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Article by Tor Pinney                                                                                                                                        Back to List of Tor's Tips

                  

THE RV PC HACK
©
2004 Tor Pinney - All Rights Reserved

 

Early last spring I sold my business, moved into an RV, and took off traveling. I have been on the road 6 months now, cruising from the U.S. East Coast to Alaska. During this time Iíve managed to access the Internet nearly as often as I like, staying in touch with friends and family via email and maintaining an active web site. I also use an Internet telephone account to make and receive phone calls through my laptop whenever Iím online. For anyone contemplating long-term travel and wanting to stay ďconnected,Ē perhaps some of my own experiences and discoveries of late may prove useful.

Choosing a Computer

Iím addicted to the worldwide web and email communications. I also like to write and take pictures and have come to rely on computers for word and image processing. This fall and winter I plan to store my RV and do some trekking abroad, traveling with just a medium-size pack, and eventually Iíll be moving aboard a cruising sailboat again, returning to a lifestyle I have enjoyed for much of my adult life. For all these reasons, I gave careful consideration to the laptop computer I would bring with me. It had to be especially small, light, powerful and rugged.

At the time Ė this was in December 2003 - my research indicated the laptop best suited to my needs was the Panasonic Toughbook CF-W2 and that is what I bought. After using it full time for the past 7 or 8 months Iíd say it was a good choice. The machine has a lot of excellent features and has performed well. The only downside is the tight keyboard, which took some getting used to

I bought the Toughbook while I was wrapping up my business affairs, before I moved into the RV. This gave me time to install the programs I wanted and transfer personal files from my home-office desktop computer, which I was leaving behind.

Digital Photography

During that time I also hired someone to scan every single print photograph I possessed, a prodigious task that took more than a month since the collection spanned five decades and filled as many boxes. Digitalizing all those photos has enabled me to bring them along on my laptopís ample 40-gig hard drive. Now, while I travel, I am gradually sorting them and enhancing many of them in Paint Shop Pro 8, a program featuring excellent tools for improving digital photos. Taking my time, it may take me years to work through them all, but the fun is in the doing.

Scanning print photographs in such volume is something I wonít have to do again; I switched to a digital camera a couple of years ago. To accompany my new laptop and help me record my upcoming travels, I bought a new camera, an Olympus C-750 UltraZoom, about the same time I bought the Toughbook. It serves my purposes admirably, being compact enough to carry in a belt pouch and powerful enough to produce fine, high-resolution photographs. I particularly appreciate the cameraís 10X optical zoom, which helps me capture distant subjects outdoors.

Internet Connections on the Road

Warning: New computer viruses circulate constantly on the Internet, but a traveling computer is unable to automatically update its anti-virus program to maintain optimum protection. Therefore, every time you log onto the Internet, BEFORE you download email or browse the web or do anything else, be sure to manually update the anti-virus program first. It only takes a minute. If you donít have a manually updateable anti-virus program, youíd better get one. I use Trend PC-cillin, which has worked faultlessly for me for several years now.

Once I hit the road, I discovered a variety of ways and means for getting online. I should mention here that although more and more commercial RV parks are offering Internet connections to their overnight guests these days, I have never once stayed in such a place. I prefer the roads less traveled and the places less visited; free, secluded campsites along National Forest back roads and streams, in the countryside and on empty beaches.

Still, I manage to get online quite often. Of course, when I visit friends with cable or DSL I simply plug in. On the few occasions I have had to use a telephone modem connection, Iíve logged on through NetZero.com, an ISP (Internet service provider) that allows users up to 10 hours a month of free connectivity. You really donít need to pay to have your own ISP, like AOL, when youíre on the road. As you will see, most of the time an RV traveler can more easily log on through someone elseís provider. I have never even come close to using up the 10 free hours a month allowed by NetZero.

