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Have gadgets, will travel

Road trip.

Those two words might bring up old memories of endless hours in the backseat of a station wagon with your parents. Or it may conjure up fantasies of hitting the open road on a motorcycle.

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If you are a computer professional, you may think it will be a break from the keyboard and other electronics.

Maybe not.

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My vacation was going to be a relaxing two-week lap around the middle of the country with my wife in our Miata.

For those of you not familiar with the Mazda Miata, it's a two-seater convertible that's long on fun and woefully short on trunk space.

Packing became a challenge, especially when I realized just how many gadgets I wanted to bring along. Gadgets also need accessories, such as cables and battery chargers.

Here is what I brought and what I learned from the trip about hitting the road with your gadgets.

Laptop lifeline

It was tempting to leave the laptop at home, but the benefits of carting along a computer soon became apparent.

I brought my Apple PowerBook G4 with a 15-inch LCD.

Apple chief executive Steve Jobs touts the Macintosh as a digital hub, and now I really understand the concept.

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We used the PowerBook for Internet access and e-mail, but I found I used it more for off-loading digital photos and video.

After a long day on the road, I was often too busy or too tired to surf the Web, but I did make time to off-load the 100 or so pictures we took each day.

Don't forget to bring along a memory card reader to transfer your photos. Laptops with a PC card slot can use a memory card adapter; those without one can use a USB or FireWire card reader.

Internet access really came in handy when it was time to make hotel reservations.

After our first night, I started using the Internet to make the next night's reservation.

I scoured Travelocity.com and various hotel Web sites to make sure we had the best possible room rate.

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Don't forget to update the nationwide list of dial-up numbers for your ISP. I used eight AT&T; dial-up numbers during the trip.

Every hotel we used had a data port on the side of the room phone. Don't use the wall jack because the hotel's phone system is probably digital and the line's extra power will electrocute your modem.

Scanner scoop

None of my friends could believe I was taking a scanner on vacation, but I had a reason.

Our first destination was suburban Chicago to visit my grandmother and many of my relatives. My aunt, Sharon Rossman, has been compiling a series of family photo albums, using photos that belonged to my great-grandmother.

They are very valuable photos, and I wanted copies. The easiest, cheapest way was to scan them myself.

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The Canon LIDE 30 flatbed scanner that I brought is about the same size as the PowerBook. It connects to the computer through a single USB cable for data and power.

The scanner took up precious cargo space, but the photos of my father with shoulder-length curls when he was 3 were well worth the inconvenience.

It's a phone, it's a PDA

My Handspring Treo 300 is a Palm PDA as well as a Sprint wireless phone.

I love the phone, but it does have a few drawbacks.

The built-in battery isn't replaceable, so I had to remember to recharge it daily. I brought along charging cables for both the car and AC outlets in the hotels at night.

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The Treo is also a single-band phone, which means if we ventured outside Sprint's coverage area, we couldn't roam on any other networks. This meant days of traveling through rural Minnesota, South Dakota and Wyoming with no phone service.

Check your phones and coverage before you leave. If we had brought my wife's phone, which can roam, we would not have been so cut off.

Camera consciousness

Our digital camera is a few years old. The Canon PowerShot S110 Digital Elph is a 2-megapixel camera that's small enough to fit in a shirt pocket.

The Elph uses CompactFlash cards for picture storage. We brought two 256-megabyte cards. Each card can hold more than 400 pictures.

We took about 700 pictures on our 14-day trip. Off-loading the cards to the laptop was not a necessity, but it sure helped when it came time to label the photos.

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Digital cameras also devour batteries. If your camera uses AA batteries, consider bringing along a few sets of rechargeables. The Elph uses a small proprietary rechargeable battery; I brought along two, but one wouldn't hold a charge.

Little digital record

The gadget I used the least was the JVC digital camcorder. I haven't owned it long, and I really haven't gotten used to life behind the lens.

But I was glad I had it when my wife took my 84-year-old grandmother for a top-down ride in our Miata. I also shot some footage at Mount Rushmore, but video of a mountain just isn't that exciting.

At least we won't have to bore our friends with vacation videos.

My camcorder connects to the PowerBook through a FireWire cable. I can save the footage in iMovie for later editing.

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Let the music play

My favorite gadget also is musical. My Apple iPod MP3 player carries almost 2,000 of our favorite songs. A cassette adapter lets us play the music through the Miata's stereo.

Again, batteries must be considered. The iPod's built-in battery can last up to 10 hours, but it recharges through a FireWire port when connected to the PowerBook. Several companies make 12-volt vehicle adapters for the iPod so it can charge as you drive.

My latest toy is the Delphi Skyfi XM satellite radio, a cradle-mounted system for home or car. It provided us a hundred channels of CD-quality sound in areas too remote for AM or FM radio.

Real power trip

There is a common thread with all the gadgets - power.

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They all need power, and most of them use batteries that need to be recharged.

Keeping up with the batteries and their various chargers can be a challenge.

I used a small leather bag to keep everything organized. This made life easier moving into the hotel each night. Just be sure not to leave any chargers behind when you leave.

To maximize charging, I acquired one last gadget that made the rest a bit easier to keep going - a DC-to-AC power inverter. It draws power from your car's cigarette lighter and converts the 12-volt DC power into 110-volt AC current, adding a standard electrical outlet to your vehicle.

The upside is being able to charge your batteries as you cruise down the road.

The inverter can also power a laptop or a small TV/VCR to keep the kids entertained.

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Inverters are sold with a power rating expressed in watts. Each item to be powered needs a specific number of watts to operate. My PowerBook's power supply requires 65 watts; my inverter is rated for 225 watts.

Larger inverters can handle bigger loads, but need a direct connection to a car battery.

Technology should be an asset, not a drag on your vacation. The key to a successful trip is to anticipate your gadget needs and plan ahead.


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