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Become your own cable guy

For even the most mild-mannered gadget freak, keeping track of cables has become an unwanted challenge when travelling. David Braue offers a few tips for making the trip easier.

For even the most mild-mannered gadget freak, keeping track of cables has become an unwanted challenge when travelling. David Braue offers a few tips for making the trip easier.

So you're heading on the road for a week, month or a year?

Packing for travel - especially when there's work to be done - is no longer as simple as throwing appropriate clothes, ample clean undergarments and a lint remover into your suitcase. The explosion in mobile technology has given the world all kinds of devices to make our lives easier, but taking those devices on the road can be downright nerve-wracking.

Each device requires its own charger, spare batteries and cable for connecting to your computer. There are different voltages to deal with, different power-point sockets, and the practical issues of dealing with a maddening spaghetti of cables. Furthermore, the longer you go away, the harder it can be because you have to organise even more devices - and a way to keep them running for the long haul.

This writer found out just how challenging packing can be when getting ready for a six-month working holiday in Singapore, where I had to establish a long-term field office with all the accoutrements of the home office in Melbourne.

This required accommodating a range of gear including: an iPod, two notebook PCs (the second one an old model for the kids' exclusive use), snapshot and SLR digital cameras, mobile phone, phone-to-voice over IP conversion box, video camera, and the MiniDisc recorder used to record interviews. Once in Singapore, we also added a conventional phone (for the VoIP service), multifunction printer, and wireless LAN router, each of which added its own power and connectivity requirements to the mix.

Has the phrase 'travelling light' simply become an oxymoron?

In the end, the result was a huge spaghetti of cabling under the desk, keeping all the devices powered and linked up. The bad news: it was no small effort to get all this stuff organised, packed and untangled upon arrival. The good news: there are better ways to keep your gadget stuff in order while you're travelling. Here, we present some handy hints to help you pack your mobile life for a sustained time on the road.

Got the power?
At a most basic level, power is going to be your biggest problem when travelling anywhere, especially overseas.

Voltage is of course an issue, with the US and several other countries still using 110V AC power. Thankfully, the impact of this isn't what it used to be; decades of globalisation mean most power supplies these days can run happily on either voltage.

Bringing the 6-outlet Australian power strip pictured saved considerable bother and expense buying plug converters.

Getting them plugged into the wall, however, is another challenge altogether. The Australia-New Zealand angled-prong power point layouts are among the least widely used in the world, so you're going to need a plug converter no matter where you go overseas. These converters are available from your local RACV/NRMA/equivalent store, Kmart and many other places. Check more electronics-focused retailers like Dick Smith Electronics and you may also find universal power adapters, which take any common plug configuration and can save you a lot of bother if you're going to more than one country.

If you plan to charge more than one device at a time, you're going to need to find a way to accommodate more than one plug at once. You can, of course, buy more plug converters, which are available at around AU$10 each from retail stores. However, space limitations will likely kick in soon; few hotels are going to have more than two or three power points, and the large size of most plug converters means you may struggle to get two plugged into the same outlet.

My solution was simple: bring a six-outlet Australian power strip along with us. You'll never find one overseas, but you can quite happily plug it into a single plug converter to provide enough Australian plugs to suit most of your AC chargers. If you don't have that many devices, a double adapter will also do. Either way, it's probably not a bad idea to make sure your power strips include surge protection; you can never anticipate the quality of the electricity where you're going.

Because some of the products were purchased in Singapore, we also needed a Singapore power outlet - which is readily available. This led to our being able to power up to a dozen devices from a single two-outlet power point (as a note of caution, this is possible because most AC adapters don't draw a huge amount of current; if you want to plug in high-current devices like hairdryers, you will probably want to go straight into the wall through a plug converter).

Just charge it
The most obvious issue with taking gadgets on the road is keeping them all running. This means power, and that means packing a wealth of AC adapters in amongst your work shirts and duty free. Fortunately, AC adapters are usually relatively small and somewhat self-contained (once you wrap the wire around the adapter), but put five or six of them in your suitcase or carry-on and you're going to notice them.

Sadly, there is little you can do when it comes to those adapters; many are designed specifically for your devices, outputting specific voltages that make them difficult to swap or replace.

A small USB hub is an invaluable assistant: plug all your device cables into the hub, then you only have one plug to remove from your notebook's USB port when you hit the road again.

