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The Savvy Tech Traveler

The gear that will make your mobile computing experience more productive.

In a previous life I was a bicoastal “road warrior” for a time (chalking up about 100,000 frequent-flyer miles), and I’ve always appreciated products that make life easier for those who spend a lot of time traveling. For this roundup, I contacted more than a dozen manufacturers for useful mobile computing accessories. I received more products than I could do justice to here; for expanded coverage of those below (and others that hit the cutting room floor), check out my Web site .

I applied three rules: First, I tried to find the best functionality and innovation in each product category. Second, I’ve included only those items that I used personally; there’s no substitute for hands-on experience. Finally, as a Mac user for nearly two decades, I favored cross-platform products where applicable. I quote list prices below; you can often find lower prices at Amazon and other sources. Here are my picks, in seven categories:

Power

While the typical laptop power supply only operates on AC power and is dedicated to one device, several manufacturers sell universal models that work on AC, auto, or aircraft power, and have interchangeable tips for virtually any portable device. My pick: the Kensington Universal 120W AC/DC Power Supply (#33197, $118). Its 120 watts is enough to power the biggest laptop (or two devices, with its optional “Y” cable), it’s slim enough to fit many computer bag pockets, and it’s reasonably light–17 ounces with all cables and one tip.

Input

Many laptops have poor pointing devices, such as overly sensitive trackpads and those abominable “pencil erasers” in the middle of the keyboard. A compact mouse thus can be a boon, both for easier navigation and more functionality. Computer mice are proliferating nearly as fast as their namesakes, and none faster than the tailless species. Wireless makes even more sense with a laptop than a desktop–one less snagging hazard and cable to tangle in your bag. I tested seven portable mice from Kensington, Logitech and Microsoft; all are wireless models.

My co-winners are the Kensington PilotMouse Wireless Mini (#72314, $40) and the PilotMouse Bluetooth Mini (#72414, $70), which are identical except for their wireless technology and color scheme. The former includes a thumb drive-sized dongle that provides a 3-foot range and clips to the bottom of the mouse for transport.

Lacking a Bluetooth-equipped laptop, I tested the Bluetooth Mini (and others) with Kensington’s optional Bluetooth USB Adapter (#33085A, $40), yielding a reliable line-of-sight range of about 25 feet–perhaps useful for presentations.

The Kensingtons were my overall favorites for several reasons: First, they fit my hand well, with straight, grippy rubber sides. Second, while they have the standard three buttons (left, right, and depressible scroll wheel), they also uniquely allow you to “chord” the left and right buttons for a fourth action. Third, the Kensington Mouseworks software is powerful and intuitive. For instance, it offers my favorite scrolling control; you can set the scroll wheel button to toggle between vertical and horizontal scrolling. Finally, MouseWorks is fully functional on the Mac; its Microsoft and Logitech counterparts favor the PC.

If you do PowerPoint, Keynote or photo presentations, you’ll like the Keyspan Easy Presenter (#PR-EZ1, $40). This small RF remote gives you eight buttons for video and audio control over your application up to 60 feet away from its small USB dongle, and has an integral laser pointer to boot.

Data storage

Bus-powered portable hard drives continue to grow in capacity and speed, and are ideal for backup and “sneakernet” data transport. I tested several units based on 20 to 100GB laptop drives. The Other World Computing Mercury On-The-Go Pro FireWire/USB 2.0 (#OWCMOFWU100GB72, $360) was my clear winner. With a 7,200-rpm, 100GB Hitachi/IBM Travelstar drive, it copied a large folder of JPEGs from a 7,200-rpm desktop drive via FireWire over three times as fast (over twice as fast via USB 2.0) as the next best-a 40 GB, 5400 rpm, USB 2.0 unit. Given the OWC’s dual connectivity, on/off switch, included FireWire and USB 2.0 cables, and included AC power supply, I couldn’t find anything to criticize.

Connectivity

Need to wirelessly share a hotel broadband Ethernet connection, create a wireless network at a conference, or provide Wi-Fi to an Ethernet-only computer? Then take a look at the co-winner of my “cool” award: the Belkin Wireless G Travel Router (#F5D7233, $60). No bigger than a cigarette pack (or a fat paperback, including its clamshell hard case that holds router, cables, and power supply), it’s a full-featured 802.11g router/access point/wireless adapter. Either AC or USB powered, it has all the capabilities of its bigger brothers, including wireless encryption and firewall features. As with many routers, its installation wizard is PC-only, but it can be manually configured on a Mac via its browser interface.

