More thinking on travelling without a laptop

When it comes to the technology that I carry with me on trips away, I have begun to start weighing devices on my kitchen scales. The results are a little revealing. The HP Pavilion dm5 that has gone with me to Ireland and other places weighs between 2.5 and 3 kg while my Apple iPad Mini 2 comes in at 764 grams. My 12.9″ iPad Pro with its Logitech keyboard weighs between these at 110 to 1200 grams. The idea of consolidating computing devices for travel has been discussed on here before now and the main thing stopping my just going with the iPad Pro was the viewing of photos without filling up its 32 GB of storage space.

Since then, I just may have found a workaround and it is another gadget, this time weighing only a few hundred grams: a 1 TB WD My Passport Wireless portable hard drive. Aside from having a SD card slot that allows the automatic backup of photos, it also can connect with tablets and phones using WiFi broadband.

WD My Passport Wireless

It is the WD My Cloud app that makes the connections to mobile devices useful and it works smoothly on iOS and Android devices too. Nevertheless, there is more functionality on the latter ones such as DNG file support and an added slide show feature that works with JPEG files. Both of these are invaluable for viewing photos and I feel a little short-changed that they are not available on iOS. Hopefully, that will get resolved sooner rather than later.

Thankfully, my Pentax K5 II DSLR camera can be persuaded to save DNG and JPEG files simultaneously so that they can be viewed full screen on both types of devices without having to transfer them onto the tablet first as you would with Apple’s SD card reader. Usefully, that gets around my oversight in buying iPads with only 32 GB of storage each. That now looks like a false economy given what I am trying now.

Such is the weight difference, just taking along my Apple iPad Pro and the WD device will save around 1 kg and there is less fuss at airport security screening too. While my HTC phone would suffice for seeing photos as slide shows, I am wondering if my battered Google Nexus 9 could come too. The only dilemma then would be how to pack things since I am not sure how a large iPad screen would seem to cabin crew or other passengers during take off and landing. That makes using the Nexus 9 onboard more of a proposition and the iPad might go into the hold luggage to make life a little easier. Still, that choice is a minor concern now that I can try travelling overseas without a laptop to see how I get along.

Pondering travel device consolidation using an Apple iPad Pro 12.9″

It was a change of job in 2010 that got me interested in using devices with internet connectivity on the go. Until then, the attraction of smartphones had not been strong but I got myself a Blackberry on a pay as you go contract but the entry device was painfully slow and the connectivity was 2G. It was a very sluggish start.

It was supplemented by an Asus eeePC that I connected to the internet using broadband dongles and a WiFi hub. This cumbersome arrangement did not work well on short journeys and the variability of mobile network reception even meant that longer journeys were not all that successful either. Usage in hotels and guesthouses though went better and that has meant that the miniature laptop came with me on many a journey.

In time, I moved away from broadband dongles to using smartphones as WiFi hubs and that largely is how I work with laptops and tablets away from home unless there is hotel WiFi available. Even trips overseas have seen me operate in much the same manner.

One feature is that we seem to carry quite a number of different gadgets with us at a time and that can cause inconvenience when going through airport security since they want to screen each device separately. When you are carrying a laptop, a tablet, a phone and a camera, it does take time to organise yourself and you can meet impatient staff as I found recently when returning from Oslo. Checking in whatever you can as hold luggage helps to get around at least some of the nuisance and it might be time for the use of better machinery to cut down on having to screen everything separately.

When you come away after an embarrassing episode as I once did, the attractions of consolidating devices start to become plain. In fact, most probably could get with having just their phone. It is when you take activities like photography more seriously that the gadget count increases. After all, the main reason a laptop comes on trips beyond Britain and Ireland at all is to back up photos from my camera in case an SD card fails.

Apple iPad Pro 12.9″

Parking that thought for a while, let’s go back to March this year when temptation overcame what should have been a period of personal restraint. The result was that a 32 GB 12.9″ Apple iPad Pro came into my possession along with an Apple Pencil and a Logitech CREATE Backlit Keyboard Case. It should have done so but the size of the screen did not strike me until I got it home from the Apple store and that was one of the main attractions because maps can be shown with a greater field of view in a variety of apps, a big selling point for a hiker with a liking for maps who wants more than anything from Apple, Google or even Bing. The precision of the Pencil is another boon that makes surfing the website so much easier and the solid connection between the case and the iPad means that keyboard usage is less fiddly than it would if it used Bluetooth. Having tried them with the BBC iPlayer app, I can confirm that the sound from the speakers is better than any other mobile device that I have used.

Already, it has come with me on trips around England and Scotland. These weekend trips saw me leave the Asus eeePC stay at home when it normally might have come with me and taking just a single device along with a camera or two had its uses too. The screen is large for reading on a train but I find that it works just as well so long as you have enough space. Otherwise, combining use of a suite of apps with recourse to the web does much of the information seeking needed while on a trip away and I was not found wanting. Battery life is good too, which helps.

