Now that we have covered most of the basics in the first three sections, let’s look at what is needed to start computing while Airstreaming. As I mentioned in the earlier segment, computing while Airstreaming is a little more difficult than at home due to space limitations and resources, so let’s look at ways to overcome these limitations. The first thing is a monitor; for most using laptops or netbook PC’s the monitor is what comes built in, but all have a connection for an external monitor. As the general public switches to flat panel TV’s or HDTV, the option of having a VGA port on the TV is a great solution to the small monitors on laptops or netbooks. As an example of this, my most powerful laptop only has a 9.5 inch screen, but I have a 21” HDTV in the trailer and with the use of a $15 cable I now have a 21” monitor. Some of the newer technology can even do away with the cable and use a wireless video signal. The next problem is that small keyboard. Don’t you just hate not being able to use a standard keyboard instead of the laptop or netbook cramped keyboard ? A simple solution to both keyboard and mouse movement is to use a wireless keyboard and mouse on the PC via the USB port. So now you have a full size monitor, standard keyboard and mouse, and you can do all of this on a PC under five pounds that can easily be stored or hidden in the trailer when not in use.
So now we have all the functionality of a desk top PC in a small package, but what about all the information that won’t fit on the laptop? As we get more reliant on having information at our fingertips, the need for storage increases and often exceeds the capacity of a single hard drive system such as laptops and netbooks have. In comparison, your desktop PC can hold two to four hard drives for keeping all of this ready and waiting. The solution is external storage. You can get two forms of external storage for your smaller PC; the first choice is the portable hard drive which connects via USB and can often triple your PC’s current capacity. The second choice is a Network Accessible Storage (NAS), which is really nice if you have lots of music or information you want backed up. Many of the NAS units have the ability to hold two to four hard drives and offer redundancy (called mirroring in IT terms) between hard drives. That is, both hard drives have the same information, so if one fails the other is able to keep information safe, and when you replace the failed drive the unit will repair itself by making a new backup copy. The downside is that the NAS is normally wired, not wireless, and will require you to be physically connected to it. The wireless models are said to be in the pipe, but are not yet commercially available. As for portable hard drives, I recommend using the ones with an external power source as the USB power can be questionable.
Speaking of power, let’s talk about power while Airstreaming. As you may be aware, most campgrounds offer 30 or 50 amp connections at 110 volts, but what they neglect to tell you is that the level of power is dependent on how many of your neighbors are using their AC units or microwaves. I always suggest a small Uninterruptable Power Source (UPS) also known as a battery backup by many, but that’s misleading as it is really just enough to give you time to power down a PC safely and is not meant to keep you working. These units range in size and for most laptop and accessories (with the exception of laser printers which should NOT use a UPS) a good size is 350 VA or larger. These units will beep if power is lost or if power goes outside of acceptable electronic usage range, commonly called a brownout, where you have power but voltage or amperage is insufficient. For those of you who are die hard boondockers, be sure to use a good inverter and the UPS and get ready to replace the UPS about every 3 years.
What about printing on the road? You have several options and they fall into two categories: ink jet and laser. If you need to print a lot of professional documents, then you’ll need a compact laser printer, but be aware of the power issues and understand that they don’t like being shaken during travel. There is a different option than laser that gives the same quality by using solid inks or crayons, but the drawback is the melted wax smell. Like the laser, it uses heat and transfer, but when it cools down it hardens where laser still has that powder toner that get everywhere. So of the two options, I would find a solid ink type and deal with the smell. For the rest of us, ink jet is the better option for being on the road as the space it takes up is smaller. If you take the ink out and store it in a zip lock bag in the fridge when not in use for a week or more you can make a cartridge last a long time. An additional perk to many printers today is the inclusion of copy and scanner ability. While you do compromise on size, the ability to scan and electronically file documents can make up for this in time. I use a small ink jet and have a small scanner separate from the printer, and I find the combined size easier to store as they easily fit in bins and closets.
This ends the Airstreamer Computing Guide series of articles. I hope that I was able to give you some insight and ideas on how best to do computing while on the road. My next series of articles is going to be more of a “how-to” type, and I invite your input as what you would like to have answered as to your computer challenges or goals, or maybe just how to fix a problem you currently have. As always, please remember your computer is a machine which is inclined to fail, so always make backups of your important data and encrypt where needed.