What tech will I need while working abroad?

Alan is off to Malaysia for a year and is thinking about his laptop, backup systems, and keeping in touch with friends

I don't expect too many people are planning to spend a year near the equator, but millions of holidaymakers may face the same problems on a smaller scale. But do people worry about taking their laptops and tablets to, say, hot and humid Florida or Hong Kong? I don't think so.

Most of today's laptops are made in China by Taiwanese contract manufacturers and the same machines are sold in practically every country in the world. They seem to survive all the different climates. The real issue is not so much the country as whether you're in a developed part of it. The main cities and large towns in peninsular Malaysia do not seem to be any more hazardous than similar cities in Florida or California. You'll be able to sit in a Malaysian Starbucks (there are 140 of them), or a local equivalent, and use the free power-points and Wi-Fi. If you were going trekking in the jungles of Borneo – where the Malaysian states of Sabah and Sarawak are situated – it would be a different story.

In this case, I have quite a bit of experience. My wife was born in Malaysia so I have relatives in Ipoh, Kuala Lumpur and Penang, as well as in Singapore. Other large cities include Johor Bahru (almost 2 million people, cheek by jowl with Singapore), Shah Alam and Petaling Jaya. It's true that Malaysia suffers from tropical rainstorms, particularly from October to December, but most people just stay indoors until they blow over.

Laptop hygiene

The main threats to laptops are heat, moisture and dirt, including dust, sand and fluff. None of these is specific to Malaysia. You shouldn't have any problems if you take the same kind of precautions that you would take in the UK. For example, if your laptop is prone to overheating, use it on a riser or cooler so that air can flow all around the case. Always use it on a table or tray rather than carpets or bedding etc that can block air vents and produce fan-clogging fluff. Carry it in a slipcase to protect it from dirt and rain.

In theory, moisture could be a problem, due to condensation. Some companies supply environmentally sealed enclosures for PCs used in hazardous climates, but those are not appropriate for laptops. They also apply "conformal coatings" to electronics to protect them from moisture. This is a sophisticated industrial process. You can buy spray cans of stuff online but disassembling your laptop and spraying the motherboard would probably do more harm than good.

One extra precaution: don't munch sandwiches and biscuits over your keyboard. Food scraps may attract small creepy-crawlies, including ants. Your laptop could end up riddled with a different sort of bugs.

Storage for backups

How much storage will you need? It depends how much data you are going to generate. Over the years, I've shifted from small external hard drives to USB thumb drives and most recently to SD cards for backup storage. This is partly because most of my data originates on SD cards in digital cameras and recorders, and my laptop has a built-in card slot. But cheap SD cards now come in large capacities such as 16GB and 32GB, they don't have any mechanical parts that could fail, and they take up very little space.

You can currently buy 32GB SD cards for £11 to £16 or so, and 64GB cards for roughly £15-£30, depending on speed, so that would be an economical way to store 100GB of data. If you need an order of magnitude more space, then buy a 1TB portable hard drive for around £50. With 1TB, you can take a full backup of your laptop's hard drive in case you need to re install everything.

The main aim is to have backup copies of irreplaceable data that won't disappear if your laptop fails or is stolen. If there's not too much of it, you may be able to back it up online. In this case, Dropbox is probably the best service, but it only provides 2GB free. Alternatives include Microsoft's OneDrive, which offers 15GB free with each email address, Barracuda's Copy (also 15GB) and possibly Kim Dotcom's Mega (50GB). If you use Microsoft Office, then Office 365 offers 1TB of storage per person up to 5TB for only £7.99 per month or £79.99 per year. This is great value even if you don't actually use Microsoft Office. For comparison, Dropbox provides only 100GB for $9.99 a month – the same as Microsoft's US price – while Copy Pro offers 250GB. (I don't recommend Google Drive for backups.)

If you expect to take a lot of photographs and/or videos, then Yahoo's Flickr offers 1TB of free space.

The problem with online storage is that it can take ages to upload data, and bulk uploads are not always as reliable as they should be. But if you have decent Wi-Fi and you're just backing up a few documents and photos every day, it provides extra security without too much effort.

Keeping in touch

Skype is still a good way to keep in touch with close friends and family members, and Skype-to-Skype video seems to work well between the UK and Malaysia, though it's not always convenient because of the time difference. My own family – which includes relatives in Ireland and Kuwait as well as Malaysia and Singapore – mostly uses Facebook. We have a closed group, which means family messages are not shown to other friends. Facebook messaging adds one-to-one communications, almost totally replacing SMS. Facebook also makes it easy to share photos.

If we'd been setting something up from scratch then we might have looked for something else, but that's irrelevant. All of us were already on Facebook when I set up the family group, so I didn't have to ask anybody to sign up. If I'd tried, say, Google+, I'd have had to persuade at least a dozen people to start using it just to make it viable for the others, and the chances of that happening were zero. Even if that had worked, nobody would have abandoned Facebook because their non-family friends are on it as well.

To conclude, whatever you're using to keep in touch now, you can use from Malaysia or anywhere else. This includes voice calls, which you can make via Skype or using one of the internationally-oriented mobile systems such as WorldSIM. (Dual-sim phones are particularly handy when working abroad.) You'll probably find that time differences and cost constraints seamlessly shift the balance towards Facebook messaging or WhatsApp or whatever's handiest for everybody.


Post a Comment

Grace A Comment!