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May 27, 2008

Renaissance Man: The Tech Gear I Carry

What a view! The iPhone, I mean.


Conde Nast Traveler stuntman Mark Schatzker is on a mad quest to make himself into a modern-day Da Vinci during a month's stay in Europe. So far Mark has "mastered" golf in Scotland, "excelled" at gardening in England, "ruled" the kitchens of Paris, and tinkled the ivories in Vienna. He's taking a break to rummage through his gear bag and review the iPhone, the MacBook Air, a Canon HD camcorder, and the photo software program Aperture.

Florence, where I happen to find myself as of this morning, is a funny place. It was the scene of possibly the world's greatest blossoming of culture and technology, a stretch of history we call the Renaissance. As a result, thousands, though it feels like billions, of tourists come here every year to witness the place where it all went down. The funny thing, though, is that all that progress kind of stopped dead in its tracks. You can travel to Florence to see Galileo's telescope, but don't go looking for the workshop where artisans crafted the Hubble telescope, because someone will try to sell you a leather handbag.

With that in mind, let me propel Florence forward a century or five by reviewing some of the more recent technological innovations that accompanied me on this trip.

Plainly put, this is the best mobile phone I have ever used. That said, I haven't used many mobile phones. I'm a cell phone monogamist. My most recent phone was a Palm Treo, and its operating system seems idiotically and needlessly complex compared to the simple and crisp touch-screen system Apple created.

A few things to keep in mind:
1. Free wireless is about as prevalent in Europe as a free cup of espresso. If you plan on using data-streaming services, expect to pay something in the way of roaming charges.
2. A surprising percentage of European hotels haven't heard of wireless Internet, which means you'll still be stuck with roaming data, and that ain't cheap.
3. The "Directions" feature in Google Maps works less than half the time in Europe. My guess is that this has less to do with Apple, or even Google, than it does with Europe. Most Europeans don't know their way around Europe, so why should your cell phone?
4. Typing is hard, but not as hard as most people say. The fact is, it just isn't easy to type on something small enough to fit in your pocket. There's no getting around that. As awkward as the iPhone's touch keyboard is, it gets better the more you use it. And if you can lay down the phone on a table and type with your index finger, point-fu style, it's verging on easy.

MacBook Air.

MacBook Air
I was a MacBook Air skeptic. I thought it was idiotic not to include an Ethernet port or a CD drive. I thought that in its insane quest to produce a tiny computer, Apple basically got rid of the computer. I was wong. I haven't once missed the Ethernet slot or the extra USB ports. I'll admit that in Vienna, it would have been nice to buy a few classical music CDs and rip them. Instead, I had to buy off iTunes, and the classical music selection on iTunes is bad, though slowly improving.

But here's the main thing: After lugging a MacBook Pro around the world last year, I truly and heartfully appreciate the reduction in weight. The version I'm carrying has a Flash drive, and the increase in battery life is noticeable. I composed an entire movie in iMovie on a train ride between Naples and Rome, and there was still 43 percent battery remaining when the train pulled into the station.

My Canon camcorder.

Canon Vixia HF10 HD Camcorder
Since I've been shooting Web video, the HD aspect of this camcorder is anything but necessary. Apart from that, I don't have a whole lot to say--which is a good thing. This camera is easy to use, so much so that a novice like me can pick it up and start filming without difficulty. It was as effortless as riding a bike. The sole complaint: Downloading footage to the laptop takes forever. But I'm not sure if this is the camera's fault, the MacBook Air's fault, or just a consequence of the fact that chip technology hasn't caught up with our desire for HD footage. Yet.


If you use a Mac and take a lot of photos, then you've probably already discovered the outer limits of iPhoto. It doesn't take that long before managing thousands of photos becomes a tad ungainly. In the past month, I've managed to take more than 2,000 photos, and managing that load is a snap with Aperture. The best feature, for my money, is that Aperture is somehow able to keep track of a photo library divided out over a whole bunch of hard drives. On the road, that means I can store the bulk of my images on a portable hard drive, which frees up space on the laptop. (And I can look at thumbnails of my entire library, even if the portable hard drive isn't plugged in.) At home, it means as my photo library expands, I don't have to buy a 1TB hard drive one month, then a 2TB hard drive the next month. Final bonus: The image editing tools are less powerful--hence, easier to use-- than Photoshop.

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For great directions in Europe, visit It has door-to-door directions for most cities. Sounds like you're having a great time!!
Gwen - Exeter

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The editors at Conde Nast Traveler answer questions and share travel secrets, tips, and dispatches

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