Work quicker, easier and better with gadgets geared for productivity
The search for tech tools to make our work lives easier is an unending one. What are the simplest ways to handle overflow storage or backup power? How can we make our tablets or phones more suitable for laptop-style work? And how do we prepare ourselves for business trips without packing the kitchen sink? Our technology editor rates some of the best work productivity gadgets on the market right now
Backup and power
Techlink Recharge 12,000
Price: €100 from Harvey Norman, Expert
Most portable chargers will only recharge a single phone. If you need more, Techlink’s Recharge 12,000 is a great option. It has a 12,000mAh battery, enough to recharge four full-sized smartphones or two tablets. It comes with an iPhone/iPad Lightning charging lead and an Android-compatible Micro USB charging lead. Both of these can be used at the same time, thanks to dual charging ports on the device. And it even allows different charging speeds from the unit, which is around the same size as a Samsung S6 phone (though three times as thick). It is cleverly designed. too, with a flap that opens to let you stand your phone or tablet upright (to watch a movie, for example) while it’s charging.
Sandisk Connect Wireless Media Drive
While the iPhone 6 is a great smartphone, it only comes in 16GB, 64GB or 128GB versions. Alas, 16GB is unlikely to be sufficient for most users, given the phone’s high-end camera (with new video features) and ability to play movies. In other words, any normal user will conclude that the real entry level is 64GB – at €100 extra. One alternative is to stick with the 16GB phone and spend the extra money on a 64GB wireless media drive such as Sandisk’s. This allows you to store your extra photos, movies (or whatever) on the external drive and streaming them over its wireless function whenever you want. Obviously, this carries the disadvantage of an extra devices, even though you’ll gain 16GB in the process. However, it could encourage a healthy de-hoarding habit that dogs many Irish people phone users. This is where we build up huge collections of photos on our phones, don’t bother backing them up and then lose them when the phone gets lost or breaks down.
Mophie Juice Pack for iPhone 6 Plus
Even with the larger batteries in today’s big-screen phones, many of us rarely get to 6pm with a ‘green’ battery symbol. On the other hand, battery-boosting cases may not be the answer. Take Mophie’s Juice Pack for the iPhone 6 Plus. It’s certainly practical, in that its 2,600mAh power adds an extra three-quarters charge to an iPhone. But despite all efforts at sleek design, it also adds noticeable heft to your phone, making it that bit heavier in a trouser or jacket pocket. This is annoying. It’s a bit like walking around in an anorak all day to guard against a probable shower. For those with bags or who treat their phablets as constant video-streaming gadgets, the gadget – available in white, black or gold – might be worth it. For me, a separate thumb-sized battery backup is preferable, even if I have to carry it around.
Imation Link Power Drive (16GB)
An interesting variation on the battery backup theme comes from Imation. As well as a 3,000mAh backup battery (enough to refuel an iPhone 6), its Link Power Drive also loads in 16GB of additional storage. The idea is to have an all-in-one accessory for power and extra space when you’re on the move. It makes sense for the entry-level iPhone devices, as their own 16GB limits simply aren’t enough for all the stuff (apps, videos, photos) you’ll use it for. The Link Power Drive is specifically focused on iOS devices (iPhones, iPads and iPod Touches), with the requisite ‘Lightning’ connector attached. There’s also a small flap that lets you prop your iPhone or iPad up for viewing while you charge it. Because of its 1.5-inch thickness and weight, it is not something you’ll carry around in a pocket, but is more suited to a bag.
Sandisk 200GB memory card
We’re all used to the idea of buying external hard drives for storage. But the technology behind memory cards is getting so extreme that you may soon only need a tiny piece of plastic. Last week, Sandisk introduced just such a thing: a microSD card that packs in a whopping 200GB. That’s more than many laptops give you. And because it’s a microSD format, it’s designed to slot into smartphones and tablets (as well as being usable through an adaptor in laptops or PCs). While this certainly doesn’t come cheap, it could be the shape of things to come.
Surface 3 Docking Station
One advantage to Microsoft making its own laptops is that it thinks things through in terms of work accessories. This docking station is a case in point. It’s a standalone desk accessory into which you slot a Surface 3 laptop/tablet hybrid. That means that when you get back home, or into the office, you just stick the Surface 3 in and use it as a main computer with a proper desktop monitor, keyboard and mouse. It even has extra connections (two USB 3 and two USB 2 ports). In an era when laptops are now the main work machine for most, this makes a lot of sense. The only slight drawback is that the actual Surface 3 machine may not be the best option to use as a main desktop PC because of its modest Celeron processor. An extra €200 gets you a Surface 3 Pro which would make more sense for the kind of person who will want this kind of a set-up.
