Extreme mobility: Tools and tips for smartphone-only travel

You can enjoy the liberation of traveling without a laptop -- if you have the right equipment and plan ahead.

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Making sure you have the files you need

Having the right files at your fingertips is an essential part of extreme mobility. I recommend using two or more of the following methods to be sure you're not left high and dry.

Automatic online backup with mobile access

Mozy Android app
Mozy's mobile app lets you browse through files backed up from your computer. Click to view larger image.

To make sure I can always get to my files, I use the MozyHome service to make online backups from my work computer every night while I sleep. The service costs $6 a month for 50GB or $10 a month for 125GB. Mozy's free mobile app (available for both Android and iOS) lets me grab any of my files that are stored on its servers.

After logging on to Mozy's server, I can pick and choose files from a list of thumbnails; anything I want can be viewed, downloaded or emailed to a colleague. It has saved my bacon several times. For example, when I needed an image file for a story I was working on, it was right where I left it on the Mozy servers.

Other online backup systems, such as Carbonite, offer similar services, and if you use an iPhone, Apple's iCloud service can automatically store all your files online and sync them among all your devices that run iOS 5 or Mac OS X Lion.

Files sent in advance

An alternative option for those who don't use an automated online backup service is to gather all the files you think you'll need before you hit the road and send them to an online storage service for later pickup with your phone. YouSendIt, for instance, compresses your files and makes them accessible online for download via a mobile app for iOS or Android. Unfortunately, the free service can upload only one file at a time. Paid plans can handle more files; they start at around $4 per month.

Box's online storage service goes beyond the onesie-twosie approach, letting you store groups of files for pickup with an Android, iOS or BlackBerry device. You can also share files and folders with other users. The free plan has a 5GB storage limit and 25MB file-size limit; paid plans with larger limits start at $10 a month.

And then there's Dropbox, which lets you store and share files online for access from any Windows, Mac, Linux, iOS, Android or BlackBerry device with the Dropbox app loaded on it. The service, which offers up to 2GB storage for free (paid plans start at $10 per month) can also sync files and folders among your devices as you specify. Marking a file as a favorite in the mobile app saves it to your phone for offline viewing and alerts you if there's a newer version of the file saved. This means you'll have not only the right file, but the latest version of that file as well -- provided you remembered to save it to your Dropbox in the first place.

Remote control

Despite best-laid plans, data emergencies do happen on the road, like the time when the document I needed was too new to have been backed up online. Your emergency may be different -- the file you need might reside in a folder that isn't automatically backed up online, for example.

Splashtop Remote Desktop

With Splashtop Remote, you can use your phone to control apps running on a host computer, such as the weather station software on my work PC. Click to view larger image.

When such a disaster happens while you're on the road, remote control software such as Splashtop Remote can give you the ability to control your computer back at the office -- provided you set it up before leaving. However, this approach has limitations and it's best saved for emergencies.

It took me about 10 minutes to set up the Splashtop system. After loading the free Splashtop Streamer application (available for Windows and Mac) on the desktop PC at my office and the Splashtop Remote Desktop app ($2 for the iPhone version, $5 for Android) on my smartphone, I was ready for the road.

The connection is password-protected. When I used Splashtop recently, the phone and work PC connected on the second try, even though they were a thousand miles apart. Once online, I easily performed tasks on my PC such as opening apps, writing a research brief, checking the temperature with my weather station and reading email.

The software matches screen resolutions between the two devices, and the mobile app supports a slew of special gestures so that working on the small screen feels like working on the PC. Because each command has to travel over the carrier's data network, the Internet and the office network, there's a slight delay between doing something on the phone and it happening on the host PC.

But the biggest drawback is that Splashtop, like many other remote control programs, sends only the graphics information needed to duplicate the host PC's screen on the smartphone, not the actual data that's on the PC. So you can remotely control the computer to edit a file, but it stays on the PC -- you can't save the file directly to your phone. After some experimenting, I discovered the best solution was to use Splashtop to email the files I needed from my computer to my phone.

A competing product called LogMeIn Free (free for the desktop software and the iOS app, $30 for the Android app) is subject to the same limitations as Splashtop, but the company does offer a professional version, LogMeIn Pro ($70 per year), that not only allows remote control of a Mac or Windows PC from an iPhone or an Android phone, but also lets you grab and save the underlying data to your phone.

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