I never thought I’d need to take work on vacation. In fact, for many years I nagged my husband if he checked in with the office even once a day while we were on vacation. Vacations are sacred family time, right?
Then I became a small business owner. As a freelance writer I have a number of clients whose projects are in various stages of completion at all times. My first few years in business, before any trip I worked feverishly to finish all projects, made sure I notified everyone possible that I would be out of town, and changed my phone and E-mail messages to state exactly how long I would be away. In short, I made getting away for more than a weekend into something exhausting.
Last year I decided to make a change. I bought a laptop, didn’t bother to notify people that I was leaving town, and blithely headed to my sister-in-law’s lake cottage in western Pennsylvania for a week of relaxation with the theory that I would easily be able to connect to the Internet and take care of any client needs by checking my E-mail once a day.
There was a major flaw in my plan. My sister-in-law lives in what I call the “Internet-Free Zone.” They don’t have a wireless Internet connection. In fact, the only connection to the outside world is a 22-inch television. “It’s a vacation cottage,” she explains. “We don’t want to spend all of our time working or worrying about the outside world.”
Great — If you have a corporate job where other department members are working while you are not, I thought. But what if I get an E-mail from an editor offering me a new assignment? What if one my clients needs something?
So this year, as summer rolled around and a couple of trips to the lake were planned, I found myself listening to all those commercials about smart phones and apps that would allow me to do business anywhere, anytime — that shoe guy who apparently runs his entire business from his cell, for example. If he could connect anywhere, anytime, surely I could keep in touch with my business from Indian Lake, Pennsylvania.
If I had enough technology.
My first step was a SmartPhone. I switched carriers and bought a G1 Google phone from T-Mobile. I could make calls, check my E-mail, surf the Internet, connect to Google maps with a GPS feature that showed my location as a tiny blue, blinking dot on the screen, and flip up a miniature keyboard to type. The first thing I discovered is that even a flip up keyboard on a cell phone is tiny. And while it made it easy to bother my son with paragraph-long text messages, editing a Word document was really not feasible.
I needed more.
That’s when a client showed me her new Netbook, a petite little laptop computer that actually fit in her purse. It was cute, only 8-by-10 inches. I started doing research and learned that these little computers could be purchased with Bluetooth to connect your cell phone.
Excellent! I thought, I just hook (the technical term is tether) my Netbook and my cell phone together and voila! I’m ready to head on that working vacation. I ordered the Bluetooth version from Hewlett-Packard (local stores didn’t carry it with that feature) and it arrived the day before I was scheduled to leave.
Scheduling is often complex in my family. My husband was away for several days on a business trip and the plan was for me to pick him up at the Philadelphia airport at noon that Thursday and head straight out on our vacation.
When he got to the car I handed him the keys, grabbed my cell phone, and started making a few phone calls. About half an hour later I finished up, looked over at him and said, “Hi, how was your trip?” He managed not to remind me about all those years when I’d whined about him doing the same thing. We chatted until my phone chimed with an E-mail message.
An editor wanted a more information on an article I’d written. I decided that, since it only needed a few sentences, I could handle this on my SmartPhone; besides, I hadn’t yet figured out the Netbook connection. I typed it in and E-mailed it off. My plan was working! I could handle business while my husband drove the Pennsylvania Turnpike.
The Dead Zone. The first sign of a problem occurred when we left the turnpike at Bedford. I’d decided to use the GPS/Google map feature on my phone to navigate the back roads to the lake.
Unfortunately, the minute we left the turnpike the GPS and map winked off — and didn’t return. Luckily (since I hadn’t bothered to bring the written directions), my husband’s SmartPhone, with a different carrier, was still working. Once we arrived at the lake I was suddenly reminded of another of those cell phone TV commercials — I was in the dead zone. No phone service, no GPS, no surfing the web, no texting, and no E-mail.
It was like I’d just been zapped back to 1995. How was I going to survive for four days without my connection to the world?
Luckily, I learned that E-mail takes a smaller burst of connectivity (technical people please forgive this explanation) and so, occasionally throughout the weekend I was able to receive and send a few E-mails. We stopped at a farmer’s market on Friday morning, and I was connected. While the rest of the family shopped for fresh strawberries, I feverishly responded to E-mails, accepting an assignment from an editor and answering a few other messages.
On Saturday we headed out to look at the giant windmills that dot the landscape in that area and again, my phone chimed and I quickly accepted a second assignment and sent off a query to another editor about an article idea I’d had. It was around this time that my husband snarled something about “wasn’t this supposed to be a vacation?” and I put the phone away.
Finally, on Monday, we headed home, and as we passed the Sidling Hill rest stop my phone chimed again. It was back! Phone, E-mail, Internet — I had entered civilization again.
What worked, what didn’t. So what technology did work on my working vacation? While my SmartPhone didn’t work, my husband’s, with a different carrier (AT&T) did. If you are planning to purchase a SmartPhone, check that service is available in areas you visit frequently. Of course, no phone works everywhere, but some carriers still have more coverage in different parts of the country than others.
I also enjoyed using my Netbook. It’s light and easy to carry and has a very readable screen. I had downloaded several books as PDF’s, some for business and some for pleasure, and found that, unlike with larger laptops or desktops, I actually found reading on the Netbook just as comfortable as reading from a paper book.
And though the screen is small, with a few adjustments in font size and zooming, it is easy to type or use the editing features in a Word document.
Tethering. When we returned home I looked into tethering, the feature that allows a person to connect a cell phone to a laptop or Netbook. I found that it is possible — maybe just not easily. I checked with several companies and found that the feature is available on some smart phones, but not others, and that not every company is even offering this service yet.
If they do it can cost anywhere from $30 a month to $60 a month, meaning you have to do a lot of traveling to make it economically feasible right now.
While some hotels do charge about $10 a day for an Internet connection, it’s still cheaper to pay for a connection than to add this service to your monthly bill.
Netbook vs. laptop. Netbooks have a smaller memory and slower processors than their cousins, the laptops. They are slow to start, but once you have a program running, the speed is fine. They do not come with internal DVD drives. In fact, it is usually suggested that the only programs you put on them are Word and Excel, and while you can look at jpeg photos on them with a memory card, don’t plan on downloading very many. Netbooks just don’t have enough memory.
If you plan to read PDFs, work on Word documents and surf the Internet with a wireless connection, they are excellent. If you need more computer than that, don’t bother, just bring your laptop.
Bluetooth or not. Even though I am not yet able to connect my cell phone to my netbook, I’m still glad I purchased this feature. Every cell phone expert I spoke with assured me that it will be more readily available within six months, and probably more affordable in a year, so why not be prepared for this new technology.
GPS navigation. Yes, many SmartPhones offer this app, but if you really plan to skip the maps and navigate by GPS, you should probably spring for a dedicated device. There are a few dozen different models available now, ranging in price from about $100 past $700. Large screen size is an important feature — and definitely one of the reasons to purchase a GPS device rather than attempt to navigate by cell phone.
Still, I’d recommend bringing along an old-fashioned paper map. They never lose their signal and they never run out of power.
Now that I’ve tried out all my gadgets on my first trip of the summer, I’m ready for the next adventure, a family wedding next weekend in West Virginia. I’ll see if cell phone connections are any better there than in Somerset County, Pennsylvania.
If not, I’d like to let all my friends and clients know that they’ll hear from me when I get back.