SIZE MATTERS -
Computers just keep getting smaller, which is terrific for you. When shopping for computers, you will be faced with reams of data about speed, accessories and features, but the only thing you should look at is size.
First and foremost, size matters. Your computer will hold your life's work, it will have your emails, your research, your web site, your photographs and practically your air supply. To lose it will be catastrophic, and your life on the road will be all about avoiding catastrophe.
The standard size laptop is the size of a loose-leaf binder, weighs about 6 pounds and is attractive to all people you meet, good or bad. I designed this entire web site, this entire CD-ROM, this entire project on a palm-size computer. It weighs 2 pounds, fits into a trousers pocket and goes with me everywhere. You will soon realize that your adventure is sort of about meandering about the country like a modern-day Magellan, but mostly about schlepping all your gear around, worrying about where the gear is, how heavy it is, how and when it will be stolen, and what you will do when it is stolen.
The model I have has been discontinued, but I recommend a similar model, made by Sony. Their Viao line, namely the Picture Book, seems perfect. I stored my computer in a large fanny pack thrown over my shoulder. I carried it everywhere. The screen is about the size of a large wallet, but it is large enough. The keyboard is about the size of one of my hands, but it is large enough -- I wrote hundreds of articles on it. It has an internal hard drive, a PCMCIA slot and a port expander which allows me to connect virtually anything to it. I have an external floppy drive, CD-ROM and Zip Drive. I could have an external keyboard and monitor, if I so desired. In the following summary of features, the size or type which I used on True America is listed in parenthesis, to give you a valuation of what will work.
- Speed -
(75mhz Pentium) Speed is now becoming passe, as in, you only need so much dynamite to blow up the bridge. I found 75 to be suitable, which should make your decision between the 330mhz and 500mhz models a little easier. I only have 16meg of RAM, and increasing that should improve the speed.
- CD-ROM -
(External, PCMCIA) You will probably need a CD-ROM, especially for an extended trip. I found that it is nearly impossible to install software today without it, and you will likely have to install or reinstall your web browser, your imaging software and maybe even virus protection. Since mine was external ($150) I didn't have to lug it around everywhere, but I was less inclined to use it. About the only reasons I might have regretted this would be if I had some crazy notion to rely on a CD street map, and if I had a DVD and wanted to watch movies.
Actually, the street map idea may not be so far-fetched, for those of you who plan to travel in an RV, with a dashboard large enough to hold your computer, and someone to operate it. I, of course, was on a motorcycle, alone. But, keep in mind that, as much fun as this stuff may be, it has you relying on more things, it complicates your life and it takes away from the appreciation of the adventure.
- Storage -
(Zip Drive, external, Parallel Port) This is critical. Every good computer manager emphasizes the importance of backing up data. Well, imagine that all your work for the past month or more is in a backpack slung over your shoulder as you tumble down a rocky mountainside? Much of your work will be stored on your web site, but you must have a way to back up your photographs, which may amount to 10-20meg of data each day. My Zip drive worked well, but I quickly regretted not buying the Jazz drive, which holds as much as 10 Zip disks, or 1 gig. If you find a laptop with a CD-ROM recorder, you will be in heaven, and if it is DVD, well, you're just tiptoeing through tulips.
If you get a larger media, such as the Jazz or CD recorder, it becomes feasible to actually make two copies of your back-up, and you would be really clever to mail one copy home whenever possible.
- Power - (2 hours (supposedly)) Don't worry about battery life. Unless you find a computer with an amazing 10 or 12 hour life, you probably won't rely on it, anyway. Other than bringing your laptop into restaurants or onto picnic tables in public parks, you will probably have available AC. I had a 12volt DC to 110 volt AC inverter which ran my laptop just fine, though it tended to drain my motorcycle battery quite easily (after 5 or 6 hours and in sub-zero weather.)
- Modem -
(56K V90 PCMCIA TDK) This worked very well, and even though I carried it everywhere along with the computer, the weight was not significant. The advantages to having an "external" modem was that, if it did break, I wouldn't have had to give up my laptop while having it fixed (it never did break, mind you) and I was able to upgrade to the V90 very easily. The disadvantage was that I was constantly installing and removing it, and it was something else I could misplace. Overall, I would recommend an internal modem.
Having a printer sure would have made life a little easier -- but, of course, more complicated. The only times that I wished that I had one were when I was working with the media or soliciting sponsorships. I was constantly amazed by these people. I would call them from a pay phone, shouting over the traffic, and explain that I was traveling around the country on a motorcycle, and that I was living by the seat of my pants, with barely a toothbrush to my name, and, never fail, they would say; "great, would you fax us something?" Or: "do you have a number where you can be reached?"
It was difficult for people to comprehend the magnitude of my adventure, but then, that was what made it so compelling. Actually, I was able to fax things; in the rare times I went into cities, I could stop at a copy shop, but those faxes cost several dollars, which would be most of my meal budget, so I tried to use email whenever possible. And actually, I did have a number where I could be reached, but it was a long pager number (with PIN) and only worked (and worked very well, thank you PageNet) "near civilization."
I found that many copy shops let me use their printers for only about 50 cents a page, and I would sometimes create the document as a web page on my site and just print it out at a public library for a dime (libraries won't let you near their computers with a floppy disk.) Buy a printer and soon, you'll be printing out maps and photos and web pages and all kinds of junk. Think small, think Zen.
My friend, Steve English cut off a leg of an old scuba wetsuit for me, and it has suited me just fine. We took about 10 inches from the knee area and wrapped my computer in it. I then put it in a small pack. Forget the leather cases, forget the custom embroidery -- you want padding.