However, not all products are so fussy. Many devices still run on standard-multiple voltages (1.5V, 3V, 4.5V, 6V, 7.5V, 9V, 10.5V or 12V), which can easily be accommodated using readily available multi-voltage adapters with interchangeable tips. These multi-voltage adapters may run off of AC voltage, or come in versions that can be powered from 12V car cigarette lighters - only useful if you're renting a car while you're away. Cars will definitely also be useful for charging mobile phones, which usually come with car chargers.

Many devices have increasingly moved towards charging from 5V sources such as the USB ports built into every desktop and notebook PC. This makes life very easy for users of portable music players, which typically now use the same cable to synchronise their data and charge themselves. In the case of iPods and other devices with proprietary cables, you'll still need to lug that cable - but many phones, PDAs and music players will sync and charge using a standard USB cable.

By doing an inventory of your devices - and considering which can be charged from your computer using USB - you may find that you don't need to lug so many power supplies after all. One downside to this approach, however, is that you will only be able to charge one device at a time.

You can charge more than one USB device at a time by bringing additional USB cables, but add too many and the USB bus will quickly run out of power and cause other devices to malfunction. A powered USB hub is one way to resolve this issue, but that of course involves carrying yet another AC adapter! Also be aware that charging devices from your notebook battery will run it down much faster than normal operation - so only use this approach when the notebook is plugged into the mains outlet, or when you really, really need that device charged immediately.

On a related note, one of the biggest problems with taking so many chargers with you is the sheer mess of the situation; get your cables stuck together and you're going to lose a ridiculous amount of time untangling them when you arrive.

The solution is simple: use twist ties (or plant ties) to bundle up the cords, and keep them that way when they're plugged in on the other end. To make life easier, you can also buy plastic tags for labelling each cord so you can tell them apart when plugging and unplugging - or make your own labels, as I did, using an inexpensive label maker.

Battery madness
Batteries have long been the bane of travellers, who often find themselves needing extra batteries for digital cameras, video cameras, mobile phones and the like when they're out in the field for prolonged periods.

In some cases, the burden of the spare battery has become lighter thanks to larger-capacity batteries in digital SLR cameras, which last much longer than those in smaller devices. Yet if you're going to be using your device for most of the day, you'll probably need a spare battery.

Consider investing in a spare battery pack that charges from AC power and can be taken on the road and plugged into a whole range of devices using a universal plug set.

Make sure you get them before you head out into the field, as rechargeable batteries usually have a proprietary design that makes them extremely difficult to track down when you need them. If you can't stomach the three-digit prices manufacturers usually charge for these special-order items, search for the words 'battery' and the model number of your equipment, and you're likely to find a suitable replacement for much less cost; we recently tracked down a high-capacity video camera battery, quoted at nearly AU$200 by the manufacturer, for AU$35 on eBay.

If you're buying new batteries for a trip, the usual rules apply: charge for 16 hours before your first usage and run it to empty on your first day of usage. From that point on, while you're travelling make sure you include battery charging into your nightly regime: charge your batteries, in or out of the devices, as soon as you get back from your excursions so you don't forget to take care of them later. Since most notebook PCs require the battery to be plugged into the notebook for charging, you'll have to be particularly diligent in swapping between charged and uncharged batteries so both are ready for use the next day.

Another option for charging is to get a separate universal Li-ion battery. This is a large battery pack that charges from AC power, then can be taken on the road and plugged into a whole range of devices using a universal plug set as though it were an AC power source. Such a battery pack is a worthwhile investment as a backup if you need to use a variety of devices in the field.

Keeping in touch
Ensuring you have a steady supply of power when travelling is hard enough, but in today's converged world you also need to consider how you connect the devices to your PC or to each other.

This used to require a broad range of proprietary plugs, although that problem has been lessened somewhat by the convergence around standard USB plugs. A good-sized USB cable should be a constant travelling companion, both for syncing data with cameras and mobile phones as well as for charging many devices. If you use Firewire for your video camera or portable hard drive, you'll need a suitable cable for that as well.

A single USB cable (centre) lets you charge and synchronise a mobile phone, download pictures from a digital cameras, and connect other USB devices. iPod owners will need to bring the cable (left) and you should also throw in an Ethernet network cable (right) to make sure you can get online in any hotel or office.

