Category Archives: kit

Still looking for the perfect laptop

So this is going well. I’ve only had my new laptop for about six weeks and already I’ve wrecked it. Well, wrecked is maybe a bit strong. But getting out of the car on Friday I dropped my bag (more on the bag another time). Later I discovered I’d chipped off a chunk of the corner of my new Dell Vostro. It means that the plastic supporting the screen is cracked and the casing surrounding one of the speakers in the base is broken. Maybe it will be fine, or maybe it’s the beginning of the end.

The upshot is that having initially been pretty impressed by my Dell Vostro I now seriously doubt that it will be strong enough to survive on the road with me.

I don’t think I’m very fussy but after being a foreign correspondent for seven or so years now I’m getting to know what I need. Basically what I want is a computer built along the following lines:

  • 13-inch screen – small enough to be portable, but not as fiddly as a netbook for those times I need to knock out a swift 1000 word
  • sturdy – I’ll be on the road, bumping around. Sometimes I’ll be typing in the back of a 4×4, so I don’t want the screen bouncing around with every bump of the road
  • simple – I don’t need your fancy graphic cards or masses of Ram. I’ll just be using a browser, a word processing application and a few simple bits and bobs
  • good battery life – for those times when I’m far from power sockets (or when the electricity is off at home)

I’m still no closer to working out what might be the best laptop for my needs. a 13″ screen puts me into the realm of business computers, which ups all the specs.   Anyway,  in the past few years here’s what I’ve been using:

Sony Vaio – can’t quite remember the exact model, but it was the s series and I bought it in 2006. Initially wasn’t sure. But this served me well. Pricey and overspecced. Quite heavy. But although the optical drive packed in after a couple of years it proved sturdy and reliable. Came with loads of irritating Sony software though. Eventually died a couple of years ago after four years loyal service

Lenovo Thinkpad Edge 13 – sturdy build, as you’d expect from this company, and I did without an optical drive to save weight. But the performance was lousy.   Crashed all the time until I uninstalled Google Chrome. But still very slow. Never managed to get it to work with my Thuraya satphone. Maybe because it was running the 64-bit version of Windows 7. If I hadn’t moved to Pakistan I would have taken it back to the shop to get them to sort it out, maybe reinstall Windows and what have you. Its hard drive packed in on way home from Libya last year – so maybe not as sturdy as I’d hoped. Anyway, thieves took it off my hands a couple of months ago. Think I paid about £500 for it.

Dell Vostro v131 – Again it cost me about £500, which I thought was pretty good here in Islamabad. Performance has been excellent. This time it’s running 32-bit Windows 7. I’ve done without Word in favour of OpenOffice and Chrome works wonderfully. The backlit keyboard will be useful when I’m filing in the dark. The fingerprint scanner doesn’t seem to work, but really who cares? The real issue, however, is that its lightness translates into flimsiness. The screen wobbles in the breeze. And a simple spill has broken the casing, which is a shame because so far I like it.

Ultimately, if I knew a bit more about computers I’d have a stab at sorting my own specs and getting someone to build it for me. I’d willingly pay a bit more for a sturdy frame and a small screen, and then compromise on performance and software. I’m sure there must be a way of getting everything I need into a computer for say £350. Any suggestions?

(And Apple fans will note from my requirements that whizz-bang fancy Macs are really not what I’m looking for…)

The Stuff I Forgot

Above is a pic I did a few months ago of the kit I was taking on the road for a particular trip. This time I forgot a load of things:

  • Prescription sunglasses – brilliant because it means that you don’t have to mess around with contact lenses in hot, dry, dusty conditions. This time I’m squinting a lot in my regular specs
  • Contact lenses – I thought I’d be away for a week. Consequently, I only brought one set, which were already close to the end of their life
  • Leatherman – often take it places but then don’t need it. A sharp knife would have been great on this trip. Watermelons are on sale at the side of the road
  • A hat – bought one at Zurich airport (don’t ask how I ended up there), where the only available hats were all Swiss themed. Not ideal, unless you are trying to pose as someone from the Red Cross (I wouldn’t ever do that, and anyway the Swiss flag is the reverse…)

Kindle: Great App for Journos on the Road

Four weeks ago I headed off from my base in Islamabad to Turkey on assignment. In my bag was sufficient reading matter for the week or so I thought I’d be away:

At the end of the week, however, and with all but 70 pages of Moth Smoke read, I was on my way to Libya. My two books on Libya (briefly thumbed) back home in Islamabad.

