Travels with an iPad Donkey

For the month of October 2010, I traveled through the outer reaches of China - places like Urumchi, Kashgar, and Xi'an, where the degree of support was unknown in advance. To minimize weight, I left my MacBook Pro at home and brought only an iPad (the one with no 3G, just WiFi and 64G of memory) an iPhone 3GS, an Apple Bluetooth keyboard which works with both devices (if the iPhone has the newer iPhone software), and a lot (but not enough) of preparation. The new MacBook Air had not been announced when I left or this would be a very different blog.

Executive Summary: All those articles about the iPad’s usefulness for “consumers” of media become extremely relevant the moment you realize that you’re primarily a “producer,” and you’re stuck with only an iPad (well, and pencils and pens and paper too). The iPad is not a computer, it's a bunch of specific endpoint applications all glued side-by-side, as rigid and inflexible as a stack of popsicle sticks. Where a real computer can bridge applications, move files, change formats, and provide knobs to wiggle, the iPad can do little of this, and all its functions and applications are subjected to restrictions as rigorous as anything I saw in China. I also realized that the iPad can't provide much privacy for working in public places like airlines and trains, as touchscreens aren't compatible with those 3M privacy shields (the ones that work like micro-Venetian blinds).

With a forgiving assistant at the other end of your communications, you may be able to get a lot of your stuff done, but look very very seriously at the new crop of lightweight laptops (like the new MacBook Air) before following Rodman's China iPad folly.

Here's a tabulation of all the things I needed to get done, and the things I had available to do them. You can also skip to the bottom, where some of the main learnings are congealed.

> Tasks:
Company email
Photo stuff:
Sorting and filing
Personal email
Listening to stuff in the plane and car
Listening to stuff in the shower
Watching movies, TV shows in the hotel room
Watching movies, TV shows in car, plane
Reading books to myself
Reading to the Lady
Leadsheets, lyrics, etc.
Charging everything
AC distribution

Me (all the above)
The Lady (movies, TV shows, listening to radio shows, recordings)

On the lap anywhere
In a hotel room

Seat on a train
Plane seat (they've been promising power for years)
Another country
Desk or kitchen table at home
Office at work

iPhone 3GS
iPhone 1
iPod Shuffle
The lady's cellphone (extremely basic)
USB Charger (the Apple sugar cube)
USB Charger (1A)
USB Charger (2A)
The lady's cellphone charger
USB-IPhone cable x 3
1800 mAh battery w/mini-USB input
USB-to-mini-USB cable
6400 mAh battery w/special 3mm input
USB-to-special cable, hacked from provided adapter
20 foot extension cord, hand-built of AWG20 speaker wire
1-foot mini-extension cord w/3-way outlet
Portable stereo speaker w/mini-USB power input, 3.5mm audio input
3.5mm - to - 3.5mm stereo audio cable
Lady's Camera
Lady's spare battery
Lady's camera battery charger
Lady's spare 8GB memory card
JR's Camera
JR's spare battery
JR's spare 16 GB memory card
JR's camera battery charger

Needed Assets:
AC Power
Network connection
Suitable display
Suitable keyboard
Software tools
Special hardware

GOOD (company-supported email client
iPad apps including Photos, Videos, Safari, iPod

  • Launch and try every intended application at home. Some require initial synchronization via web, while some greedy lowlife vendors require web-based registration and if you don't have web access when this turns up, you'll discover a new fountain of verbal creativity you never knew you had (although it turns out that almost any word in the English language can be reasonably paired with either "f***," "f***er," or "f***ing"). You may also have web access, but be unable to connect anyway. I found this frequently in China; I was blocked from some common websites (the Jim Lehrer news on NPR, for one, and my Apple Store account was disabled from about the first week until the moment I departed) and it's handy to know where the problem is technical and where it's political.

  • If you're going to use the iPad to entertain a partner who's accustomed to home TV, be sure to pre-load it with lots of the stuff she knows. This was one thing I did right, and I just paid the money for the episodes rather than try to tape them off the air (which would have been legal use too). Yes, I was effectively paying twice for them, but a reliable collection of fifteen or twenty episodes of Law and Order, Monk, Lark Rise to Candleford, was worth a lot more than two bucks an episode - consider it relative to the total cost of the trip.