Those trips allowed for a little light hotel room blog post editing too and the iPad Pro did what was needed though the ergonomics of reaching for the screen with the Pencil meant that meant that my arm was held aloft more than was ideal. Another thing that raised questions in my mind is the appearance of word suggestions at the bottom of the screen as if this were a mobile phone since I wondered if these were more of a hindrance than a help given that I just fancied typing and not pointing at the screen to complete words. Copying and pasting works too but I have found the screen-based version a little clunky so I must see if the keyboard one works just as well though the keyboard set up is typical of a Mac so that affects word selection. You need to use the OPTION key in the keyboard shortcut that you use for this and not COMMAND or CONTROL as you might do on a PC.

Transcend JetDrive Go 300

Even with these eccentricities, I was left wondering if it had any utility when it came to backing up photos from digital cameras and there is an SD card adapter that makes this possible. A failure of foresight on my part meant that the 32 GB capacity now is an obvious limitation but I think I might have hit on a possible solution that does not need upload to an iCloud account. It involves clearing off the photos onto a 128 GB Transcend JetDrive Go 300 so they do not clog up the iPad Pro’s storage. That the device has both Lightning and USB connectivity means that you can plug it into a laptop or desktop PC afterwards too. If that were to work as I would hope, then the laptop/tablet combination that I have been using for all overseas trips could be replaced  to allow a weight reduction as well as cutting the hassle at airport security.

Trips to Ireland still may see my sticking with a tried and tested combination though because I often have needed to do some printing while over there. While I have been able to print a test document from an iPad Mini on my home network-connected printer, not every model supports this and that for NFC or AirPrint is not universal either. If this were not an obstacle, apps like Pages, Numbers and Keynote could have their uses for business-related work and there are web-based offerings from Google, Microsoft and others too.

In conclusion, I have found the my iPad Pro does so much of what I need on a trip away that retiring the laptop/tablet combination for most of these is not as outrageous as it once would have seemed. In some ways, iOS has a way to go yet before it could take over from MacOS but it remains in development so it will be interesting see what happens next. All the while, hybrid devices running Windows 10 are becoming more pervasive and that might provide Apple with the encouragement that it needs.

Forcing an upgrade to Windows 10 Anniversary Update

There remain people who advise those on Windows 7 or 8.x to hold fire on upgrading to Windows 10. Now that the free upgrade no longer is available, that advice may hold more weight than it did. Even so, there are those among us who jumped ship who do not mind having the latest versions of things at no monetary cost to see what is available and I must admit to being one of those.

After all, I do have a virtual machine with a pre-release version of the next update to Windows 10 installed on there to see what might be coming our way and to get a sense of what changes that may bring so that I am ready for those. Otherwise, I usually am happy to wait but I noticed that the Windows 10 Anniversary Update only came to my HP Pavilion dm4 laptop and not other machines with Windows 10 installed so I started to wonder why there was a lag when it came to automatic upgrades.

So that these things do not arrive when it is least convenient, I took advantage of a manual method in order to choose my timing. This did not involve installation from a disk image but was in-situ. The first part of the process is standard enough in that the Settings app was started and the Update & security item chosen. That dropped me onto the Windows Update and I first clicked on the Check for updates button to see what would happen. When nothing came of that, the Learn more link was clicked to bring me onto part of the Microsoft support website where I found that the Windows 10 Anniversary Update installer could be downloaded so I duly did just that.

Running it produced a screen asking whether or not I wanted to proceed. Since I wanted to go ahead, the appropriate button was clicked and the machine left alone until the process complete. Because the installer purely is a facilitator, the first stage is to download the rest of the files needed and that will take a while on any connection. Once downloading was completed, the actual process of installation commenced with several restarts before a log-in screen was again on offer. On logging in to the machine, the last part of the process started.

The process took quite a while but seemingly worked without a hitch. If there was anything that I needed to do, it was the re-installation of VirtualBox Guest Additions to restore access to shared folders as well as dealing with a self-inflicted irritation. Otherwise, I have found that previously installed software worked as expected and no file has been missed. Waiting a while may have had its advantages too because initial issues with the Anniversary Update will have been addressed but it is best not to leave it too long or you could have the feeling of being forgotten. A happy balance needs striking.

Sorting a stalled Windows Update service

Following a recent family death, I have ended up with the laptop belonging to the deceased and, since it has been offline most of its life, I set to getting it updated. The McAfee security suite was straightforward enough but trying Windows Update produced errors suggesting that it was not working that a system restart was needed. Doing that did nothing so a little further investigation was needed.

