The Gear from the First 80 Days on the Road
As many of you know, me and my new wife are having the trip of our life. We’re in Switzerland at the moment and having a great time. We are certainly learning as we go what is important and what is not. I thought it might be a fun chance to talk about the gear I’ve used so far and discuss what worked and what didn’t.
As we travel, I am still working. I am recording Pluralsight courses, working with clients, doing the Hello World Podcast, as well as planning for some in-person training during the trip. This means I not only need gear to enjoy the trip but to work as well.
I think it’s important to see where we started and where we ended up. If you don’t know, this trip is a year-long trip across the globe. It’s seven or so months in Europe and five months in Asia. We don’t have a house to go back to so we’re carrying most of what we own (with a small storage place back in Atlanta). To complicate matters, we got married four days before the trip so it’s been pretty whirlwind.
I can’t overstate this: we over-packed. This ordinarily wouldn’t be an issue, but we’re travelling with two large roller-bags, two backpacks, and a guitar. Every time we move from city to city we’re carrying all of this stuff with us. We’re not being driven from city-to-city, we’re taking trams to rail stations and boarding trains with changes between cities. This is a lot to carry.
To exacerbate matters, our roller-bags were just under the U.S. airline limits…but they are over the rest of the world’s limits. This means that before we take another plane trip (our first since our flight to Paris from Atlanta) happens in two weeks. So the over-packing is forefront in our minds at the moment.
PSP for Games
USB Extra Monitor
That’s a lot to lug around the planet with. And frankly it was unnecessary. In fact, at this point in the trip I’ve already gotten rid of the extra monitor and am in the process of divesting myself of one of the tablets and the PSP. Back to three screens. It is more than enough.
So let’s see what we brought and what worked and didn’t work:
Since I need to work (and play), I needed a light but powerful laptop. I went with the Dell M3800 (essentially the business version of the Dell XPS 15). This laptop has a lot of power for it’s lightweight (though the touchpad is rubbish):
15” Touch Screen
i7 Quad Core 2.2GHz
16 GB of Fast Memory
2GB Video Card (for work…I mean Steam)
This lets me do almost anything I need. It is a powerful machine and is only .71” thick and 4.15 lbs.
M3800 Result: Win
For my wife, we had different requirements. She’s not a power user but needs a machine to do anything she wants. She can live with a smaller screen too so we got her a Lenovo Yoga Pro 2. This machine can act like a large tablet but is a full laptop for when she needs that. It’s smaller and lighter than my laptop but that’s perfect for her. Since she is handling all the business needs, she has to be able to work on the box too, but managing the accounting and taxes requires a lesser box.
This machine has some quirks that are problematic but it’s working for her. These quirks include a wonky mini-HDMI port that won’t stay plugged in, and the pivot screen is cool but sometimes flips her orientation. Too bad too, everything else is awesome.
Yoga Pro 2 Result: Win
I’ll admit it, I brought two tablets. I brought the Nokia 2520 with the power keyboard mostly to use as a video playing device for long trips. The Nokia 2520 is an interesting tablet. On its own, I really like the device. It’s a tad smaller than the Surface RT that I had before it and has a lot of battery life. If you like RT devices, it’s a great solution. The problem really lies in the power keyboard that I have to go with it. The whole thing is huge (it has extra battery in it) and the keyboard and touchpad are virtually useless. Without the power keyboard, I can’t easily watch videos (it’s intended purpose) so the whole thing ends up being too bulky for usefulness. I wish I had kept my Surface instead. In fact, I’m getting rid of this device before we leave Switzerland.
Nokia 2520: Loss
I also brought the iPad Mini that Roger Peters so thoughtfully gifted me a couple of years ago to use as mostly a reading device. The iPad Mini is a very good device with lots of battery life. I’ve mostly used it for reading and it serves that purpose really well. With the ridding myself of the 2520, I’m going to use it for video too (though the process of loading videos is way more arcane that it should be). I got a small case so I could tilt it for video viewing on trains and planes. We’ll see how it works. But since it is so much lighter, I think it will be a win even if it doesn’t have that much battery for videos. We’ll see.
iPad Mini: Tentative Win
My wife has a Surface 2 RT that I got her some time ago and it’s perfect for her to read books and watch videos. Surprisingly, it actually handles videos better than the Yoga. She’d love a handle, but overall it’s a perfect tablet for her.
