Notes From the Road: Wi-Fi Tips, Garmin GPS Test Run

If you've been following my blog, you might know that I've been on vacation, camping in rainy Oregon. In addition to clamming and hiking, I'm trying to keep up with my blog. (I'm also testing GPS devices, but more on that in a sec.)

I thought I knew enough black art tricks to find a free Wi-Fi spot and successfully make connections while I'm on the road. I don't--and I've come to admire those of you who spend time on the road with your notebook.

Wi-Fi's a Struggle

Last week, for no apparent reason, I couldn't get the Cisco VPN client to connect to PC World's servers, so I had to have my editor post the blog; the next day the VPN worked, but only sporadically, kicking me off every hour or so.

The biggest problem is that I spend way too much time trying to find free access in a dry, comfy espresso bar. Remember, we're in Oregon, where residents aren't bothered by the weather forecast: "Today: Showers followed by rain. Tomorrow: Rain followed by showers."

I should have read "12 Downloads to Make Your Wi-Fi Life Easier and Fun" before I headed out. In the story I found Jiwire, a freebie (with added functionality for $25 a year) that provides a current list of free and pay Wi-Fi spots by city or zip code. You don't need to be online to use Jiwire, but if you are, the program lets you pull up a map to each location, a Web site if available, and details about the connection. The tool's now a permanent resident on my notebook--and it ought to be on yours, too. Grab a copy from PC World's Downloads.

Road-Testing GPS Receivers

In between clamming and crabbing, I've been testing out GPS receivers for PC World--the recently released Dash Express, Cobra's Nav One 5000, and the I've-been-around-awhile Garmin Nuvi 760. This week I'll give you my first impression of the Garmin gadget.

Full disclosure: My wife, Judy, is the trip's real-time GPS and the person who's actually pushing the buttons and pointing out the "oh, wow"s, and the "oh, come on"s, of each device. And FYI to potential burglars: A friend of ours, an off-duty sheriff who collects shotguns and has two trained Rottweilers, is house-sitting for us while we're away.

First Impressions: Garmin Nuvi 760

The Nuvi 760 (starting at about $390 online) is small enough to stick in my pocket, yet it has a big enough screen to read easily when it's mounted on the dashboard; when it's disconnected from vehicle power through its docking device, the battery life was adequate.

Before we left home, I downloaded over two dozen Point of Interest files--in our case, campgrounds, wineries, brewpubs and hot springs on our route. I wasn't happy with Garmin's free program to install the POIs. I transferred a bunch of POIs, then at the end of the process, it told me there was an error--yet didn't give any details.

On a happier note, I was able to download any Google Map or MapQuest location directly to the Garmin. Check out a video demo for details. That's nice, but I could send only one location at a time. I'd like to be able to drag and drop a bunch onto a list. (The Garmin had to be connected to the PC to do these transfers.)

The built-in database was fast, easy to access, and comprehensive. It found everything we asked it to--campgrounds, state parks and recreation areas, restaurants, ever-so-important highway rest areas, and even every Starbucks in every town.

A few features we liked: a list of recently found locations, the ability to add multiple way points on the fly, a decent MP3 player, Bluetooth capabilities, and an FM transmitter that gave me a way to send all audio (music, navigation, and cell calls) through our Road Trek's FM radio.

I have a couple of gripes, though. I want a one-step, one-button way to both mute the Garmin and reach the top-level menu. As it is, I may have to back out six or seven screens to go back to the viewing map. And I'd like to choose--or avoid--certain roads and not just freeways.

In the next few weeks I'll tell you what I thought of the Dash Express and Cobra Nav One--but now the tide is out and the clams are calling.

Time Wasters

Here's another stack of things that'll ensure you won't have time for any real work.

You know how I often talk about a new product and say, "I want one"? In the case of the Uno, I don't want one.

Have a couple of hours? Here's a video compendium of 50 of the best parodies of TV commercials. Many are from Saturday Night Live with a smattering of Mad TV and In Living Color--and some are quite good. [Thanks, Paul and Sandra.]

The balloon people who float into the sky seem to have it down to a science.

Interactive Flash creations, no matter how weird, are ideal to while away the time. Try Creatures and Hello Piexl.

On your mark... ready, set, GO! It's the annual Gloucestershire Cheese Rolling Race.

The New York to London Telectroscope: It's faster than text messaging--and a heck of a lot more fun.

Steve Bass writes PC World's monthly "Hassle-Free PC" column and is the author of "PC Annoyances, 2nd Edition: How to Fix the Most Annoying Things About Your Personal Computer," available from O'Reilly. He also writes PC World's daily Tips & Tweaks blog. Sign up to have Steve's newsletter e-mailed to you each week. Comments or questions? Send Steve e-mail.

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