Road Trip gadgets: MacBook Pro, Nikon D5000, LiveScribe Pulse

Having written dozens of stories, taken thousands of pictures, and conducted countless interviews, reporter credits a few key devices for making trip easier.

Daniel Terdiman Former Senior Writer / News
Daniel Terdiman is a senior writer at CNET News covering Twitter, Net culture, and everything in between.
Daniel Terdiman
10 min read

This Nikon D5000 camera--which also shoots HD video--has been an integral part of Road Trip 2009. It's just one of a large group of gadgets Terdiman has been road-testing on the trip. Daniel Terdiman/CNET

CASPER, Wyo.--Each year, when I plan for my annual Road Trip project, I coordinate both a long list of destinations to visit and a big box full of tech gadgets to test out. Plus a car.

Some of those gadgets get used once or twice, and then get put away again. But others, for better or worse, become integral components of the trip.

Over the next week or so, I'll be posting my (amateur) reviews of all these gadgets, in each case talking about what I thought of them, and how they fit into the trip. In most cases, I'll review more than one product in a story.

Today, for example, I'm going to discuss my experiences with three of the most important tools I've had with me on Road Trip 2009: A Nikon D5000 camera; a brand-new 13-inch MacBook Pro; and a LiveScribe Pulse pen.

Nikon D5000

For a few years, I've owned a Canon Rebel XT. I like it just fine, but I've never bought any additional lenses for it, beyond the kit 18-55mm lens that it came with. And that's why, when I've headed out on Road Trip the last two years, I've been willing to try out cameras from Nikon: because I'm not wedded to Canon yet.

This year, Nikon lent me its new D5000 digital SLR, which, in addition to being a very nice fairly-low-end camera, also shoots high-definition video. As one of the first DSLRs to incorporate HD video, I was very interested in trying it out and seeing how it stacked up against other small video cameras. But more on that comparison in a later story.

Along with the kit 18-55mm lens that the D5000 comes with, Nikon also lent me a 55-200mm zoom lens. There was a third lens, but I haven't used it, so it's not worth mentioning.

So far, I've taken 6,740 photos during the trip, most with the D5000. My conclusion after all those photos: the camera is a really nice piece of prosumer equipment that offers users, even on the automatic setting, really nice pictures.

My big cross to bear as a photographer is that I don't know how to use all the various settings on cameras, so what I can produce is limited by that lack of full knowledge of the tool. Yet, despite that, I'd have to say that the D5000 has turned out some spectacular shots. It does great in good lighting, and even in the case of limited natural light, it can often do really well.

I have been frustrated by the lack of a wide-angle lens, which is what I've mainly used the last two years on Road Trip. This time around, I've basically stuck with the 18-55mm lens, and occasionally pulled out the zoom. Still, with some exceptions, the 18-55mm seems to be up to the task. Any limitations, though, are more environmental and less the lens itself.

The D5000 can take a lot of pictures quickly, and that's nice, especially if you're trying to capture live action. That was helpful in taking some shots of a bison in Yellowstone National Park the other day. Also for trying to get shots of a train going into, and out of, a tunnel in Wyoming.

In rough lighting situations, the camera is sometimes not all that good in automatic. In those cases, I have switched over to manual.

But truly, where the D5000 shines is when there's ample light. In Glacier National Park, for example, I got some spectacular shots of waterfalls, mossy hillsides, and even a baby mountain goat.

It also shines in battery life. I think I recently went more than a week without changing batteries, and that's impressive. That timing would be reduced significantly by shooting more video, since video utilizes the camera's big LCD screen.

To be perfectly honest, I haven't played around all that much with the camera's menu structure, or its more advanced features. I'm sure that if I had, my pictures would have been even better.

One oddity about the camera is that every now and then, it seems to take it upon itself to forget the date and time, and require me to reset those parameters. Not having noticed that the first couple of times means that a few sets of photos appear chronologically, long before they were actually taken. I'm assuming it's a software bug, unless I'm doing something wrong I'm not aware of.

The video camera takes pretty nice HD video. Like I said, I'll talk about that in more length later on. But suffice it to say, I'd be happy counting on the D5000 for simple, short HD video. However, unless I'm missing something, there's no way to get it to shoot video longer than 5 minutes, which is slightly annoying.

At the end of this trip, I'll have to return the D5000 and once again return to my Rebel XT. But as I mentioned, I've not invested in Canon lenses yet, and after two years of shooting with Nikon equipment, I'm going to have to seriously investigate whether that's the way I should go, long-term.

The 13-inch MacBook Pro I'm using on Road Trip 2009. Very similar to the last 13-inch MacBook, this computer has been very useful during this project. Daniel Terdiman/CNET

Without a computer, of course, Road Trip 2009 would have been a non-starter. Despite carting around several very expensive gadgets with me for thousands of miles, it's the new 13-inch MacBook Pro Apple lent me that I pretty much take with me everywhere I go for fear of it getting stolen from the car. The rest of the gear? Let the insurance take care of it. If I lose the computer, it's time to go home.

Originally, I had planned on using a 13-inch MacBook on the trip. But just before I left, Apple introduced the new line of MacBook Pros and they offered one of the 13-inch models. A no brainer, of course I said yes.

To be honest, there aren't that many differences between the MacBook I was going to use and the new MacBook Pro. In fact, put them side-by-side and it's almost impossible to tell which is which.

The one sure way, however, is to look for the little SD card slot on the side of the MacBook Pro, a feature no Apple computer had until June. And when I go home and return to the 2007 vintage 15-inch MacBook Pro that is my normal work computer, I think this is the thing I'll miss most on my Road Trip laptop.

