In-Flight Entertainment on a Netbook

Last week, while I was jet-setting off to Dell HQ to get a gander at the Adamo XPS (you did read our exclusive look at prototype laptops that'll never make it to market, right?) I found myself with a lot of free time at the airport. I could have been productive and done some writing--but that was prime time to marry my love of laptops with my love of goofing off. This week, I'm telling you how to make the most of a low-powered PC, be it a netbook or humbly equipped business machine.

Pre-Flight Check

Before I do that, though, one bit of advice: Be prepared. Make sure that you have the right gear stowed in your laptop bag--and that you have the best bag for the job. I brought along HP's Pavilion DM3, which runs Windows 7 Home Premium and has a spacious 500GB hard drive--but guts-wise, it's a little on the gimpy side. Point is, I loaded this modest machine up with music, videos, and games and entertained myself for hours in various airports.

Another piece of the pre-flight puzzle: Wireless. Every current laptop has built-in Wi-Fi, but how do you plan to get online? Aside from looking up The Wi-Fi-FreeSpot Directory, you could always sign up for a wireless data service. Personally, I've been eyeballing the Novatel MiFi. Through Sprint, it costs $60 a month (for up to 5GB of bandwidth), but it's effectively a portable wireless router.

Small-Screen Video

The jump to Windows 7 has done the Windows Media Center justice. Internet TV streaming is now fully realized. Plenty of current and classic TV shows (I say more MacGuyver!) are easily accessible. And that's saying nothing of all the online video options cropping up (PC World Senior Editor Melissa J. Perenson put together a great feature covering TV on the Web last year) and Netflix is directly streaming into Media Center.

But you aren't always going to be online. When you touch down and drop your bags, set aside a few minutes to set up your PC while you clean off the travel funk.

First, plug in a USB tuner. My go-to choice for the time being is the AverMedia AverTVHD Volar MAX ($70). I wanted something that doesn't require me to install proprietary software or a driver disk or any extraneous BS--Windows has enough of that already! Plug it in and Windows 7 Media Center recognizes it as ClearQAM tuner (with Dolby Digital decoding, no less). So long as you get signal at your hotel, you're seeing quality HD (up to 1080i).

Next, configure the local TV guide in Media Center and have it set to record over-the-air HD shows. That way, while you're gallivanting around town in the name of work, the computer is pulling down your favorite shows to watch after-hours or on your next flight.

Sound Advice: Buy Good Headphones

Most MP3 players come with a pair of earbuds: Throw them out. I'm serious. Earbuds are potentially bad for your hearing. Jam these things into your ears and crank up the volume, and you're begging for a busted eardrum.

What you really want is noise-canceling headphones. As for what you want to go with, that's a personal choice, of course. I suggest that you go to a controlled environment, like an audio specialty store, to try out various headphones. Bring your own music and see if your favorites sound right to you. And make sure the headphones will feel comfortable for long periods of time.

I fancy myself a bit of an audiophile, but I also like the idea of headphones that also work as a headset for my cell phone. I'm currently toying with a pair of Beats by Dre headphones. They look cool and sound good, sure, but they also come with a cable that works with phones such as the iPhone and Palm Pre.

Shall We Play a Game?

Laptops, of course, vary in power and size--with wimpy netbooks and business boxes at the bottom of the gaming food chain. But if you're stuck with one of these machines, all hope is not lost. Take, for example, Good Old Games. This site offers DRM-free old-school PC games optimized for XP, Vista, and Windows 7. If you still own some classic titles, emulators can also do the trick; my favorite is ScummVM. And there are tons of great freeware games that should work on your micro machine.

The best piece of advice I can give otherwise is to set up a Steam account. Steam offers a wide variety of modern games, from multigigabyte first-person shooters to tiny casual games. Everything you get is linked to a single account; there are no discs to worry about losing. When you need to hit the road, click the File, Go Offline option before you disconnect so your downloaded games work on the go.

The most recent game I can recommend: Torchlight. If you're a fan of the classic PC game, Diablo, this is a $20 must-buy. (It's created by a couple of the guys behind Diablo and Diablo II). More interesting is that the game offers a Netbook Mode setting. It's a little misleading because the game doesn't become instantly playable on every netbook. However, it does speed things up enough so that the HP Pavilion DM3 I used,, which lacks a discrete GPU, played the game smoothly.

Have some awesome travel survival trips to share? Hit the Comment box below or send e-mail to PC World with "ATTN: Darren (I've got better ways to goof off than you.)" in the subject line.

Need even more nerdity? Follow PC World Senior Writer Darren Gladstone on Twitter (gizmogladstone) for more ramblings on all things tech (and games) .

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