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Low-Tech Solutions to High-Tech Problems

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The upside of technology—efficient business and more time to sell. The downside—computer crashes, unreliable cell phone service and lost personal digital assistants. We put together some low-tech solutions to your high-tech problems.

It’s the rare real estate professional who doesn’t rely on a cornucopia of high-tech products—laptops, personal digital assistants (PDAs), cell phones, GPS (global positioning satellites) navigation systems—the list goes on and on.

While these tools are undeniably helpful, they’re not infallible. Laptops can be hacked, PDAs can get lost, phone batteries can die at the most inopportune moments and wireless service isn’t always available. Maybe you’re struggling with something as basic as trying to move a file from one computer to another.

Fortunately, there are plenty of low-tech ways to bail yourself out of high-tech troubles. While we all hope for a paperless office, sometimes making a hard-copy print backup is your most logical solution.

Here are six problems and six solutions:

Problem: Your GPS is flaking out, and you’re late for an appointment.
Solution:Plan ahead. Although GPS navigation systems tend to be pretty reliable, they’re susceptible to a myriad of problems. The map data might be out of date, meaning the system wouldn’t be able to help you reach new roads. You might be in a densely wooded area, unable to get a signal from the satellites. If you’re using a GPS that didn’t come with your vehicle, the battery might die—which wouldn’t be a problem if you could find the cigarette-lighter adapter. (Try looking under the seats!)

A little advance planning and a few sheets of paper can overcome almost any GPS disaster. Before you leave the office, head to a mapping site like MapQuest (www.mapquest.com) or Yahoo Maps (www.maps.yahoo.com), input your destination(s) and print out the driving directions. Toss the pages on the passenger seat, and you have an almost foolproof backup. Of course, there are times when nothing beats a good old street map. (Remember those?) Just make sure you pull over before unfolding it.

If all else fails (or you just plain forgot the paper maps), you can still outsmart your gummed-up GPS. Pull out your cell phone, create a text message requesting driving directions (something like “From Jupiter FL to PGA Blvd”), and send it to GOOGL (46645). Within a minute or so, you’ll receive a message back with turn-by-turn instructions.

Problem: Your PDA/smartphone broke, died or disappeared, taking all your phone numbers and appointments with it.
Solution: Hard copies. Imagine the fallout if you suddenly found yourself without a list of upcoming appointments and the phone numbers of the people you were supposed to meet. All it takes is an accidental meeting between your PDA or smartphone and the pavement. In fact, on some PDAs, something as simple as a dead battery can wipe the entire memory, leaving the device as blank as the day it came out of the box.

As with maps, it pays to print out your address book and calendar once in a while—maybe even weekly, depending on how heavily you use them. If you’re an Outlook user, switch to your Contacts view, and then click File > Page Setup > Card Style. In the dialog box that appears, click the Print Preview button to see what your hard copies will look like, and then click Print.

Next, switch to the Calendar view, click File > Page Setup, and choose the output style you want for your printed calendar (Weekly and Monthly are good options). Again, click Print Preview to get a sneak peek, and then click Print.

Problem:
Your phone, PDA, digital camera or briefcase gets lost or stolen.
Solution: Specially coded ID tags. Things disappear all the time, and while some people are honest enough to want to return a found item to its rightful owner (unless, maybe, it’s an iPod), they usually don’t know how. After all, it’s not like your digital camera has a convenient place for you to write your name and phone number. Same problem for police: How can they track you down if they find your stuff?

Simple ID tags can do the trick. Services like Codetag (www.codetag.com) and StuffBak (www.stuffbak.com) sell inexpensive, coded tags in a variety of shapes and sizes. Slap them on your electronics, luggage or even your keychain. Anyone who finds your lost item has only to call the toll-free number on the tag or visit the company’s Web site. The service takes care of getting the item returned to you, usually for a nominal fee.

There’s even a reward mentioned on the tags, incentive for the finder to do the right thing.

Problem: You’re concerned about the safety of data on your notebook computer but have no idea how to protect it.
Solution: Turn off Wi-Fi. When your notebook is connected to a wireless network, be it at the office, an airport terminal or your favorite Starbucks, it may be susceptible to intruders fishing for credit card numbers and other sensitive data. Sure, you can secure your system with firewalls, virtual private networks (VPNs) and other measures—but you need a healthy level of tech savvy to ensure effective protection.

The safest bet? Turn off your notebook’s Wi-Fi radio. Obviously you can’t do that when you need Internet access, but for all the times when you don’t—like typing documents in Microsoft Word or reviewing your schedule in Microsoft Outlook—just flip the switch (literally—most notebooks have a small switch on the front or side that turns Wi-Fi on and off). Then, your computer is an island, impenetrable to outside attacks.

Of course, you’ll want to make sure you have good firewall software in place for the times when you must venture online. Try Comodo Personal Firewall (www.comodo.com), a free utility that offers excellent protection.

Problem: You need to move files from one computer to another (like, say, desktop to notebook computer) and don’t know the first thing about networks, USB flash drives or burning your own CDs.
Solution: E-mail. People often forget that they can e-mail themselves, but it’s actually one of the fastest and easiest ways to move a file (or even multiple files) between computers.

Suppose there’s a work document you want to review over the weekend; just send it from your office e-mail address to the one you use at home.

Free services like Gmail (gmail.google.com) and Yahoo (mail.yahoo.com) are ideal for these purposes. They give you a generous helping of storage space, and they’re accessible from any PC. Once you sign in and check your mail, it’s a simple matter to download the attached file(s) to whatever system you’re using.

This is also an excellent way to make a quick and dirty backup. After hours or days of slaving over, say, a Word or Excel file, you can send it to one of your Web-based e-mail accounts—just in case.

Problem: Your phone’s battery is dead.
Solution: The Energizer Bunny. Your phone is your lifeline; without it, you could miss a crucial sales call. That’s probably why the battery always dies at the worst possible moment, usually when there’s no outlet around (or you’ve left your charger back at the office).

Energizer has engineered a decidedly low-tech solution: an emergency charger that runs on regular old AA batteries. OK, the company recommends its e2 Lithium double-As, but everyday alkalines will work too. Just toss the Energi To Go into your bag or briefcase, and you’ll have backup power whenever you need it. And because you can buy extra batteries just about anywhere, you never have to worry about recharging your emergency charger.

According to the company, you can make a call within 30 seconds of connecting the Energi To Go to your phone. The product is available for most major phone brands (Sony Ericsson is the only conspicuous absentee from the list) and can be purchased at dozens of retail stores (from Albertsons to Target and Wal-Mart). The handy little lifesavers sell for $19.99. 

Rick Broida is a newspaper technology columnist and the author of the book “How to Do Everything with Your GPS.”