Home Technology Our Mobile Technology Arsenal

Our Mobile Technology Arsenal

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As technology enabled nomads (thus ‘Technomad’), our mobile technology arsenal plays a critical role in our chosen lifestyle.

In addition to evaluating usefulness, geek-factor and quality, we have several unusual but critical considerations to take into account when choosing technology – particularly size and power consumption. Living in around 80 square feet of space, stuff has to be carefully considered for fit. And since we are often attempting to live off of just 200 watts (at high noon on a clear summer day!) of solar power, we try to get the most out of every amp hour we consume.

We’re constantly updating and evolving our technology, however here is what is in our current arsenal:

Computers

We now both have 15″ Apple MacBook Pros, and we love them. The 15″ MacBook Pro offers a great balance of power and portability, and it is probably the best balanced all-around laptop ever made. The newest models have an integrated battery that can get up to 5hrs of real battery life – wonderful for us often disconnected nomads.

To power our laptops while on the go without needing the overhead of an inverter, we use a MikeGyver.com (review here) and a HyperMac (review pending) MacBook 12V power supply adaptors. Running our laptops directly off of 12 volts rocks.

Every RV should have an on board server. Ours is the incredibly power and space efficient Apple Mac mini, coupled with a 500GB external media hard drive full of music and movies, and an additional 1TB external back up drive. The Mac mini acts as our DVD player, TV tuner, music player, and backup repository for the data on our laptops.

We power the Mac mini directly off of our trailer’s 12v power supply using a CarNetix DC to DC power adapter. This way the Mac Mini can be serving us without us needing to power on our large inverter. The mini only burns 14 watts while idle, making this an incredibly power efficient setup.


Though we hardly ever watch television, we like having the option – in particular just in case of a weather emergency or crisis where tuning in to local news may be critical. We have an Elgato EyeTV Hybrid connected to our Mac Mini that we use for tuning HD TV and FM radio. This not only allows us to have access to local TV without needing to lug around a satellite dish or pay subscription fees, it also enables TiVo-style DVR recording.

Though the EyeTV can work with the cable TV that some RV parks offer, we usually use the RCA 1550 Amplified HDTV Antenna to capture signals to watch. This small flat antenna is easy to hide deep inside the inner wall of our Oliver, and it offered the best reception of the several other antennas we compared it against.

Acting as a display for our Mac Mini server, we have a 24″ Dell UltraSharp 2408WFP LCD monitor mounted on an adjustable swing arm in the rear corner of our Oliver. The swing arm allows us to position the monitor optimally for watching movies in bed, as a second monitor for one of our laptops,or we can swing the monitor to be aimed out our rear window – perfect for hosting outdoor movies or displaying our photography at events.

The 2408WFP has great image quality and off-axis viewing, includes an integrated USB hub and media card reader, and it has two DVI inputs (as well as DisplayPort, HDMI, and even S-Video) – allowing us to connect our laptops without needing to unplug the Mac Mini. The only negative of the Dell 2408WFP is that it is a power hog – burning 150 watts while on.

Cellular Services & Connectivity

We have both been smartphone users as long as the term “smartphone” has been around. And at the moment, or phone of choice is the iPhone.

Cherie has an iPhone 3G and Chris a 3GS. Though we are often frustrated by the AT&T network, the overall user interface elegance and wealth of applications on the iPhone has yet to be equaled. The Palm Pre (Sprint) and Motorola / Google Droid (Verizon) are growing increasingly competitive though, and are always tempting.

We carry this awesome little RichardSolo 1200 for iPhone / iPod – External battery pack that allows us to top off our iPhones when we’re away from a charging source. It also doubles as a flashlight… bonus! They also make a slightly larger version with a laser pointer – RichardSolo 1800 for iPhone – External battery pack + power adapter Li-Ion 1800 mAh
.

Both of our laptops, our iPhones, and the Mac Mini all have WiFi built in, and we try take advantage of WiFi connections whenever we can find them. A surprising number of campgrounds actually offer WiFi now, and even some cities have been blanketed with free city-wide coverage.

But when away from the joys of WiFi, our primary access to the Internet on our laptops is via a Novatel Merlin EX720 Express Aircardthat works on the Sprint network and receives up to EVDO revA (3G broadband) speeds. We initially chose Sprint because they offered truly unlimited mobile data plans, and though they now cap new contracts at just 5GB a month, ours is grandfathered in with the original terms.

