We members of the "Mad" Anthony Wayne Appreciation Society
found ourselves in a bit of a quandary last month. Actually, we found ourselves lost in central Pennsylvania on the Bone Trail, presumably miles from any known Wi-Fi hot spot. (But who knows? We were lost.) I had a looming deadline to file a story (that I'd actually written on time), and we needed directions to our next port of call--a data port, preferably, so that I could file my article.
Imagine yourself in our position. Lost. No MapQuest access. No Wi-Fi. No data port in sight. On deadline. Without even a friendly Amish buggy from which to ask directions.
Imagine yourself in our position. Lost. No MapQuest access. No Wi-Fi. No data port in sight.
Were we bothered? Heck, no. We had cell phones, a notebook, a PDA, and a Gomadic ComCube
--so we had at least two ways to tap into the Internet from the side of the road. If you're ever stuck needing to check your e-mail in a more likely place--such as an airport during a half-hour layover or even in the back of a taxicab stuck in traffic--this Gomadic rig could work for you, too.
The ComCube acts like a modem for your PDA or notebook and cell phone. It isn't sexy like a Bluetooth connection, but it does the job, requires almost no configuration or maintenance, and doesn't suck battery power like a vintage British automobile (or like Wi-Fi). It's almost disappointingly mundane: a two-inch long adapter with two adapters--one for your phone, one for your computer. I used a Cold War-era Kyocera phone hooked up to two different computers (an Axim X5 and a Compaq notebook), but it could have worked equally well with the iPaq 3635 and the Nextel i700
in the car or with one of the dozens of other supported bits of hardware. All you need to do is order the right adapter for your computer and phone, fork over 40 bucks (50 if you add a serial PC adapter), and hop online.
The ComCube does the job, requires almost no configuration or maintenance, and doesn't suck battery power.
Gomadic's rig doesn't require a cellular Web service, though you'll connect faster if you have one. Of course, you do need a dial-up Internet account, and the first time out, you need to get onto Gomadic's Web site
for directions; it gives you the hardware but no manual. That said, how difficult is it to hook up, configure your computer to dial out, and commence browsing?
Not that difficult--but then again, it's not that fast either.
Speed it up!
Remember the bad old days of 14.4Kbps modems? I do--I just reexperienced them. Now, this isn't ideal Web browsing speed, but it's fine for most e-mail use, even Web mail. But when I tried to get directions to the next port of call using MapQuest, I needed to do one other thing: turn off graphics in my Web browser. (Try it sometime when you're using dial-up; it speeds things up nicely. In Internet Explorer, select Tools > Internet Options, click the Advanced tab and under Multimedia, click to clear the check marks next to Show Pictures, Play Animations, Play Videos, and Play Sounds.)
You wouldn't want to download a new Windows Update or a virus signature package on a connection this slow, but when you need to get online in a hurry to finish a quick bit of business, then get off again, Gomadic's approach is great. It's not the only game in town, either; FutureDial's SnapDialer
does a similar job for notebooks (but not PDAs) and phones that use wireless Web services from Sprint, AT&T, Verizon, and T-Mobile. But SnapDialer requires a software installation, and it doesn't let you switch cables to hook up a phone to a notebook and a PDA. Give me a two-trick pony any day.
And so we trekked on, MapQuest directions freshly collected, the shores of Lake Erie long behind us, Hershey just ahead, and suburban Philadelphia our final destination. And that's just as well, because if you're ever stuck in a cellular dead zone in the mountains, no amount of cool modem technology is going to get you roadside directions.
Between columns, Matt Lake treks throughout Pennsylvania to research a book he's writing about the state's local legends and best-kept secrets. Feel free to pillory him or write with questions or suggestions here