That's because, having taken more than 6,000 pictures, it is so nice to be able to simply pull the SD card out of the camera (actually two cameras, as I have a small Canon PowerShot I own with me as well, that also uses SD) and then slide it straight into the computer. I understand that's something that's been available on some PC laptops for awhile, and, well, it's about time Apple added this. It is such an upgrade from having to connect your camera with a USB cable that I'm not sure I'm going to be able to go back.

The other big new feature on the MacBook Pro is its unibody form factor, and its non-replaceable battery. I was a little worried about that, since I usually carry a spare battery with me when I'm in the field, but in truth, this has been fine. Apple says that the new battery has a much longer life than its former models, and I'd have to agree.

My sense, after four weeks of using the computer, is that the battery lasts about three hours, perhaps a little more. Apple advertises it as offering seven hours, but if that's even possible, it's under extremely optimal power circumstances. And that's not me: I'm constantly online, looking at video, editing photos, and the like. So three-plus hours seems reasonable.

However, my experience is that it's been inconsistent, and I don't feel like that's related to what I'm doing. Sometimes the battery life just plummets. Other times it lasts forever. My conclusion is that Apple has some work to do on the long-lasting batteries. Still, I've only had the battery conk out on me once during the entire trip.

The computer also features a 250 Gigabyte hard drive, and that's been incredibly useful, since, as I've said, I've taken more than 6,700 photos. That adds up to 50 Gigabyes of pictures. If I was on my personal MacBook Pro, that would nearly eat up the entire hard drive. So knowing I've got plenty of space left has been a really good feeling.

The new MacBook Pro features iLife 09, including the latest edition of iPhoto. Apple gave me a briefing on many of the advanced features of iPhoto--facial recognition, adding geographic data and the like--but in all honesty, I haven't really used them. Mainly, I've just edited photos and exported them. And for that, the newest version of the software has been great.

Beyond that, the computer is a Mac, and so much of it will be familiar to anyone who uses OS X.

All told, then, I would say that the new 13-inch MacBook Pro is a lot of computer for not that much money--I think this model, with a 2.53 GHz Intel Core 2 Duo and 4 Gigabyes of RAM, would run $1,500, plus tax. Would I buy this computer if I was in the market? Absolutely. Would I have complaints about anything? Not really, beyond the inconsistent battery performance.

The LiveScribe Pulse pen, which synchronizes notes to a recording of audio, an incredible thing for a reporter doing many interviews on the road. Daniel Terdiman/CNET

Another extremely valuable Road Trip gadget I've had with me this year has been LiveScribe's Pulse pen. CNET has covered this product several times, so I won't bore you with all the details of it. But suffice it to say that as a reporter on the road, talking to lots of different people and trying to keep up with notebook after notebook full of barely legible notes, having a pen that can record what people are saying, and synchronize those notes to the audio has been great.

Essentially, the Pulse pen lets you record audio of, say, an interview, and then, because the notes are written on special proprietary paper with a barely visible grid, it is able to synch the audio to pretty much the exact spot where something was said. So, imagine you're looking back through your notes and realize you didn't get all of what someone was saying. Simply tap on the notes there and the pen plays back the recording, right from that spot.

Several times, when I've pulled the Pulse pen out and explained what it does, my interview subjects have gotten rather excited and seemed about ready to go buy one. My experience would legitimize that feeling.

On the whole, I'd say the Pulse pen is a boon to someone in my field. Being able to count on going back and instantly finding exactly what was said at any point in a conversation is a big, big thing. As someone who usually turns stories around within a day, it's not entirely the paradigm-shifting technology I thought it might be, only because often, I simply don't have time to go back and listen to much of the audio. Still, it's a great advance.

Perhaps it's the individual pen I've got, but recordings on this one pick up the scratching of the pen on paper far too easily. The first couple times I used it, it rendered some of the audio unusable. After consulting with LiveScribe, they suggested I do my interviews with the headphones that come with the pen plugged into it, because they have a built-in microphone. The idea is that that gets the microphone away from the contact of pen on paper.

And that's worked out much better. You can still hear the scribbling, which means I could never use the audio for anything requiring high-quality, but then, that's not really what it's for, anyway.

The other thing that's surprised me is how quickly the ink cartridges in the pen ran out. But that's just a little quibble.

Ultimately, I think the Pulse pen is a very big technological leap forward, and I can't wait to see what LiveScribe--or others working on this technology--come up with next. It would be nice if the pen were thinner, for example, but I'm sure that's coming.

One thing that's interesting to me is that LiveScribe allows PC users--and soon, Mac users, I'm told--to print their own paper. That means that the company won't necessarily be making money off the paper. To me, that's surprising, because that's like Gillette giving away the blades, and not just the razor.

But the Pulse pen is rather pricey--around $150 for a 1 Gigabyte model and $200 for 2 Gigabytes--so perhaps the company feels it can make enough money that way. Also, the company is offering APIs so that developers can write applications for the pen, and perhaps there's some revenue opportunities there, as well.

I didn't really use LiveScribe's community features, the main element of which is that you can upload your notes onto the Internet, making them viewable--and clickable--by anyone. I just haven't had the time.

And in the end, would I recommend the Pulse pen? Yes, definitely, and to anyone who takes a lot of notes. My quibbles are, as I said, small, and in truth, I am amazed at this technology.

For the next week, Geek Gestalt will be on Road Trip 2009. After driving more than 12,000 miles in the Pacific Northwest, the Southwest and the Southeast over the last three years, I'll be writing about and photographing the best in technology, science, military, nature, aviation and more in Wyoming and Colorado. If you have a suggestion for someplace to visit, drop me a line. And in the meantime, join the Road Trip 2009 Facebook page and follow my Twitter feed.