Itís also possible to connect through a cell phone, and this may be the best solution for many RV travelers. T-Mobile offers a convenient cell phone with Internet package, their GRPS Service (but watch out for expensive roaming charges). If youíre spending most of your time near large population centers in the US or Canada where cell coverage is available, this is by far the easiest way to keep your RV PC connected to the Internet. Unfortunately, a cell phone connection was not an option for me. I was planning to hang out in the Northwest US National Forests where cells generally donít work, in western Canada where there is no cell phone service at all outside of a few big towns, and in the wilder parts of road-accessible Alaska where coverage is sparse to non-existent.

When I do go into a town I can usually find an Internet connection. In fact, itís the first thing I look for. Sometimes Iíll ask at a visitor center or the local chamber of commerce. Theyíll often know of a couple of places. Sometimes they even have a printed list to hand out. However, when I ask for wi-fi hotspots I almost invariably receive a blank look in reply. Wi-fi (wireless Internet) seems to still be a bit esoteric for the average person on the street.

Public libraries are a good place to look for an Internet connection, although it is rarely wireless. A few Iíve come across are set up to allow a visitor to plug in their own PC, and one on Orcas Island off the northwest coast of Washington actually provided wi-fi in addition to cable connections. That was the exception, however. Iíve found most public libraries are only equipped to let you use their computers to go online, and librarians are often nervous about even letting you try plugging in your own laptop directly to see if itíll work on their system. When they do let you try, either you will be instantly online via their direct cable or DSL connection, or else you will not be able to connect through their intranet at all.

In the latter case the choice is to either use their computer or go elsewhere. I donít like using someone elseís computer to log on. I much prefer to download incoming email into my own laptop to read and file at my leisure, and I usually compose and answer emails when Iím camped out in the woods, to be sent next time I log on. In addition, I often want to upload files from my laptopís hard drive to my web site. I canít easily do these things using someone elseís computer.

Many coffee houses today offer Internet connections, cable or wireless or both. Some of them charge; some donít as long as you buy something while youíre there. These cozy Internet cafťs are a pleasant alternative to sitting alone in my RV, and I use them from time to time.

Lastly, Internet stores are turning up in more and more towns. For $5 or $10 per hour, usually broken down into 15-minute increments, you can use their computers or your own laptop with their high-speed connection. A few charge half-price for having your own machine instead of using one of theirs. These stores are my last resort. If theyíre the only connection in town and I really want to get online, Iíll use them.

Wi-Fi

Of course, the RV PC hackís holy grail is a free wi-fi hotspot, and finding these on the road can become an art and an obsession. A wi-fi hotspot is an area where an Internet connection is available through localized radio waves rather than through a hardwire cable hookup. As long as your computer is set up to receive these signals and youíre within their typically limited broadcast range, you can get online without plugging in.

My laptop came readymade with a built-in wi-fi card and antenna to access wireless signals. Computers without this feature can usually be upgraded with a plug-in wireless PC card and a small external antenna. For the RV vagabond the appearance of the screen message, ďOne or more wireless networks are available,Ē is always welcomed, kind of like finding money on the street.

If youíre already online you can often locate some local hotspots simply by doing a search at web sites that list them, such as www.jiwire.com. However, they often donít list all of them for a given town, and sometimes they donít list any at all where they actually do exist. New wi-fi hotspots are springing up all the time. Anyone with a broadband Internet connection and a hundred dollar Linksys transmitter can create a one.

One tactic I use to find hotspots is to set up my laptop on the passenger seat of my RV and slowly cruise through a town or city, watching for that heartwarming ďOne or more wireless networks are availableĒ message. Not all of the signals are useful, however. The provider of a wi-fi signal can, if he chooses, block access to it so that only those who know the password can log on. These protected signals are obviously intended for the benefit of members or paying customers only and are therefore of no use to me. Itís the free, unblocked wi-fi signals Iím looking for.

