Laptops

How did our tech equipment fare in Nepal?

Now that almostEverest is over, it's time to evaluate the results. In this article, David and Mike rate the equipment and software (both sponsored and unsponsored) they took with them to the Himalayas. If it worked for them, it will surely work for you.

The almostEverest trek is over. Now that we're back, we've had some time to evaluate the equipment we took with us to Nepal. Here's a mini review for each item of equipment we carried (or had the porters and yaks carry) up and down the trails of the Khumbu. Longer reviews will follow. If it worked on the trails, up where the air was thin, and cold, and dusty, there's an excellent chance it will work for you closer to sea level.

Sponsored tech equipment
Compaq Armada E500 laptop
While not technically a rugged laptop, you won't hear us complain. We hauled it up to 17,000 feet, and it worked perfectly. Three weeks of dust, moisture, increasing altitude, lowering pressure, banging, dropping, swaying with the yak loads, and now it sits in Mike’s office, purring away. Powered by a 500-MHz Pentium III processor, the only problem with this laptop was its insatiable appetite for battery power. However, Compaq's power conservation lets you slow the processor to a "crawl" (250 MHz), and offers other settings to conserve power. All we can say is that while the Pumori 2000 expedition had lost two of three laptops to hard drive problems by the time I met them on the trail, our Armada was as predictable as the afternoon snowstorms.

Compaq Armada V300
This laptop was our spare. We never opened it or turned it on, so we can't evaluate it. Powered by a Celeron 300 processor, it may have been less of a power hog. Oddly, it stayed in a padded case for 25 days, and when we finally took a look at it back in the office, we discovered that the computer's case, as well as the screen, was cracked. Maybe a yak stepped on it? Good thing we didn't need it.

Inmarsat Mini-M satellite phone, provided by MVS
Wow! What a reliable and rugged phone. It always found the satellite, and its electrics were superb. It ran on a wide variety of fluctuating electric current: the U.S.A.'s reliable 115-volt, Nepal's highly variable 220-volt, its own internal batteries that lasted way beyond our expectations, and our gel cel backups. Once it even ran off of a wall socket in a teahouse in Lukla where the teahouse was powered by its own small, fickle, hydroelectric generator. As the river current varied, the lights dimmed or brightened, but the satellite phone didn't seem to mind. It was truly a great piece of equipment. A newer phone, called the M4, has a 64-Kbps data rate compared to our puny 2400 baud. Everest 2000 has an M4 and plans to take it to the summit to send some live video back. The M4 weighs 10 pounds compared to the Mini-M's 2.4 pounds, and I wouldn't want to be the one lugging that sucker up to where there isn't enough air to light a match. But if you're looking for the highest of high tech, see how their phone works.

Palm Portable Keyboard by Think Outside
Wowie! Top honors go to Think Outside, creators of the beautifully designed and rugged Palm Portable Keyboard. This folding keyboard (which Mike reviewed previously), and the addition of a DOC editor, turns your Palm into a fully functional text editor. It's one of the best enhancements, if not the best, on the market today. We were able to type articles anywhere—say in the dining tent at Gorak Shep at 30 degrees Fahrenheit—transfer them to the computer, and beam in via satellite phone thanks to this great device. Alpine dust, cold temperatures, and high altitude (17,000 feet) didn't bother it nearly as much as they bothered us.

Precision Navigation Palm Navigator
The Precision Navigation Palm Navigator is a sensing device that snaps onto your Palm handheld, turning it into a magnetic compass. It's quite a novelty, though we're not sure how useful it is. After all, why use a battery-powered compass when any store-bought one will do? And to perform any map-to-landscape work, you're aided by a mechanical compass' see-through case and ruler. We did use it occasionally to help line up the satellite phone antenna to the satellite. However, bearings differed by several degrees from that of the Sylva compass Mike took along. (This will need more research.) An accompanying program includes a map mode, which overlays your current compass direction over any map you download from the Internet. This isn't a GPS that shows a moving target, but rather a flat map where the direction is indicated.

Precision Navigation Weatherguide
The Weatherguide promises more practical use than the Navigator. This snap-on device contains a pressure and temperature sensor. The software shows trends, and after 24 hours, predicts the weather. Forecasts turned out to be surprisingly accurate. The Weatherguide once predicted storms while we were standing in sunshine at a forlorn town called Loboche. Sure enough, clouds soon crested nearby mountains, and the nasty weather rolled in. This could really be a valuable tool for hikers and campers if the program didn't have some annoying flaws. For example, the temperature display once malfunctioned, showing –64 degrees Fahrenheit instead of 64 degrees Fahrenheit. (We knew it wasn't that cold, as we were still alive.) Resetting required removing and reinserting the batteries in the unit, which brings us to the biggest flaw. If, for any reason, you have to remove the batteries (such as when they run out of power), the Weatherguide won't give forecasts for 24 hours—a real bummer if you're in the middle of a camping trip. Surely there's a way to code the software to "remember" the last set of forecasts and bring the sensor back up to date. Get on it, guys! With this flaw, using the device isn't very practical.

TRGpro version of the Palm III handheld
Another wowie! We chose the TRGpro because of its CompactFlash card attachment and its 8 MB of memory. Mike was nervous about taking it along to Nepal, as TRGpro had to send three units before he received one in perfect working order. But this third one never quit. It worked in the cold, when there was a great deal of condensation in the tent, and went slightly below freezing with the screen still functioning. Batteries don't last as long at high altitude or in the cold; nevertheless, the two AAA Duracells only needed changing once. And because of the backup program, the one time the batteries failed (done deliberately during a marathon game of solitaire during a sleepless night), I was able to restore everything. Do you know how good that felt?