The solution turned out to be stopping the Windows Update service and clearing a certain folder before starting it again. To stop the service, I typed in services.msc into the search box on the Start Menu and clicked on the Services entry that appeared. Then I sought out the Windows Update entry, selected it and clicked on the Stop link on the left hand side. After that, I used Windows Explorer to navigate C:\Windows\SoftwareDistribution and deleted everything in there. The, I went back to the Services window and started Windows Update again. That sorted the problem and the system began to be updated as needed.

All of this was on Windows 7, hence the mention of the Start Menu, and the machine is Toshiba Satellite C660 from 2011 with an AMD E-300 APU, 4 GB of RAM and a 320 GB hard drive. Those specs may not be the most impressive but it feels spritely enough and is far better than the lethargic Toshiba Equium A200-1VO that I acquired in 2008 though the HP Pavilion dm4 that I bought in November 2011 probably will travel more often than either of these, if truth be told. After all, it now has 8 GB of RAM and a 1 TB Samsung SSHD along with its Core i3 CPU so it should last a while yet.

Piggybacking an Android Wi-Fi device off your Windows PC’s internet connection

One of the disadvantages of my Google/Asus Nexus 7 is that it needs a Wi-Fi connection to use. Most of the time this is not a problem since I also have a Huawei mobile WiFi hub from T-Mobile and this seems to work just about anywhere in the U.K. Away from the U.K. though, it won’t work because roaming is not switched on for it and that may be no bad thing with the fees that could introduce. My HTC Desire S could deputise but I need to watch costs with that too.

There’s also the factor of download caps and those apply both to the Huawei and to the HTC. Recently, I added Anquet‘s Outdoor Map Navigator (OMN) to my Nexus 7 through the Google Play store for a fee of £7 and that allows access to any walking maps that I have bought from Anquet. However, those are large downloads so the caps start to come into play. Frugality would help but I began to look at other possibilities that make use of a laptop’s Wi-Fi functionality.

Looking on the web, I found two options for this that work on Windows 7 (8 should be OK too): Connectify Hotspot and Virtual Router Manager. The first of these is commercial software but there is a Lite edition for those wanting to try it out; that it is not a time limited demo is not something that I can confirm though that did not seem to be the case since it looked as if only features were missing from it that you’d get if you paid for the Pro variant. The second option is an open source one and is free of charge apart from an invitation to donate to the project.

Though online tutorials show the usage of either of these to be straightforward, my experiences were not all that positive at the outset. In fact, there was something that I needed to do and that is why this post has come to exist at all. That happened even after the restart that Conectify Hotspot needed as part of its installation; it runs as a system service so that’s why the restart was needed. In fact, it was Virtual Router Manager that told me what the issue was and it needed no reboot. Neither did it cause network disconnection of a laptop like the Connectify offering did on me and that was the cause of its ejection from that system; limitations in favour of its paid addition aside, it may have the snazzier interface but I’ll take effective simplicity any day.

Using Virtual Router Manager turns out to be simple enough. It needs a network name (also known as an SSID), a password to restrict who accesses the network and the internet connection to be shared. In my case, the was Local Area Connection on the drop down list. With all the required information entered,  I was ready to start the router using the Start Network Router button. The text on this changes to Stop Network Router when the hub is operational or at least it should have done for me on the first time that I ran it. What I got instead was the following message:

The group or resource is not in the correct state to perform the requested operation.

The above may not say all that much but it becomes more than ample information if you enter it into the likes of Google. Behind the scenes, Virtual Router Manager is using native Windows functionality is create a WiFi hub from a PC and it appears to be the Microsoft Virtual Wi-Fi Miniport Adapter from what I have seen. When I tried setting up an adhoc Wi-Fi network from a laptop to the Nexus 7 using Windows’ own network set up capability via its Control Panel, it didn’t do what I needed so there might be something that third party software can do. So, the interesting thing about the solution to my Virtual Router Manager problem was that it needed me to delve into the innards of Windows a little.

Firstly, there’s running Command Prompt (All Programs > Accessories) from the Start Menu with Administrator privileges. It helps here if the account with which you log into Windows is in the Administrators group since all you have  to do then is right click on the Start Menu entry and choose Run as administrator entry in the pop-up context menu. With a command line window now open, you then need to issue the following command:

netsh wlan set hostednetwork mode=allow ssid=[network name] key=[password] keyUsage=persistent

When that had done its thing, Virtual Router Manager worked without a hitch though it did turn itself after a while and that may be no bad thing from the security standpoint. On the Android side, it was a matter of going in Settings > Wi-Fi and choose the new network that have been creating on the laptop. This sort of thing may apply to other types of tablet (Dare I mention iPads?) so you could connect anything to the hub without needing to do any more on the Windows side.

For those wanting to know what’s going on behind the scenes on Windows, there’s a useful tutorial on Instructables that shows what third party software is saving you from having to do. Even if I never go down the more DIY route, I probably have saved myself having to buy a mobile Wi-Fi hub for any trips to Éire. For now, the Irish 3G dongle that I already have should be enough.