Our Cradlepoint CTR-350 Router is paired with an Express-to-USB adapter that works with our Sprint AirCard, creating a WiFi hotspot wherever we go. This allows us to both utilize a single cellular internet connection at the same time. (There is a newer model out: CTR-500)

The CTR-350 is ultra small, portable and can be setup anywhere to be our WiFi hotspot. Often when visiting friends it is easier for us to set up the CTR-350 than it is for them to remember the password to their own WiFi network! CradlePoint also offers a battery powered version for even more portability – the PHS-300

We had a Wilson Dual-Band SOHO Cellular Amplifier and antenna from Powerful Signal integrated right into our Oliver while it was under construction. This setups gives a nice boost to all our cellular gadgets at once, and it can take a barely-there signal and turn it into barely-usable. In fringe areas, this boost has repeatedly proven to be essential.

We also have an unpowered booster antenna from 3GStore.com with a cable to use it with our AirCard when we’re away from the Oliver. It adds two bars of signal, which really helps to keep a consistent signal while in motion as well as when camped in more remote locations.

Navigation & Weather

We’re currently using a Garmin StreetPilot 2720 that Cherie’s father gifted us until we can figure out exactly the GPS we want.

Though the StreetPilot works great for most things, right now the entire idea of a stand-alone GPS has begun to lose its appeal, and we are considering trying the iPhone navigation apps from Magellan or Tom-Tom.

We keep track of the indoor and outdoor temperatures, recording highs and lows, with our La Crosse Technology WS-9080U-IT Wireless Temperature Station. It’s small enough to fit nicely on our bedside table.

We particularly like how the La Crosse records the daily highs and lows. With just a glance in the morning, we can tell how cold it got the night before. *brrrr*

Cameras & Printers

Our Canon PIXMA iP100 Mobile Photo Printer is an ideal portable color ink jet printer that fits perfectly in our ‘server closet’ in the Oliver. It’s portable, compact and gets the job done when we need to print something out (which we try to avoid whenever possible). It even does a reasonable job printing photos – even borderless 8×10’s!

Cherie’s camera of choice is the Canon PowerShot SD780is – it’s ultra compact, fits in her waist pouch and takes awesome 12 megapixel photos and HD video. The majority of our video work is done with this awesome little camera.

More of our thoughts on the awesome little Canon SD780is are posted here.

Chris’ camera of choice is the Canon Powershot SX110is. The SX110is takes remarkable photos, has full manual controls, and the 10x zoom is awesome!

Best of all, though it is not nearly as small as the SD780is, it is still small enough to carry in a large pocket.

(Note: The SX110is has been replaced with the Canon PowerShot SX120IS)

We are tempted to add a DSLR to our arsenal, but the tradeoffs still have not won us over… After all, the best camera is the one that is with you all the time. Will we actually make enough use of a DSLR to justify the cargo space and cost?

Disclaimer: Yes, all of the above links to Amazon are affiliate links.

23 COMMENTS

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    • Those are all standard Wilson booster and antenna setups. Looks like Discount Cell is using a lot of SEO and link bate optimization to draw traffic to their site by putting ‘Apple iPad Mini’ in front of each product listing. Bet they also have a page for Nexus 7, Samsung Galaxy, iPad Retina, etc. associated with the same exact booster equipment.

  1. Hey Chris and Cherie–

    Wanted to say thanks for your breaking news coverage of the Millenicom deal. I got onboard last month, and the Retina model was sold out, tech support said all minis were all sold out, but persistence paid off and I finally got ahold of customer service. They were sooo helpful and easy to deal with. Two days later my new arrived in my mailbox! Good on ya, Millenicom! Fast shipping says customer love to me.

    After reading your ‘arsenal’ article, I would like to ask a gearhead question about amps for the new mini’s cellular data.

    Here’s the setup: My Wanderlodge is all steel, so an external antenna is a must. I’ve been using a nother carrier and their wireless ZTE hotspot–it is installed in the coach with a Wilson cradle amp and a Wilson trucker antenna on a cable to the roof. It does the trick really well, we’ve had good signal, driving or parked. Side note, we blow past 8 Gig$ of data some months (and glad to be moving up to Millenicom on that account).