When I come across an accessible hotspot, I pull over and see if I can spot the source. Whoever is transmitting a wireless signal gets to name it, and the receiving computer displays that name or ďtag.Ē Sometimes the tag will indicate plainly that itís coming from this office or that cafť. Others bear cryptic names that have no obvious meaning to anyone besides the owner. If I canít guess the signalís source, I might move around a bit in an effort to home in on it, but regardless of whether or not I ever actually locate the signal source, once Iíve got a strong connection Iím in hackerís heaven. I can then sit in the comfort of my motor home with a hot mug of tea on the table and Mozart on the stereo, sending and receiving emails and surfing the web to my heartís content Ė for free! I also make all my phone calls then, which Iíll tell you more about shortly.

Of course, none of this costs the wi-fi provider anything. Iím just getting onto the Internet using their already existing connection.

During these months traveling in my RV I have found wi-fi signals in some interesting and unlikely places. Once I pulled off Interstate 40 at one of those exits where a bunch of motels, gas stations and chain restaurants are clustered together, a commercial oasis in the middle of nowhere. On a lark, I booted up the laptop and bingo! There was a good signal coming from a Best Western motel. (No doubt about it. The tag actually said ďBestWesternĒ). So I parked discretely in a corner of their parking lot and spent a happy hour emailing friends from the Texas prairie while tumbleweed rolled across the road two blocks away.

On another occasion I had parked way out on a beach point near a town on Vancouver Island. I had already searched the small community for a wi-fi hotspot without success, yet when I fired up my laptop to do some writing a strong wi-fi signal magically appeared. I was surrounded by ocean, sand and city park land, yet I sat chatting with friends back East through my laptop as though I was next door. My best guess was that the signal emanated from the high schoolís administration offices on a hill nearly a mile away, but I never really knew (and it never really mattered).

Most recently Iíve been using a wi-fi signal I found on the town docks in beautiful Seward, Alaska, broadcast by one of the tour boat operators there. I park my RV a stoneís throw from their cabin-like ticket office and surf and email and make phone calls while gazing at glacier-clad mountains across the bay where bald eagles fly and bears fish for salmon in the streams.

Internet Telephone

In addition to staying connected with my RV PC via email, I also have an Internet telephone account with Vonage (www.vonage.com). This is one of the relatively new, groundbreaking Internet telephone companies that are, I believe, heralding the end of home and office telephone service as we have known it. Rather than using traditional telephone systems for phone calls, the technology uses the Internet to carry voice communications. This enables the calls to avoid expensive switching fees and a host of petty taxes that drive up ďnormalĒ phone bills every month.

As a result, Internet phone calls are less expensive than ordinary calls. Vonageís Residential Basic 500 plan includes the first 500 minutes of domestic (US and Canada) phone calls for $15 per month plus a little tax. That works out to about 3-cents a minute, with no hidden costs or tricky add-on charges. If you use up the 500 minutes, I believe they then charge 4.9-cents a minute overtime, but I've never yet used up the 500 minutes in a month. International calls are extra, but the rates are just as reasonable.

They have unlimited minutes plans, as well, and all the packages include voice mail and most other popular conveniences. The system works seamlessly with normal telephones, and if you call another Vonage customer the minutes are free, not deducted from your monthly allowance.

Unfortunately, Vonageís standard package and service require a bit of hardware (which they give you), and a hardwire connection to the Internet. Thatís fine in a stationary home or office, which is what it was designed for, but it wonít work in a moving vehicle and it wonít work with a wireless connection.

The good news is that Vonage also offers what they call a SoftPhone package, which does work directly through a laptop computer and a wireless connection, and without the extraneous hardware. The bad news is they would not sell me the SoftPhone package alone. I had to first sign up for the Residential Basic 500 plan, which I cannot use, and then add on the SoftPhone package for an additional $10 plus tax per month. So Iím paying for two 500-minute plans each month, but am only able to use one of them. Hopefully, Vonage or some other Internet phone company will improve upon this policy soon.

Meanwhile, the bottom line is that I am paying $28.73 (including tax) a month to have wireless Internet telephone capability, including voice mail that is accessible both by telephone and online. I can park my RV (or just myself with my laptop) in any hotspot, plug my operator-style headset and microphone into the computer, and chat with friends and family as if I were calling from a landline. Note that with the Vonage system you cannot make or receive phone calls except when your computer is actually online. The voice mail service, however, works all the time. People can leave messages whether youíre online or not, and you can retrieve them anytime via Internet or telephone.

