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How to get the most out of in-flight Wi-Fi


Over the weekend, I discovered that my annual flight from Phoenix to Alabama (via Atlanta) had in-flight Wi-Fi. Best of all? It happened to be free, thanks to eBay jumping in on the free holiday Wi-Fi bandwagon. The promotion was already active on the flight I took from Phoenix to Atlanta. If you're traveling for Thanksgiving or Christmas, here's some things to consider about utilizing this service with your MacBook, MacBook Pro or MacBook Air.

Is it worth it?
It all depends. It was very nice being able to talk with my fiancé (who, on his part used to inform me of where I was at) during the flight. I'm no fan of flying, and when the turbulence got bad, it was a nice distraction. However, I did notice I got a slight motion-induced headache and had to take a break. If the seat in front of you is reclined to the point where your computer is rammed into your chest, the person in the seat next to you is taking up half of yours with their elbows, or if you're inclined to motion sickness, this may not be for you. Still, a free promotion is the perfect time to give the service a try.

Normally, this service can cost anywhere from $6-15 for a flight. Gogo's pricing structure is $5.95 for a flight less than 90 minutes, $9.95 for a flight between 90 minutes and three hours, $12.95 for one more than three hours or a daily pass on a single airline. If you're just using your iPhone, it's $5.95 for a flight less than 90 minutes and $7.95 for one longer than that.

Read on for tips on maximizing your battery life in flight.

What to do before your flight
  • Charge your battery as much as possible. If this means rubbing elbows a family with seven kids or someone who's taking up three seats to access the only plug in the vicinity of your gate, then bite the bullet and do so. More airports are creating dedicated power stations for mobile users, but those tend to be crowded with those charging their cell phones. If you've got a mini-surge protector with USB ports in your carry-on, you can charge your iPhone or iPod at the same time as your Mac, while making friends with two other power-starved travelers.
  • Make sure your firmware is up to date. Apple's released a number of firmware updates over the years designed to tweak battery performance. Also, calibrate your battery if you have the time.
  • Transfer any media you plan to watch to your internal drive from external storage, if you normally keep it there (see below).
During the flight
  • Reduce monitor brightness. This is the single most important power saver you can implement on the fly. I find I can turn the brightness down next to nothing and can still view most things on my computer clearly. Even knocking the setting down to the halfway mark added a good 20-30 minutes to my battery life.
  • Turn off Bluetooth, unless you're using wireless headphones. Even though it's not going to cause navigational issues for your flight, it still chews up a little bit of battery power that you don't need to waste.
  • If you have an external drive, do not leave it hooked up to the laptop. Not only does transferring your movies and music to your internal drive save you some power, but some US airlines don't allow you to use outboard storage during flight.
  • Switch to integrated graphics, if available. Dual-GPU MacBook Pro models can save power (while giving up some performance on 3D applications) by moving to the lower-end graphics card; note that you do have to log out and back in to switch.
  • Don't use the illuminated keyboard, if your Mac is so equipped.
  • Quit any program you're not using. Don't keep your Mail application running, or if you do, set it to only check mail at certain intervals. If you're not watching a DVD, don't keep the player going. Same thing with iPhoto, iTunes, or any games you have installed. The more you're utilizing the CPU during your flight, the faster the battery depletes.
I began my flight with a 97% battery charge and ended at 33%. This mainly consisted of using iChat with the fiancé and using Safari to check e-mail, various forums, and reading through the archives of Girl Genius. Is this a service I would pay for? On a longer flight like this, absolutely.

Many thanks to fellow TUAW bloggers Aron and TJ for additional battery tips I didn't think of!

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