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Take It From This Business Traveler: Tapping the Web Overseas Takes Preparation, Patience and Perseverance

 Editor's Note: This article started as a simple review of portable printers. Brian Glabman, who owns an Orange County furniture business, had agreed to test a couple of printers to determine which ones were the best for business travelers. We like stories by real business people with real business problems. The next thing we knew, Brian had expanded the story into a commentary on the pitfalls of global travel in the not-yet-connected world. You hear about all the equipment that will make communication easy or how the Europeans are ahead of us in cell phone technology. Maybe you have heard that wireless handhelds can do anything. The truth is a little more down to earth. Brian buys antique furniture all over the world and depends on the technology to get the job done. Sometimes it works out, sometimes it doesn't. We hope his experience will help next time you need to plug in internationally.

 By Brian Glabman (roadwarrior@wwwiz.com)

 I believe the proper length of an article should be whatever the average person can read in one visit to the bathroom. I will endeavor not to exceed that.

I run an Orange County furniture business and I'd like to share my experience with using computers, peripherals and the Internet internationally. In the planning stages of a furniture-buying trip to Europe, I figured it would be interesting to look into the way the Web has made the world a much smaller and easier place to do business.  I thought I would be able to relate how easy it was for me traveling with my laptop computer, my digital camera and my portable printer to get information, catalog it, save it and transfer it home.  But let me back up a minute…

For my business I need to travel to many small craftsmen's shops and view their products.  I have to remember who made what, the price and the details of the piece (the design, wood species, and distress level, etc.), so that I can compare the individual pieces to the other things available in the marketplace. For this I use a digital camera. Using the camera with the laptop allows all of the people in our buying group to keep the pieces fresh in their minds. Each evening we print out the day's viewing and everyone gets a copy.  With an international Internet connection, I can send a simple email home.  This email allows other members of the team to compare things we already have of a similar nature and check inventories to make sure we have room for the potential new items.  It also allows us to keep in touch without racking up huge international phone bills.

 Step-by-Step Prep

 I began getting ready for the trip by trying to get European dial-up numbers for my ISPs.  In the past I have been made fun of for using America Online.  My friends have said things like, ``You're way too advanced to be using AOL," or ``AOL is for dummies, why are you using that?" But, my favorite quote was from my friend Mikey, who said, ``AOL is for people who don't know what they are doing or people who prey on people who don't know what they are doing, which are you?"   Well, all of you critics out there listen up: of the three ISPs I use, only AOL has a European dial-up number.  Without my AOL accounts I would have had to dial long-distance numbers to get on the Internet.

I next started taking a look at my equipment: Laptop computer, digital camera and portable printer.  I asked myself, what do I need to make these things work in Europe? I have taken them to the domestic markets and they have worked fine, but the voltage is different in Europe and the power and phone connectors are different in Europe.

I have this theory about computers.  I think everyone who has a computer has a friend or a relative that is his or her own personal guru.  This magician is their expert, the person they call when something goes wrong or they need to know how to do something.  I am this know-it-all for some of my friends and family, but I also have a guru, my friend Nick.  I can solve most basic issues that come up, but he is ``The Man." I am sure there is someone he calls. It is really like a chain, and eventually at the top you get to Bill Gates or Steve Jobs.

Anyway, Nick, The Man, a year ago introduced me to John Parrisson, a pieces and parts specialist at Insight.com ([800] INSIGHT, extension 5374).  John has been able to find the most obscure parts for me, but also has terrific deals on basic hardware.

So, I called John and explained what the trip was all about, and that I would be in multiple countries. ``First you need to look at the transformers," he said. ``The transformers (the boxes attached to the power cords) have a power range and to be compatible in Europe they need to say 120v-250v.  If they are, all you need is a plug-head adapter.

``The second thing you need is a selection of phone connectors. Each country has a different way of attaching things to their particular outlets, even though the basic technology functions the same way."

  After examining my Sony Mavica and my Dell laptop, I found them compatible, but to my surprise my Cannon BJC 80, ``The Portable Printer" was only portable in the United States, unless I wanted to carry a power converter also.  So I figured it was the perfect time to try out some new printers.

From John at Insight, I ordered the World Travel Connection Kit for $99, which had phone and plug adapters from almost every country on the planet, and one connector that might have been from Mars. I also picked John's brain a bit about the portable printers and he said the best one for my needs was the Hewlett Packard 340. He also suggested that I buy an auto-air adapter for my laptop so I could use power from my seat on the airline. I also purchased a one-to-three grounded extension cord and made sure I had a phone-line tester.  If polarity is reversed or there is power coming through a line, it could fry a modem.

I was ready. For more information, you might want to check out http://www.roadwarrior.com/.

Writing this article gave me the perfect opportunity to test some of the

portable printers on the market.  After looking through the tech journals, I decided to check out three printers, Canon's BJC 80 (which I own), and Citizen's PN60i and the HP 340.

Packing for the Trip

 Packing your mobile office correctly is essential for ease of travel and ease of use.  You have to make sure you are carrying the things you need in your carry-on, but not so much as to slow you down while moving through airports.  You also have to make sure you pack any equipment in non-carry-on luggage carefully enough so the gorillas who throw your bags against the wall can't hurt it (on your return, dirty laundry is ideal for this.)

