8 incredibly useful tools for road warriors

Being mobile these days means more gear -- and more problems. Here's how to make things a bit easier.

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Connect it

How many times a day does this happen to you? You sit down, open up your laptop and check for an available wireless connection. And you discover once again that the few that aren't locked down aren't free.

You could buy yet another day pass or subscribe to yet another chain's service. But what you really need is some one-stop shopping: a wireless connection account that gives you access to more than one set of hot spots.

iPassConnect

Enter iPass. In March, iPass Inc. began selling its iPassConnect Wi-Fi connectivity service, which was formerly available to only enterprise customers, directly to individuals.

iPass login
Logging into iPassConnect

For $29.95 a month, you can get unlimited access to more than 24,000 Wi-Fi hot spots and Ethernet-equipped hotels in the U.S. -- brand-name places that include Starbucks, Borders, McDonald's, Hilton, Sheraton, Radisson, Hyatt and a gaggle of airline clubs and airport sites.

If you travel overseas, $44.95 will get you access in more than 90,000 Wi-Fi hot-spot and Ethernet locations, as well as local dial-up numbers, in 160 countries. And if you go beyond the reach of wireless LANs, $69.95 (plus a $125 service fee) will get you a 3G WAN card and access to 1xRTT or EV-DO mobile broadband in most of urban and suburban America. And $84.95 will take those capabilities overseas.

This is all integrated via the iPassConnect Mobility Manager, a single application that identifies and connects to Wi-Fi hot spots (including your home router if you have one), WAN, wired Ethernet in hotels or dial-up phone lines (the directory is built into the software).

Boost it

Why is it that no matter where you travel, you always get stuck in Bermuda Triangle wireless locations -- the remote seat in the airport lounge where Wi-Fi signals are only a rumor, or the hotel room where you have to stand on the windowsill to get a mobile phone signal?

Well, don't worry -- you can fight back.

Wi-Fire
The Wi-Fire attached to a laptop

Wi-Fire

The Wi-Fire long-range Wi-Fi adapter from hField Technologies Inc. combines a range-boosting directional antenna, a sensitive receiver and proprietary software to pull in wireless LAN signals at triple or more the range of standard Wi-Fi adapters.

The Wi-Fire adapter is a minuscule 4-ounce device that you can slip into your laptop bag and forget about until you need it. It works on 802.11b/g signals and connects via a USB port to a Windows PC (the software works with XP or Vista) or a Mac (OS X, including Leopard). You can order the Wi-Fire for $79 directly from hField's Web site.

zBoost Personal

If your problem is getting a cell phone signal, then you need the zBoost Personal cell phone signal booster. This is a portable version of a similar product that solves cell-phone reception problems in homes and offices by installing an antenna outside the house and a signal-amplifying repeater indoors.

zBoost Personal
The zBoost Personal

The Personal version covers a smaller area than its big brother, but it carries a lower price tag ($169) and comes in a package small enough to fit into your travel kit (4 by 5 by 1.3 in.). The dual-band (800/1,900-MHz) device comes with an external antenna that can attach to the nearest window with suction cups. Plug it into an AC outlet, and it creates a four- to six-foot bubble of good reception where you want it.

Protect it

One of the most important things about taking your digital devices on the road is making sure you get home with them. There are lots of ways to increase the likelihood of recovering your iPod or smart phone or laptop if it walks away: some very low-tech, others higher.

Cellophane tape, for example: Tape a slip of paper with your name and identifying information (e-mail address, cell phone number) in an inconspicuous place on the device -- inside the battery cover or the backside of the battery itself. Then mark it conspicuously as well -- for example, if you can bring yourself to do it, stick your next few "Hi! My name is ..." badges to the lid of your laptop. If it says it's yours, it's a lot less likely to wind up in somebody else's hands by mistake.

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