Now I know this is desperately old hat to almost all of you – and it’s pretty embarrassing that it took me until last night to figure this out – but that’s where my Android tablet came into its own.

One of the curses of shambling around the sort of cities where I’ve plied my trade for the past seven years is that internet speeds are generally low to stationary. Often, it’s a struggle to get any connection at all. Days are spent on the road in areas where smart phones are dumb. Generally, then, I like to have a thick wad of print-outs with all the background I need on whichever country I happen to be visiting. Unless you set fire to them, there’s no danger of data corruption or of being unable to download what you need.

But this time, I hadn’t prepared. Looking up basic facts on Libya meant clunking around on google, waiting for pages to load.

Until, that is, I activated the Kindle app on my tablet. It took about 15 min to download two hefty files (on a bit of a wonky connection) that should now keep me going for Libya facts and figures as well as providing some decent reading matter. I don’t need to worry about finding an internet connection to find the correct spelling of towns, or distances from Sirte and so on. Admittedly, one is little more than the CIA factbook chapter and wikipedia, but actually that’s what I need:

They are on my Xoom, which means I have a good 10 hours of battery life. And I can carry them anywhere I go. So I have all the fact I need at my fingertips. I have to say, I’d always prefer to slip a novel in my bag as reading matter for the road. (And I like to have something to pop on my shelves when I’ve finished.) But as a tool for the travelling journalist, the kindle app and these cheap ebooks crammed with fact, figures and official reports are bloomin useful.

Philby’s Expenses

Toby Harnden’s column for Foreign Policy reminded me just how much I love a good expenses claim story. Some of the best come from history, such as Stanley’s rather extravagant quest (just click through the password dialogue box) to find Livingston.

Another nice one comes from Philby: The Spy who Betrayed a Generation, which suggests that the late nineteenth century excesses of Stanley had given way to pennypinching by newspaper executives during World War Two. Forgivable, I suppose. There was after all a war on. But you can imagine Kim Philby’s irritation when he was putting his life on the line writing for The Times in France during 1940 at accountants constantly querying his claims. After losing all his kit during the chaotic retreat from Amiens, he could barely contain his increasing exasperation as the bean counters demanded a detailed inventory – with prices — of his gear.

“I fear certain misapprehensions exist in London about the conditions of life here…” his letter begins, before going on to list his rather threadbare  accessories:

  • Camelhair overcoat (2 years wear) fifteen guineas
  • Dunhill pipe (2 years old and all the better for it) one pound ten shilling

And so on. In future, I think all my expenses claims shall be sent with a note starting: “I fear certain misapprehensions…” Marvelous.

My Motorola Xoom: Good but needs more apps

I don’t like Apple. They bring out a music player that locks you into its own online music store and its own music format. They bring out a smartphone, but control the software that goes on it. And so too the iPad, where developers have to have their “apps” approved before they go in the store. Maybe I’m just an aging idealist, but for me that goes against the punk ethos of the people who opened up the internet for ordinary users, with a philosophy that recognised how openness and freedom would promote collaboration and innovation.

So when it came to buying a tablet I was always going to opt for something running an Android operating system. OK, I know that Google is just as much an evil, profit-grabbing monolith as Apple. But at least Android is open for developers to make and sell their apps as they please without a bloke in a suit running the rule over them (although this may be changing).

So when the Motorola Xoom, running the Honeycomb version of Android designed for tablets, came out, I was an early customer. Which possibly was a mistake.

I bought it largely so I could read newspapers online. Most of their websites are cumbersome creatures: Thousands of stories offering little guidance on which to read first, and which to ignore. The website of my own paper, The Telegraph, often offers four or five versions of the same story – wire versions, updated wire versions, and one written by a correspodent. What I really want is an editor to take me through the world’s news, page by page, telling me what to read, just like they do in the paper version.

And having watched a colleague in Kabul read The Times on his iPad, it looked as if that is exactly what a newspaper app does.

The only problem is that Android versions seem to be very slow in arriving. I have the FT one, but that looks designed for phones. And an unofficial Guardian one, which also lacks any of the functionality of the tablet. I want to be able to leaf through The Telegraph and The Times on my tablet. But no sign yet, despite assurances that they are coming soon.

However, in many other ways my Xoom has displaced my laptop for much of the rest of my consumption of the web. And it’s down to some very neat apps.

