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ProfHacking Abroad: Hardware Choices for Living In Europe

Blue Suitcase[This is a guest post by Jason Mittell, Associate Professor of American Studies and Film & Media Culture at Middlebury College. In the 2011-12 academic year, he is a research fellow at the Lichtenberg-Kolleg at the University of Göttingen, Germany. He writes the blog Just TV.--@jbj]

I am in the highly enviable situation to be on sabbatical this academic year, made doubly so by being on a fellowship in Germany for the year. The last time I was abroad for an extended time was in 1991, when I spent a semester in London as an undergraduate. Thinking back to that stay, it’s striking how much my technological life has changed: I brought no computer to London, writing papers on the typewriter provided by our program, with my major technological burden being a Discman player, powered external speaker set, and dozens of CDs I brought to avoid months of silence. Twenty years later, I brought 20 full days worth of music self-contained on my hard drive, with no CDs needed, and limitless access to more online. While technologies are smaller and more powerful, they are also more complicated, forcing choices and strategies on how to plan your digital relocation.

Other ProfHackers have written about international travel, like Mark Sample’s plan for a short research trip, or Louisa Burnham’s account of spending a summer in Europe with only an iPad, but moving abroad for a full year involves a different set of choices and challenges. I’ll discuss this process in three parts: this post focuses on what hardware I brought & bought for my trip, the next on software choices that have helped while abroad, and the third about my strategies for dealing with video, as my research area of television studies demands heavy use of video.

My technology choices, like all things, are molded by context—for me, two factors most shaped what I brought. First, I was moving with my entire family, meaning my wife and three children aged 5-10, so we needed to meet many different needs. Second, my fellowship provided a furnished apartment with its own technology package: two PC set-ups (one for home, one for my university office), printer, wireless DSL modem/router, a HDTV, DVD player (region 2), and stereo. Obviously if you find yourself moving abroad, your situation is likely to vary, so be sure to ask what your host may provide.

Here’s the hardware we brought with us & what we’ve bought since arriving – hopefully it can serve as a reference list if you’re planning your own relocation:

  • MacBook Pro: My work computer, as I’ve been a Mac user for a quarter century & switching to Windows would be more challenging than learning German. Alas, I’ve found that Macs are far less common in Germany, so local support from my affiliated university is quite spotty. I also brought 2 power bricks (with corresponding plug adapters for European outlets), two dongles, and my trusty laptop backpack, which is essential given the amount I walk, bike & train around Germany.
  • Three iPods and an iPad: Three kids and European train travel means lots of demands for portable games & videos, so we maxed out on iDevices. We brought many various headphones (don’t forget the two-for-one headphone splitter to avoid sibling fights on a train!), two iPod/USB connectors, and one USB charger, and purchased two portable speakers to enable music & audio books in the kids’ rooms while abroad.
  • An external hard drive: While I backup to the cloud, you can’t be too safe. I got a LaCie Rugged 1tb drive, which has served me quite well to do weekly Time Machine backups.
  • An external mouse & keyboard: I keep these & one power adapter in my office, where I do the bulk of my writing, as well as leaving one dongle set-up in my office to connect to the external monitor provided with the office PC (which sits unused). I brought my bluetooth keyboard to use with my iPad, but I’ve only used it once.
  • Two USB thumb drives: Essential for a backup when I give a talk, but mostly used to plug into our television to watch video files or bring to the local photo-printing kiosk.
  • Power adaptors: Nearly every computer device can handle European 220V, so the cheap plug adaptors are sufficient. In fact, the only device I brought that needs a more expensive power transformer is my electric toothbrush. I’d recommending buying a transformer abroad, as the one I bought in the US doesn’t actually work with Germany’s child-safe outlets. For such electronic needs, Amazon.de has been great for both choice and price, so I’d recommend the local Amazon (if there is one) for whatever country you find yourself in—it’s worth pricing out options for such devices before relocating, as it might be cheaper to buy abroad than in the US and pack/ship it yourself.
  • My Xbox 360: Between my kids and my own gaming hobby research, I decided to ship our console from home. It works well with my European TV, plugging into either HDMI or component jacks, but it does need a proper European power supply that I purchased on Amazon.de, as it’s too demanding for an external transformer. Note that I’ve only played the U.S. games I brought from home, as most European games are not compatible with an American console. The extra-long Ethernet cable I brought to hook it to my router is quite useful as well, as it helps the Xbox serve as my media hub (which I’ll discuss in a future post).
  • A nice camera: We bought a new camera before leaving, and it might be our most-used piece of technology. Our Panasonic DMC-FZ40K is as good of a non-SLR camera as I’ve found, with HD video to document our time abroad; we also brought a small pocket camera to let the kids take their own shots of our travels. Extra SD cards and a card reader make photo & video management simple.
  • Rechargeable batteries: Batteries are expensive, so to power a range of things like flashlights, the small camera, and the Xbox controllers, I brought around 10 AA Sanyo eneloop batteries and a charger.
  • Mobile phones: I’m normally a dumb-phone user, so I don’t miss my American mobile phone at all. We bought two pay-as-you-go GSM phones from blau.de, costing less than 100€ total per phone for ample minutes for the last six months. I thought about getting phones in advance to ease the move-in logistics, but found that getting basic phones in your new home is much more simple and cost-effective.

In all, our digital transitions have been easier than many other aspects of our lives where we’ve learned to do without or adjust, such as living without a car, the kids radically limiting the number of toys they have, making sense of the metric system in the kitchen, or not having a basic toolbox for doing things around the home. But in the digital realm, we feel the practical impact of Moore’s Law, as we can “pack” so many things into these small devices that we rarely feel like we’re living without the media or tools that we need. If only someone could make an app for a cordless screwdriver…

In my next post, I’ll talk about some particular software strategies I’ve used for managing my time abroad and maintaining needed connections back home. But in the meantime, are there additional hardware options that you think you couldn’t live without?

Photo “Blue Suitcase” by Flickr user Drew Coffman / Creative Commons licensed BY-2.0

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