The setting: any airport, U.S.A. The victims: you and your laptop. Action! You put your computer on the X-ray conveyor belt and get in line for the metal detector. The guy in front of you gets stopped and has to empty his pockets. Turns out he's a walking scrap heap, and it takes him five minutes to get through. Meanwhile, your defenseless laptop is waiting helplessly on the other side. By the time you're finally through, it's gone--swiped by Scrap Heap's accomplice on the other side.
Pretty clever, huh? It's a classic con, and it just goes to show that your precious hardware is at its most vulnerable when you're on the road. When I travel, I usually take one of TIME's computers with me, so if it gets dropped or ripped off, hey, no big deal (just kidding, boss!). When I have my own laptop with me, however, safety is my No. 1 concern.
First of all, assuming nobody tries to steal it (you can always hand your laptop to an attendant while you walk through first), and assuming you're not checking it (never, ever check your laptop), one thing you don't have to worry about is the X-ray machine. It's safe. The FAA swears by it on a stack of PowerBooks. Metal detectors are also safe, by the way, although if you try to take your laptop through, you will probably be pulled aside and subjected to the Wand of Shame.
Theft is a more serious problem. According to the Computer Security Institute, which works with the FBI to compile statistics on computer-related crimes, laptop theft has almost doubled since 1998, and hotels and airports are major danger spots. If you plan on leaving your computer alone in a hotel room, you will want to invest in a laptop lock. Most laptops come with a security slot in the back--it's that tiny hole with a padlock symbol next to it that you probably never knew what to do with--and the lock snaps right into it. Loop the other end around a fixed object, and you're golden. Laptop locks are all pretty much the same, but Kryptonite makes the one with the thickest cable, the 8-mm Mega Key Cable Lock ($49). A company called Kensington also makes a cable lock for Palms, but it's a little cumbersome for anybody but severe kleptophobes.
For when you're in an airport, several companies make fancy motion-sensor alarms that beep distressingly if someone tries to walk off with your machine (for example, while you're in a phone booth). The winner here is the Defcon 3 ($129), a laptop case from Targus that has a motion alarm built in. As a Targus representative puts it, the Defcon 3 is "a sexy unit"; no less studly a geek than Harry Connick Jr. carries one.
No matter how sexy your unit, make sure before you leave home that your homeowner's or renter's insurance covers your computer while you're on the road. If yours doesn't, there are several firms that specialize in insurance policies specifically for computers. Safeware www.safeware.com will insure a $2,500 laptop for a $96 annual premium. The last lines of defense are, as always, vigilance and common sense. Back up your data, and make sure you have your computer's serial number written down somewhere safe. If your laptop is stolen, that information will help the police.
And finally, whenever possible, leave your laptop at home. Take TIME's instead.