  • While it was fun to think about roughing it in Urumchi before we left, while I was steaming happily in a hot shower in San Francisco, the reality is that a standard-issue Urumchi hotel room goes down a lot easier at that sleepless 10PM when lubricated with a bit of Law and Order on the old iPad.

  • Bring a portable speaker for the iPad. The internal speakers deliver sound in the same way that a Twinkie delivers nutrition: in trace amounts.

  • As mentioned, my Apple account began rejecting all payment forms when I'd been in China for a week, so that any other tools I might of tried to make ithe iPad more capable became unavailable. This is yet to be resolved; whether Chinese government, or Apple governance, was gaming me, is yet to be determined. All I know is the card itself is good, or I'd still be gazing at my unpaid bill from the basement of the Turpan Tu Ha Petroleum Hotel.

  • See the other blogs from this trip. There are some fairly useful, specific tricks that may help your own adventures the next time you go voyaging among the yakherders.

A Breath of Fresh "Air"

Apple has seriously amazed me three times over the years.

The first time was in 1983, when I sat down at our friends’ new Macintosh computer. He showed me how to put in the floppy disk, and everything from there was like a dream. nothing like CP/M, UNIX, or DOS.

The second was when I held my first iPhone 1 in my hand and watched a movie on its screen. A real movie, color, full motion. And great sound in the headset. Well, that is still a bit amazing to me, I have to admit. And I do this stuff for a living.

The third amazement is the new MacBook Air (November 2010). I bought it, knowing that I was going to have to make some serious compromises in replacing my three-year-old MacBook Pro 15”. But then the serious compromises didn’t happen.

  • Battery life: I travel with two spare batteries for the MB Pro, getting about three hours each, because I take some fairly long flights. But the Air gives about six hours - almost twice the life, and no spare required. Wow.

  • Disk size. I scaled down from 500GB to the 256GB drive, but that just meant putting a quarter terabyte of instrument samples onto a portable drive. I rarely use them anyway, I’m just greedy, It hasn’t been a problem.

  • New product weirdness. Maybe some people have had problems with this new design, but it’s treated me fine.

  • Speed. I moved from a dual-core 2.4G chip to the dual-core 2.16GB. Figured it would seem a tiny bit slower, but I probably wouldn’t notice. The big surprise is that the solid-state drive is a rocket ship! It makes processor speed irrelevant; I never realized how much processor speed is swamped by disk performance. Reboot time is twenty seconds (if you’ve ever had to reboot your machine while making a presentation, you know how quickly the payback is for quick recovery). Launching Excel, or Word, or other apps, happens four times faster - so fast that I routinely close them now, which lowers clutter.

  • Weight. I figured the photo of the guy cantilevering an Air on two fingers was Photoshopped. Nope. i can do it myself.

  • Thickness. Feels like the size of those aluminum cases they make for paper pads. I’ve changed traveling cases from a small roller case to a lightweight backpack, and that’s with all the accessories I lug around.

  • Heat. The old laptop gets toasty pretty fast, I use a book, or a pillow if I’m laptopping it. The Air starts cold, moving up to tepid after a half hour or so. I’ve not gotten it to “wow that’s warm” yet

  • SD socket. It’s built in, which is good because I use SD cards for camera downloads, I was using an after-market drive, permanently plugged in the MBPro’s side slot anyway.

  • Turn-on and off. Sleep is instant, It took a couple of weeks to get out of the habit of watching the light to be sure the disk was spun down, but I think I’m over that now. Snap shut and go.

  • Smaller screen means it’s easier to use on the airliner. There’s more room for the coffee next to it.

  • It supports dual-screen mode so I can run “presenter” mode in PowerPoint while playing audio demos of HD Voice and projecting high definition slides. And it doesn’t seem to have the MBPro’s bug, of forgetting where the monitors are unless I plug and unplug cables with careful orchestration

I have had to adapt to a few differences, but that’s gone easily.

  • The display port is different. Needed two adapter cables, one each for VGA and DVI.
  • There’s no optical drive. But I have one at home, and rarely use that.
  • Theres no firewire port. So I got a portable drive with USB.
  • The screen’s 13” instead of 15” I use the Apple zoom-up a little more, but it doesn’t seem to slow things down.
  • No Internet jack. I purchased their USB-Internet adapter dongle. And: WARNING! If you’re planning to migrate from another computer, or transfer any volume of data at all, GET IT AND USE IT! Transferring GB’s at WiFi speeds will age you. I see this omission as the only really serious mistake Apple made.

