James A. Martin
PCWorld

Seven years ago, this blog you're reading now was an online column offering advice on such things as traveling with a PDA in lieu of a laptop. On that particular topic, I wrote that accessing the internet on a PDA was like "driving cross-country in a Pinto with a cracked windshield--painfully slow and monumentally irritating." One of the main options for checking e-mail on a handheld, I explained, was to connect the PDA to "a dial-up modem and a landline connection."

We've come a long way since then, don't you think? And I've thoroughly enjoyed the journey, reporting every week on the collective digital path we've been on. But after nearly eight years of writing Mobile Computing, this blog post is my last. It's time for me to move along my own path. I'll still contribute to PC World on mobile technology, social media, and other topics.

Before I log off, however, I'd like to pass along five lessons that I've learned along the way.

1. Most GPS Devices Aren't Worth the Money
As a fan of portable gadgets, I've purchased at least one of nearly every device you can image. And yet I've never been tempted to buy a portable GPS device. That's because every GPS device I've ever tested has given me some wacky, if not downright convoluted, directions.

For example, an HP iPaq Travel Companion had me take a route that wound through 19 different streets when I could have made the trip using only 5 streets. A more recent device, the Garmin Nuvi 1370T, suggested that I drive past my destination and circle back around, when all I had to do was make a legal left turn to get there.

GPS devices are improving, of course. But for now, I'll stick with getting occasional directions via Google Maps on my iPhone (except when I'm traveling internationally, as I discussed last week in my blog on smartphone dependence). I'll probably get better directions, and I'll save money and reduce the number of gadgets I need to pack and recharge, too.

2. Avoid Restocking Fees
As stores that give you can get hands-on time with digital cameras, laptops, and other consumer electronics dwindle, you may have no choice but to buy a product online that you've never actually seen.

For this reason, it's extra important to study online retailers' return policies, including their policy on restocking fees. Many retailers charge 15 percent of the purchase price if you return a nondefective product for reasons other than that the seller made a mistake (such as sending you the wrong product). On a $1000 laptop, that comes to $150--an expensive fee for a test drive.

I often buy from J&R because it doesn't automatically hit you with a restocking fee. Two caveats, however: Like many online retailers, J&R does require you to obtain a return authorization from it before returning a product. And you won't avoid the restocking fee if the item you return is no longer in as-new condition or is missing an included accessory or some of the original packaging material.

3. Don't Bother Trying to Time a Tech Purchase
Planning your purchase of a portable device like a logical way to avoid instant buyer's remorse. For instance, we've come to expect Apple to refresh its iPod line-up in September or October. (Read Harry McCracken's thoughtful insights into the latest iPod announcements.) Thus, buying an iPod in late summer is a recipe for subsequent second-guessing.

Nonetheless, obsessively trying to buy a new electronic device at precisely the right moment can drive you to distraction, as I know from personal experience. A recent case in point: I held off buying my first netbook for about 18 months because I wanted a model that had good battery life (at least 5 hours) and as comfortable a keyboard as possible. Finally the Samsung N120 came along; it fit the bill, so I pounced.

But at some point between the instant I clicked the Buy button for the netbook and the moment the UPS delivery guy arrived, Toshiba came out of nowhere with the Mini NB205-N310. In his PC World review, Darren Gladstone reported that the Toshiba netbook had a "killer" keyboard and ridiculously long battery life. It also costs about $400, about the same as the Samsung N120.

So what can you do about it? You can do your homework before buying, of course. For instance, you might check the manufacturer's press release archives online to see when it released the product that you're considering. The longer the product has been on the market, the greater the odds are that its cheaper/faster/better replacement, or something even more superior from a competitor, is waiting in the wings.

Also, try to educate yourself on what the next generation of a product might look like and how soon it might arrive. For instance, some people will call you crazy if you buy a netbook before the new nVidia Ion platform models arrive in full force, because the Ion promises to give netbooks significantly stronger graphics performance.

Ultimately, though, you should just buy the product that best meets your needs and budget; buy it when you need it, and then move on. (By the way, I love my Samsung N120).

4. Live in the Cloud
Next March, Broadway Business, part of Random House, will publish "Getting Organized in the Google Era," a book I collaborated on with Douglas C. Merrill, Google's former CIO. The book explains why information is crucial to being organized. And one key to efficient organization today is to keep important information in a centralized location--the internet, aka "the cloud"--so you can access it whenever you want from a smartphone, laptop, or other device.

This advice is especially relevant for mobile professionals--especially those who have more than one computer.

If you use Microsoft Outlook for e-mail, for instance, you may arrange to have your messages downloaded from your ISP's server onto your own computer's hard drive. But if you're traveling with your netbook and an e-mail message you need is sitting on your computer at the office, you're out of luck. A better idea is to use a web-based e-mail system, such as Gmail or Zoho Mail. That way, you can reach your e-mail from any device equipped with an internet connection and a web browser.

And because Gmail and Zoho Mail offer tons of storage, you don't have to delete old messages to make room for new ones. This gives you another organizational benefit: If your web-based e-mail system has strong search capabilities, and you have years of messages stored in it, you can transform your e-mail account into an always-available personal data archive. Among other things, the book explains how to do this, and how it can help you be better organized.

Of course, web-based e-mail is far from perfect, as Gmail's recent outage reminds us. But the advantages of keeping vital personal information online far outweigh the potential pitfalls.

5. Disconnect Now and Then
Technology lets us stay constantly connected to e-mail and the web--and that's exactly what many of us do. I mean, how often do you see people walking down the street, their eyes focused on a little gadget in their hand? Maybe you don't notice because your eyes are on your BlackBerry, iPhone, or whatever.

I've been as guilty of this as anyone else, and I'm not suggesting that you should leave your portable electronics at home. We have them to help us stay productive wherever we may be.

Recently, however, I was reminded that when you connect to the internet on the go, you disconnect from the world around you. I believe that, cumulatively, you pay a price for those disconnects. What you're doing is retreating from a world that will never quite be within your grasp into something much smaller that fits in the palm of your hand, something you can more easily control. There's comfort in that, to be sure.

But is that what your goal should be--to constantly seek control or comfort? Put another way, what might happen if instead of checking your e-mail while standing in line at Starbucks, you said hello to the person behind you? The answer can't be found on Wikipedia. However, this I know for certain: Your e-mail will still be there when you get back to the office.