Surface 2 RT Result: Win
I’ve been firmly in the Windows Phone camp for quite a while and this trip is no different. My wife is a convert too and we’re generally really happy with the operating system. For the trip, we’re taking our Nokia 1020’s as our primary phones. The phones are showing their age a little and we wish for a 1030 to be announced, but they work great for what we need.
The 1020s are perfect for the trip because they serve as our primary cameras too. This way we only need to manage battery and pocket space for one device. Because of the large 38 Megapixel image size, we can zoom really effectively to get great pictures. You can see a plethora of the pics we’ve taken so far on our photo site (http://photos.shawnandresa.com). Here is an example of a zoomed photo before and after (click on the images for the full size version in a new tab):
We’re both in the developer preview and are using Windows Phone 8.1 Update. There are a few small issues and the speed of starting up the camera recently has caused me concern, but after a full reset and pave, my phone seems to be snappy again. No idea why it happened, but so far so good.
We’ve both had accidents with our phones while on the trip too. We’ve been pleasantly surprised at the support we’ve gotten from Nokia and have been able to get the phones fixed (two broken screens and one bad USB port) in a matter of hours instead of days.
We both are using the camera backs shown in the picture, but both batteries in the camera backs have given out by now. Though we have other battery solutions (discussed below). The backs work well to give us the camera feel when we’re taking a lot of photos.
Nokia 1020 Result: Major Win
No cameras. See the Phone section if you want that story. The Nokia 1020s are all we’re shooting with.
We need help along the way with a bunch of things and that’s where some services come in. First of all is phone service. We made a conscience decision to move our phones to T-Mobile before we left the states. The primary reason was the offer to get cheap phone calls, free texts and internet in 200+ countries while on the road. I was skeptical but so far it has worked. The only caveat is that the speeds are typically 3G or lower and tethering *isn’t* supported. We’ve been happy with the service here in Europe but no idea how this will be once we get to Eastern Europe or Asia.
T-Mobile Wireless Result: Win
For laptop Internet usage when were out and about (as I can’t just work inside our hotels/apartments all the time) we are getting a new pre-paid SIM card in every country. Because of the T-Mobile deal, we don’t want to change our SIMs out so I purchased a low-end Nokia 620 when we were in the UK and it worked fine. Much to my chagrin, the EE merchant lied to me in London and the phone was locked…and locked for six months. So here in Switzerland I purchased an unlocked dual SIM Nokia 630. But our plan of getting a new SIM in every country has been working. We’re paying about $10 for a SIM with GB in Switzerland…in the UK we got 5GB for about the same amount.
Prepaid SIMs Result: Win
Since we no longer have a server to backup to like we did at home, we’re using the excellent Crash Plan to backup our laptops for only $6/month (though you can go cheaper by using long-term plans. So far the backups are working well, though when we’re not on a big Internet connection (when we’re in hotels instead of apartments), the backups can’t keep up. Eventually they do so we are in a small window of losing some data. But I think it’s acceptable.
Crash Plan Result: Win
Another service we couldn’t live without is SmugMug. We’re using this as a hub for all our trip photos. We do post some on our private Facebook account for friends, but this is where all our photos go for viewing and long-term storage. Their support for custom domains and customization have made it great. It even supports a Lightroom plugin so uploading them and organizing them in to catalogs is simple. You can see our photos at http://photos.shawnandresa.com which is hosted by SmugMug.