Be aware that both USB and Firewire have two different plug types; notebooks normally only include the smaller USB Type A and 4-pin Firewire connectors. Make sure, then, that the cable you bring doesn't have the larger square USB Type B plug (used in scanners, printers and other desktop devices) or the 6-pin oval Firewire connector - unless you specifically need one for a particular device. The end you plug into the camera or other device will most certainly need to be of the USB Mini-B or 4-pin oval Firewire connector type, although make sure of this as many vendors have taken to shipping proprietary USB connectors.

Because your notebook PC is likely to become a central charging and data storage hub of sorts, you'll probably find yourself swapping plugs more than you would like. We got around this problem by investing in a 6-port USB hub, which is plugged into the notebook PC when it's on the desk and unplugged when the notebook goes into the field. Into that hub are plugged an external mouse and keyboard, iPod charging cable, generic USB charging cable, the desktop external hard drive, and the desktop printer - all of which are available to the notebook simply by plugging in the USB hub.

Wireless standards can go a long ways towards reducing the number of cables you have to carry, particularly now that notebook PCs can use it to sync data or set up modem connections with mobile phones. Bluetooth handsfree units can be liberating in the field, while Bluetooth can be used to link notebook PCs with devices such as printers.

Ditto a wireless LAN, which can be easy to set up and provides healthy bandwidth around your hotel or office-away-from-the-office. Before you pack all those cables, consider which of your devices can communicate using Bluetooth, WLAN or even older infrared ports, although IR's slow speed makes it unsuitable for large files.

When it comes to moving data around, another indispensable tool is a flash drive, although you may just as easily be able to store data on your MP3 player or mobile phone. Make sure, however, that you have a data storage device that can be easily plugged into a variety of devices; this may require you to carry around a USB cable, although some MP3 players have USB plugs built into them.

If you're going to be doing a lot of digital photography, one other thing to consider is buying a digital storage device that will automatically suck your photographs from your camera while you're in the field. These devices - either purpose-built, or marketed as having 'USB host' functionality - can save you a world of bother in trying to bring enough storage cards into the field to hold all your pictures. Just download your pictures from the camera whenever it fills up, then plug the device into your notebook once you get back to your hotel or office.

Travel checklist for the digital age

What to bring What it's used for What to remember Basic equipment USB cable (Type A to Type Mini-B) Connecting and charging many different devices to a notebook or desktop PC. Most mobile devices use the smaller Type Mini-B plug, as opposed to the large USB Type B plug used by desktop equipment. Firewire cable (4-pin to 4-pin) Connecting video cameras and some external hard drives to a notebook PC. Many Firewire devices also support USB; you may be able to leave this cable home. USB hub Linking more devices to a notebook PC than is possible using its limited number of ports. Also, makes it easier to attach and detach your devices as you go out and come back in. Many USB devices require power - particularly those that charge themselves via USB. Add too many of these and your bus won't be able to provide enough power, causing slow charges and possible device malfunction. Proprietary cables Connecting devices like iPods and Microsoft Zunes. These devices weren't designed to play nice, so there's little you can do but bring the cables with you. Australian power strip Plugging in your devices without having to buy a plug adapter for each one. Don't forget to get one physical plug converter per power strip - and, if you're in the US, make sure your devices are happy with 110V power. Twist ties or plant ties Bundling cables together so they don't get tangled. Colour-coded ties can ease quick identification. Surge protector Ensures you a clean supply of electricity no matter where you go. Attach Australian models to a plug converter for overseas use. Available as small standalone units or built into power strips. Plug converter Critical for plugging in gadgets anywhere outside Australia or New Zealand. Look for universal converters (kits include numerous plug layouts) if you're going to more than one country. Useful extras Label maker Indispensable for telling cables apart. Type the name of the device, then leave a big margin so you can spool out enough tape to stick the label around the cable and onto itself. 'USB host' mode MP3 player or device Downloading pictures from your digital camera -- usually includes many GB of space so you don't have to juggle spare memory cards. Look for this feature if you're buying an MP3 player or external hard drive. Feature can be added to iPods with add-ons such the Belkin iPod Media Reader. Voice over IP phone adapter Take your Australian local number with you wherever you go. Standalone box will work with most hotel phone handsets you'll find - or buy an inexpensive mini phone to bring with you.