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Postmortem on a gadget-filled Road Trip

After 16 days and 3,279 miles, a CNET reporter weighs in on the technology that accompanied him the whole way. Photos: Grading the gadgets

A week ago, as I made my way through Oregon's Mount Hood National Forest on old back roads, shaving probably a hundred miles off my journey, I had to marvel at how good it is to have the right tools for a job.

I'd been camping alongside a small lake near Mount Hood, poring over maps while plotting my way out of the deep forest toward the small town of McKenzie Bridge, Ore., where I knew I'd find some wonderful hot springs to write about as part of my Road Trip 2006 around the Pacific Northwest.

Grading the gadgets

But my American Automobile Association map indicated that the shortcut out of the forest was on small, very curvy roads, and a perusal of my Delorme topographical map suggested that the roads were hard to follow and had many offshoots, each of which could have led me farther into the forest and farther away from civilization.

Normally, I would have been loathe to take a route that might get me lost in the middle of hundreds of thousands of acres of forest with little or no easy way out. But my gas tank was full, I had days' worth of food and water and, most important, I was traveling with several gadgets that made me feel very comfortable about taking a flier.

I set off toward the road, Oregon Forest Road 42, heading southwest, and began the trek. What I hadn't been sure of was whether the Magellan Roadmate 3000T car navigation system I was using would be up to following these back roads. If it wasn't, I reasoned, my maps were good enough for me to find my way. And even if I got lost, I had a satellite phone I could use to call for help.

But lo and behold, as I turned off U.S. Route 26 onto Forest 42, the navigation system picked me right up. What had seemed a somewhat scary trip suddenly became a very simple matter of following the Magellan's spoken directions.

Any task is made easier if you've got the right tools. And I can happily report that for my road trip, during which I drove 3,279 miles over 16 days, much of it far from any normal communications systems or , I had the proper things to help me along the way.

Road Trip 2006

I had taken 10 gadgets with me, some review units and some of my own. During the course of the two-plus weeks, I got a pretty good sense of what I thought of most of them.

First, it's worth noting that with two particular types of gadgets, satellite phones and car navigation systems, I had a couple different devices to choose from--and one or the other won me over immediately.

As I wrote during the trip, my experience with the Garmin Nuvi 350 car navigator was not so good. No matter what I tried, I couldn't get it to tell me I was anywhere besides the Kansas town where its manufacturer is based. Any route it suggested started many hundreds of miles out of the way. On the flip side, my Magellan system was simple and easy to use, right out of the box. It almost always told me what I needed, when I needed it and with no fuss. A couple of times it seemed to freak out and get royally confused, but in those cases, turning it off and starting over worked. Not so with the Garmin.

Antennas, resets, GPS
So what was the problem? According to Garmin spokeswoman Jessica Myers, my inability to get the Nuvi to operate properly may well have been the result of user error. She said I needed to pull up an antenna that I didn't notice. I did, however, read through the manual provided, and found nothing about an antenna. She also said it might have required a reset, and I didn't do that either.

On the other hand, Garmin did better when it came to GPS gizmos. The GPSMAP 76CX handheld unit I had was a champ for determining simple GPS coordinates. I never got around to using its many more-advanced features, but based on how simple it was to use the basic functions, I have to assume it would have easily done anything I asked it to.

When it came to the two satellite phones I had on hand, my experiences were polar opposites.

When it came to the two satellite phones I had on hand, my experiences were polar opposites. I'd been told to call home for some important news, and so while I was in the forest near Mount Vernon, Wash., at Critical Massive, the annual festival put on by the Seattle Burning Man community, I pulled out the two devices, one from Globalstar and the other from Iridium.

Unfortunately, despite my being in a wide-open space with full view of the sky, I couldn't get the Globalstar phone to connect. So I put it aside and turned on the Iridium. My call went through immediately, with a clear connection that rivaled that of a landline, and the phone stayed connected throughout my conversation, during which I received some very good personal news.

From that point on, I used the Iridium phone every time I needed a satellite phone--which was usually when I had to contact home or work from far off the beaten path.

I kept meaning to try the Globalstar phone again, to give it another try, just as I had intended to give the Garmin car navigation system another go, but I was moving too often and working too hard, and in both cases, I never got around to it. The competing gadgets worked too well.

Globalstar spokesman Dean Hirasawa said he was not able to diagnose the problem on the spot and would look into it. I will likely blog the company's answer if and when I get one.

The star of the trip gadgetwise, though, had to be the MacBook Pro that Apple Computer had lent me.

A MacBook surprise
Now, I own a PowerBook G4, so I'm very familiar with Mac OS X and the functionality of Macs in general. But I have to say I was pleasantly surprised by the MacBook Pro's battery life, its durability under sometimes extreme conditions--hot and cold temperatures, high altitudes--and the .

My only complaints about the MacBook Pro are that it sometimes got very, very hot on its underside, much more so than my PowerBook, and sometimes it seemed unable to handle playing back DVDs with even the smallest smudges. That had never happened to me on my PowerBook.

Another star was my Canon PowerShot G2 camera. This is a camera I've owned for four years, and even now it performs like a champ. That's not to say I wouldn't like a newer and better camera--and in fact, I intend to get one soon enough--but during the course of the trip, I took more than 1,200 pictures using just three batteries and one single 512MB CompactFlash card. The camera never let me down, whether I was on top of a mountain, or holding the PowerShot just an inch above the surface of a .

I also had a great time using my new Video iPod. As with the camera, this is my own device and not a loaner, and I have to say I'm ecstatic that I finally got one of these sleek black wonders.

There's really not much to say about it: It played songs flawlessly, and when I had the chance to --either episodes of "" or of "Inside the Actors Studio," I was always impressed with the video and sound quality.

I had also brought along my Sony PlayStation Portable, but I never got around to using it. At the end of long days of driving, reporting and writing stories and setting up camp, I found myself much more interested in watching episodes of "24" than in playing games.

Anyway, being back in an office and not behind the wheel of a car is an odd thing. I'm now surrounded by desktop computers, flat screen monitors, sophisticated office telephones and things like staplers and refrigerators.

And while it's comforting to have those conveniences close at hand, I still feel an urge to grab my box full of gadgets, hop in my Subaru and get back on the road.