Extreme mobility: Tools and tips for smartphone-only travel
After more than 20 years of dragging a notebook computer around whenever I traveled, I finally told myself that enough is enough. On two recent business trips, I joined the small but growing number of travelers who eschew a laptop in favor of a smaller, lighter device.
I could have opted for an iPad or an Android tablet, which would have lightened my load somewhat while providing a 7-to-10-in. screen. But that's an intermediary approach that would still require carrying a phone in addition to the tablet, probably shaving only a few pounds off my travel weight. I decided to go all the way to the light side and see if I could travel with just a smartphone. Call it extreme mobility.
Leaving my laptop and its clunky power adapter at my office has lightened my load considerably. I feel like the After picture in an ad for a new diet plan. Before, I was hunched over, burdened by a heavy notebook bag filled with nearly 10 lbs. of assorted stuff. The After shot shows me standing up straight, holding a thin leather briefcase that houses my smartphone, accessories, paper files and reading material.
All told, I cut 7 lbs. out of my hand baggage -- not bad for a diet that doesn't involve Nutrisystem or eating a mango with every meal.
Of course, it's not quite as simple as swapping a laptop for a phone. There are serious pros and cons to laptop-free travel, and pulling it off takes some extra planning, new hardware and software, and a willingness to squint at a small screen.
In my travels, I relied on an LG Nitro HD smartphone ($100 with a two-year contract), which runs Android 2.3 (Gingerbread) and can tap into AT&T's 4G LTE data service for fast connectivity. It weighs 4.8 oz. (6.8 oz. with its power adapter), a savings of nearly 5 lbs. compared to my HP EliteBook 2560p notebook and its 13-oz. power adapter.
In addition to the phone's included apps for email, Web browsing and mapping, I downloaded several more from the Android Market to make working from a phone feasible. Many of these were free, and those I had to pay for cost less than $30, allowing me to outfit the phone with the programs I needed for laptop-free travel for less than $100. That's half as much as I paid for just my desktop version of Microsoft Office.
While I used an Android smartphone, you can of course get similar results with an iPhone, a Windows Phone or a BlackBerry, although the latter two will offer fewer apps to aid you in your journey.
Successes and failures
During my trips, I succeeded in doing most of my work without a notebook. I was able to keep up with email, do Web research, write using a word processor, update spreadsheets and give presentations. Using a foldable Bluetooth keyboard and having a stand for the phone helped make it all work.
I also found a wealth of entertainment possibilities for the smartphone, including movies, Internet radio and games. Adding a tiny Bluetooth speaker made it, well, more entertaining. I even stayed in touch with my family via Skype video calls and kept an eye on things back home with a remote webcam app.
Unfortunately, my experience was not a clean sweep. I was unable to successfully update my website using Typepad's Web interface, and I couldn't work with complex project management documents. I spent too much time zooming in to make a change or check on a font size, then zooming out to see the big picture. Zoom in, zoom out -- lather, rinse, repeat. Before long, I gave up.
Nevertheless, I've found that I can do nearly everything with my trusty smartphone that I once used my notebook for. Keep reading for the best tools and tips I've found for smartphone-only travel. (story continues)
Having the right files at your fingertips is an essential part of extreme mobility. I recommend using two or more of the following methods to be sure you're not left high and dry.
Automatic online backup with mobile access
To make sure I can always get to my files, I use the MozyHome service to make online backups from my work computer every night while I sleep. The service costs $6 a month for 50GB or $10 a month for 125GB. Mozy's free mobile app (available for both Android and iOS) lets me grab any of my files that are stored on its servers.
After logging on to Mozy's server, I can pick and choose files from a list of thumbnails; anything I want can be viewed, downloaded or emailed to a colleague. It has saved my bacon several times. For example, when I needed an image file for a story I was working on, it was right where I left it on the Mozy servers.
Other online backup systems, such as Carbonite, offer similar services, and if you use an iPhone, Apple's iCloud service can automatically store all your files online and sync them among all your devices that run iOS 5 or Mac OS X Lion.
Files sent in advance
An alternative option for those who don't use an automated online backup service is to gather all the files you think you'll need before you hit the road and send them to an online storage service for later pickup with your phone. YouSendIt, for instance, compresses your files and makes them accessible online for download via a mobile app for iOS or Android. Unfortunately, the free service can upload only one file at a time. Paid plans can handle more files; they start at around $4 per month.
Box's online storage service goes beyond the onesie-twosie approach, letting you store groups of files for pickup with an Android, iOS or BlackBerry device. You can also share files and folders with other users. The free plan has a 5GB storage limit and 25MB file-size limit; paid plans with larger limits start at $10 a month.
And then there's Dropbox, which lets you store and share files online for access from any Windows, Mac, Linux, iOS, Android or BlackBerry device with the Dropbox app loaded on it. The service, which offers up to 2GB storage for free (paid plans start at $10 per month) can also sync files and folders among your devices as you specify. Marking a file as a favorite in the mobile app saves it to your phone for offline viewing and alerts you if there's a newer version of the file saved. This means you'll have not only the right file, but the latest version of that file as well -- provided you remembered to save it to your Dropbox in the first place.
Despite best-laid plans, data emergencies do happen on the road, like the time when the document I needed was too new to have been backed up online. Your emergency may be different -- the file you need might reside in a folder that isn't automatically backed up online, for example.
