Extreme mobility: Tools and tips for smartphone-only travel

While Android has basic voice actions baked in, I turned to the Vlingo Virtual Assistant, available for Android, iOS, BlackBerry, Symbian and Windows Mobile devices, for more advanced help. Vlingo's Android app is a freebie that's ad-supported; it costs $2 for an ad-free version of the software.

The app is similar to Apple's Siri for iPhone 4S in that you speak to it and it takes action based on what it thinks you said, but Vlingo lacks Siri's advanced natural language comprehension. Vlingo has only a limited vocabulary of tasks such as "email," "search," "get directions" and "update [social network]."

To alert the Android version of Vlingo to listen up, you tap a bar at the bottom of the screen. It worked well for simple tasks like opening the Web browser and searching for a copy shop but was frustrating for sending texts and emails, making the same mistakes over and over again.

I had mixed results when asking Vlingo questions. For example, when I asked, "How many feet are in a mile?" it brought up a Google search results page with links to several online sources that answer the question. Unfortunately, it didn't do as well when I asked, "When does baseball's spring training start?" Its response? "No answer found."

If you're looking for more Siri-like functionality, a few Android apps including Speaktoit Assistant, Eva and Jeannie are worth checking out, but they aren't quite ready for prime time. (See "Siri for Android -- sort of.")

Giving presentations

A common task for business travelers is making presentations. You'll usually find a projector in the conference room at your destination, but how do you get your presentation from your phone to the projector? I've found a couple of ways that work very well.

Via HDMI

Most projectors that are less than two years old, and some older ones as well, have an HDMI port. (Call ahead and find out for sure.) If so, you might be able to plug your phone directly into the projector.

Some high-end smartphones, such as Motorola's Droid 3, have an HDMI port for sending images to a projector or external display. Unfortunately, my Nitro HD doesn't have this, but it does support Mobile High-definition Link (MHL). This interface can send images, video and audio from the phone's micro-USB port through an adapter and separate HDMI cable to the HDMI port on a projector or TV.

You can find the connectors in electronics stores and online for prices ranging from about $10 to $35. I used a no-name MHL adapter and cable that cost $10.50.

There's no software to load, and for now, you need to power the MHL cable using an AC adapter. (The MHL standard includes a provision for the adapter to draw power from the projector or TV it's attached to, but as yet very few devices support this function.) The good news is that the MHL cable can use the phone's power adapter, and it simultaneously charges the phone it's plugged into.

After plugging one end of the MHL cable into the phone and the other into the projector's HDMI cable, the connection is automatic, and the images show up on the big screen at 1280-x-720-pixel resolution. Regardless of how you orient the phone's screen, the big-screen image stays right-side up, but you do have to keep the phone from going to sleep.

Using the MHL cable and a Mitsubishi projector, I gave a presentation using the OfficeSuite Pro app without a hitch.

Of course, MHL is still an emerging standard, and only a couple dozen smartphones support it today, but that number is expected to increase over time.

Via a presentation remote control app

Another strategy is to bring the presentation on a USB flash drive or email it to someone at the office where you're headed, then load it on a laptop there. Once it's all loaded on a computer that's connected to the projector, you can control it from your smartphone with a presentation remote-control app.

I used Signal Beach Software's ShowDirector PowerPoint Remote for Android, which works with Microsoft PowerPoint running on a Windows PC. There's a free trial that limits you to showing 10 slides, but the full app costs only $5.

After loading the ShowDirector server software on the computer connected to the projector, I fired up the Android app to wirelessly connect the Nitro HD phone to the PC. I used Bluetooth to link them, but the software can also use a Wi-Fi connection.

The program's interface has buttons for moving forward and back through the slides, as well as rearranging their order. I could also adjust the volume as I roamed around the room. In other words, I was in control of the show.

What about other mobile platforms? Windows Phone smartphones come with PowerPoint Mobile included, and iPhones can use Keynote ($10) to show a presentation. When it comes to BlackBerry devices, though, you'll need a separate box called BlackBerry Presenter that costs $200 and plugs into a projector or a TV.

Printing

There's no avoiding it: Sometimes you just need paper copies. After being frustrated by using several general-purpose printing apps for Android phones and tablets, I've found the only thing that works reliably is to use the apps that the individual printer companies have provided for their hardware. They're free and work well for everything from printing a boarding pass or Web page to creating emergency business cards.

At the moment, I have apps loaded on the Nitro HD for Brother, Canon, Epson and Lexmark printers. All three printer manufacturers offer similar apps for the iPhone.

Chances are that either your hotel's concierge or its business center will have a printer that works with one of them. If all else fails, I have been able to print at a local Kinko's or other print shop.

Each app generally works in much the same way. It starts by scanning the area for a wireless printer. After I select a printer, the software does the rest. All I have to do is wait.

Some of the apps, like those from Epson and Brother, also let you scan documents if the printer has a scanner, making it an imaging two-way street.

