The Best Linux Tools for Working on the Road

The mobile workforce is a fact of modern technology life. And Linux is right there, silently helping professionals get the job done.

RoadmapA Linux road warrior might be the harried system admin bouncing between several sites. Or the freelance Open Source programmer, living in different places whenever they change projects. Or how about the Linux guru at a national conference, who is also simultaneously solving business problems for his company between talks? Quirky technology writers and chin-stroking consultants might round out the mix of people using Linux on the road.

You might also be doing client work without even an office. Sometimes you just need to get out of the house to stay sane. And of course, everybody knows that extreme Linux laptop users can’t stand the thought of going on vacation without taking a penguin-powered machine on the trip.

Whether you’re a Linux road warrior by choice or necessity, these tips are meant to help improve your mobile experience and give you a little piece of mind.

Go For Reliability

The most important aspect of effectively using a Linux laptop is to make it predictable and reliable. Start up, shutdown and applications should function the same way every time, so you don’t need to do a lot of tweaking just to write a document or start a new project. Sadly, the lure of constant process streamlining and tweaking is all too strong with Linux. So rule one for keeping things simple: Try to resist the urge.

It’s important to take a little time to get your basic system and processes running smoothly. We still need to get real work done while we’re traveling, and the balance will come with time and experience. If a tweak will result in improved performance or work flow, then by all means make it. Otherwise leave well enough alone.

And don’t wait until the last minute to get an application working, like right before your next sales call. Work out the bugs with your new projector/monitor setup before jumping Fortunately, running Linux on a notebook has come a very long way since the early days.

Linux Equipment

I’ve used laptops since the mid-80s and Linux notebooks since the late 90s. I’ve tested and reviewed a number of different versions of Linux including SuSE, Red Hat, Puppy, Knoppix, and various flavors of Ubuntu. My hardware has covered no-name Taiwanese brands, HP, Toshiba and ASUS. I even used an old T-1100 Toshiba with dual floppies and an early monochrome LCD. Back then it was all command line. Seems like I was able to run Minix on that old machine, although my memory might be just a bit hazy.

The latest notebooks and Linux offerings have absolutely amazing capabilities and features. I won’t go into a long discussion about the various brands and models, but rather will give some general observations and guidelines.

I buy machines off-the-shelf and then install my favorite version of Linux. The easiest way is to download a Linux image and burn it onto a USB stick. Most distributions let you run the system “live” off of the stick before you install it on your hard drive.

Right now, I really like Asus products because they’re robust and durable. Dell has a good reputation of holding up for mobile use, too. Over the years, I’ve had problems with HP and Acer machines, so I can’t recommend them for road warrior service.

I also buy the fastest hardware I can afford. The more RAM the better, with 4 gigabytes being a reasonable minimum. Dual- and quad-core Intel processors are common with plenty of dedicated video RAM. My current laptop has 1 GB of video RAM and a fairly high-end Nvidia video chip. Graphics details and speed make for fast response, which in turn means more work gets done. If you give a lot of presentations, make sure you have a VGA and HDMI output. HDMI has become the standard at conferences and has the advantage of being able to easily hook up easily to a big-screen monitor for smaller audiences, or to a smaller one when I’m practicing my spiel in the hotel room.

Size Matters

For a long time, I used 15-inch notebooks but always hated their weight and bulk. I’ve settled on 14-inch models as being the best compromise in terms of usable screen, keyboard and horsepower verses footprint and weight. Though retailers push 15- and even 17-inch models, don’t be fooled: You’ll hate carrying these monsters around for mobile work. More engineering details are required to squeeze lots of horsepower into a smaller package, so these lighter models will always cost more.

Right now, I have a red hot Asus machines X83-VM 14-inch notebook and an eeePC 1000HE running Xubuntu and eeeBuntu, respectively. They both have a nice fit and finish. They also have a solid feel and have proven remarkably robust.

The eeePC 1000HE is a stable platform that’s ultra portable. EeeBuntu can run Openoffice.org, Firefox, Thunderbird and terminals without any problems. The default Gnome desktop works great, and even the Compiz 3D capabilities are impressive. On a charge, it runs for about four hours.

It is also pretty fast with 2 GB of RAM and a mid-range Intel graphic chip. The 10-inch screen might be a bit difficult to read for some people, and since the resolution is 1280 x 600, you’ll have to frequently scroll down with Openoffice.org documents and Web pages.

