By Darren Gladstone, PCWorldOct 9, 2008 10:00 pm PDT
Plenty of stories provide advice for elite mobile professionals. But what about you, the unproductive traveler? Maybe you’re on vacation. Maybe you’re trying to chill out before a day’s worth of travel and business meetings. Point is, you need to pack a little smarter to entertain yourself, and that’s what this week’s column is all about. I have some great roadworthy games and a few ways to watch video–and, yeah, I’ll even throw in some helpful, practical tips.
The Impractical Tips
Sometimes you simply want to sit back and relax–y’know, just watch a video on whatever mobile device you have handy. We used to have to jump through multiple hoops to do that; for instance, I’d run DirectShow Dump to strip out any DRM nonsense and then use 3GP Converter to transcode the video into different formats. These days, we have it easy. For some people that means watching show clips on cell phones. Other folks download Tivo content to a PSP or iPod. Me? I record shows on my Media Center PC and transfer the recordings at the touch of a button.
Let’s not forget about the whole Webcast revolution. PC World Senior Editor Melissa J. Perenson put together a great, comprehensive feature looking at TV on the Web. Below, I mention a few specific things that are worth watching, but here’s one big disclaimer: Many of the shows are region-locked. For example, as I write this, Hulu works only in the United States. My apologies to anyone in other countries.
Stephen King’s N:Part of a massive multimedia effort to promote Stephen King’s next book, Just After Sunset, N is a horrifically beautiful-looking Web miniseries.
Crawford:This indie documentary, which looks at the town that George W. Bush moved into, recently premiered exclusively on Hulu.com.
Sci-Fi Drive In:The Sci-Fi Channel has a small but cool collection of classic science-fiction movies and serials. I mean, Radar Men From the Moon? Truly old-school awesome.
Heroes: Going Postal:Not every high-powered freak in the world gets profiled on the hit NBC TV series. These Webisodes follow a mailman with supersonic abilities.
Gemini Division:Rosario Dawson stars in this futuristic cop thriller. Be sure to check out the whole site for all the cool interactive features (and the oh-so-subtle Microsoft plugs throughout the clips).
For me, the surest way to kill time in any given situation is, of course, to play games. So here’s a quick list of tips and games, organized according to what device you might have with you.
Mini-notebooks: These relatively limited portables are small, but powerful enough to play some low-impact games. First, take a look at a new service currently in beta called Good Old Games. When it goes live, you’ll be able to purchase DRM-free old-school PC games optimized for XP and Vista and download them to any machine. If you still own some classic titles, emulators can also do the trick; my favorite for old graphic adventures is ScummVM. And be sure to check out a bunch of great freeware games that should work on your micro machine.
Nintendo DS Lite: Nintendo’s handheld is a fantastic travel companion because it lasts hours before needing a recharge and it happens to have a wealth of great games. Last week I jabbered about Lock’s Quest, so I’ll spare you here, but you should also consider Sonic Chronicles: The Dark Brotherhood if you’re in the mood for something a little different. Part action, part role-playing game, Sonic Chronicles has you controlling Sega’s speedster and pals through puzzles and battles with all sorts of baddies. The snazzy art style and slick presentation might have people looking over your shoulder on your next flight.
Laptops: Notebooks vary in size, shape, and power. Of course, anything that works on a mini-notebook will play on a regular laptop, but the best piece of advice I can give otherwise is to set up a Steam account. It has a wide variety of modern games, from multigigabyte first-person shooters to tiny casual games, and everything you get is linked to a single account. No discs to worry about losing. And when you need to hit the road, you just click the File, Go Offline option before you disconnect–any game that you’ve downloaded will then work on the go.
Sony PSP: Unlike the DS, Sony’s handheld has many more gadgety features (Internet radio and Skype support, to name a few). It also happens to have its fair share of unique games. Out of the titles that have come out recently, I still find myself playing three in particular: the action/role-playing game Final Fantasy VII: Crisis Core; the highly stylized rhythm strategy game Patapon (you need headphones for this one to help keep the beat–and beat down baddies); and Echochrome, an awesome mind-bender where you’re solving three-dimensional M.C. Escher-ish puzzles. Oh, yeah: Keep your charger handy.
iPhone/iPod Touch: Some early standout games for the iPhone, like Sega’s Super Monkey Ball, deserve all the attention they get, but I’m digging Fieldrunners. It’s a tower-defense game like PixelJunk Monsters and Lock’s Quest (mentioned above), but it has an amazingly crisp visual style.
Windows Mobile phones: I won’t belabor the point here. After all, I wrote an entire column just on kitting out my HTC phone.
Of course, you could just read a book. Nah, that’s crazy talk! Want some more-practical tips? Jump to page 2.
The Practical Tips
Have the right headphones and the right audio settings: Most MP3 players come with a pair of earbuds. Throw them out. I’m serious. First, 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. I prefer over-the-ear cans, namely Creative’s Aurvana X-Fi headphones. They not only improve the sound quality at the touch of a button, but they also provide noise-canceling features the same way Bose’s overrated offerings do.
Another bonus of noise-canceling headphones is that you don’t need to turn up the volume. Couple that with an MP3 player’s smart volume-adjustment feature, and you might not blow out your hearing. Sounds good to me.
Have the right cables and power supplies: Whether it’s in the form of batteries or a couple of device chargers, every technophile needs power on the go. PC World Contributing Editor James A. Martin wrote about Belkin’s Mini Surge Protector with USB Charger, which is great. If you ask me, it’s all about the right cables. For instance, I like being able to charge my phone, PSP, and DS Lite through a USB port. So here’s something I did: Several companies (such as Mad Catz) offer a USB cable for the PSP, and I chose a Y-split version. One end charges old and new PSPs, and the other end is a mini-USB jack. Thanks to that cable, I can charge my PSP and HTC Touch phone simultaneously with a single wire.
Or you can just use the DS Lite. Its amazing battery life means I never need to think about nightly charge sessions. It can stay in idle mode for days, and I’ve gone on entire trips without having to plug in Nintendo’s awesome handheld even once.
Enjoy wireless, wherever: Another obvious thing is to consider entertaining yourself wherever you may roam. You could pony up money to go online with your laptop through a high-speed data card. But have you read the news lately? I’m trying to save some money here! Free Wi-Fi hotspots are the way to go. One low-tech resource is the quick list at The Wi-Fi-FreeSpot Directory, a grassroots collection of places all over the world where people can get online. Be careful, though! Some sneaks masquerade as access points to try to steal information. If you’re at a store or hotel that offers free Wi-Fi, find out the server’s name.
Bag it up: Personal tastes go a long way, but I always try to stow gear in bags that don’t scream, “Hey, I have a truckload of electronics in here!” The important part is to find something big enough, with enough pockets. I’m currently trying out Keen’s Alameda 15. This sack, made from some of the company’s recycled shoe parts, is rugged and road-ready. And it doesn’t look too shabby (or smell like feet), either.
Just remember: The next time you’re in the airport, seeing some poor schmo sweating about assembling a PowerPoint presentation, breathe easy. It’s not you, for a change.
Until next time….
Senior Writer Darren Gladstone geeks out over gadgets, games, and odd uses for humdrum tech. In other words, he’s a nerd–and he’s okay with that.