Newsr is a beautifully designed way to keep up with my RSS feeds. To be honest, if I was going to manage the feeds, I’d probably switch back to my desktop computer. But to sit and read my Google Reader feeds, and maybe tweet the odd link, this is a simple and intuitive way to do it

Tweetcomb, by the same developer, is a very neat twitter client and streets ahead of the other ones which still seem to be for phone-sized screens

Pulse shows the power of the platform although is a bit too US-centric for my needs. It gathers feeds from a variety of news sites – from Fox News to The New Yorker – into a single app

The YouTube app also demonstrates just what a great platform the Xoom provides. But, there are still too few apps, compared with the thousands for the iPad. Most are still designed for smartphones, and have yet to be optimised for the tablet. And there’s another major catch here in Pakistan – I can only get the free apps, the paid-for ones are blocked, presumably because of the country’s non-existent copyright controls.

I have no idea about the hardware inside the thing, but as a whole the Xoom is fast enough and seems rugged enough to cope with the demands of my bumpy life. The iPad may have a better battery life, but as long as the Xoom lasts me four or five days at a charge – then who cares about the odd hour here or there?

Overall the Xoom has showed it has got what I need. I’ll always need something with a keyboard for writing. But a tablet is now so much more convenient in so many ways for reading and consuming the web that I will just have to wait for the developers to catch up and provide the apps.

What’s In My Kit Bag, 2011 edition

Back on the road as my Arab spring turns to summer. So here’s what I’ve brought with me:

  1. Timbuk2 laptop bag: tough, hard-wearing and looks pretty cool. Didn’t fancy the flourescent courier-style bag, so I got this classic canvas one instead. After more than three years though it’s showing its age and the external pockets are falling apart (they are dodgy anyway – had a Thuraya pinched from one in Sudan)
  2. NorthFace duffel bag: also showing its age. Problem is that it’s too big, so tendency to overpack. But easy to spot on luggage carousel
  3. Three mobile phones: My BlackBerry tends to pack up after three days of roaming because of useless Pakistani mobile network. So I have a UK pay as you go (expensive, but at least I can keep topping up), and a spare for a local sim card
  4. Noise cancelling earphones: means you don’t have to turn your iPod up to 10 on flights. Easy to lose though. My third set in three months
  5. iPod classic: I’m clearly behind the times as I can’t buy a case for it. IPod Touch, no problem, but nothing for this model. Ideal for Safari Soundtracks and keeping up to date with The Archers
  6. Flip camera: bought in a multimedia frenzy, but so far rarely used in anger
  7. Palm Tx: used Palm for about 10 years. These days I suppose everyone keeps all their contacts on their phone. It’s one more thing to carry, but I find its diary and address book to be easy to use – and vital
  8. Torch: have headtorch somewhere too
  9. Sony tape recorder: uses tapes and batteries. Ideal for the Third World. Noodlepie no doubt has a fusion-powered iPad app for recording interviews. But what happens if the hard drive breaks down in the middle of The Congo, eh?
  10. Thuraya: sat phone essential for comms in many places. These newer handsets are rubbish though. Battery life terrible and lots of complicated menus. It also won’t work with my Laptop (windows 7, 64 bit) so I can’t use it for email or browsing
  11. Foxes Glacier Fruits: to suck on long road trips. These have wrappers so they don’t melt into one fruity lump, making them an innovation Werthers Originals also a good option as you can find them in dusty Darfuri grocery stores
  12. Lenovo ThinkPad Edge: at 13 inches it’s a nice size to carry, but big enough to type fast. Everything else about it is rubbish though. Bought it because of its reputation for sturdy build. But the screen has developed a fault, I’m on to my second hard drive and it’s incompatible with lots of hardware – and apparently software. (Apple fans bugger off – before you get started – and get back to buying things you don’t need)
  13. Hat: for my head
  14. Lonely Planet: you’re never too cool for a guidebook. Potted histories are also more useful than any foreign correspondent will ever admit
  15. Canon PowerShot A620: tend to find that Canon cameras take the best pictures. I’d rather buy one from a camera manufacturer than a general electronics company
  16. Binoculars: essential for those, erm, celebrity stories
  17. First aid kit: The Telegraph’s standard issue kit has some frankly frightening things in it. And also a torch that clips behind your ear. Cool
  18. Leatherman: for opening beer bottles and removing stones from horses hooves etc

Next week I’ll tell you what I’ve forgotten