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The miniaturization of technology is usually considered a good thing, having led to smaller PDAs, tiny USB gear, and other micro devices. But the fun ends when it ends up in the laundry.

A metallic clattering noise in the laundry is usually good news. It’s usually loose change that goes straight to whoever’s on laundry duty. This time, however, was different. When I opened the dryer, the hard metallic object under the damp socks was a USB memory key–64MB worth of work I was shuttling between work and home. I had no hopes for its survival. There was a light mist of condensation on the inside of its transparent blue case and the white Viking logo had begun to peel off. It was clearly ruined. So I took it apart, dabbed it dry, put it together, and roamed around like the Ancient Mariner for a week, stopping people and warning them of the dangers of unmonitored laundry duty, all the time holding aloft the key I had ruined by my carelessness.

But that wasn’t the end of the story. A little later, I fished it out by mistake when I needed to shuttle data again. And it wasn’t until Windows XP opened the contents that I realized that it was still fully functional. A mini-miracle was flashing before my eyes! Here was a piece of electronics that had gone through a warm wash and rinse, been doused with detergent and fabric softener, and dried on high cotton for half an hour…and it still worked.

But the survival of my memory key was just a lucky break. Electronics are susceptible to all kinds of ambient conditions, and there’s next to nothing you can do to resuscitate components that have suffered more than their limit of moisture, heat, cold, or impact stress. The real task is to avoid the problems.

Taking mobile electronics into moist conditions is almost inevitable in many climates, and only the right protection will keep them from disaster. RoadWired produces just that kind of protection. RoadWired’s Pod or Podzilla bags are squarish bags for digital cameras, phones, and PDAs (all three will fit in my $69 Podzilla, along with all their chargers and cabling).

When I took my Dell Axim and Fuji FinePix digital camera out camping with a local scout troop, nothing got through the 9-by-9-by-6.5-inch Podzilla–not even the apocalyptic rain shower that drenched every item the troop was carrying. There were puddles on the nylon top, but the water didn’t make it through the padded lining or the flaps over the zippers.

When I needed to get tackle out of the side pockets, they just dropped down without allowing access to the main cavity–which I configured to fit my devices using Velcro-fixed padded panels. For compasses and other stuff you need quick access to, there’s elasticated webbing on the sides, and bungees to fix things in place. I’ve not yet tested the neoprene reinforced sides on a ski slope, but when Camelback calls, I’m betting that I could take my digital camera down it in a Podzilla.

Of course, Podzilla stops protecting my electronics as soon as I start to use them. If I actually wanted to work on my Dell Axim on a boat, up Elk Mountain, or in a blizzard, I’d need more robust protection. The rugged yellow plastic OtterBox is just the ticket. You could knock tent pegs in with an OtterBox Armor 3600 PDA case. You could probably drive nails with it. And yet when you lift up the transparent plastic lid, you can deftly manipulate spreadsheets in your PDA through its weatherproof nylon skin.

To provide this level of protection, the OtterBox Armor 3600 bulks up your skinny PDA to the size of the Starship Enterprise’s tricorders, complete with the shoulder straps. They provide weatherproof through-connectors for hardcore outdoor tasks like GPS on motorcycles or Jeeps in the desert. And you can stow them in a “drop me out of an aircraft” padded lunchpail case. Sure, this level of protection costs–$99 for the box and accessories, $39 for the OtterBox 5000 lunchbox case–but it costs less than a new PDA and much less than getting it and your data to an extreme-weather site.

I’m not quite as rugged as the OtterBox. My idea of stress protection is IBM’s servo-based hard drive protection–a system in their Thinkpad R series that parks working hard drives if the notebook gets knocked off a table. It might not be as gee-whiz as surviving a wash-and-spin cycle, but it’s insurance against the kind of mistake most of us make. And nobody would let their USB key go through the laundry, would they?

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