CNET to the Rescue: Leave the world behind

Heading out of town? What are you going to do about e-mail, your Facebook followers, and your Farmville account? We have tips. Also: Your questions answered.

Rafe Needleman Former Editor at Large
Rafe Needleman reviews mobile apps and products for fun, and picks startups apart when he gets bored. He has evaluated thousands of new companies, most of which have since gone out of business.
Rafe Needleman
8 min read

If you're heading out of town and leaving the electronic world behind, don't forget that your e-mail contacts, Facebook friends, and Farmville plants will still be expecting to see you around online, interacting with them. Here are some tips for managing your electronic world when you step away from it. Also: Your questions answered, including how to extend Wi-Fi range, and fix a Droid's messed-up contact list.

Watch this: Ep. 14: How to go off the grid


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Episode 14: How to get off the grid

Advice for those going offline
From readers:

"Change your e-mail signature ahead of time to let people know you're going to be gone during a certain period of time. Then set your out of office at the end of the day you're leaving." -Ronnie

"I usually monitor everything via Blackberry or plug in somewhere with a laptop. I respond if something is vital and ignore or make note of everything else. I DON'T use e-mail notifications because auto-responders do little more than notify spammers that your account is valid." -Brant

"Don't take ANY Internet-ready devices with you, you will end up checking things and then you won't be able to put it down" -Loughlin

"Um, I don't. In fact, I have been known to take vacations where I'm sure I can be connected, and to make sure to install a connection where I'm going if one isn't there already." -Dorian

"If you go to a area where is no cell phone coverage, set your voice-mail greeting message saying that too. And if it is really important, then leave a message that you will call back as soon as you can. But the killer idea is to let someone you trust, taking care of that for you." -Rui

"For Farmville, plant the crops that take the longest to grow." -@Honeydo

Tips from Rafe:

Clean your in-box first. Easier to come home that way.

Download books and movies to your media devices (iPad, etc). Also, Air Video is a great encoder for videos.

I've been prepping for an upcoming trip by ripping and downloading DVDs for the kid, getting some iPad games, and downloading my Kindle books now, before I head off the grid. Oh, and also buying some real books and games for the boy, too.

Tips from Josh:

On the e-mail front--one thing I do is set up my e-mail client, in this case Google Apps, to forward any messages sent from my boss to me (and only me) to my personal e-mail account. I will probably end up checking that from time to time (versus my work account), and it can let me see if there is, in fact, something that requires my attention.

For games like Farmville, We Rule, or anything else where people expect you to be there day after day, consider changing your avatar to say "Gone fishin'" or "On vacation" so that you do not need to communicate that to them directly.

Also, if you're a Netflix user and won't be taking your DVDs with you on your vacation, you can put your account on hold. You can set a reactivation date anywhere between a week and three months. During that time, Netflix won't deliver any DVDs, let you stream anything, or (obviously) charge you anything. When the hold is up, everything returns to normal. You can do this any number of times without it affecting your account.

John Macdonald: I've got a DVD-RW drive that I'm afraid might be on its last legs. It's a Sony drive which I've looked up the model number before and came up with little help. The problem is that it reads data discs, but not actual feature store-bought movies, when burned copies of movies work. Do you think this is at all fixable, or should I just shell out the 20 bucks for a new DVD-RW drive since they're so cheap now?

Josh: Since DVD-RW drives are so cheap, it's definitely not the end of the world. Though a few things to try before going that route are:

1. Updating to the latest drivers, and or rolling back to an earlier version of a driver, and seeing if that solves it. Microsoft has a how-to on rolling back drivers. 2. Try booting off the Windows restore DVD that hopefully came with your computer. If it works, then you know it's a software problem and not the reader.

3. If you happen to be on Vista, there's a known problem where the OS-included burning features can muddle up how your drive reads discs. Follow the instructions to disable it.


Michael Gaffney: I have been granted permission to use a neighbor's Wi-Fi signal to log on on weekends that I visit my in-laws' weekend retreat. The problem is the signal is so weak that I must sit out on the porch to get an adequate signal. Weather and temperature become an issue at this point. What can I use from my location to boost the signal to a level where I can sit inside the comfort of the weekend retreat and get online for browsing and e-mail management. I would prefer something inexpensive, compact, and highly portable that I can take with me so as not to clutter the in-laws' summer home.

Rafe: You can get a Wi-Fi signal booster.

Josh: You could also make one yourself out of a Pringles can. It doubles as delicious.