    The question is cell amps. I see Wilson is offering some iPad Mini-specific amps, and of course they also have a line of amps including the SOHO and others. We still have a cell phone with the other carrier, it would be best if it could take advantage of the amp also. Do you have any advise or ideas about an amp for iPad + telephone? I guess my question is really about the iPad cellular chipset and compatibility with generic amps versus iPad-specific amps. It also is about LTE and competing standards for 4G, but I’m not very conversant in that language! All I think I know is that some amps don’t do 4G and I want 4G when available locally.

    Great site, great photos, great angle, great writing, great reporting–you guys really carry on, and I’m a big Technomadia fan. Thanks!

    • I haven’t seen any iPad specific booster mounts, and I just double-checked Wilson’s site and didn’t see anything new there either. What iPad amps are you referring to?

      Regardless – there isn’t really anything unique about an iPad vs an iPhone when it comes to boosting. You need to make sure that whatever booster you get supports both the carrier you are using, the type of network you want to connect to, and you should also double-check the frequency bands.

      For example – our Top Signal booster is a dual-band booster that supports 2G and 3G on AT&T and Verizon, 4G on AT&T, but it does not support LTE from anyone, or even 3G in most T-Mobile areas.

      Our Wilson Sleek 4G-V is a weaker booster that supports the same networks and frequencies as the Top Signal, but it also support Verizon’s LTE network. It does not however support Sprint or T-Mobile or AT&T LTE.

      There are unfortunately no good options for a truly universal booster yet.

      – Chris

  2. i refuse to pay 30-45$ a night to stay in an RV park w/o wifi
    and the extra 30$ a month for a puny 5gb is lame, even with an iphone

    satellite is on it’s way, but wayy too inefficient and expensive for clunky roof mount plastic dishes that will be obsolete in 3 years

    but what i have heard about if you are very tech savvy *wink wink* is wildcatting internet ie. homemade devices that tune into satellite 2 way…. i am following the technology neurotically

    I think there is also a car coming our in 2011 that comes supplied with in motion wifi connection…hello again satellite!…at least the high demand for in-motion internet will push the prices down and speed up the technology…hopefully

    ohh yeah, dont forget about the C.B. radio! my older airstream rv came with one that had never been used…hours of entertainment chatting with the truck drivers

  3. Being out in the boonies, occasionally in tornado alley, you ought to think about adding a NOAA weather radio to the mix. It might give you enough warning to park so you aren’t broad side to the prevailing winds, if nothing else. Cheap at places like Tractor Supply and even Radio Shack, and I’ve seen many that are 12V so you can just strap it across the RV battery. New ones are programmable by county so they don’t wake you up for a storm 100 miles away.

    • We’ve thought about that.. but opted not to. We just simply change locations too often, and would never have the thing reprogrammed correctly to our current location to be useful. Instead, we monitor the local weather to know if anything is impending and take proper actions. Now.. a GPS location aware weather radio.. we’d be all over that!

  4. Ah yes, I forgot all about the 5gb cap. Well, my wife and I both got droids, and they’re about to enable tethering for $30 a month so maybe I’ll just do that and between the USB modem that I have a year left under contract and the droid, I may be able to work it and just seek out wifi more often.

    Or I just need to give up on the idea of TV, which is probably the best thing to do anyways. I don’t watch a lot, but when I do, it seems like it sucks you in for hours. Definitely not the best use of my time. :-)

    • It definitely is a time suck :) We’ve gone to renting TV series on Netflix, and just have them delivered to wherever we happen to be at. Working really well – gives you a limited amount of time suck but at your schedule, no commercials and you can focus your concentration to just content you enjoy.

  5. Eric — The iPhone does let you be on a call and surf the web, if you have 3G or WiFi coverage. This is indeed often handy – and it does work fine with AT&T. It is 10x as handy when you are tethering – but it does work even when you are not.

    On Verizon’s network, you can not use your phone for voice and EVDO data at the same time.

