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Mac OS X for the Traveler, Part 4

by FJ de Kermadec
09/21/2004

Editor's note -- As with so many things in life, preparation is the key to success. In this week's installment, you'll read about how to pack just the right amount of equipment, and how to make sure the data on it is fit for travel.

Keeping Things Light

While traveling, the temptation is to pack as many things as you can fit in your bag. But in reality it's best to only travel with the assets that are essential, both hardware-wise and software-wise.

This week I make my recommendations for the items that you should take on the road, as well as those best left behind.

Don't Take Too Many Peripherals and Disks with You

While traveling, it may be tempting to take all your peripherals and belongings. Sure, you may need this FireWire hub or this second USB key but if they are not essential, chances are that they will just weigh you down or attract thieves. However, at the same time, it is true that leaving peripherals behind will make your life a lot harder on-the-go (even if money is not an issue and you can purchase them again, you may not know where the stores are or their business hours). Therefore, once again, planning will be essential, and the key to success is to define what you will be doing during your trip and what you need to accomplish these tasks.

If you aren't sure, spy on yourself (so to speak) for a few days and write down the devices you most commonly use. Another way to do it is to put in a box everything you think you need to work and to take it out object-by-object, as needed. Everything left in the box after a few days is probably not as essential as you had originally thought.

A Few Tips to Get You Started

Peripherals and disks you should always pack:

  • Mac OS X installation CDs and the Apple Hardware Test CD that came with your Mac (they will help you react if something goes wrong).
  • Power adapter and its extension cord (plugs aren't always in convenient locations and batteries tend to magically run out faster when there is no AC to be found), plus any adapters you need to connect to AC.
  • CDs you need to re-install the applications you rely upon (if you are about to give a Keynote presentation, do pack your Keynote installation CD, for example).
  • One phone cable (at least) and one Ethernet cable -- even though hotels usually provide them they are sometimes of very poor quality and could damage your ports.
  • One DVD-R(W) or a portable FireWire hard drive for backups.

Peripherals and disks you may want to consider:

  • A mouse if you aren't comfortable with the trackpad (the Apple Wireless mouse is almost too wonderful for words if your PowerBook comes with built-in Bluetooth).
  • Disks for "comfort" applications you can't live without.
  • Your iSight if you plan to do any video chat.
  • Additional backup media is also a good idea if you can pack it, but you should really make sure that you will use it (some USB keys are too small to back anything up on them, for example).

Clean Up Your Data Before You Go

Gigantic hard drives make it easier to forget what we have in our computers. Unfortunately, your Mac does remember it all and forgotten files can sometimes have an unpredicted effect. For example, an ultra-inflated FileVault will likely slow your computer down or lead to minor glitches. Also, it's essential to keep track of what's on your hard drive so you know what you've lost in case of theft or damage. Finally, you need to know what's important to back up and ignore what you can replace or no longer need.

As a general rule, documents that are no longer of use should be archived on redundant backups and put away safely in a vault (depending on their importance). Before leaving, you may want to make sure you don't have any old files lying around on your hard drive. If you really cannot conduct a good spring-cleaning operation before going, you may want to use Panther's labels to color the names of files that are most essential to your workflow (I use a nice purple that matches Backup's umbrella color to remind me of the folders and files that I back up frequently).

Tips and Tricks to Avoid Processing Too Much Data

A good way to "deflate" the size of your archives is to store them as plain text files whenever you can. For example, contracts and articles that weigh a few hundred KBs in RTF format can be deflated to a few KBs when saved as simple text. Of course, you'll lose fancy formatting during the process, but for many documents it's not essential. You can also use the Finder to "make archives" of your less essential files.

Emails are a constant source of clutter. Sure, you do avoid SPAM and, therefore, have a manageable email collection. You should, however, pay attention to the organization of the messages you decide to keep. Also, I prefer IMAP accounts that will allow you to keep two copies of every message -- on the server (as a backup and synchronization system) and on your hard drive (for easy access and indexing).

You might consider systematically removing attachments from your mails and saving them in another location -- just make sure that you'll be able to find them later. Bloated attachments are the first cause of email issues, both on the servers where they take up valuable account space and on hard drives where they make databases so big they become unreadable, even for the most enduring mail client. Also, bandwidth constraints may make downloading such files even more troublesome than usual -- another reason to set your email client up so that it automatically downloads your messages but not the included attachments.

Archived chats are also quite voluminous if you have turned automatic saving on in iChat. Since they are stored by default in your "Documents" folder, one that you are very likely to back up entirely, chances are that you unknowingly back up megabytes of useless chats. An application like Logorrhea can help you browse quickly through this collection and get rid of unnecessary files.

Whenever possible, I avoid heavy and proprietary file formats and prefer applications that rely on lightweight, standard ones to work. This will not only make your information lighter and easier to manage, but will also prevent compatibility issues should you have to resume work from another operating system. For example, OpenOffice.org will most of the time create lighter files than your average Microsoft Office copy. RTF or tab-delimited plain texts are also lightweight and easily portable.

Connecting to your office servers can also allow you to download information on-the-fly, as you need it, and to secure-delete it later. However, this requires that you are confident in the stability of your network connection and in your ability to establish a secure connection with your office servers.

