RETURN ON TECHNOLOGY: Laptop hell: Air travel can bounce, bungle data

September 1, 2008

Travel may broaden the mind, but it's hell on laptops. If your laptop suffers some kind of death-dealing blow, it'll probably be on the road.

Air travel is the worst. You're required during security screening to pull your laptop out of its snug little protective cover and submit it to the tender mercies of the Transportation Security Administration's conveyors, X-ray machines and employees. Then there's the jostling scramble to put it back in on the far side of the screening station.

There are many opportunities for subtle breakage that won't show up for hours, when the machine will simply gulp plaintively and die. Traveling also exposes the laptop to theft. There's probably little risk of having it stolen after the screening, because everybody else is a passenger, too, but laptop owners often have to put the computer carrier down in a rest room, or while ordering food or at kiosks.

Let's start with safety. Never put your laptop into checked luggage. Aside from being battered and bounced, it can easily get lost or stolen. Put the laptop into a nice, cozy bag and take it aboard with you and put it under the seat. Don't put it into the overhead unless you just can't help it. The overhead bin can be nearly as rough as baggage handling, because latecomers will crush your bag to get theirs into the overhead. Some travelers advocate putting the laptop into a separate laptop sleeve, then both sleeve and laptop slide into the bag.

Some road warriors use backpack-style laptop bags. They feature good padding, lots of pockets for other things, and most of them don't advertise on the outside that they're laptop bags, so they're less conspicuous. And speaking of conspicuousness, it might be best to avoid those bags with glaring computer-maker logos on them. They're often free, but they scream, "I'm holding a laptop," from clear across the terminal.

It doesn't hurt to let the TSA X-ray your laptop, but keep it away from the magnetic detectors. If possible, have your laptop in sleep mode so that, if the TSA wants you to turn it on, it comes up immediately. I haven't had to do that for ages, but you never know. There's little you can do about the jouncing it will take on the conveyor, so just pray it doesn't hurt.

There are laptops made for particularly tough conditions. Panasonic's Toughbook line is one of the most durable (www.panasonic.com). It includes a model that's used by the U.S. Army in Iraq. Its keyboard and monitor are sealed and it has a magnesium case. Ports have rubber plugs. Its hard drive is in a cage with gel padding to minimize shock if you drop it.

There's a story going around about a soldier who used the Toughbook during a firefight to stop a bullet. It lodged in the hard drive. When the hard drive was swapped out, the laptop fired right back up. This kind of ruggedness is not cheap, though. Base price is around $3,000. It's also not slim. It's about the size of a small briefcase all by itself. It even has a handle. It won't fit most laptop bags, but others in the Toughbook line will.

Security is a constant bother when traveling with a laptop, because often the data is more valuable to a savvy thief than the hardware itself. Always make sure you need a password to access your machine. Make a copy of all data and keep it at home. If you need extra security, keep the data on a server so it can be accessed only remotely, then use a piece of software called a "virtual private network" to get at it through the Internet. The data remains at home while you travel.

This can be annoying, however, because you can work only when you have an Internet connection. For higher physical security, lock the laptop case. I don't do this, because it's much harder to get the laptop out when I need it, but it reduces the chance that somebody will lift the laptop and leave the case behind. I personally keep much of my data on both the hard drive and a separate thumb drive so I can restore my data if the laptop goes belly-up, but I'm consciously trading off security for convenience.

If you're traveling internationally, be aware that laptops are now fair game for customs to open and even take away for data copying. You may be required to tell them your username and password. Travelers are screaming about this, as you might imagine, but as of this writing, the regulation is in force. On the subject of customs, you may also need to prove that you owned the laptop when you left the country, so it's good insurance to keep your purchase receipt available.

Altom is an independent local technology consultant. His column appears every other week. Listen to his column via podcast at www.ibj.com. He can be reached at timaltom@sbcglobal.net. Find his blog at usabilitynome.blogspot.com.
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