          I packed the printers in my suitcase surrounded by socks, underwear and T-shirts.   I carried on my laptop, my digital camera and my auto-air adapter.  I was worried about the gorillas and the camera.  Note: I forgot to remove from my laptop bag all the things I didn't need on the plane (the modem saver/line tester, connectors and other paraphernalia), so it was about five pounds heavier than it could have been if I had packed that stuff away.   By the way, the auto-air adapter worked like a charm.

          An aside:  You no longer need to worry about laptops and X-ray machines. Most of the major airports now swab the laptop and test the cotton for chemical residue. (A warning to farmers who use explosives to blow up stumps: don't touch your laptop with your hands when you pack it.)

 First Stop: Germany

           Germany is a new stop on our itinerary.  There is a furniture market in Cologne (Köln) that we had been hearing about for several years and it seemed like a visit was in order.  The Cologne fair as it is known is more contemporary and European in the styling than we have a demand for, but a look-see is always a good idea. 

          We arrived in Germany in good spirits. The day of traveling was uneventful, until we went to collect our bags.  Two of us noticed that the locks on our suitcases had been removed. Nothing was missing but the intrusion set the tone for our time in Germany.  We got to the hotel and unpacked.  I had no problem with the wall plugs but the phone system in our hotel was not compatible with data transfer.

          I went downstairs to ask the front desk to replace the phone and man at the desk made me feel like an idiot. He explained all I had to do was turn the phone over, turn on the ringer and unplug it to use the jack for data transmission.  Sometimes someone can help you and you are very appreciative and sometimes you walk away feeling belittled. I felt so small that I could have used a ladder to reach the fourth-floor button in the elevator to go back to my room.

I tried to fix the problem in as delicate a manner as possible.  I picked up the phone and examined the underside for a switch. I found it and flipped it. I heard a few crackling sounds and then nothing worked. I unplugged the phone and I gently turned it back over and practiced my jump shot into the wastebasket. The shot bounced off the rim. I plugged my modem saver/ line tester into the jack on the wall and pushed the test button and the red warning light came on.  I was a prisoner. Not once in two days in Germany was I able to connect to the Internet.

 Relieved in London

 I was thankful when I got off the plane in London. England was like a breath of fresh air. When we got to our hotel, I was pleased to note that not only did it have data ports on the phones, but that I had a second line to call out on as well.  My connectors worked like a charm and I set up my mobile office. 

          Each day I would take digital pictures of the antique pieces we were buying and when I got back to the hotel I would download the images and log them. The system worked great: each night I printed out the day's purchases. The reproductions we were considering were photographed separately and emailed home for scrutiny. I would check my email everyday about 10 p.m. London time, which was 3 p.m. California time.  The system worked like a dream. 

We needed to make a wire transfer to our shipper while we were in London and I thought an AOL Instant Message or an email to our controller would suffice; it didn't.  She reminded me that anyone could ask her to do this and she has no way of knowing for sure who I was.  I realized that if we did this once, we would risk someone else being able to copy the communication and order the transfer to a different account, because there is nothing private about either of these forms of communication.  My friend Mikey says, ``Don't put anything in an email or instant message you wouldn't write on the back of a postcard." So, I contacted her the old-fashioned way, I telephoned her, and answered a few personal questions to put her at ease that I was who I said I was. 

 The Skinny on Mobile Printers

 Among the printers, the HP340 worked best even though the Cannon had better picture quality and the ability to scan. The Cannon does not work on European power and no one at Cannon was able to help solve this problem.  The HP was the largest of the three printers and would be my last choice for lugging around on a short trip. I rank the color picture quality a five on a scale of 10 and the black and white an eight.  I would give it a seven-plus for its use on my European adventure, but prefer the Cannon for U.S. trips.  The Cannon has a better picture quality in color and it does have the ability to scan, but the ink cartridges dry up quickly and when you store the printer you will have to replace the cartridges each time.

          The Citizen PN60i is an incredible little machine.  It is by far the smallest of the three printers and it works by its own mini-cassette ribbon system, a bit different than the inkjets.  It fits in my pocket and weighs just over a pound (yes one pound). The only downside to the PN60i is that resolution in color is not good.  If I were in need of a black-and-white document printer for quick business trips, this marvel would be the one for me. It's light and easy to use, and it printed 111 pages on battery power. I rank the PN60i a nine-plus in portable usability and black and white document production, but a three for color. I will be adding this printer to my travel-tool collection; it fits a very definite need.

          All in all it was a productive trip made more efficient by technology. It wasn't perfect–in retrospect I should have made sure the German hotel had data lines before making my reservation–but once I got connected, the equipment worked like it does in the United States. I can't stress enough that you can't assume every country or even every hotel will have data connections or be sympathetic if you have connection problems. Do your homework and be prepared to adjust. I hope this article will help all you fellow road warriors.  If you have mobile computing questions, I am happy to help. Please email roadwarrior@wwwiz.com.

Thank you for your time.  Hopefully you have finished this article in one seating. Please be sure to wash your hands.

  

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