Redundancy

Up until now, we have talked quite a bit about the importance of backing your data up on many types of media and of storing your backups in different locations. This is all very well with a desktop computer but can become a challenge when you are on the go. After all, you can use your external hard drive and put it in your hotel room's safe but how could you possibly carry a 12-disk set of CD-Rs with you just for the added security of having redundant backups?

In this part, we'll see how you can ensure that your information stays at your disposition even if it is stolen -- directly or because one of your devices disappears.

Backup Redundancy

Backup redundancy is probably one of the most difficult goals to achieve while you are on the go. Indeed, since you are spending all your time in more or less public places, there is no really safe place in which to put your really important files. Or is there?

The availability of networks means that you can upload your files on a wide list of servers from which you will be able to download them, should you need to. You have, of course, a few options when it comes to picking the right server.

Apple's very own .Mac service will probably be the best choice for most users. Indeed, the tight iDisk integration with Mac OS X will allow you to upload and download files easily and relatively quickly. You can also use the "Backup" application to automatically upload and restore data as well as schedule your backups. Just keep in mind that data transfers to and from your iDisk are not encrypted and that you will therefore need to encrypt your data manually before backing it up.

Your iDisk also features an easy to read "free space" meter (available through the System Preferences application), provides you with a quick way to exchange files with colleagues even when you are not online (by putting files in your "Public" folder), and is backed by outstanding technical support, available worldwide (which is especially important to the traveler that you are). Finally, iDisks can be accessed remotely in the very unlikely event that you will have to get your data back from a UNIX, Windows, or Linux machine -- but keep in mind that these operating systems may not know what to do with encrypted disk images.

A web site hosting provider's FTP account can also do the trick. The big advantage is that data flows much faster through an FTP client. Some providers also offer you secure FTP communications, making backing data up not only fast but secure. The big downside is that hosting accounts are usually entirely publicly accessible from the Internet, which makes them less trustworthy when it comes to storing personal files. You may still want to ask a good hosting provider if they offer "private" accounts or if you can create a truly private area inside of a regular hosting account. Should it not be possible, don't leave your files in a publicly available space for the world to see!

A private SFTP enabled server is probably an excellent choice. These are much more difficult to find though, unless you can set up your own and secure it properly.

Your Very Own SSH-Enabled Server

This is by far the geekiest solution, but it does have the advantage of providing you with encrypted communications and the assurance that you know how the server you are connecting to is managed. This, however, requires that you know how to properly secure a server and are comfortable uploading and downloading files through Terminal. Since SSH is a standard protocol, any Windows, UNIX, or Linux Machine should be able to reach your server too if needed. This series of articles should get you started nicely -- but, please, do run real-world tests in advance.

Once you have picked your server or service of choice, you may want to experiment a bit with upload and download speeds by sending and receiving a dummy file -- a large image file will provide you with a lot information about how the server reacts and will make for a realistic test when you'll be working with big chunks of data. Chances are that actual speeds will be far inferior to the advertised ones. This is the difference between "theoretical throughput" (brochure talk) and "real-world conditions" (what you will be dealing with all day long).

This data should help you decide what you can upload and what you cannot. For example, backing up your whole iTunes Library is probably out of the question since it would take hours, but you will be able to make daily incremental backups of these AppleWorks spreadsheets.

Related Reading

iPod Fan Book
Go Everywhere with iPod
By Yasukuni Notomi

Sync These Devices

Synchronization is not only convenient, it's also a good way of ensuring that your most essential information (namely contacts and calendars) won't get lost too easily. Indeed, losing an iPod or a phone is easy. (I was once talking with a service provider who told me he was seeing a great number of iPods that ended their lives in sinks.) But you are less likely to lose everything at once.

iSync will help you keep this precious information on at least four devices -- your iPod, your Palm, your phone, and your computer. It will also upload your contacts and calendars to the .Mac servers in an easy-to-read and easy-to-edit format.

Of course, while syncing your devices, you should keep in mind that, while they may all be designed to hold the same kind of information, some of them are better at it than others. For example, your iPod displays calendar information magnificently, but do you really want to have your contacts displayed on a device that doesn't offer password protection?

Also, while syncing does allow you to endlessly rework your data while on the go (use the phone in the airport to move this dentist appointment from 2 to 3, your Palm on the plane to reschedule it to Tuesday and cancel it from your hotel room on your PowerBook, because after all, you'd prefer the dermabrasion on Friday), you should keep in mind that this is likely to raise conflicts. Different devices deal differently with time zones and may sometimes speak slightly different languages. Of course, iSync is extremely good at detecting and resolving glitches, but this makes use of your synced devices as "backups" a lot less reliable.

Here is an example. Some mobile phones detect time-zone changes automatically and will shift your appointments when turned on in another country or state than your location of departure. iCal does support time zones but this is an option -- and even if it is turned on, you need to make sure that your phone warns iCal that it changed zones automatically. Your Palm on the other hand is quite old-fashioned and will probably wait until you give it your new geographical information. But what if you forget or make a mistake?

Finally, keep in mind that syncing does not replace backing up, even when you sync to your iDisk. Address Book's "Back up database" will allow you to save your contact information easily. iCal calendars can be seen and copied as regular files from ~/Library/Calendars.

Final Thoughts

I've spent a lot of time here preparing for worst-case scenarios. But what to do when things go wrong in real life? Stay tuned for next week's installment. Until then, happy and safe travels.

FJ de Kermadec is an author, stylist and entrepreneur in Paris, France.


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