  6. thanks for the insights. the Peplink is pricey for sure, but great when you have multiple vehicles with many people all trying to connect, which is the case in some of the productions i’ve worked on. they just connect to the Peplink’s wireless AP and the Peplink figures out which WiFi or cell signal to connect to automatically. you’re definitely paying for the “set it and forget it” feature. they make a cheaper version that’s just a 2 input router – one USB input for a cell modem and one ethernet in for a regular broadband connection for $300. i’ve pitched a few of my clients on it to use the cell modem as a backup when the broadband goes down. i live in Jackson Hole, WY and the DSL and Cable connections go down all the time. having an automatic cellular backup is priceless, especially if you’re using the internet for credit card processing in a retail or restaurant environment. but they are designed for mobile use too.

    i love the new AT&T commercials with Luke Wilson talking up the ability to use data and talk at the same time with 3G, even though you technically can’t do that with an iPhone on AT&T. if they ever enable tethering, it will probably be an extra $30/mo.
    .-= Eric Hansen´s last blog ..Looking for some Twits =-.

  7. Eric – I had not seen the Peplink MAX Mobile Router before. The feature set looks amazing, ideal for our sort of nomadic lifestyle. But the price is outrageous – nearly $2000?!?!

    I think we are now averaging around 7GB/month via our Sprint account, but it does tend to fluctuate a lot depending on the sort of projects we are doing, and whether or not we are able to get access to WiFi sometimes as well.

    Often we queue up large uploads or downloads for a day we plan to have WiFi. We might go work in a coffee shop for example.

    I just checked out your site – awesome stuff.

    Feel free to send any more questions our way.

  8. Jay — I just checked out your site – very cool. We are very open to you writing about how we use our rear window as a screen, though it is much smaller scale than the massive outdoor setups you generally feature.

    Let us know if you’d like to some pictures of our rear screen in use.

    Japhy — And even if you have a grandfathered in plan, if you go over 5GB too often, they may respond by canceling your account. We try to keep our usage from ever going too far over, which means that while on EVDO we have given up on things like Hulu and NetFlix streaming.

  9. Hmmm…I’ll have to look into a server then. I need all the geek points I can get. :-)

    I’ve been giving serious thought to how to go about outfitting my RV tech wise, and I like the whole media center thing. I don’t watch a whole lot of TV, but most of what I do watch is online for free now so I’m thinking of just going without satellite and using my verizon broadband to provide internet access and watch shows through hulu and netflix. I need to see how feasible it is from a speed standpoint though. Either way, having a server would certainly be helpful for storing movies and music.

    As for the DSLR…I made the jump when Canon introduced their first digital Rebel back in 2003. I love, love, love the control the SLR gives you. But as you pointed out, it’s a pain to lug around. I rarely break it out and instead always use the Sony Cybershot that I always have with me.

    • Japhy – One warning about streaming content over Verizon/cellular is that you will quickly eat up your 5GB/mo allotment (unless you have a grandfathered in plan with unlimited data).

  10. I’ve been following your site for a little while now as I’m thinking about building a mobile editing suite into either a Class 3 RV or travel trailer. I have a question about your cell data usage. Between my production office and home, it’s difficult to gauge how much I use and if 5GB/mo is enough. Awesome that you guys got an unlimited plan before the carriers changed over. How much do you think you’re using per month? I have been looking at the Peplink MAX mobile router also: http://www.peplink.com/max-mobile-router/ to deal with multiple automatic connections. jailbreaking my iPhone for unlimited data could work too, but i would hate to have to tie up my iPhone to use the internet. how is Sprint’s data coverage compared to your AT&T service? thanks. i’m sure i’ll be posting more questions in the future.

    • Eric.. in regards to AT&T versus Sprint coverage.. it varies widely by where you’re at. All depends on where the towers are, and which service has the faster towers in that area. We used to have Verizon, and I’d have to say they had the best all around coverage. But by and large, highly recommend having at least one GSM and one CDMA option to best cover your bases.

      When you’re in 3G land on AT&T, you can still use your iPhone for calls/SMS even while tethered (umm.. not that we’d know anything about that *innocent smile*).

  11. As a non-techie, I was wondering what benefits does the onboard server have as opposed to just running laptops and having them networked. Is it a storage issue or something else?

    • @Japhy The benefits for us include:

      1) Extra storage space dedicated to media (movies, music, etc.) that is always connected to our trailer’s display screen. We had Oliver leave off their entertainment system, so our Mac Mini serves as a media center for us.
      2) An automated back-up server for both of our laptops – redundancy of data is critical for us
      3) Geek points (probably the most important one :) )

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