Recently, I attended an all-day conference, TEDxAustin, where bringing tech items was discouraged. Next month, I'll be at the South by Southwest Interactive Conference for a week, where having smartphones, iPads and plenty of ways to charge your gadgets is the norm.
These events got me thinking about essential tech items for attending a conference, the things you'll need (and have to lug around) in the course of, say, blogging, shooting video or just taking notes for yourself.
Our electronics have miniaturized to the point where you might be able to go several days with just a smartphone and a charger, but it really depends on the way you work. Some tech road warriors won't go anywhere without a beefy, powerful laptop, whereas many others are finding they need only a slim tablet computer or even less.
Here are three approaches you can take depending on your work needs and what your soon-to-be-aching back is willing to put up with.
At TEDxAustin, attendees are encouraged to focus on the speakers and fellow attendees — and save the tweeting and blogging for after the event. That meant I was able to show up with just a notepad and my Livescribe smart pen, which allows me to record audio. In my pocket, I carried my iPhone, which I checked only a handful of times.
It was great to leave my work bag at home and to engage in more conversations and less laptop-gazing.
Unless you need to do some major typing at a conference, you can probably get by with a phone and a tablet device like an iPad. If you want a visual memento, cameras on most newer smartphones are good enough to compare with low-end point-and-shoots. Can't go without a keyboard? You can get a light, thin wireless one to bring along for less than $100. Apple's Bluetooth keyboard and several available from such companies as Logitech or Targus can communicate with most tablets and phones.
For multiday conferences, or those that stretch into the evenings (like SXSW), don't forget a charger and a charging cable. If you're lucky, you'll be able to juice up by sitting near a wall outlet during a panel. Charging devices during lunch is another way to save time. A good set of portable earbuds is also a good idea for when you want to take a break and listen to music or watch videos on your portable gadgets.
If you're worried about Internet availability, you could invest in a mobile Wi-Fi hotspot device. Though you might be on the hook for a monthly data fee in addition to the cost of the hotspot, you'll typically get a coaster-sized device capable of giving you several hours of high-speed Internet as long as there's good wireless provider coverage.
The portable mobile office
At SXSW, I never know if I'll need to be shooting video, taking photos or knocking out a long blog post on a given day, so I try to be prepared. My standard laptop bag contains a 15-inch notebook computer, which is not the lightest, most portable machine I could be using, but the larger screen helps me avoid eye strain and is great for editing photos or video. I'd love to ditch the laptop and just carry an iPad, but I still find a laptop more versatile.
I carry my laptop charger, two sets of earbuds (I always seem to lose or break them, so I like to have a spare), a charging cable for my phone, a few USB thumb drives and a point-and-shoot camera (great for when the battery on my phone is running low). Last year, I invested in an emergency phone charger for about $10. I found that even with the charger, my phone battery was still running out by 10 or 11 p.m. This year, I plan to bring a second charger. They're small and light, so they don't add much weight or bulk to my bag. There are nicer chargers from such companies as Mophie and Duracell, but they work the same way. Charge them up, and use them as external batteries when you're in need.
At the suggestion of some of my social media friends, I'm planning to bring a power strip to SXSW. At first, I thought this was crazy. Most power strips are big, ugly and bulky. But there are some I've seen for less than $20 (some as cheap as $7 on Amazon.com) from manufacturers such as Monster that offer three or four outlets (some with a USB plug, too) in a package about the size of a dollar bill, though, obviously, a few inches thicker.
Why carry a power strip? Because at a lot of panels, the wall outlets are already accounted for. You can be a hero to your fellow attendees if you offer up a way to plug in a few more laptops.
Even if your laptop has a port to import a camera's memory card, it doesn't hurt to carry a cheap, plastic camera card adapter that can handle a variety of card formats. Maybe you'll have a conference buddy who needs to post a photo from a digital camera. (As more cameras become Wi-Fi-equipped, this will eventually become a relic of the past.)
This year, I plan to take a bike to SXSW, so I'll be trying to figure out ways to minimize weight in my work bag so I don't wobble on the bike like a guy on a tightrope carrying a solid-gold watermelon.
The professional road warrior
For those who plan to shoot video, take professional-level photos or do other specialized work at a conference, the gear needs might be a lot more demanding.
At SXSW, I see a lot of professionals with rolling suitcases or dollies to carry camera gear, tripods, portable light boxes, more robust power strips and noise-canceling headphones to block out all the chatter when they're video or audio editing.
You can find portable tripods or monopods starting around $15. Joby makes a large line of poseable tripods called Gorillapods that are designed for everything from cellphones to heavy DSLR cameras.
The important thing to remember at large conferences, especially if you'll be doing a lot of walking, is to bring the lightest, most durable items you can in the fewest bags possible. It's too easy to lose track of your things in the craziness of a multiday conference. Consider ditching your work bag in a locker or home base (whether that's a hotel room or a secure check-in area) before you hit evening events. After a few drinks, it's even easier to lose your gear or put your bag down for a few moments and forget about it till the next morning.