Mara Gulens
January 20

How I used my computer to make my family trip easier
Microsoft Home Magazine

Prepare for the worst, we thought. Three kids under five, transatlantic travel - could this trip get any more challenging? Good thing we were well-prepared. Flights were delayed, even missed, and the door-to-door process from Toronto to Latvia took 26 hours.

How did we survive? Largely because preparations for our trip had as much to do with ensuring we had up-to-date passports, appropriate clothing and lovable toys, as making sure the technology we had with us would lighten the load.

First off, we took the advice of experts and had gift-wrapped surprises for the long flight - including a new Leap Pad Learning System (sure to provide excitement for a few hours), and the ever-ready Barbie laptop (old and familiar - but extremely useful). Extra weight, yes, but well worth it when mom and dad had no energy to spare.

The laptop was coming with us for work and digital photo storage purposes anyway. But we thought about using it for more than just that. Since television and the computer help us out at other anxious times, such as that crazy hour leading up to weekday dinner, why not count on them during a stressful voyage?

Record TV programs onto your PC - and watch Arthur on the plane

The idea of recording TV programs onto a computer's hard drive came to me while reviewing the HP Media Center PC, a computer designed specifically with this process in mind.

Burn the recorded programs onto a CD, and suddenly you're able to take VHS-tape equivalents on the road - which is especially great where kids are concerned.

Although not quite as easy, it's possible to digitally record TV shows onto a regular computer, which saves you from buying expensive DVDs and a DVD player - if your laptop happens to only handle CDs. Best of all, it gives you an unlimited choice of what to view.

I plugged an MSI TV tuner card, available at many computer stores, into an empty slot in our desktop PC and then connected the cable TV antenna to the MSI TV tuner card. The card comes with a program that controls the TV tuner card's channel selection, schedules recording and picks recording quality, so all that was left for me to do was fiddle around with the settings (be warned, this can take some time!).

Fit your favourite shows onto one CD

Once we were ready to roll, our three daughters pored over the TV schedule and selected their favourite shows. By recording six half-hour programs per day, after a week we would have 15 hours of Dora, Arthur, Clifford and Franklin the Turtle.

The programs were automatically compressed so that the hard drive wouldn't run out of space. The picture quality looked fine since they were all cartoons (live action wouldn't look as good - but is no worse than standard VHS recording).

Thirty minutes of Arthur got squeezed into 50 MB. A CD can hold 650 MB, or 13 episodes of Arthur; while a DVD can hold even more at 4.7 GB (4,700 MB), or 94 episodes. I burned them onto blank CD-R disks using Windows XP, so no extra software was required.

Before we embarked on our trip, I made sure I had a current version of Windows Media Player loaded onto the laptop, because that's the easiest way to view the MPEG4 format I used to compress the shows.

Well into our trip, when the girls had just about had enough waiting and eating, the laptop was pulled from the overhead storage compartment. Three-year-old Liva distributed three sets of earphones and with a click, she and her sisters were party to the adventures of Clifford and Dora.

We now employ the same tactic on long road trips - with whoever happens to be sitting in the middle holding the laptop in their lap. Daytime driving often makes for less favourable viewing conditions (too much light), but no one complains.

Don't lose it, crush it or drop it - and other computer requirements

Was I skeptical about bringing my computer along on my trip? You bet. It's one thing stuffing a laptop into a bag - it's quite another ensuring you have all the right cables and software, and that you don't lose it, crush it or spill juice on your machine en route.

We made sure we had our power cord at the ready, so that we could power up during stopovers. Many planes now also have power outlets that can be accessed with special airline power adapter kits. If you can afford it, by all means bring an extra battery.

Since planes tend to be loud and adults might prefer not listening to Sagwa's tales in the car, consider earphones and a splitter if more than one person is listening. Of course if your laptop can read DVDs, bring them along, too. For shorter trips you can even take along rentals from the local video store.

Once we reached our destination, our technology took on a life of its own. We used the laptop for work, to store digital photos and upload them to our website, and to communicate with folks back home - both with e-mail and a web cam.

Mara Gulens' do-it-yourself technology column will appear every other month in Microsoft Home Magazine. Are you interested in learning how to do something new with your computer? Write to Mara at and she may help walk you through it in the coming months.

Do it yourself technology writer Mara Gulens shows you how to take on all aspects of technology with her easy ideas and step-by-step instructions.

[Originally published in Microsoft Home Magazine, 2004]

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