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Apps Saved the Day When My Laptop Died
By: Ari B. Adler
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I was at a conference recently when my laptop died. I've become reliant upon a laptop at conferences for several reasons, not the least of which is that I can take better notes faster while typing than I ever could imagine doing by hand anymore. I also am able to multitask by sharing conference highlights via Twitter and, in between speakers, quickly catching up on email to make sure I'm not overwhelmed by it at night. So on a recent trip to New York City, I had quite a shock when I started up my MacBook and got nothing but the spinning gear of impending doom. It was not booting because, as I found out the next night at a local Apple Store, the hard drive was toast. 

So, what to do? I was planning on using my laptop for notetaking, Tweeting, keeping up with personal and work email, taking care of some pending written media interviews and myriad other things you take for granted when your online life can be up and running virtually anywhere. What I decided was to try to do it all, or as much as I could, using the devices I had at hand: an Android phone, an iPod Touch, and a Verizon Wireless card. Could those small screens and keyboards keep me afloat for two days at a conference, when my laptop use is even heavier than usual? The answer is yes, for the most part, but only because I had them set up properly to begin with.

Granted, the small screens made things a bit more cumbersome and page loading, etc. was a little slower.  I also discovered an even greater longing for an iPad, but I accomplished all I needed with two mobile devices instead of one laptop computer. I kept up with email, I typed up answers to an interview, I tweeted, I was on Facebook, I drafted and later published a blog post for Here Comes Later — it was all doable, and here's how:

1. Make sure you have the apps you need before you travel. There are tons of productivity apps available for the Androids and Apples. It's not all about Angry Birds; you can outfit quite a virtual office with free apps. My saviors at the conference were Gmail, Dropbox, Evernote and Wordpress — all of which are installed on both the iPod and the Android, plus the basic Notes app that comes on the iPod and an iPod app from Dragon Dictation. Since this experience, I've also downloaded the Apple Store app, which allows me to find local Apple Stores and even make reservations with their Genius Bar to take care of hardware issues. It would have been nice to have that during my trip!

2. Embrace the cloud. I use Evernote and Dropbox a lot. Both proved to be incredibly helpful to me in terms of having a large storage space outside my phone and iPod. It also meant that I had access to documents, photos, notes, etc. that I needed. All of those were on my dead laptop hard drive and backed up on an external drive at home, but neither was going to help me in New York. That's where having what I needed in the cloud was a blessing. And I was able to publish a blog post remotely using the outstanding WordPress app on my iPod and phone. (I used the phone to upload a photo rather than my iPod, tapping into my unlimited cellular data plan rather than my limited wifi plan. Otherwise, I completed everything I needed for the post on the iPod.)

3. Make sure you have wireless available. The conference was at a hotel in New York that charged outrageous amounts for its wifi, so spending a little money to have my own wireless connection available more than paid for itself during the conference. I use the Verizon Wireless 2200 MIFi and have rarely had any complaints about it. Because I already had the apps installed that I needed, I wasn't chewing up my data plan downloading the basics — I was able to use the plan instead for downloading information I needed and uploading blog posts, notes, etc. to the web.

4. Don't forget the juice. Of course, a healthy breakfast is an important thing, but in this case I'm talking about the electric juice your devices need. If you think you cruise through batteries on your phone and iPod on a regular basis, imagine how bad it will be when they become your main computing platform. Before I left home, I made sure my briefcase was loaded with all the power cords and connectors for all my various devices. And don't rely on USB ports to charge those devices; Apple laptops will charge things through the USB ports, but only if the computer is on or sleeping, not if it's stuck in a non-booting death spiral. Also, think about how you are going to carry your power cords around with you during the day, and scout out each room at the conference venue to determine the best seats to be in for access to electrical outlets.

4a. As long as you're cramming wires into your bag, don't forget the wired headset with microphone that came with your phone, even if you've moved on to a Bluetooth. I used mine to dictate some notes into the iPod after my Bluetooth headset wouldn't work with it. Plus, you're not drawing additional power from your devices or draining the Bluetooth for a task that works fine with dangling cords anyway. 

5. Don't forget to pack pen and paper. This sounds silly, but after all the time I spent making sure I had all my devices, their various power cords, headsets, etc., I somehow managed to not double-check for a pen! Sure, pens and notepads can usually be found at vendor booths at conferences, but don't get caught without either one, just in case.

Those are the basic preparatory things to keep in mind. As for the actual function, I used a combination of all things to reproduce the laptop experience. I was typing notes on my Android because its slideout physical keyboard was still faster and had greater accuracy than typing on my iPod. I still ended up jotting some notes by hand to keep up with fast talkers whom I normally would have kept up with on a laptop keyboard but couldn't on my phone without getting distracted away from their content. Later in my hotel room, I used the microphone to transcribe my notes into Dragon Dictation, which has a really nice shortcut for emailing whatever you just recorded. 

And I continued the concept of thinking ahead as much as possible, trying to stay one step ahead of my needs. For example, I knew I wanted to use the downtime sitting on airplanes to respond to questions sent to me by a magazine for an interview. Since neither cellular nor free wifi are available on planes, I made sure to download the document with the questions to my iPod before getting on board. I couldn't do much with the Word document on my iPod, but I was able to copy and paste the questions into the Notes app and type my responses there. Later, I emailed the notes to myself and then copied and pasted it all into an email that I sent off to the reporter.

So, would I want to live without my laptop, relying on just a phone and iPod? Probably not, but it's nice to know I could do it short-term if I needed to. I can definitely see the appeal of an iPad, however, since the frustrations I experienced had a lot more to do with the small size of the mobile devices rather than their functionality. I've heard from more people lately about how their laptops have been sitting idle a lot since they bought an iPad. Apple is definitely on to something with those tablets, and hopefully I will be soon, too.

I tried to post the highlights of my experience here, to give you a taste of what it was like to move from a laptop to only mobile devices. I may have actually raised more questions for you while providing some answers, so feel free to ask away in the comments section. I'll respond as soon as I can, from my desktop, my laptop, or a mobile device. After all, they are more interchangeable now than ever, and I can see the day when it will be much more difficult for us to make a distinction between platforms at all.


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About the Author
Ari B. Adler is a professional communicator with a vast array of experience in media, public, and government relations for public and private sector employers. Read his blog, Here Comes Later, and follow him on Twitter.
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