In Part 1 of my tech travel journal, I explained how I was traveling recently without a laptop. Well, actually, I did have one on my trip to San Francisco, but it was emergency backup only. Otherwise, with one tablet, three smartphones and a mobile hotspot, I presumably had more than enough to get some work done. After all, this is the promise of mobile technology, isn’t it? To liberate us from our desks and computers? So here’s how my experiment went.

After I got off the airplane at SFO, and returned the Chromebook I borrowed for the flight, I looked forward to reaching my friend’s place and unpacking. The apartment’s so nice, I thought to myself, knowing full well that I’d be laying waste to the clean lines and modern aesthetic as soon as I unpacked all my kit. After pulling out the laptop, I set it aside on the far edge of the living room table, where it would remain until my last day of the trip.

Thankfully, WiFi was no problem there, so I hunkered down on the couch, blissfully perusing the webs on my WiFi-only iPad 2. After a few moments, various emails started shooting into my inbox, one of which was rather important. This wouldn’t be a fast reply, but one of those lengthier bits of business, so I got up off my derriere and dug around in my bag for my bluetooth wireless keyboard. A keyboard is a necessity for anyone who hopes to do any “real” work on a tablet or out-sized smartphone. While some people may be used to capacitive screen typing, it’s rarely anyone’s first choice. The simple fact is, there are no physical cues that allow for touch typing, which means that your brain, eyes and attention are on your screen keys, not on the message you’re trying to write — a situation I find altogether too distracting when I’m trying to craft an email or article. (Hunt-and-peck typists, however, might be able to adapt better.)

There it is. I pulled out my Apple bluetooth keyboard, returned to the couch… and then immediately got right back up again. Dang it, I winced. I’m going to need a table. I’m good at handling my gear, but even I can’t balance a tablet and a separate keyboard on my lap at one time, which is the downside of this sort of set up. But it was the only wireless one I had, so into the gear bag it went. And now… well, I just hated this thing. While a full-sized hardware QWERTY is nice and roomy, this one made me feel like I was toting a plank — one that forced this weary traveller to give up her comfy, cushiony seat for a cold, hard table and folding chair on the other side of the room.

Needless to say, I went to bed grumpy. And I resolved to get an all-in-one keyboard case for this tablet as soon as I got back home.

Until then, however, I used my giant keyboard with the iPad 2, and aside from being tethered to tables and desks, things were actually pretty good. Functionality-wise, I was impressed with the tools available to me in the App Store. Mobile apps have come a long way, baby. Once upon a time, I would’ve rather gnawed my arm off than try to blog with a mobile device — any mobile device. Now, I was living the good life with Blogsy on the iPad (or, when I was on the go with one of my Android phones, the WordPress app). As far as iPad apps are concerned, I relied completely on Blogsy and Filterstorm. Thank you, developers! The former offers a very user-friendly UX for blogging across popular services, and the latter’s robust graphics editing gave me more control than PhotoShop’s own app. Instapaper completed this troika of productivity for me, especially since I could browse on any device and save pages to blog about later.

My San Francisco gear: The iPad 2, iPhone 4S, HTC Rhyme, Apple wireless keyboard, T-Mobile Sonic 4G, HTC Inspire

As for phones, I mostly bounced between the GSM iPhone 4S and the HTC Inspire — the former is my daily driver, and the latter… well, that roomy 4.3-inch screen was like having a mini tablet in my pocket. And I would’ve been content with these two phones, except for one thing — connection. There were pockets where AT&T just wasn’t strong. (It was like my friend and I were in a sitcom: “I don’t have any bars. Do you have any bars? Wait! I just got a blip. Turn around and go back!!” Cut to a scene on the street as our car rolls by, with me hanging out the window and pointing my phone toward the sky.) For our day trips and outings beyond the city limits, I started bringing Verizon’s HTC Rhyme along, just to have a second network at my disposal. All of this goes to show — all that chatter about carrier wars and whose network is fastest doesn’t matter one lick if you can’t even send a stupid text message.

Within the city limits, I mostly relied on my pal’s home wireless network, but after a couple days of working inside her apartment, I was just itching to change my environment. But my tablet is WiFi only; I couldn’t just grab it and go. Well, okay, actually I could — San Francisco’s like a mecca of technology, and hotspots do abound. But… I find public networks ooky. First of all, they’re rarely fast enough to suit me. Second, and more importantly, there are inherent security risks with putting my devices on the same network as scores of strangers.

Enter the T-Mobile Sonic 4G mobile hotspot.

I had my doubts about this device at first. Back home in New England, I happen to live in a Tmo black hole, so the hotspot was like a “connection non grata” there. But out here? It worked like a champ. I even took it to New York, and similarly was delighted by the speed there. (Full disclosure: When T-Mobile supplied me with this hotspot, they did point me toward particularly strong connection areas, so I knew precisely where to go. Your mileage could vary, depending on where you live.) After resolving an initial kerfluffle with a non-working demo unit, the replacement was fantastic. Easy set up, fast connection (specs state up to 42.2 Mbps HSPA+, 3G in areas where that’s not available) and the ability to hook up 5 devices made this supremely handy. Add the fact that it has tremendous battery life (for me, it was easily 5 hours, depending on how many devices I had hooked on there and what I was doing), and it was practically sublime. At home, I also would’ve found the microSD card slot, for sharing across the network, really handy as well. Plus, it’s super cute.

All in all, I succeeded pretty well on this mission. The only time I opened my laptop was on the last day. I wanted to check in for my flight online, and unfortunately, the site was acting wonky. Wasn’t sure if it was a Flash issue (Apple doesn’t take kindly to that), a javascript error or something akin to that, I went over to my computer and cracked it open for the first time all week. Turns out, the site was just as busted on the laptop, so I closed it immediately. That doesn’t count, does it? I mean, I only had it open for a moment. 

But my conscience wasn’t having any of that: Sure, you don’t have to tell anyone… that is, if you don’t mind being a big fat liar. 

I rolled my eyes. Thanks for nothing, Virgin America web devs. You ruined my streak.

Are you traveling for the holidays? Tell us if/how you plan to gear up for your trip.

*****

 

Epitaph

Wouldn’t you know, Virgin America gifted me 5,000 miles/points for inconvenience caused by its reservations/check-in/site issues. That’s enough for a short haul flight! I don’t think this is in response to me being a blogger — in fact, they had no idea who I was or that I was going to mention this. Now that’s what I call customer service! Now my love (Chromebook, yay!)/hate (check-in bugs, boo!) has flipped back over to the “love” side of things again, so this travel tale has a happy ending after all.

Oh, and by the way — The Tmo Sonic has miraculously appeared in my home, post-trip. Little wonder, considering all the new markets that Magenta is constantly adding to the fold.

Let this be a lesson to you: Just because you have one experience with a device, doesn’t mean it’s the final word. Things change radically in this wacky world of tech, so if you’re not getting the functionality you need in one moment, try again later a week, a month — even a year later. Just dust it off and check it out. You might see something fantastical that wasn’t there before.

I am reminding myself of this as I sit in my living room, staring at my Logitech Revue. Oh come on. When am I going to get some Google TV 2.0 love here?