When such a disaster happens while you're on the road, remote control software such as Splashtop Remote can give you the ability to control your computer back at the office -- provided you set it up before leaving. However, this approach has limitations and it's best saved for emergencies.
It took me about 10 minutes to set up the Splashtop system. After loading the free Splashtop Streamer application (available for Windows and Mac) on the desktop PC at my office and the Splashtop Remote Desktop app ($2 for the iPhone version, $5 for Android) on my smartphone, I was ready for the road.
The connection is password-protected. When I used Splashtop recently, the phone and work PC connected on the second try, even though they were a thousand miles apart. Once online, I easily performed tasks on my PC such as opening apps, writing a research brief, checking the temperature with my weather station and reading email.
The software matches screen resolutions between the two devices, and the mobile app supports a slew of special gestures so that working on the small screen feels like working on the PC. Because each command has to travel over the carrier's data network, the Internet and the office network, there's a slight delay between doing something on the phone and it happening on the host PC.
But the biggest drawback is that Splashtop, like many other remote control programs, sends only the graphics information needed to duplicate the host PC's screen on the smartphone, not the actual data that's on the PC. So you can remotely control the computer to edit a file, but it stays on the PC -- you can't save the file directly to your phone. After some experimenting, I discovered the best solution was to use Splashtop to email the files I needed from my computer to my phone.
A competing product called LogMeIn Free (free for the desktop software and the iOS app, $30 for the Android app) is subject to the same limitations as Splashtop, but the company does offer a professional version, LogMeIn Pro ($70 per year), that not only allows remote control of a Mac or Windows PC from an iPhone or an Android phone, but also lets you grab and save the underlying data to your phone.
Working with Office files
Like most business travelers, when I hit the road I still have to do everything that I did back at the office, including writing and editing, working with spreadsheets and preparing presentations. There is no Microsoft Office suite for Android, but OfficeSuite Pro 5 (OSP) from Mobile Systems is the next best thing.
With OSP, I can create, view and edit Word, Excel and PowerPoint files in the latest file formats. It costs $10 and there's a 30-day free trial, so you can try it out before committing to the app.
Working with OSP goes surprisingly smoothly but can get tedious at times because my phone's 4.4-in. screen is tiny compared to my laptop's 12.5-in. display. The key is to use it in landscape mode as often as possible. It shows roughly eight lines of text from a Word document at a time.
A thin bar along the bottom of the screen contains basic formatting options, including font, color, justification and bullets, although it lacks the intricate formatting options that Office provides. Actually, I hardly miss them, preferring to keep documents simple.
While waiting out an ice storm at a departure gate on a recent trip, I used OSP to put the finishing touches on a presentation. The plane eventually did get off the ground, and in the air (with the phone in airplane mode, of course) I added my speaking notes. Later, I called up a spreadsheet with my company's income and expenses for the year to get it ready for tax time.
There are several alternative apps for Android phones, such as Polaris Office and Documents to Go, that provide similar capabilities, while the Pages, Numbers and Keynote trio do roughly the same for the iPhone. And Windows Phone device owners can use Microsoft's Office Mobile suite.
Another option is Google Docs, which stores the files online and requires that you have a Google account. Google Docs is available as a native Android app that you can install on your phone; for other platforms, you need to use your phone's browser to access and work with your files. Working online is a seductive idea, but I've found that the response is often too slow to satisfy my need for instant gratification when I travel.
I have a confession to make: I am functionally illiterate with the typical smartphone's onscreen keyboard, barely able to type my own name. Even for those who are proficient at onscreen typing, though, trying to get actual work done using a tiny onscreen keyboard is an exercise in frustration.
Using a lightweight Bluetooth keyboard that's designed for mobility is a big help here. While there are dozens of mobile Bluetooth keyboards available, the best have keys big enough for adult human fingers, fold up to about the size of a paperback book and weigh roughly half a pound.
I've found out the hard way that not all Bluetooth keyboards work with all smartphones. That's because some current devices support the Serial Port Profile (SPP) Bluetooth profile, while others support the Human Interface Device (HID) profile. The LG Nitro HD phone I used, for instance, will connect with keyboards that use SPP but not those that use HID.
A good option is to get a Bluetooth keyboard that supports both the HID and SPP protocols, such as the $100 Freedom Pro Keyboard from Freedom Input USA. There's a small switch on the keyboard's left side to choose between HID and SPP.
The Freedom Pro keyboard can connect with smartphones running on the Android (up to Version 3.0), iOS, BlackBerry, Windows Mobile and Symbian operating systems, but it requires platform-specific drivers. Setting up the keyboard to work with my Android phone took me about three minutes.
The keyboard weighs 9 oz. and provides 75 keys, as close to a full selection of keys as you're likely to find on a portable keyboard. Some of the keys get shortchanged on size, and because the keyboard folds in the middle, its space bar is split into two smallish keys, which I find annoying. Still, these are typical tradeoffs for a mobile keyboard.
The Freedom Pro keyboard includes a pop-out easel stand that securely holds the phone horizontally or vertically. I comfortably typed long emails, proposals, invoices and more -- all without ever using the phone's on-screen keyboard.
The talking cure?
Another way to get around the limitations of a phone's onscreen keyboard is to take advantage of a voice recognition app. Why type an email or Facebook update when you can simply speak it? Such apps also let you use voice commands to make calls, open apps and perform other basic tasks, saving you a few taps along the way.
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.")
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
Brian Nadel is a frequent contributor to Computerworld and the former editor in chief of Mobile Computing & Communications magazine.