It’s true that I can’t swap in a new battery when this one runs down. I may get an after-market one. But I’ve been working for almost five hours right now (returning from DC to SFO), the battery meter says 20% remaining, and I just realized that I’ve had VLC, the movie player, on “pause” the whole time and it’s pulling 10% of compute.

Incidentally if I were to do this again, I’d stick with the standard processor speed. After that month with the iPad in China, I was willing to pay the extra $100 because this is the one they had in stock at the Apple store but I don’t really think I’m noticing a difference. The solid disk drive is what is driving the speed.

So, yup. The new MacBook Air gets my third “Amazement” sticker. Spectacular job, Apple!

iPhone plus Bluetooth keyboard

One of the handiest tools on my month-long China trip, as well as a real attention-getter, was an Apple Bluetooth keyboard.

iPhone software from version 4.0 onward works with these things, as I remarked in an earlier blog. It’s really something.

Registration is the regular Bluetooth process. The only real trick is that if you have two devices, like iPhone and iPad, you have to be sure that you’re linked to the right one or you’ll get frustrated.

One other trick: you turn the keyboard off by holding down the power button (the one that’s on the side, opposite the battery cover) for six seconds. If you want to be sure, first press the “CAPS LOCK” so the green light goes on; when the keyboard powers down, the green light will tell you. I think Apple missed a stitch here, but this works.

To carry the keyboard, I wanted something very lightweight, stiff, and slender. A simple construction of corrugated plastic (the stuff was laying around from somewhere, it’s like corrugated cardboard from a box, except it’s a white plastic), and a hot glue gun.

Durable, cheap, lightweight, and doesn’t add much thickness to that wafer-like keyboard either.

HD Carryonnery

High-Performance Carry-onnery in the TSA Age

As you ladle more gadgets into an airline carry-on, it gets harder for the X-Ray to see, so it's more likely you'll have to let them spill it out and paw through it. It also settles to the bottom in there, producing a dark and increasingly dense gumball of undifferentiated technology. TSA aside, I found myself rooting around my backpack longer and longer, cables breaking and covers coming off, and also found that, being fat at the bottom and empty at the top, I wasn't able to maximize the amount of stuff for storage, either overhead or under the seat.

After a few false starts, I came up with a pretty simple solution: cut a piece of stiff board to fit the backpack, attach a generic grid of Velcro to it, and then attach strips of the mating Velcro to the things I want to keep in there.

My bag has three pockets of different sizes; reserving one for the laptop itself, there are two sorting cards for all the remaining bits and pieces (there's everything in these pictures from a micro-shaver to batteries, harmonica, and even that red DMM). It's extremely easy to slip one or both out pre-TSA, which saves time and questions through the whole process, and also makes it easy to get to whatever bit you want to grab at the moment.

Incidentally, in case some would-be troll wishes to grab and patent something about this approach, I declare it open source and unprotected. Use it as you will. The best defense will be in executing it well, which I hope someone does; choosing good adhesives and good materials turned out to be a surprisingly tricky challenge (mostly
solved, but room for improvement).

Need WiFi? Only got wired?

Of course we have internet. See? There’s the jack!

Almost all “internet” hotels that I visited in western China had only wired internet. Wireless was an unheard-of concept. This is not a problem with a laptop computer, but I was traveling with only an iPad and iPhone, and this could have presented a serious problem.

There is a backup plan, however. One can travel with a compact access point, such as an Apple Airport Express. The key is to pre-configure it while still at home: using a computer, set the password, establish its connection, and check that it connects seamlessly with whatever other devices you’re going to need. Then, once you’re on the road, you can plug it into hotel power, cable it to the room internet, and you’ve established a small but secure bubble of wireless internet connectivity. Since it runs from 110/220, no adapter is needed assuming the pins fit (which they usually do: most Chinese jacks I encountered seemed to accommodate both styles of plug, as you can see fm the photo)

An Apple Airport Express with the fold-in power pins is shown here, as I find it really convenient and sturdy for travel. The airline bottle for is only for a size reference (note that it’s still full, demonstrating strong moral fiber).

An Organ's Transformation

Click Here: An Organ’s Transformation