Cloud computing, smartphones and netbooks mean more of us than ever before are free from a desk-bound PC.
To make the most of your mobile experience, check out our essential tips for computing on the move…
1. Use a tethered modem
If you aren't away from a wireless network often, then getting a broadband dongle might not be worthwhile. Instead, try tethering your mobile phone, provided your network supports it.
Essentially, your laptop uses the mobile's internet connection for its data. Some phones include tethering options, but there are also tethering apps for most platforms. Joikuspot will do the job for Symbian-based phones, while Proxoid performs a similar task for Android devices.
2. Make MiFi work
You can share the connection from a 3G dongle across your network using Internet Connection Sharing. In the Network and Sharing Center, choose 'Change Adapter Settings', then right-click the connection for your dongle and select 'Properties'.
On the Sharing tab, tick 'Allow other network users to connect through this computer's internet connection'. On the Network and Sharing Center, choose 'Set up a new connection or network | Set up a wireless ad-hoc (computer to computer) network'. Follow the instructions.
Ad hoc networks can be fl aky, so if you need to share a connection regularly, try a MiFi. The telco 3 does pay-as-you-go units from £50 – see www.three.co.uk/ Mobile_Broadband/MiFi.
3. Call with Skype
Save money on expensive hotel phone bills by making your calls over Skype.
If you have a decent wireless connection and a laptop with a microphone, you can buy flat-rate calls to landlines using Skype for £2.24 per month, while 3 permits you to make Skype calls via its 3G broadband service.
Other networks restrict VoIP data over 3G. Many Wi-Fi-capable phones support Skype too.
4. Find Wi-Fi hotspots
Check out where you're travelling in advance to see if there are any free Wi-Fi hotspots about. To find them, simply browse to here and enter a postcode or location. It will provide a list of nearby hotspots and connection details.
5. Get local SIMs
Call and data charges for roaming can be steep, even when you take EU caps into consideration. With an unlocked phone, it could be much cheaper to buy a local pay-as-you-go SIM. Check out the providers' websites before travelling to see which company offers the best data plans.
6. Buy a Skype number
A further way to save money on phone calls abroad is to invest in a Skype number. You can get one free if you buy a month's landline calls.
Give this to your contacts and they'll be able to call you at a normal UK landline rate. If you're not on Skype when they call, they'll be able to leave you a voice mail. When you call them back using Skype via Wi-Fi, you'll only pay the cost of a UK landline call.
7. Install Dropbox
Whether you're home or abroad, it helps to be able to get access, at any time, to the most recent version of whatever documents you're actively working on. Dropbox provides online storage and synchronisation with as many computers as you install it on.
The first 2GB of storage is free, which is enough for most people's active documents. When you make changes and save them to your Dropbox folder on your computer, these are uploaded to Dropbox and then replicated on your other machines as soon as you log on.
8. Use Portable Apps
If you're on the move and your laptop dies, then you need a way to access your data and most common programs. Install Portable Apps on a USB flash drive alongside your most useful files and you can enjoy your own virtual desktop on any public PC, without worrying about leaving browsing traces, so long as you use Portable Firefox.
You can even use your favourite Firefox plug-ins and carry them around with you. The full installation of Portable Apps includes the OpenOffice.org software suite.
9. Secure your passwords
Keepass is an open-source password management program that stores your passwords in an encrypted file.
Install the program on your laptop and then save the password database file in your Dropbox folder. Do the same on any other computers that are running Dropbox and you can access your most up-to-date passwords from any of your PCs.
Ensure that Dropbox is secured with a strong password. If your laptop breaks, you'll still be able to get to your password database using the Portable Apps version of Keepass and web access to Dropbox.
10. Use the cloud
Dropbox is a good example of a cloud-based service that can be invaluable when you're on the move, but it's worth considering using other services to increase your storage. You can use a combination of photo services, such as Flickr, Picasa and Photobucket, along with Google Docs, Zoho and gOffice for documents.
Then you can get general storage at Humyo or Mozy, which both offer a lots of space. Remember to select encrypted providers for sensitive information. Most of these services also provide sharing options that make sending someone else a document as simple as passing on a URL.
11. Set up offline mail
Even in the world of mobile broadband and ubiquitous Wi-Fi, there are still places where you won't be able to get a signal and you'll have to work offl ine. Plan for this by ensuring that you have an offline mail client such as Thunderbird installed, even if you use a web-based email service.
