Traveling Man: Tools and Apps for Testing Cell Networks Across America, Part I

Car Show in Ypsilanti

Sadly, not available as a rental car.

When I set out on my journey traveling the country doing signal testing with OpenSignal & TechHive, my aim was to travel light. Hitting 20 cities in five weeks is no mean feat, and the less to cart around with me the better. I managed to get a weeks worth of clothes into a spinner carry on. Once I got to San Francisco to pick up the tester phones and equipment it became apparent that I would need to check luggage anyway. I packed the electronics and my clothes and personal items separately, mostly because I didn’t want to let so many gadgets out of my sight (I was carrying four iPhone 4‘s, four Samsung Note II‘s, a laptop, a tablet, and all of the associated bits and bobs). This proved to be the right choice, because my checked luggage went to the Bahamas while I was in Miami and didn’t find its way back until three days and one emergency shopping spree later.

Here are some other tools and tips that I’ve come across in my travels.

A Hardshell Spinner Bag: by far the most convenient for frequent travel, at least until they have adult sized ride alongs. When deciding on new luggage, remember that it will be only as good as it’s zipper and handle. By Kansas City I had lost two zippers already and had to MacGyver them back on with pliers.

Trunki Tiger

Come on Trunki, I’m waiting for the 5′ 5″ model…

Compression Bags: Its a small thing, but having this kind of order in my life helped me keep sane. I like the SpacePak set, because they are colorful for easy identification and have separate compartments for clean and dirty clothes. Though I did find them rather bulky and they do not have a valve that will prevent them from decompressing. But they do prevent your dirty underwear from spilling out when your zipper breaks (see #1) and keep things tidy when TSA rifles through your luggage.

A Good Shoulder Strap: People have different requirements for their laptop bags, but everyone ends up stuffing more than just their laptop in there. I went through three shoulder straps on this trip. The first one broke on the way to my first flight.

Charging Devices

This happened every night.

Power Strip: You cannot imagine the thankful glow on the faces of the two-hour-plus delayed airport passengers in Atlanta when I pulled out two six-outlet power strips. Everyone was sitting around the only available outlet, politely masking their vulture-like desire to lunge at the wall as soon as an outlet was free. When I plugged in the power strips and gestured that they could also have a go, they gazed at me with the disbelief of an orphan who has just been given an extra bowl of porridge. It definitely lightened the mood. I never would have traveled with something like that if it were not necessary equipment for the rest of the trip, but now I may bring one everywhere I go.

PowerGen Dual Port USB: These little doodads were magnificent. I had eight of them. They have one USB slot for Apple devices (A) and one for non-Apple devices (NA), which means I could charge one iPhone and one Note II on each plug. I could also have my Android phone and iPad plugged in to that one outlet that’s at the base of the bedside lamp in a lot of hotel rooms to make absolutely sure that my alarms were going to wake me up.

Anker External Battery

Anker External Battery

Anker Battery Pack: I had five Anker Astro External Battery Packs, which were absolutely fantastic. Both the Note II’s and iPhone 4’s did much better than expected at keeping their charge through a whole day of testing and geolocating, but on the days when an external battery pack was necessary, these did the trick. They each come with an adapter with the necessary cable attachments, or can just take the USB cord from the standard device charger. They also have slots for Apple and non-Apple devices. I was expecting a trickle charge with two devices going at once, but even in that situation, the Anker chargers seemed to get the job done fairly quickly. Confusingly, they did not come with a means of charging themselves. I had to switch the included adapter to attach to a usb wall charger to recharge after using them.

iPad Mini: Early on we realized that some kind of tablet would be necessary to monitor our internal testing dashboard on the go. We were initially going to go with the Asus Nexus 7 but could not find one available in any brick and mortar store in all of San Francisco. It probably would have done a perfectly good job of it, but the travel timeline required something I could get my grubby little hands on quickly, so we went for the iPad Mini instead, with an AT&T data plan. We went with AT&T not out of any real preference, but because I could tack it onto my existing phone bill if necessary.

To be totally honest, I was hesitant about the usefulness of an iPad Mini. We just needed to monitor a web-based, mostly text, data dashboard, so really any smartphone would do an adequate job. After five weeks on the road though, I am sold. It became home base for everything I needed on the go, from booking hotels and cars to distracting myself with Angry Birds during a mildly terrifying descent in a CRJ-200 into the Detroit Airport. It is small and light, which is overwhelmingly a plus. On the down side, the market has been slow to offer protective cases and covers, which means my only option was the Apple Mini Smart Cover, which I found akin to placing a magnetic handkerchief over the screen – psychologically calming, but otherwise useless. I’m sure the market will catch up soon.

More on the Apps I’m using are coming in the next post. Meanwhile, you can follow my travels on Facebook (OpenSignal Gabe), FourSquare (OpenSignal) where I’ll be checking in periodically. I’ll also be blogging some more about my epic road trip here on the OpenSignal Blog.

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