SmugMug Result: Big Win
While the T-Mobile plan is great for calling locally when we’re in a new place, $0.20/minute is still too high for keeping up with our family and friends. In place of that we’re using Skype. We’re using it on our laptops and phones. We both decided to pay the extra money to get a Skype Number so people in the US could call a direct number and get us on Skype. For some of our less tech savvy contacts this has been really helpful. We get the calls directly on our phone so it’s easier than getting everyone to use Skype on a computer. We do video Skype to quite a few people too but that’s the exception rather than the rule.
I also use Skype to do my Podcast interviews and the quality/lag has been acceptable when we have a good enough Internet connection.
My only real complaint about Skype is that the Windows Phone app is a big laggy and hard to manage. Also, I can’t paste a number into the app so when I need to call a restaurant or other phone number I’ve been sent, I have to use the cell plan.
Skype Result: Win
We’re using a Roku Stick for watching TV quite a bit too (can’t miss my House of Cards). In order to make that work, we’re using a service that helps us with that. It’s called Unblock Us and it’s another $5/month service (which do add up after a bit) but it’s well worth it. We’re able to use several streaming services via the service.
Unblock Us Result: Win
Cords and Such
Since we’re travelling to a lot of foreign countries, we thought that having a handful of converters would be sufficient. Boy were we wrong. We’ve used Amazon.fr/uk/de to purchase some plugs since we got here. You cannot have enough of these (we have 5 of them):
I use a C-Pap machine so usually having electricity near the bed is critical. Sometimes in hotels it’s a problem. So we usually have an extension cord (at least 3m) that ends with a four port plug. This allows us some flexibility. We’ve purchased one for Europe and another for the UK plugs (we’ll probably need more later for other countries). They typically are about $5-8 at a local electronics store so we’re not concerned with leaving them at an apartment when we leave an area with a certain kind of plug.
We also found that charging our USB-based items was requiring more than we first though so we picked up two of these four-port chargers with swappable back plats for different countries:
You also need a lot of USB cables. We brought about 20 of them and about 8 have gone bad already. With lots of packing and re-packing it is hard on them. Pack more than you need…and of different lengths.
We found out how little air conditioning is used in most of Europe (as we suspect Asia too) so we both have small USB-powered fans. These have become indispensable:
We also have several batteries for power management. These are small batteries to re-charge our phones and other gear while on long commutes between cities. When you take as many pictures as we do, these become really important. Currently we have three that we share between us. But I want to point out the one that is most indispensable: HooToo TripMate. This is a battery that can charge my phone three times as well as serves as a wireless router when we get to an apartment. This means we don’t have to connect to every wireless on every device but instead we just hook this thing up and then all our devices are connected. It can be a typical router or even a wireless bridge. Very cool for a device so small:
The Recording Gear
Finally, since I am doing the Hello World Podcast and Pluralsight courses while we’re away, it was important that we had a rig that worked. In fact, a decent amount of weight is devoted to this rig. For this rig, I use a Rode Podcaster for my mic. This mic is really great and I am very happy with the quality of the recordings I get in the different environments I am experiencing. In addition to the Podcaster, I also use a Shock Mount and Boom Arm to simplify recording. I recommend both of these items as well if you’re going to do any recording on the road.
I have found that if I record while sitting on a couch, the echoes are mostly muted and keeps the quality of the recording pretty high. I’ve recorded a whole course and a bunch of podcasts during the first eighty days and it’s been great.
Rode Podcaster Result: Big Win
The Packing Gear
Our bags are these huge roller duffels we got from REI and they’re very tough. But the best packing gear we got for the trip (and we’re getting more as we speak) are these Compression Bags for our clothes. We get to keep the winter clothes in a very small space and they’re great for separating clean and dirty clothes. They don’t require a vacuum, you can just roll them up or lay on them.
Compression Bags Result: Big Win
Ultimately we over packed, but most of the gear we brought has been working really well. We’ve been lucky that we’ve been able to purchase or order things we didn’t know we needed (e.g. Switzerland has their own plug type…really Swiss people?).
It’s been a fun ride and it should be fun going forward. Seeing the world is worth every minute.