Download your messages before hitting the road so you can refer to them and write responses while you're offline. For Gmail, you can install Google Gears or get a simple backup of your messages by getting Google Desktop to index them. An offline client is still the best option, though.
12. Extend battery life
Consider ways to extend your battery life if you have to spend extended time away from a source of power.
Set your Power Options to dim the screen unless you're working in bright sunlight because this extends battery life significantly. Also try any tricks that will take load off the processor: disabling unnecessary background processes, closing programs you're not using and even turning off Aero.
All of this will ensure that your laptop consumes less power and you'll get more life out of the battery.
13. Optimise for bandwidth
Consider ways in which you can optimise your connection when you're on reduced bandwidth. You might have dropped to a GPRS connection or even had to resort to using dial-up. In these cases, a slow connection can limit your productivity.
Shut down synchronising services such as Dropbox and Windows Live Sync. You can sync up again when you get onto a better connection. Turn off any other programs that poll the internet. Disable pictures in your browser, plus any other multimedia you can – the results, while ugly, will be easier to manage speed-wise.
14. Stay secure
If you're using free hotspots or any that enable you to connect using an open wireless connection, ensure that you have a decent fi rewall installed.
Comodo, Agnitum and ZoneAlarm provide free firewalls that generally outperform Windows' offering. Consider installing one to turn on in these circumstances. Just enable access for your web browser and email program. Ensure that you use Windows' public network settings too.
15. Encrypt files
Consider what might happen if your laptop or thumb drive gets lost or stolen. By encrypting any sensitive files, you can make sure the vital data within it can't be accessed.
Use TrueCrypt to create a virtual encrypted disk hidden within a file on your system and place all your most important files there. Anyone getting access to your PC won't even know that the disk is there, keeping your data safe.
16. Tether your iPhone
In iOS 4, you can turn on internet tethering by choosing 'Settings | General | Network | Internet Tethering' – but only if you're with a provider that allows it. While it can be expensive to change in the middle of a contract, it's defi nitely worth confirming this feature next time.
17. Get audio channels
If you're in need of entertainment and you've got a 3G signal, Tuner Internet Radio is one of the iPhone's best apps. It's not free, but for hundreds of channels, the £3 fee is a bargain. It's available to download from Apple's iTunes App Store.
18. Use Mobile Dropbox
Get quick access to your Dropbox files on your phone. There's an Android app available in the marketplace, and one for iPhone and iPad in the App Store. A Blackberry app is on its way. Learn more at www.dropbox.com/anywhere or get simple mobile web access at http://m.dropbox.com.
19. Find yourself
There's no need to go anywhere without access to a map. Google Maps is available for all popular phones and mobile devices. See www.google.com/mobile/maps for relevant download links or just point your mobile browser at m.google.com/maps.
20. Watch the skies
Got time to look up and see the stars? If you have an Android phone, then you can get an annotated map of the sky wherever you are, thanks to GPS and Google Sky Map. It adjusts according to where your phone is pointing, so you can find out about any part of the sky.
21. Keep cool
If you're using a laptop plugged in for extended periods, consider buying a laptop cooler to prevent it from overheating. These cost around £20 and plug into a USB port. They use fans to cool the underside of your laptop, ensuring you get stable performance for lengthy use.
22. Take a back-up drive
Consider carrying portable back-up media with you, especially if you're travelling for any period of time. A passport drive is small enough to tuck into most laptop bags and is USB-powered. Expect to pay around £60 for a 500GB drive, which should offer enough space.
23. Charge in the car
A car charger for your laptop ensures that you can top up its juice by plugging it into the cigarette lighter while you're driving. Generic ones are available for between £10 and £20. Try to get one for your specific model if possible, though – it'll cost a bit more, but it's worth it.
24. Spare battery
If you're stuck on a train or plane with no charging point, a spare battery can pay dividends. You can usually find spares at a reasonable price on eBay and one could effectively double your working time. Check the capacity of the battery and don't forget to keep it charged.
25. Back up at home
Your laptop is likely to undergo greater wear and tear than a static computer, making it more vulnerable to data loss. It makes sense to back it up whenever you touch base at home or at the office. Keep a copy of all your important data on at least one other PC, so that it's easily accessible.
First published in PC Plus Issue 300
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