Valencia: I recently bought the iPhone 4, unlike the 3G whenever I pull away the screen it does not light up like the previous version did. So now I have to figure out how to push the buttons especially if I have to punch in a number. Also I hate that now I'm more likely to hit the speaker or hold button by mistake. Does anyone know how to solve the "light up" issue?

Josh: Sounds like you're having issues with the proximity sensor. Your best bet is to head into an Apple store and show them the problem in action. If you can make it happen every time with that device, and it's not happening with another iPhone 4, there could be something screwy with your hardware. Apple said it was looking into these problems, and has a fix in the works that developers are already testing with the latest developer build of iOS 4.


Adam: I have just got my hands on the Droid X from Verizon. I pulled my contacts over from my old phone and everything was fine and dandy. But when I linked my phone to my Twitter and Facebook accounts it changed all of the names in my contact list to their respective usernames. I would like a way to be able to chose which name is displayed, real name or otherwise. I have tried linking and unlinking the contacts from their accounts to no avail. Do you know of any desktop client or app i can use to resolve this issue?

Josh: We didn't have a Droid X in the office to test this out, but I just tried something similar using a Nexus One and it worked. What you can do is log in to the Gmail account you have that's linked up to your phone as the primary account. Then go into contacts and make any changes to those people's names, and those changes will get synced back to your phone and take precedence over what Twitter is sending. It's not a perfect solution, but it's better than nothing. In case you want to start from scratch, it may just be worth doing the contact link through the official Twitter app instead, and being sure to select the "sync with existing contacts" option, which for me, didn't change their names--it just added their Twitter profile information.


Khaled: I bought a new ultraportable laptop with no DVD drive (but I bought an external one). To avoid carrying around the external drive how can I copy a few essential "Seinfeld" episodes to my hard drive so I can watch them when I'm on the road? The discs are obviously my own original DVDs so I'm guessing it's not just a simple drag and drop.

Rafe: Handbrake. But if you have access to another computer you might want to rip your DVDs there and then transfer them over. The Netbook might be slow.

Josh: Also, if you want to keep things like the DVD menus, special features and all that, all within one self-contained file, you can try DVDshrink, which is a DVD copying program. But you can also play the files it spits out in something like VLC or Windows Media Player.


Jason: I am getting more and more frustrated by the fact that when I plug my iPhone 3GS into my Windows 7 machine to download the pictures and videos it does it incorrectly. I am using Windows Live picture gallery to get them off the phone, but it lumps both videos and pictures into the pictures category to which I have to manually move the videos to the videos folder. So, my question is: is there a program that recognizes each media type correctly and places them in the right file location?

Rafe: Don't use Windows Live gallery. Use File Manager. Sort by type, then move files manually. Takes an extra 10 seconds.


Nunzio: I'm looking for a gigabit router that supports QOS and is easily configurable for magicjack. Wi-Fi is not required but would be nice. I have no need for it to support a USB share (printer or drive).

Rafe: My Twitter peeps have these recommendations:

RobRedmond: cheap linksys with DD-WRT firmware
bryzon: From the reviews I've read, the Cisco Linksys e3000 is supposed to be pretty dang good.
nerdtalker: My vote is WRT54G(L) + Tomato firmware. Effortless configuration for QoS and VoIP. Very robust configuration too.
chrissarsfield: Cisco Linksys WRT610N (ver 2.0). Love it.
djreynolds: I love my dlink dir-655.
bawitdaba1337: Smoothwall. It's free and open source and can run on any machine.

Darren adds: Any old x86 computer with Untangle free software.


Thomas: After having my wire mess featured on CNET to the Rescue earlier today, I felt inspired (and obligated) to clean it up. After about 4 hours of yanking all my wires and starting from scratch, I was able to clean up my wires quite a bit. Before. And After.


Nathan: I called in a few weeks ago asking about free data tethering on Windows Mobile. You guys recommended a program called PDAnet. I was a little skeptical at first but I downloaded the free 7-day trial and it worked beautifully. Thanks for another great tip!


Jose: I have an answer for your caller that wanted to know about free tethering on his HTC phone with Verizon. The best way would be for him to flash his phone with custom firmware instead of the crappy Verizon software (they have a reputation of crippling phones on purpose). My favorite site for custom firmware and free apps is XDA Developers. They are HTC firmware fanatics over there and always are willing to help a noob that's willing to learn. I currently have an HTC Fuze with tethering, Wi-Fi router, and HSDPA-enabled. And the custom firmware is way faster and cooler looking and best of all FREE!

Josh: Worth noting is that this voids your warranty, but if your phone is more than a year old it's probably gone anyways.


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