You certainly can’t complain about the portability of the eeePC netbook. Slip the wireless mouse in your pocket, put the netbook in suspend mode and go. When you arrive at your work site, push the power button and you’re up and running. It’s the ultimate bare bones portable office. Here’s a a side-by-side view of the Asus eeePC and notebook.

Asus Notebook and Netbook

Take Alongs

Here’s a few other accessories that will make you more productive. Keep in mind that whatever saves weight and space is always a good idea.

  • Mouse: The Logitech XV Nano notebook mouse is wireless and has a tiny 1/4- x 1/2-inch receiver that plugs into the USB port. Size and breakage are minimized.
  • Extension cord and power strip: A common six- to 10-foot extension cord is a life saver when you’re mobile. There are never enough outlets close at hand at the cafe, the airport or the hotel lobby. A power strip is a nice optional addition that gives you even more flexibility.
  • CAT 5 Cable: A five-foot CAT 5 cable can come in handy when you get to your in-laws’ house and have to patch into the cable modem directly. I like the patch-type cables because they use flexible, stranded wire that’s easy to work with. You can make your own with connectors and regular solid core wire, but it gets heavy and stiff.
  • Computer Bag: A plain, no frills bag draws little attention, which is a good thing when you’re carrying a bunch of electronic equipment around. I figure if I have a mediocre or every slightly shabby bag, a thief might not think there’s anything inside worth stealing.Because a Linux eeePC can fit into a briefcase or small carry-on, packing it is a joy. You might not even need a dedicated computer bag. With a netbook, you might have a little more space to take your own router, some audio cables and tools.
  • WiFi Router: Having your own router along can come in handy when you’re visiting relatives or hotel hopping. The Trendnet wireless line are cheap (about $30), small (about 6 inches x 4 x 1) and proven performers. I’ve not had good luck with Netgear or Linksys WiFi routers on the road. They’ve just quit without warning. The picture below shows the small size of the Trendnet router next to my power strip. Mine handles G speeds (54 Mb/s), keeping cost and complexity low.

Trendnet Router

  • Cords and Power Bricks: Don’t forget to pack your optional power bricks and extra cords. As notebooks and netbooks continue get greener, their power supplies keep shrinking. The eeePC has one that’s about 1 inch x 1 x 3.5. Extra cords might include a 1/8 to 1/8 audio cable and an HDMI video cable. Notebooks universally use HDMI so they can connect to high-def TVs. Since Corporate America uses big screens in meetings, being able to connect is key. Be aware that the HDMI cables are usually over-priced, so make sure to look for sales.
  • DC to AC Inverter: While you wouldn’t carry a DC-to-AC inverter around in your laptop bag, there’s no reason you can’t slip one under your car seat or in your luggage. You can charge your laptop/netbook battery between destinations while driving, or use it for extreme portable situations. I picked up a 400-watt (800 watts, surge) model from Home Depot for around $50. I’ve had no problem with the step-sine wave types, so if you’re paranoid about noisy inverter circuits, check out one of the current “true sine” models.

DC/AC Inverter

  • Odds and Ends: You might want to pack some good ear buds so you can listen to music or the occasional video. A USB memory stick or two and an extra SD card can come in handy, especially if you use a digital camera. Also consider a small LED flashlight, some Post-Its, a small notebook and a neatly folded garbage bag. A garbage bag? It’ll be worth it’s weight in gold if you want to save your equipment from an unanticipated downpour.

Places To Work

Five years ago, working on the road was a challenge. One thing that’s made it a lot easier since then is the free wifi that’s nearly ubiquitous at hotels, cafes and restaurants. You can also get connected at public libraries, airports and office buildings.

As with all things, some places are better as virtual work sites than others.

For example, Panera Bread has a pleasant atmosphere, free wifi, good coffee and lots of tables. I’is made for socializing and usually has steady business. (I find the the cinnamon-crunch bagel, warmed in the microwave and with plain cream cheese tasty and satisfying.)

You’ll want to make sure to get a spot early. In some outlets, Panera doesn’t allow people who aren’t eating to occupy their table. During the rest of the day, they’ll let you stay for as long as you like. In any case, a free connection is well worth the price of a bagel and cup of coffee.

