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Internet on the Road

Susan Ives is a former president of Alamo PC.

I spent ten days on the East Coast last month. I won't admit that I was in New Jersey, just in case there is residual resentment from the Spurs-Nets rivalry. Let's say I was somewhere east of Philadelphia and north of Delaware. Now, I get a lot of e-mail. A lot. For the first time in almost a decade, my mailbox filled up. Travel is perilous.

E-mail on the Web
As I found, it pays to keep up to prevent your box from overflowing. If you travel for business, you may need to keep up with activity back at the salt mine. And, you may want to send messages to friends and family - I'm on vacation and you're not, nyah nyah.

Many Internet service providers give you the option of reading your mail online, through any Web browser, instead of using a standalone e-mail program such as Microsoft Outlook. I have several e-mail addresses and all of them offer this service. Each of them has a slightly different format, so it pays to practice a bit before your trip. With SBC DSL, go to dsl.sbc.yahoo.com and scroll down the right side of the screen until you find the e-mail link. With my Texas Net account I go to their Web site and click on the Webmail link. Roadrunner cable also advertises remote e-mail. Poke around on your ISP's Web site. If they offer Web-based e-mail, odds are they advertise it -prominently.

If you don't normally read your mail through a browser, make a list of people you might want to contact. The Webmail at Texas Net is archaic and doesn't store e-mail addresses, so you need to take a manual list. The interface at SBC is much slicker - you can input addresses online or import them from your regular e-mail program so they are available wherever you are. It's easy. Whatever your system, make sure before you travel that you have access to the addresses you need.

Finally, make sure that you know your password. E-mail programs store and remember passwords so you don't have to type them in. When you access your mail through a Web browser, you will have to type in your password every time. Many people set up their accounts so long ago that the password has become a dim memory.

Reading your mail online requires a computer. If you are staying with wired friends or family, or are on a business trip and have access to an office computer, this is not a problem. But what if you are computerless?

Most hotels now have networked computers, often in a business center. On a trip to New York last year, our hotel had a kiosk in the breakfast room. Expect to pay a modest fee for this service. As in San Antonio, many public libraries have free public access terminals. Kinkos has Internet access in all of their stores for a reasonable fee; check ahead at Kinkos to see if there is a store near your destination.

Internet cafes are fun. There was one in Ocean City, where I was, that offers coffee and terminals for $9 an hour. They advertise that they are AOL friendly. Several Web site list cafes - try CyberCafe, which lists 4208 internet cafes in 140 countries, or the Cybercafe Search Engine which boasts 6244 verified cybercafes, public Internet access points and kiosks in 170 countries. This is a volatile business - cafes open and shut quickly - so it's a good idea to call before you trek across town.

I don't like reading my e-mail from a Web browser. It's much slower than reading it through a proprietary program, my junk filters aren't activated so I waste a lot of time wading through ads and I worry a bit that a virus may strike (but hey, it's not my computer.)

No Web-based e-mail?
If your ISP does not provide Web-based e-mail, or if you use AOL or WebTV (which are quirky) you do have options.

One is to set up a temporary e-mail address through one of the free e-mail services. You won't be able to read your normal mail (trust me: it will be waiting when you return!) but you will be able to exchange messages while you are on the road. Check out Hotmail to see how it works.

Another is to use a Mail-to-Web service. This is a Web site that will download your mail from your ISP - no need to install any software. Try Mail2Web, Mail Inspector (this one has instructions in German, to give you that real world traveler feeling) or Panda Mail. All of these appear to remove mail from the server, so you won't have the choice to read and save your mail later on your own computer.

E-mail on your laptop
If you are traveling with a laptop you have a different set of issues. You can use your regular e-mail program, but you will need to configure it to dial up. Both Roadrunner and SBC give you .phone numbers that you can call with a dial up modem when you are on the road, but bear in mind that making a call from a hotel room can be pricey. Look up local numbers before you travel. Call your ISP's support line, or check their Web site, before you go to make sure you know how to set this up. I checked the SBC site for numbers in Ocean City and it looks like all of their local access numbers were in the northern half of the state- none in the south where I was. You should be safe in big cities, but rural areas are chancey.

Be careful about using laptops and modems in hotel rooms - most use switchboards, which can fry a laptop modem. Check with the hotel's front desk to see if they have a dedicated data line.

Many airports are now setting up laptop connectivity - in Detroit they even had a wireless station (Dallas and Austin have wireless stations, too.) In most airports, including San Antonio, you will have to look for a pay phone with a laptop hookup.

Handling e-mail
I hoard e-mail and find it confusing to have my mail stored in multiple locations. If you are using a Web-based e-mail setup, your mail can be read online and will still be downloaded by your regular e-mail program, such as Outlook, the next time you access that program. It remains on the server. Unless you delete a message, that is - those messages are gone forever.

If you are using a laptop you will have a different problem. The default settings of standalone e-mail programs are to erase the messages from the server once they are downloaded onto the e-mail program. You will end up with some messages on your laptop instead of on your desktop where you probably want them. The solution is to reconfigure your e-mail program to leave messages on the server. As with Webmail, deleted messages are deleted forever, but if you download them on your laptop they can remain on the server to be downloaded again on your desktop system.

In Outlook, go to Tools/Options/Mail Setup/Email Accounts/View or Change/Change/More Settings/Advanced. Then check the little box that says, "Leave a copy of messages on server."

In Netscape Mail, go to Edit/Mail and Newsgroup Account Settings/Server Settings and check the leave mail on server box. If you use a different program, figure it out yourself.

If you are using Web-based e-mail, pay extra attention to security. Once you log in - type your user name and password - you may stay signed in forever. The next person using the computer could have access to you account. All Web-based e-mail programs will offer you the option to log out: do it.

For RV-ers
Accessing the Internet when you are traveling in your RV can be tricky. Some commercial RV parks have started offering phone line hookups (and RVs, I understand, have started including phone wiring.) A list is at RVers ONLINE or you can purchase a book/CD combo, listing more than 4.400 modem-friendly parks at All Camprounds.

Some RVers are accessing the Internet via their cell phones (check with your service provider for instructions on how to do this) or via satellite dish. Direct PC offers two-way Internet service for $99 a month, no phone required.

If you have a digital camera, you may want to transmit photos when you are on the road. Alamode editor Clarke Bird sent all of his (former) friends pictures of the beach when he was in Hawaii last year. But how do you get the photos from the camera into the computer? All of the digital cameras I have used download the photos via a direct USB cable from the camera to the computer, and this requires installing specialized software.

I have a SanDisk, which is a standalone card reader that hooks into a USB port; it's plug-and-play and does not require any additional software. It acts just like an additional drive. There are several different brands, all small and lightweight and supporting all the popular cards: SecureDigital Card, MultiMediaCard, Memory Stick, 3.3V SmartMedia Card, Type I/II CompactFlash Card, and IBM Microdrive. They work with Macs as well as with PCs. Expect to pay about $30. It's well worth the price: downloading photos is much faster than doing it directly from the camera and you don't chew up your camera batteries.

You will probably want to edit your photo. If the computer you are using runs on Windows XP, go to All Programs/Accessories/Paint. This isn't the best graphics program but it does do the basics such as crop and rotate. You can clean up the photos more artistically when you return.

The Bottom Line
Have you picked up the theme yet? Plan ahead. Figure out your options before you go and you can access the Internet from anywhere. Now, if someone would like to read the 2,000 or so messages I have backlogged from my last trip. . .

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Alamo PC Organization, Inc.
San Antonio, TX USA