Non-sponsored tech equipment
16-MB CompactFlash card (used in the TRGpro) by SanDisk
What a clever idea of TRGpro to add a CompactFlash card slot to their version of the Palm III! We used a 16-MB card made by SanDisk, but any size and compatible model would have worked. Not only can you back up your Pilot to the CF card—saving all of your data should the batteries fizz out—but you can also copy individual files using TRGpro's CFpro application. Add a CF card reader to your computer (I have a SanDisk that attaches to my laptop's USB port), and you can also copy files from handheld to PC without hotsyncing. Windows 98 sees the CompactFlash as another drive, allowing you to open Palm document files for editing on the PC and save them back to the CF card.

Gel cel batteries
We used two rechargeable batteries to power the laptop and satellite phone when their own internal batteries and spares became as exhausted as we were. On the plus side, the batteries were rugged. The largest held a 33-amp/hour charge and powered both the laptop and phone at the same time (for at least five days). On the down side, the batteries were heavy. Even the yaks didn't like them, and you don't want to get a yak angry when there's only room on the trail for one of you. (Especially since the loser has to fall three or four hundred feet to the river below.) The alternative to battery power was a solar charger. Solar chargers are lightweight, but we were advised their power output is marginal—a fact supported by the Pumori 2000 expedition. Their solar pack wasn't completely charging the batteries, and sometimes they didn't have enough juice to simply run the equipment. Another problem: solar cells don't work in the dark, heh heh. Therefore, the batteries turned out to be a good choice for us. Using power inverters (turn the 12-volt DC power into 30-watt 115-volt) or cigarette lighter adapters, we were able to function almost as if we had our own power outlet connected to a wall socket back home. That is, until the fuses started blowing near the end of the trip. But that's another story.

MultiMail Pro by Actual Software
MultiMail software provides your Palm with advanced e-mail capabilities, such as the ability to receive mail from multiple accounts. Yeah, we know WinCE devices come standard with a lot of this stuff, but that's a different subject. Using this program with a Pilot Modem, we were able to keep up with our e-mail correspondence without having to hotsync through our home or office computer. The software could be clearer about options, and it could return to the previous screen you were on, but these are minor inconveniences. If you're a dedicated Palm OS user, you'll want to check out this software. We loved the ability to download just the headers (when we could find the option), and choose the messages to load on the next go-around.

Palm Modem
Mike bought a nearly-new snap-on modem from eBay for this trip. Used in conjunction with Multimail e-mail software made especially for the PalmPilot, we were able to send dispatches and receive mail from any telephone that allowed international calling. This included the L.A. International Airport and the Amari Hotel in Bangkok, but not the Nirvana Hotel in Kathmandu. Thanks to this handy device, we were able to send the first few dispatches without using the sat phone (which didn't work through hotel walls).

QED by Visionary2000
One of the drawbacks of Palm handhelds is that memos are only limited to 4 KB. If you type longer documents, you have to chain memos together, which is a pain. For a couple of years, the DOC format (not to be confused with Microsoft Word's .doc format) has developed into the standard. Until recently, it was a read-only format for large documents. QED is one of the new programs that allows you to create and edit DOC files right on the PalmPilot. We chose QED for its simple interface and reasonable price. Used with the Palm Portable Keyboard, QED is a great solution for writing on the road, on the trail, or in the teahouse.

Sony DCR-TRV10 Digital Video Camera
This camera survived nearly a month of being removed from and stuffed into various backpacks. Weighing in at about 2 pounds, it's worth its weight in gold when it comes to reliability. We carried three, 5.5-hour batteries and only used two—power consumption was lower than expected. We put the SteadyShot feature to the test on those swaying suspension bridges, and it worked like a charm. And don't get Mike started raving about the NIGHTSHOT feature. When Sony says you can shoot in the pitch dark, it's not kidding. The most used feature while on the trip? Capturing pics from the videotape shot during the day. We upgraded our 4-MB Sony Memory Stick (standard) to a 64-MB Memory Stick. You can shoot about 500 pics to the 64-MB Memory Stick—more than enough for us, and we're guessing more than enough for you, too. Our hats off to Sony for creating a small, lightweight, dependable digital video machine!

David Bard has been a fixture at TechRepublic for some time now. At one time, he was editor in chief of LinuxRepublic and then AdminRepublic. Currently, he occupies space as an editor in chief with TechProGuild. In addition, he’s a freelance writer who has covered extreme sports for years. When he’s not at home teaching his year-and-a-half-old daughter why it’s not a good idea to eat rocks, or trying to convince his wife why yet another expedition really is necessary, he’s usually off in some remote section of woods trying to discover himself. He’s still looking.

Mike Jackman is an editor in chief of TechProGuild, an editor of PC Troubleshooter and Windows Support Professional, and also works as a freelance Web designer and consultant. Together with his co-editor in chief David Bard, he traveled to Nepal in April of 2000 to report on high-altitude technology and to climb in the Himalayas. In his spare time (when he can find some), Mike’s an avid devourer and writer of science fiction, parent to two perpetually adolescent cats, and a hiking enthusiast.

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