I’m not a fan of Starbucks as a place to get work done on the road. Their coffee is pricey, there are few tables, there are hardly any power outlets, and the colors are dark and brooding. I always feel like they’re trying to attract paper-and-pencil fiction writers though, yes, I admit I see a lot of tablets there.

An unusual place place to get some quick work done is your the local mall. Simon Property Group malls have free wifi for customers. I’ve used the eeePC to get on their network while my wife and kids are busy shopping. It might not be the place to do kernel programming, but it’s a good spot for a quick check of email, putting down a few thoughts on a new project, or just to catch up on world events.

Since we’ve been talking about working in public places, lets touch on security.

Keep It Safe

There are two types of security associated with virtual office activities. One is keeping the physical parts safe from theft and accidents. The other is network safety.

I don’t want to risk losing my machine, so I never leave my setup unattended. If I’m not with a group of friends or colleagues, that means putting the laptop/netbook in the bag and hauling it to the cash register or bathroom. I’ve seen other people leave their machines and completely disappear for five or 10 minutes at a time. Nothing has ever walked away, but I’m certainly not that trusting. And they’re lucky.

I’m also careful about placing equipment in my car. Always cover it or put it in the trunk. But be careful: Don’t park somewhere, walk around, drop your laptop in the trunk and walk off to your destination. Criminals watch for that sort of thing. It’s an open invitation for them to break in. Much better to put your machine in the trunk beforehand so you don’t have to expose the stash, as it were, in front of questionable characters.

As for network security, you’re already well-equipped.

Most public access points have no encryption or authentication running. They’re made for easy connections with minimum fuss. So always make sure your laptops and netbooks have a software firewall engaged. I like the Guarddog setup for choosing which ports allow traffic. It manipulates the kernel IP-tables and does a great job. The downside is that you have to specifically open up http or ssh. Otherwise you’ll sit there for a few minutes wondering why you can’t get access. I keep the basics like http and dns open for regular use and open access to ssh only when I have to.

(You have to wonder how many Windows users are plugged into these public hotspots, without anything to keep out the bad guys? I suspect more than a few.)

Let’s finish up with a quick word about mobile office logistics.

Virtual Work Flow

When you’re working mobile, it takes time and a solid commitment to succeed. Since time’s easy to waste, you should plan well and stay on-task. Some people never seem to have trouble with their work. Others, like myself, find it challenging and have to focus hard to stay productive.

Travel itself is an efficiency-killer, as is standing in line for your coffee. Ideally, the coffee shop and library are right down the street. I go to a lot of different places to work, mostly for the change of scenery and inspiration. I also don’t want to wear out my welcome with the business owners.

Connectivity issues or lack of power are common problems you’ll face. Sure, you can usually do a solid two hours of work on a battery charge, but when is that ever enough? What to do? Turning off wifi and Bluetooth, turning down the screen brightness and running on the lowest CPU frequency all will stretch your work time. Between stops, try plugging in your inverter and topping off your laptop battery. It all gets to be an exercise in logistics.

Don’t forget that Linux users are highly susceptible to excessive system tweaking. I’m guilty of downloading applications while sitting in a coffee shop. On the other hand, slow network speeds usually help check my bad behavior.

Make It Work

Finally, being a productive virtual worker — whether you’re a programmer, consultant or writer — is just a matter of commitment. Using Linux on your notebook provides reliability and a good depth of applications. Just foster a strong work ethic, enjoy your portability, and deliver outstanding results.

Comments

  1. BY B_Creative says:

    Staples parking lots are another good source for free Wi-Fi. Try wififreespot.com for listings, wherever you are traveling.

  2. BY Gary says:

    A very lame newbie article for today.If your a linux person, the last thing you need to read about is Panera having free wifi or the mall… This is a tech article?

    • BY Rob Reilly says:

      Gary,

      Sorry you didn’t get anything out of the story. There’s quite a bit of info there for newbies. We also have a lot of new Linux people joining the cause, so my intent is to give them a good start.

      Perhaps, you have some tips, that I didn’t cover, that readers would appreciate.

      Thank you for your input.

      Rob Reilly
      Dice Linux and Mobile Development community guide

  3. BY Rueben Ramirez says:

    I’ve recently converted over to Arch linux installed on a new HP Chromebook 14. It took a little fidgeting to get (almost all of the) kinks worked out, but DWM and Vimium on my Chrome browser on this wonderful keyboard has been excellent!

    I’ve not found a better 8.5hr battery life for $350!

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