - Who has a tape player any more?  In addition, some of these adapters are noisy and irritating as they have a mechanical tape transport emulator necessary to prevent the tape player'send of tape auto eject sensor.

    ===Radio with an Audio Input jack on the Front Panel===

    Pro -  Replaced my oem radio several years ago with a radio specifically chosen because it had a front panel jack and will likely never have another car without one... works with any audio device such as sat radio, ipod, etc, simple to the max and clean audio output, no batteries

    A significant percentage of recent car oem radios have these front panel jacks... take a close look at yours and see if you are lucky.

    Con - Can't listen to the radio and GPS directions at the same time.

    ===Amplified speakers on the dash===

    Pro - In addition to amplified speakers, check out the "boosteroo" amp with a couple of small pc speakers.  Means you can listen to radio and get gps directions at the same time.

    Con - Wires everywhere and batteries needed. Audio not as good or loud as most car speaker output.

    ===Personal Audio Conclusions====

    On the road, GPS voice prompts are important but often long periods between them have you switch to radio or other audio... amplified speakers for the ppc (or laptop) are my current choice for gps.  If you go this route with the plan of putting them on the dash, look for small speakers which clip together to make them easy to deal with.

    As a techie, I often replace the short speaker wires with a length long enough to meet any anticipated car cockpit needs, but you can accomplish the same with an "audio extension cord" which are common at electronic outlets.

    For years, part of my "travel kit" has been self stick velcro tape... essential for getting something to "stick" on the dash such as speakers or even a laptop.  For a PPC, a "sticky pad" (a rectangle of gooey plastic) almost always provides a good place to keep your PPC handy, and, since I use the "boosteroo", it and the speakers to velcroed to make a compact travel pack...

    What's Not Here!

    My laptop had been my GPS solution for over five years, but I never found a good PPC based replacement.  Getting very lost one afternoon on the MVP trip without a GPS solution gave me the determination to purchase the 8 oz. Magellan Meridan mapping GPS which has proven over the past year of use to be an excellent and versatile navigation tool.  The Meridian has been relegated to the handlebars of my motorcycle with the purchase of an Explorist 500, about half the size of the Meridian.  While both have proven themselves as excellent standalone gps solutions, the Explorist doesn't have a serial output which allowed it to be used with a serial pocketpc running mapping software.  Time marches on, so, if you are looking for a PPC based GPS solution, a bluetooth GPS receiver is (imho) the best current solution, especially since it can be used with future PPC's which have bluetooth.

    I'm not normally a "presenter" so I haven't been faced with the need to give computer based presentations at remote sites.  The two obvious answers are to carry the presentation on a CDRW and hope that the equipment is available at the other end and not "locked down" or to investigate the PPC VGA output solutions that are now available.
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