Technology way out in the wild


— 5:18 PM on August 3, 2011

Warning: the following is not, under any circumstances, to be considered an in-depth review or technical article. I've got a rather major one of those in the works, but it's still far too early in the testing stages to give me anything to write about this week. The fact that I was off all last week isn't helping matters, either. While I get the Benchmarking Sweatshop back up to speed, you're going to have to put up with something a little more self-indulgent: a picture slideshow of my vacation. Bear with me, because the vacation itself was a sort of wilderness field trip for technology. A notebook, tablet, and ruggedized digital camera all accompanied me way out into the middle of nowhere for a week.

The first hint that we were heading toward the edge of civilization occurred as we drove north, past Campbell River on Vancouver Island, British Columbia. Four lanes of highway whittled down to a two-lane road, and cell service all but disappeared. Several hours later, much of which was spent on dirt logging roads more pitted than a teenager's face, we set up camp at the mouth of Little Espinoza inlet, just west of Zeballos. The next morning, we traveled some 20 km by ocean kayak to 40, an island in the Nuchatlitz marine park too small to even have a name. This tiny speck of nowhere served as our home for eight days and seven nights.

Fortunately, it can be a very nice place to be. Although the land is hard, battered by an unrelenting tag team of wave and weather, the gnarled forest and ragged shoreline have an undeniable beauty. There is nothing but cold, northwestern Pacific Ocean out from these parts. If you strain, you can just see Putin rearing his head just over the horizon. Otherwise, you're pretty much alone... except for the teeming wildlife, of course.

For some, it's sacrilegious to bring a laptop or tablet to such a pristine setting. I've seen the looks of puzzled scorn among the few souls my girlfriend and I have encountered in these isolated locales. She even scoffed at the idea until I pointed to her bag of books and celebutrash magazines. A tablet loaded with e-books and digitized comics is really no worse. Besides, there's no Internet access for miles—probably tens of them. It's not like I was planning on tweeting my morning bowel movements, which involved digging a hole below the high-tide line. That's entirely too much information in fewer than 140 characters.

The fact is that bringing various gadgets into the wild doesn't somehow pollute the experience. As long as you don't spend the entirety of your trip playing Infinity Blade, tablets, laptops, and e-readers can be just as innocuous as Gore-Tex jackets, titanium tent poles, water-tight map bags, and GPS devices. This year, I packed an Acer 1810TZ ultraportable notebook, an Asus Transformer tablet, and a waterproof Panasonic Lumix point-and-shoot camera, the DMC-TS3.

I wanted to take a fair number of pictures on this trip, and my Rebel T2i DSLR definitely offers superior image quality to the Lumix. And more megapixels. And multiple lenses. The thing is, the Rebel is much more cumbersome to carry while clambering across a rocky coastline. It's not the sort of camera you can have perched easily within reach while paddling an ocean kayak, and I'd be leery about taking the Rebel out in the deluge of precipitation that often blankets what is effectively a northern rainforest. With necessities like fresh water, wine, and bacon occupying all the free space inside the kayak's hull, there wasn't room to bring the T2i as a second snapper.

A wise man once told me that the best camera is the one you happen to have with you at the time. The waterproof, pocketable, and shock-resistant Lumix almost never left my side, ensuring that I didn't miss close encounters with wildlife or particularly epic views. I've used waterproof camera bags in the past, but they've always fogged up or become smudged too easily. The Lumix's lens is much easier to keep clean, although the rear LCD did pick up a rather large scratch at some point during the trip. Chicks dig scars, and I'm going to pretend that the wound was inflicted during a close encounter with a bear, which we actually had on the final day.

Overall, I'm glad to have brought a ruggedized point-and-shoot camera instead of a DSLR. What the Lumix lacks in image quality, it more than makes up by being truly comfortable in this sort of environment. The only real problem is the battery, which runs out after around 300 images or half an hour of HD video.

On less jam-packed trips, I've brought along a low-rent solar charger with an integrated lead-acid battery that's ridiculously large and heavy for the amount of charge it actually holds. I'd looked at a smaller solution this time around, but good solar chargers are still relatively uncommon. Only one Canadian retailer carries the model I was eying: a SolarFocus SolarMio Pro that juices USB devices and select camera batteries. Alas, it was sold out in Vancouver and even out of stock at the retailer's national warehouse. Demand has been high, I'm told, and it's easy to see why. One of the biggest technological dilemmas I faced on the trip was when to use up the precious battery life of my notebook and tablet.

Fortunately, I suppose, the weather conspired to make those two devices largely useless during the day. We had a lot of sunshine, and the screens on my notebook and tablet are virtually unusable when the sun's rays are beating down from above. Even with the backlights cranked to full brightness, on-screen images take a back seat to glossy reflections of your surrounding environment. The last thing I want to see is a mirror image of myself after bathing in the ocean for a week—not pretty.

Transreflective screens that offer better performance in bright outdoor environments are available on some smartphones and notebooks (particularly ruggedized models), but they seem to be largely absent from the tablet space. One exception is the Notion Ink Adam, which uses screen technology from Pixel Qi but is limited to a resolution of 1024x600. I'd definitely pay a premium for a sunlight-viewable screen, but I'm not willing to give up any pixels. Here's hoping at least one tablet maker picks up Pixel Qi's new 10.1" panel, which has a 1280x800 resolution.

Although my Aspire and Transformer worked out much better when I retreated to the shade or when the sun slipped below the horizon, I still managed to use both while under the blazing ball of fire in the sky. Black text on a white background is reasonably visible in sunlight, making it possible to spew streams of consciousness into a text editor or to read the occasional e-book. Forget about anything with color or fine detail, though.

For just reading outdoors, the Kindle's e-ink display is obviously a much better option. Indeed, the device's prodigious battery life and ability to store a virtual library's worth of books in such an easily portable package are ideal for trips into the wilderness. I'm tempted to pick one up but will probably wait to see how quickly Mirasol display technology can bring full color to the e-reader world.

A notebook has accompanied me on numerous trips to the middle of nowhere, usually in much less hospitable weather. I've never felt the need to get a ruggedized model, though. Electronics are easy to seal away from the elements when they're not in use, and I'm not going to want to do any reading or writing out in a downpour—at least not while on vacation. If the weather's that bad, I'm tucked away in a tent or under a tarp, anyway.

On next year's adventure into the wild, I'll probably ditch the laptop and bring the Transformer's keyboard dock instead. The only problem will be tearing the tablet out of my girlfriend's hands. She quickly developed a habit of browsing the day's bounty of pictures each night by the campfire, when the screen was at its best.

I have to admit I'm in agreement with her on some fronts, though. Having an Internet connection on our little island would have felt like having one foot at home. That's not what I want when communing with nature, even if it meant having to wait an excruciating week to learn the results of the critical time trial on the Tour de France's penultimate day.

With that cycling reference, this post has officially gone beyond the realm of self indulgence. Before I too deeply offend those who have humored this off-beat tangent thus far, I'm going to have to wrap things up. If the blowback isn't too severe, perhaps I'll have a solar charger to tell you about next year. Until then, check out the image gallery below for a selection of pictures from the trip. I told you the slideshow was coming.

   
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