I'll say it again that traveling with a laptop is a bad idea if you're on vacation, but if you have to lug one along on a work trip, you'll probably be tapping into wi-fi signals over and over. Many of those signals are weak, however, so you end up taking a an hour to check and send e-mail when it should take you half that long with a strong signal. Meanwhile, you're missing out on beach time and happy hour.
I've been trying out this Wi-Fire device from hField and have to say that it goes a long way toward solving this problem. It's a signal amplifier that you plug into your USB port. Suddenly that weak wi-fi signal that was only giving you one or two bars is now giving you four and sites are popping up pronto, even with annoying Flash on the page. Places where you weren't able to even get a signal before become surf-worthy again. (The manufacturer says it will triple your range.)
I tried this out on a desktop and a laptop. After installing the driver from the included CD, you just plug it in, choose the network, and you're off and running. It says you need to hook it to a USB 2.0 port, but I did find it worked with an older one. You need to have Windows XP or Vista or Mac OS 10.3 and up though. The only quirk I ran into was with my desktop, where there didn't seem to be any instructions on making this wi-fi device override the permanently installed one. So I was basically getting two signals fighting with each other. (On the laptop I was able to just flip a switch and turn off the other card, but not sure how you would do this with a factory built-in.)
The results were impressive. I was able to walk 50 yards into my yard with the laptop and still get a signal. When I plugged the Wi-Fire into my desktop on the second floor of my house, I could see the networks of 8 neighbors instead of two, some of them a block away. (Kind of a scary thought if this is in the wrong hands, but I don't want to think about that...)
The catch? Traveling with the Wi-Fire definitely requires some extra baggage space. Counting the handle/stand, it's a little smaller than a mass-market paperback, or about the footprint of three of your other electronic devices added together. Part of this bulk is for a good reason though: the appendage works as a stand or as something you hook to the top of your laptop. I also had some troubles with the retractable cord getting tangled, but I'll take that over a cord that's NOT retractable.
The hField Wi-Fire retails for $79, which is a money well spent if you're logging on from the road a lot.