This winter my Internet telephone account will represent an even greater value to me. I plan to be in New Zealand and will have my laptop with me. Vonage treats all my phone calls as originating in the United States no matter where in the world I happen to be logging onto the Internet. When I log on over there, I'll still be able to use my Internet telephone system to call anywhere in the US and Canada for free up to the 500 minutes per month included with the package I have. Iíll pay no overseas charges at all!

Charging the Battery

The Panasonic Toughbook CF-W2 has a decent battery pack. According to the specs it lasts longer than most comparable laptops before it needs to be recharged; that was one of the features that first attracted me to it. Still, I use my computer quite a bit and have to recharge it pretty much everyday, sometimes more than once. Unlike the home or office hack, I canít just plug it into a wall socket overnight. In an RV thatís camped out, i.e., not plugged into an outside source of electrical power, I have to generate my own electricity. I do this either by running the engine so that the alternator is putting out 12v DC power, or by running the RVís built-in generator, which produces 110V AC electricity.

The 12v DC alternator charges both the engineís starter battery and the house battery, a deep-cycle battery that powers the RVís interior lights, the pressure water systemís pump, and some other stuff. To use the house batteryís 12v current for charging the laptopís battery, the 12v DC electricity first has to be converted to 110v AC power. For that purpose I installed a small power inverter in a cabinet above the dinette. The inverter pulls 12v DC electricity from the house battery and changes it to the 110V AC current needed for the laptopís plug-in converter. I wired the inverterís output to a standard wall plug I installed in the dinette area, where I most often use the computer. So, when the laptopís battery needs recharging, I simply plug it into that wall socket and switch on the power inverter. Presto! The laptop is fed the energy it needs. (Actually, the Toughbook requires 16v DC, so there is a final step in which the 110v AC is converted by the laptopís own power cord converter.)

This recharging works out especially well when Iím doing a lot of driving. The engine is running anyway and the alternator is constantly replenishing the power drawn from the house battery. If Iím staying put for a while and not running the RVís engine to recharge the house battery, then I make the 110v AC current I need by firing up the more fuel-efficient generator, which most RV manufacturers build in as a standard feature. The generator feeds electricity directly into the RVís wall sockets and I can plug the laptop into any one of these to recharge it. The generator also powers a small battery charger that will slowly recharge the house battery.

Antennas

Capturing strong wi-fi signals is the key to happy RV PC hacking. A salesman in a computer store back in Oregon sold me a pricey, omni-directional external antenna, claiming it was much more powerful than my laptopís built-in antenna and would enable me to access wi-fi signals from up to a mile away and more. I bought it and the PC card needed to connect it to my laptop. The 4í long, fiberglass-encased antenna did seem to help a little, but it didnít give me anything like the one mile range the salesman promised, and the hassle of erecting it outside the RV each time I wanted to use it was usually more than the slight improvement in reception was worth. In the end I tended to leave the antenna up more often than I should, projecting several feet above the roof of my RV, which already stands 10í above the road. One day while hunting for wi-fi signals in downtown Kamloops, British Columbia, I pulled up to a curb to park, failed to notice an overhanging tree branch, and snap! There went my expensive external antenna. I'd like to try out a directional Super Cantenna (www.cantenna.com), but havenít gotten around to it yet. For the time being I manage to find enough wi-fi signals to carry on just using my laptopís built-in antenna.

~

As computers and the Internet continue to evolve, people are finding new ways of applying these tools to suit the way they live and work. Footloose travelers like me can now stay as connected as they want to be - almost. I foresee the day when satellites will broadcast continuous, omnipresent, broadband wi-fi signals worldwide, so that weíll be able to log onto the Internet while parked in an RV in the deepest forest or sailing a boat in the middle of the ocean. In fact, the beginnings of that technology are already available, but thatís another story altogether.

~ End ~

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