Making a stand for mobility

About 20 minutes of hunching over a smartphone's screen laid flat on a desk or airline tray is enough to convince most people that it's worth packing a small stand to hold the phone upright. A seat neighbor on a flight recently told me how to make a super-portable phone stand out of nothing more than a pair of binder clips. You'll need two sets of small pliers (needle-nose work great). Here's how to do it:

Step 1: Start by flipping the arms of one binder clip back away from the side that opens. Take one set of pliers in each hand; use one to hold the clip securely while bending one of its arms into a curve at the end. (With the arm flipped back, you'll be bending the end of the arm out away from the clip rather than toward it.)

This curved arm will wrap around the phone and hold it up. The object is to create a "J" shape, but it takes a little finesse to do it evenly, so don't expect to get it perfectly on the first try.

Step 2: Next, open the clip with one hand while slipping the second (closed) clip inside it, as shown at right. Both clips are now facing in the same direction, but the inside clip has both arms straight out, while the outside clip's arms are flipped back. Move the outside clip's unbent arm forward so that it lines up with the inside clip's arms.

Step 3: Set the clips down so that the broad back of the outside clip becomes the stand's base. The three unbent arms stand up straight, forming the backrest for the phone, while the bent arm curls down and out in front. Put the phone on the stand. It should sit securely; if it doesn't, try re-bending the clip arm until you get it right.

The beauty of the binder clip stand? In a pinch, it can hold a bunch of papers together.

Staying entertained

The MHL cable I used for making a presentation also came in handy later on. I connected it to the HDTV in my hotel room, then used the big screen to nose around on the Web and watch a streaming movie in full HD via the Netflix Android app.

I also used my phone to listen to Internet radio using the free rad.io app and played a few games, such as IdeeNote's Fly Over Maps. You'll find similar apps if you use an iPhone, BlackBerry or Windows-based device -- entertainment is one area for which there's no lack of apps on any platform, and many of them are free.

While the Nitro HD and other smartphones have built-in speakers that are loud enough to use as speakerphones or to listen to music with, the sound quality is somewhere between awful and horrendous. I've taken to packing Logitech's $100 Mini Boombox, a small speaker set that improves the audio quality of any Bluetooth-enabled phone.

At 2.2 x 4.5 x 2.5 in. and weighing 7.6 oz., the Mini Boombox dwarfs the Nitro HD phone, but it easily fits into a bag when it's time to go. It has a pair of 1-in. speakers inside and Bluetooth that supports the Advanced Audio Distribution Profile (A2DP) standard.

The Mini Boombox can stay connected with the phone via a Bluetooth link from as far as 35 feet away, so you can listen to music while charging the phone at an outlet across the room. It also has a 3.5mm mini jack audio input as a backup.

Other than an on/off switch in the back, the Mini Boombox has no traditional physical controls, but there's a lighted control panel on top that has pressure-sensitive areas for adjusting the volume, setting up the Bluetooth connection, changing the track and pausing the music. The Mini Boombox doesn't come with a remote control, but you can raise or lower the volume from the phone.

It took about a minute to pair and connect the speaker set with my phone, and after that it delivered rich sound with solid bass. More to the point, the Mini Boombox got a lot louder than the phone could, filling the hotel room with sound.

The Mini Boombox has a built-in battery that powered it for 7 hours and 20 minutes in my tests, but it lacks a battery gauge. For those who talk on the phone a lot, it's also a speakerphone that doesn't make you sound like you're talking in a cave.

Keeping an eye on things back home

When I travel, I bring a bit of my home with me via a home-based webcam. I have a D-Link DCS-932L camera set up to monitor Slowy, my 10-year-old Golden Greek tortoise.

The $150 webcam lets me watch and listen to what Slowy is up to (not very much, generally) and make sure he has fresh water and lettuce. It could just as easily act as a surveillance camera to monitor my home.

Because the camera streams video directly to the Wi-Fi router, it doesn't need to be connected to a computer. Setting it up was straightforward: I unpacked it, plugged it in, connected it to the router with an Ethernet cable and pressed the Wi-Fi Protected Setup buttons on both the camera and the router to get them to connect. Once the wireless connection was made, I disconnected the Ethernet cable, moved the camera to its final location and let it connect to the router over Wi-Fi. It took about 15 minutes total.

On the receiving end, I use D-Link's free MyDLink Lite app (available for both Android and iOS) to watch the video stream on the NitroHD phone; there's also an app called MyDLink+ that costs 99 cents and lets you watch up to four streams at once if you have several cameras set up.

Once the app has found the camera, it takes about 7 seconds for the stream to start. Although the camera is capable of streaming VGA video, the app can show only HVGA resolution. Still, the view is good and I am able to zoom in to see Slowy eating, sleeping and sitting in his water dish.

While there's a low-light mode for nighttime viewing, it shows video in black and white, making Slowy look like he's in an old movie.

Bottom line

Traveling with just a smartphone isn't for everybody, but with the right tools and preparation, those who don't need to use complex applications such as project management software can make it work.

Having traveled in the world of extreme mobility, I love the feeling of liberation that comes with leaving the notebook behind. I don't think I could ever go back.

Related: "On-the-go Power: Mobile Chargers Keep Your Devices Alive"

Brian Nadel is a frequent contributor to Computerworld and the former editor in chief of Mobile Computing & Communications magazine.

This story, "Extreme mobility: Tools and tips for smartphone-only travel" was originally published by Computerworld.

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