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Staying Connected

By Thomas R. Wiles

With the increasing availability of wireless Internet, along with ever-continuing technology price drops, it’s easier than ever for the average driver to get and stay connected 24/7 to family and friends around the world. 

Back in the dark days of dial-up Internet, relatively few drivers carried computers with them in their trucks. Finding an open phone jack in a truck stop back in the late 1990’s was a real hassle. Often when I carried my computer into a truck stop to check my email I was an object of curiosity. 

Today’s truck stop WiFi and cell company wireless air card plans make it possible to connect to the Internet from virtually anywhere right from the truck wherever it happens to be at. As a Sprint PCS data customer for over three years, long waits for loading and unloading are no longer a drudgery. The ability to connect to the Internet from virtually anywhere I find myself allows me to remain in contact as well as remain productive. 

Buying a laptop computer can be confusing. Whether you go to a big-box store such as Best Buy, Circuit City, etc., or order it from a company such as Dell, there are a few things you should take into consideration. 

Make sure you buy a laptop with a “mobile” processor – that is a CPU chip that is designed specifically for mobile use, such as an Intel “Centrino” or an AMD “Turion” chip. Chips that are specifically designed for mobile computing run cooler and use less power, which is an important consideration when computing in a truck. 

Since you are carrying the laptop around in the truck, it’s a good idea to buy an extended warranty. I’m generally not a big fan of extended warranties; however bouncing a complex machine with a hard drive around in a truck causes me to make an exception. 

Expect to pay between $500 and $1,200 dollars. On the low price end you can get a basic machine that will get you connected. For around $1,200 dollars you can expect a machine with a large hard drive, lots of random access memory (RAM), along with the ability to play and burn DVD’s and CD’s. 

For use in your truck avoid the very large and expensive “desktop replacement” laptops. In my experience they don’t work well for use in a truck. They tend to have large fans that collect lots of dust, which can cause overheating problems that will cause the machines to shut down to avoid heat damage. Furthermore, they tend to draw a lot of power, which can be problematic when trying to power them from the truck’s electrical system. I run my own laptop (a Gateway MX6455) from a 300-watt DC to AC inverter and because it has smaller power requirements and tends to run cooler, I avoid these problems. 

Beware of “refurbished” bargain machines, as well as buying a used machine from a friend or relative, unless you can get some sort of warranty. Buying a used computer from a friend or relative is always fraught with peril, since they tend to over-price them. The price on new computer hardware is always dropping, and people often feel compelled to price out-of-date computers too high based on what they paid for them. Unsuspecting buyers can easily over-pay for out-of-date technology. A good way to gauge the fair market price for a particular laptop model is to look on eBay to see what it’s selling for. 

Most laptops now come equipped with integrated WiFi. You’ve no doubt seen plans available from truck stops such as Flying J, Pilot, T/A, etc. Before signing up for an annual plan, it’s a good idea to try out the service by signing up for a single days’ use to make sure the service lives up to your expectations. The quality of service will vary. Some truck stops such as Bosselman’s and Sapp Brothers offer free WiFi. 

The drawback to WiFi is that you have to be parked in the truck stop’s parking lot in order to be able to connect to it. It’s no fun to try to find a parking space in a crowded truck stop parking lot at night. A wireless air card data plan will allow you to connect from virtually anywhere you can find a parking spot.  

If staying connected is really important to you, then consider a nationwide wireless air card data plan from one of the major cell phone companies. Be aware however, that “Unlimited” doesn’t always mean unlimited. Be sure to read the Terms of Service agreement (TOS) with your cell carrier to make certain that you are aware of any restrictions. Most of these services don’t want you trying to run VOIP (voice over IP) or streaming video from your home machine with programs such as “Slingo” or “Orb Server.” Also DO NOT try to engage in peer-to-peer illegal music file sharing. 

I have the Sprint PCS service and have generally been happy with it. Because I don’t have my cell phone with Sprint, I pay $80 per month to for Sprint’s unlimited data plan. If I had my cell phone through Sprint, the unlimited data air card plan would drop to $60 per month. 

Regional cellular companies are beginning to offer nationwide data plans, so check with your existing cell phone carrier to see what they offer. 

Beyond connecting to the Internet, other things I’ve found useful to carry with me in the truck are a digital camera, Video iPod MP3 player and an all-in-one scanner/copier/printer. The scanner/copier/printer I have is an $80 dollar HP model that comes in extremely handy if I need to make a quick copy of my bills at a guard shack. Also, once in a while I need to scan in paperwork so I can fax it to the company with the laptop before the weekly payroll deadline. If I can’t get to a truck stop that’s equipped with the Transflow scanning service my company uses the ability to scan and fax to a toll-free number ensures that I get paid next week! 

The ability to stay connected is incredibly powerful. Modern computer technology has matured to the point where anyone can use it virtually anywhere at any time and enjoy its benefits. 

Email me with comments or questions at tom@truckerphoto.com. I do a mostly-daily MP3 audio podcast located at www.truckertompodcast.com where you can either listen online on your computer or download it to listen on a portable MP3 player.

(Originally published in the October 2006 issue of Trucker's Connection magazine. Trucker's Connection magazine is always looking for trucker-related articles, photos and stories to publish.)

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