Wireless is great, but if you need more USB or FireWire ports, compact solutions abound-typically about the size and shape of a 15-stick pack of gum. The Keyspan USB 4-Port Mini Hub (#UHM-4SL, $39) is a USB 1.1 hub with a self-storing stub connector. The Belkin FireWire 6-Port Hub (#F5U526-APL, $50) provides more FireWire/400 ports than anyone should need, and can act as a repeater to double the 15-foot FireWire cable limit. The Targus Ultra Mini USB 2.0 4-Port Hub (#PAUH217U, $25) is a good solution for devices needing USB 2.0 speed.

All three are bus-powered, but the first two include AC power supplies should you need additional bus power (this is optional with the Targus Hub).

Security

Laptop and data theft are an ever-present hazard on the road; a laptop can be stolen in the blink of an eye–and all your data with it. You can and should protect sensitive data with backup, encryption, and password access control (and there are gadgets to automate these operations-future article fodder, perhaps). However, physical security is the best way to prevent theft in the first place. If you can’t keep an eagle eye on your laptop at all times, a good cable lock can be indispensable. The best I’ve seen is the Targus Ultra Max Notebook Cable Lock (#ASP02US, $45). Its vinyl-jacketed steel cable with a Kevlar core provides over 2,300 pounds of pull strength (undoubtedly more than its lock or your laptop security slot), and its four-dial lock gives you 10,000 possible combinations.

Ergonomics

There are thousands of gadgets that purport to make your computing life easier. My winner in this catchall category is the LapWorks Laptop Desk UltraLite ($30). A sturdy plastic folding unit designed for people who actually use laptops on their laps, it both provides a mousing surface and has ventilation channels to keep you and the computer cooler. It also can be folded into a variable-height wedge for desktop use, elevating the screen and keyboard for better cooling and access. For just the latter two functions with minimal bulk and weight, LapWorks also offers Laptop Legs ($20 for two pair); these stick-on feet fold out at 1-inch and 1.5-inch heights.

If you compute in low-light situations (say, in bed or as a passenger on a nighttime drive), you’ll appreciate the Belkin TraveLite Retractable USB Lamp (#F8E448, $20). A compact unit that clips to the top of your screen, it has a swiveling LED lamp that illuminates the keyboard or adjacent materials, as well as an on/off switch and a retractable cord for the USB connection.

Finally, my whimsy award goes to the Targus Notebook USB Light/Fan combo (#PA014U, $15). Each is mounted on an 18″ gooseneck, letting you direct the LED lamp and surprisingly effective 3-inch soft-bladed fan wherever you want. When I pointed the fan at the “cooktop” area of my PowerBook, it kept the internal fan off entirely, and was a bit quieter.

Transport

One problem–besides cost–of acquiring all this stuff (however portable) is that you need something to carry it in. My clear winner in the shoulder/backpack subcategory is the Shaun Jackson Design BackOffice ($150). It boasts a unique “saddlebag” design, with pockets that hold everything mentioned above, fold over the computer compartment for travel, and unfold for use. It also has both stowable backpack and shoulder straps and a removable laptop sleeve with its own handle for minimalist needs. All of the Shaun Jackson models (which start at $60) put meaning back in the word laptop. While most cases require that you pull the computer out to use it, the SJD cases unfold and open up in about five seconds, letting you work on your lap right out of the case. They also prevent “hot-leg” and provide air circulation around the laptop with their Cooldeck foam support pads. If you need to compute in transitory situations (airport lounges, waiting rooms, buses, carpools), you’ll love this setup-and attract envious onlookers.

For my “kitchen-sink” subcategory, I looked at rolling cases that let you carry both laptop and personal gear for a day or three (or more computer gear, like a projector or portable printer). An added benefit of many of these is that they look like standard wheeled carry-ons, making them less of a target for theft. For design elegance, usability and durability, my pick is the Briggs & Riley 20-inch Upright Business Traveler (#BR220, $369). As one would expect at the price, features, materials and build quality are top-notch, and this model sports an externally accessible computer compartment with a separate sleeve for carrying just the laptop and a few files.

Late in the game I ran into a bargain-the Sigg 22-inch Expandable Wheeled Travelbag with Suitor, which I found at Sam’s Club for less than 70 bucks (#847739, $67). A padded outer pocket in the lid contains a padded sleeve that (barely) holds my 15-inch PowerBook; I suspect a 17-inch model will fit without the sleeve, albeit with less protection. Besides its laptop accommodations, I was impressed with its robust ballistic nylon construction, included suit bag, zippered expansion gusset (though probably at the cost of carry-on status), and many other nice touches.

So there you have it–18 ways to improve your mobile computing life. Go forth and conquer new worlds.

Ken Henningsen is a digital event photographer, woodworker, DIYer, grandfather, and general gadget freak. His photography and gadget musings are at www.kenhenningsen.com.

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