Have gadgets, will travel

Bathing suit. Inflatable horsie. Laptop.

That’s what my packing list usually starts with, though by the time I am done packing for any trip, whether the destination is Bagotville or Bonaire, there are always loads of critical gadgets stuffed between my sunscreen and my flipflops.

So next time you pull out the Samsonite from the basement, here’s a packing list you might consider taking to keep your inner geek happy during your trip.

The Amazingly Versatile Laptop

The number one, all-purpose, can’t-leave-home-without-it device has to be, and perhaps will always be, a laptop.

Some people see a mobile computer as a way to take work with you, but frankly I’d leave my underwear behind before my laptop…but perhaps not for the reason you’d think. A laptop can be extremely versatile on the road. Sure, it can connect you to your e-mail and be used to research maps (I use Google maps at maps.google.com), but consider that it’s also a mobile stereo system, a DVD player, and even a video phone. If you load a few games on it, it can also be an airplane baby-sitter for an otherwise screeching child.

IBM Thinkpad

If you’re in the market for a new well-traveling laptop, take a look at the ThinkPad T43. The computer was developed by IBM, but last year, a Chinese company named Lenovo bought the ThinkPad line. Despite the new owner, ThinkPads are still made in the same factory as they were before the Lenovo acquisition and remain largely the same. There’s one fabulous change, though: Lenovo has dropped the prices.

The T43 ($1229 to $1799) is 2.2 Kg (4.85 lbs), which is 50% lighter than equivalent competitor laptops. It also comes with anti-drop technology, which parks the sensitive hard drive when it’s smacked off the airport lounge seat by the big moose with the overstuffed carry-on.

If you’re going to use the T43 for game play, be sure to choose one with an ATI Radeon video card for better video performance. Transcontinental travelers might also consider an optional 8-cell battery ($219) that gives you up to 7.5 hours of mobile use and about half that for mobile use with wireless Internet turned on.

Connect Where You Roam

Most laptops these days come with a technology called Wi-Fi. It means the machine can connect to the Internet wirelessly when the computer is in range of a Wi-Fi hotspot, which is available at coffee shops, in airport terminals, and in many hotels. Even some campgrounds offer Wi-Fi connections. The price for this service varies from free to about $10 per day. Flat monthly rates are also available through most services. It’s the most reliable way to stay connected to the Internet so you can get your e-mail, surf the web, and use the Internet like you would at home.

When not in range of a Wi-Fi hotspot, you can rig your laptop to use cellular data networks. There are two flavors of this service, depending on which provider you use.

In Canada, Telus Mobility and Bell Mobility use a wireless technology called EVDO (which unravels to the oddly named “Evolution, Data Optimized”). It provides speeds of up to 2.4 Mbps, although outside of a laboratory, typical speeds are 400 to 700 kbps. That’s about half the speed of a home high-speed Internet connection.

To tap into it, you’ll need a cellular card, like the Kyocera Passport KPC 650 ($249.99 from Telus, or cheaper with a plan), which plugs into your laptop. The EVDO service costs $25 to $100 per month, depending on amount of data used.

The competition to EVDO is EDGE (this acronym is even worse: “Enhanced Data GSM Environment”), from Rogers or Fido. It’s slower than EVDO at potentially 448 Kbps. Real-world speeds, however, are 100 to 170 kbps – less than a quarter of your home broadband Internet connection. EDGE cellular cards cost around $350 (but again are a fraction of the cost with a service plan). Monthly usage fees are pricey at between $15 to $100 per month.

Accessories Make the Traveler

Logitech clip-on webcam

While I am not a huge fan of loading my luggage full of extraneous gear, there are two items you might consider. The first is a laptop webcam, especially if you don’t have your kids with you and want to see them in their Halloween dinosaur costumes. To do this, you’ll need a webcam for your laptop and one for your computer back home. I like the Logitech webcams. They are hardy and they come in a nice range of prices. So you can spend as little as $49.95 and as much as $169.95. The notebook versions are also lighter and clip on to your screen. Some come with a travel case, so they pack well. Have a look at the QuickCam for Notebook Pro ($159.95).

Logitech notebook speakers

A set of travel speakers can also come in handy for boardroom presentations or rainy day movie watching at a resort. The Logitech V20 notebook speakers ($109.95) are a good choice. They plug into a USB port (standard on all computers these days) and come with a protective travel case.

Trippy Tunes

If you’re not fond of the in-flight music channels or the shoe salesman from Red Deer blabbing next to you, an MP3 player is a handy device. The Apple iPod is the de facto player of choice these days. I travel with a 1 GB iPod Shuffle which doubles as a USB hard drive. It’s also biscuit tiny so it doesn’t add bulk to your carry on. At $79 to $119, it’s also not a huge heartbreak if you lose it. The 1 GB version device can carry about 250 songs.

If you’re going to consider any travel-worthy music accessory, however, look at buying new earbuds. To upgrade yours, check out Shure’s E2C’s sound-isolating earphones ($129.95). They block out the noise around you so don’t hear the baby wailing back in seat 17D. Even when the music is off, the buds double as noise reducing ear plugs, though a raspy Aerosmith lullaby on takeoff is always nice. The E3C or E4C versions add an additional level of fidelity. A word of caution here: As the model number climbs, so does the price.

Pocket Rockets

Now, if you don’t think you need the power and convenience of a laptop, perhaps a smartphone is all you need to keep both your calls and e-mails coming to you while you’re away. The latest EDGE-compatible Blackberry is called the 7130g ($249 to $499, depending on plan). It’s perhaps the most handsome and handbag-friendly mobile gadget from RIM so far. Also be sure to take a look at a Windows Mobile device like the Motorola Q ($599 or less, depending on package). It’s chocolate bar-thin, works on EVDO networks so you can surf the web and get e-mail, and it’s really the must-have mobile device that is even upstaging the Blackberry.

Take Your TV With You

The ultimate travel gadget to my mind is the one I leave at home. What I miss most about being away from home is my TV and my TiVo (personal video recorder that stores all my favorite shows) and my zillion-channel digital cable lineup. The Sling Box changes all that. The $250 living room accessory attaches to your TV gear and digitally burps the signal out onto the Internet so you can access it with your laptop when you’re on the road. You can control your TV, DVD or PVR, change channels as if you were sitting in front of it. All you need is a high-speed Internet connection at both ends.