What Worked At SXSW 2011

I just got back from SXSW 2011, the annual nerdfest that takes place in Austin, Texas each spring. It’s a pretty harsh environment for someone to remain constantly connected. SXSW is spread out over several venues and covers most of the downtown area of Austin, so you’re constantly walking between hotels and meeting rooms. Despite the efforts of companies like Samsung to setup charging stations, there’s a pretty severe lack of power outlets available. Also, because you’re constantly on the move, you don’t really have time to sit there charging your gadgets, anyways.

SXSW 2011

The situation is quite similar to any other concert or festival that you would go to – wanting to stay online and connected to your friends pretty much constantly, and sharing things like photos, videos, and location with your friends, as well. What with summer coming soon, I thought it would be a good idea to share with you the things that kept me connected while at SXSW 2011.

HARDWARE

1. T-Mobile G2 – this is by far one of my favorite smartphones ever. It’s small, powerful, has a great battery, solid keyboard, and mine’s running Android v2.3 Gingerbread via CyanogenMod7. With the throngs of iPhone users at SXSW, it was rather nice to be using T-Mobile’s wacky 3G network – in fact, I was on HSPA+ (what they call 4G) pretty much the whole weekend, which was awesome. The G2 is so versatile that while I brought my Asus EeePC 1000HE netbook, the only time I used it was to charge up my phone via USB.

2. Samsung Galaxy Tab – another Android-powered device, this was a loaner through my new job at RadioShack. While similar to the G2, the Galaxy Tab’s bigger 7-inch display made browsing the panels on the SXSW GO! app much easier, and Sprint’s network was decent, as well. The Galaxy Tab’s front-facing camera works with the built-in QIK video application, too, so I could easily make talking-head videos to share with you guys.

3. Portable Power – this is the real trick, honestly. Portable power packs like this Enercell one from RadioShack are basically a big fat battery, cased in plastic, with USB output. My phone’s battery capacity is 1300mAh, so the 2300mAh Portable Power from Enercell can refill my phone fully once, and still have plenty left to get me through the rest of the day. Even better, it’s super compact, so I can stuff it in my pocket without having to bring my whole backpack (or toss a few of them into my backpack, for longer trips).

4. Belkin Portable Power Strip – I bought this a few years ago, and it’s definitely great to travel with. You can easily convert a single power outlet into three 3-prong outlets and 2 USB charging ports, all with surge protection. It’s a bit bulky, but completely worth it when travelling.

Software

1. Beluga – I set this up the other day, just after it was bought by Facebook, and was pleased to see how good it worked. I was able to setup multiple ‘Pods’ to keep track of different groups of people, and we were all able to keep in touch easily. This is much better than sending SMS to everyone in a group, and the added multimedia capabilities are awesome, as well.

2. Twitter – I’m a Twitter nut (you can find me at @Rcadden) and used it extensively at SXSW for several reasons. Primarily, it’s a great way to keep track of all my friends who are at the event. Twitter is also great for keeping up with the various panels and sessions at SXSW. Some of the speakers setup a specific hashtag for their session, so you could chat about what they were talking about, or pose a question.

3. Foursquare – I know, I gave up Foursquare a few months ago, but the service really shines at events such as SXSW with multiple venues. In addition to the cool badges, I was able to see where the crowds were and where my friends were. The new version of Foursquare for Android gives you notifications of your friends’ checkins, too, so I could know if I was nearby someone. I’ll probably continue to use Foursquare at home now, but in a much more limited capacity.

4. SMS – plain-jane text messages also proved useful, especially when the data networks got overloaded. It’s also great for friends with different phones that may not support Beluga.

5. SXSW GO app – when I went to SXSW back in 2009, we didn’t get an app, just an iPhone-only website, leaving me and my Symbian-powered smartphone holding a hard copy of the session schedules. This year, SXSW had an app for most platforms, and it worked really well. Despite some long load times, I was able to star the sessions that I wanted to attend on my computer and then sync that back to my phone. I could also search for various keywords, to make wading through the options so much easier. My only complaint was the interface – panel titles were only given one line and only showed 3-4 words, so I had to click through every one just to see if it was interesting.

Next year for SXSW, I’ll probably leave the netbook at home and just bring my phone, a tablet, and a few portable power units. This will make my backpack even lighter, which is also a huge plus. If you made it out to SXSW this year, did you find anything else, hardware or software, that was simply indispensable?

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