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There used to be a time when the joy of vacation was to stay out of touch with the office. Now, of course, that’s just a fantasy. Thanks to technology, checking in is as much a part of a trip as the airline’s fuel surcharge. The good news: You can stay in contact with your colleagues without going over your weight allowance. Just lose the laptop. Most of us have encountered a certain type of road warrior � the PDA zealot. These are the laptopless folks who swear that anything you can do on your PC, they can do on their six-ounce handheld device. They often seem quite mad, editing Excel spreadsheets on 3.5-inch screens. But these PDA zealots, the folks who whip out their Palms or Pocket PCs with the slightest prompting � may be on to something. With faster processors, snazzier screens, bigger memories, and built-in WiFi, today’s Pocket PC and Palm devices really can be acceptable laptop replacements. Not for day-to-day work, but for simply staying in touch and troubleshooting problems while traveling. And it’s not just PDAs; mobile phones are getting more capable, too. Today’s high-end models have little trouble working overseas � provided you check off a couple steps before leaving home. And if you can’t work (or play) without a BlackBerry, the latest models include built-in phones, meaning that the BlackBerry addict can be as accessible on Machu Picchu as he is in Milwaukee. If there’s a reason we haven’t all become PDA devotees, maybe it’s because getting these devices into top traveling form requires some work. Out of the box, PDAs are handy gadgets, but the really cool capabilities come from add-on products. Don’t worry, most of them are easy to install, and relatively inexpensive. One of our favorite pint-size tools: Skype for Pocket PC (sorry, Palm owners). Skype is a service that started on the PC; the technology lets users send phone calls over the Internet using a headset and technology known as Voice Over IP, or VoIP. Now Skype has a portable version of its software, which lets you place calls wherever you have a WiFi connection. Like its big brother, Skype for Pocket PC brings all the perks of Internet-based telephony, such as viewable call logs and contact info that users can review while talking. But the main benefit is cost. If you’re traveling internationally and want to call home, Skype’s rates are far lower than traditional providers � about 2 cents per minute to the United States. (Skype doesn’t care where the call originates, so the price is the same whether you’re dialing from Bermuda or Belgium.) VoIP calls don’t have quite the same quality as traditional phone calls, but they are getting better, and already match � if not beat � cell calls. For an additional fee (about $20 for three months of service), Skype will supply a domestic telephone number, so callers on landline and mobile phones can call you, too (and if you’re not available, they can leave messages). Just be sure to take along a lightweight headset for the best quality sound. The software itself is free and available at skype.com. Other packages add to PDAs’ portable productivity. WorldMate 2006 Professional Edition ($74.95) is full of handy travel tools, including weather information (from The Weather Channel), flight status and schedules for hundreds of airlines, currency converters, and a database of international dialing prefixes. You’ll install the software once, but from then on WorldMate is a subscription service (the price includes the first year of access), and information is updated whenever you hot-sync your PDA, or are on a WiFi network. The software, published by MobiMate Ltd., is available for Pocket PC at pocketgear.com. A 2005 Palm version (the latest year available) is available at www.handango.com. No matter what’s loaded onto the PDA, don’t forget to pack a Stowaway keyboard from Think Outside, Inc. (thinkoutside.com). Probably the biggest disadvantage to using a PDA is having to tap out messages on its puny on-screen keyboard. Other companies have designed add-on keyboards, but no one has done it as well as Think Outside. The Stowaways are design marvels, full-size keyboards that fold up into a brick that’s not much larger than the PDA itself. At less than six ounces, they won’t weigh you down, either; neither will the cost, from $70 for a model that uses the PDA’s infrared port, to a $150 Bluetooth (short-range wireless networking) model. One of the slickest new Pocket PC applications has no work justification whatsoever. But, hey, the vacation part of a vacation has to kick in at some point. Slingbox is a device that links your TV (and TiVo or other digital video recorder) to the Internet. When it was launched last year, Slingbox worked only with PCs; by installing software on your laptop, you could view, and control, your home television while traveling abroad � anywhere you had a broadband Internet connection. Now Slingbox’s manufacturer, Sling Media, Inc., has released SlingPlayer Mobile, which lets you access your Slingbox � and thusly your TV � from a Pocket PC. One caveat: Some users have complained that less-speedy connections can result in less-than-wonderful video. Still, this is cool stuff. SlingPlayer Mobile is available at slingmedia.com for $29.99 (the Slingbox itself retails for $250). Like PDAs, cell phones can be a lifeline back to the office � especially the latest devices, such as Palm’s Treo 700 (available from Verizon Wireless) and Research in Motion Limited’s BlackBerry 8700 (available from T-Mobile and Cingular) that combine e-mail and mobile telephony in one device. But there’s one big caveat to taking a cell phone overseas: You’ve got to tell your provider that you plan to use it. That’s because international roaming isn’t activated automatically when you buy your phone. Activation is typically free (which will seem magnanimous until you see the charges for the calls themselves). Be sure, too, to check that the phone is compatible with the cellular technology used abroad. If your service is through T-Mobile or Cingular, it’s probably fine, as they use the same GSM (“Groupe Sp�ciale Mobile”) technology that is used in much of the world, particularly in Europe. Verizon and Sprint, on the other hand, use CDMA (“Code Division Multiple Access”), which isn’t as popular as GSM outside the U.S. (though Canada, Israel, and Mexico are among the countries that use it). But Verizon has a global phone rental service that could prove handy. For $3.99 a day, plus roaming charges that range from $1.49 to $4.95 per minute, subscribers can take a GSM phone with them. Those high roaming charges, alas, are all too common. In theory, there is a way around the big fees. Inside every GSM � based phone is a tiny chip called a SIM � for Subscriber Identity Module. The SIM is what identifies your phone to the cellular network. It � and not your phone itself � holds essential information, such as your telephone number. SIM chips are removable, and replaceable with chips that will work in another country. In theory, anyway: Most U.S. providers lock their phones, which means that you can pull out your old SIM card, but a new SIM card won’t work. What most users don’t know is that you can unlock the phone and replace the chip � if your service provider gives you the code. They may, especially if you’re a customer in good standing, so it pays to ask. And if you’re still set on lugging that laptop with you on the plane, at least make sure you can plug it in. A terrific Web site called SeatGuru (seatguru.com) provides airline seating charts for dozens of major airlines, and notes where the power ports are � and what sort of ports they are (some require adapters). So if you’re flying on an Air France A340, you’ll know you’re flat out of luck � no outlets whatsoever. But on Continental’s new 777 jets, there’s a power port even in coach � in rows 17 through 23. Now we know to book row 24. New York � based Alan Cohen writes frequently about the intersection of law and technology.

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