Microsoft universal folding keyboard
Now that phones are getting big enough to replace tablets, more people are using them as on-the-go work machines. But it’s still a pain to type out long emails or documents on them. Microsoft’s universal folding keyboard is the first practical, genuinely portable accessory I’ve seen that will do this job well. Feeling somewhat similar to Microsoft’s ‘Type’ keyboard (sold as an accessory for Surface tablets), this is easy to tap away on comfortably and works with any Android device, iPhone, iPad or Windows phone or tablet. It can be paired to two devices at any one time, too. But the best part is that it’s super-slim (just a few millimetres thick) and folds in half, making it really easy to stick in a coat pocket or a bag. This could save you a lot of weight on work trips.
There are a dozen little things that can make a PC mouse better than the standard device and Logitech’s upgraded wireless MXMaster model, left, has many of them. Its ‘dark laser’ technology allows it to be used on almost any flat surface without the cursor freezing or skipping. And it can be paired with three different PCs, with a flick of a switch deciding which machine it will control. If you have the patience, a number of well-placed programmable buttons can also be repurposed for scrolling and navigation functions (I like ‘page up’ and ‘page down’ as shortcuts), while the side thumbwheel can perform tasks such as cycling through web pages. This is a very comfortable mouse to use, too.
Celluon PicoAir projector
For most people, projectors sit right up there with pagers and fax machines in terms of the tech zeitgeist timeline. They’re big, clunky and it often feels like you need engineering certificate to get one hooked up.‘Pico’ projectors, with their miniature form, have been trying to modernise the genre for some time. But up to now, the quality has mostly been pretty poor.
Celluon’s PicoAir (and companion PicoPro) goes some way to providing a workable alternative. Aside from better image quality, it’s incredibly convenient and easy to kick off – just pair it with an iPhone, iPad, Android device or laptop and start beaming away.
It uses lasers instead of conventional lamp technology and can project a high-definition (720p) image, movie or presentation to an equivalent size of (up to) 250 inches. Its main physical connection port is HDMI, although it also connects via wifi or DLNA to any laptop, iPhone, iPad or Android device.
Bose QuietComfort 25
Bose’s travel-friendly QuietComfort 25 headphones are pricey, but very effective. The noise-cancelling feature – powered by a single AAA battery – supplements typically good audio quality from these headphones. While they’re optimised for iPhones and iPads (another staple of the middle-aged traveller), the cable lead’s controls and microphone also work with most top Android handsets. They’re fairly comfortable, too, which is a decent achievement considering they fold up for easy transportation when you’re travelling. The nice leather used also helps. They even come with a posh little Bose bag.
Thule Stravan Deluxe Attache case
While there are a million different hipster bags for laptop-carriers, business users still prioritise functionality over flair. Thule’s Stravan case illustrates the point. No one could mistake this for anything other than a laptop bag. Still, it has excellent support, practical padding where it’s necessary and helpful compartments for accessories. It’s also designed to allow easy, quick access to your laptop without too much rigmarole. And it has a handle as well as a strap, meaning you can lift it very easily. Finally, the case’s finish is water and scuff resistant.
Bluetooth headsets may be considered a relic of the 1990s, but they’re still highly effective for those in certain work positions. Forget about sartorial concerns you may have: the gadgets have some material advantages over other hands-free devices (such as headphones). Jawbone’s Era headset cuts out ambient noise far more effectively than most phones’ microphones. In most cases, that means wind: even a regular breeze will often have interlocutors complaining of talking to someone “in a wind tunnel”. The device is rechargeable and comes with its own docking station.
Vodafone 4G Mobile wifi R215
Price: from free on contract
Is mobile 4G a viable alternative for home broadband? In large sections of Dublin, Cork and other cities it is. Tests conducted by The Irish Independent last week showed, in the capital at least, there is widespread coverage of the cellular broadband. Furthermore, our tests showed average download speeds reaching 30Mbs for the biggest operator, Vodafone. One way of dealing with this is to simply switch on your phone’s ‘personal hotspot’ feature and connect up laptops or tablets to the 4G signal. But most Vodafone plans are a little stingy on data (in comparison to similarly priced plans from 3 Ireland or Meteor). So an alternative route is to buy a separate, standalone mobile wifi hotspot device such as Huawei’s R215 with a €25-per-month 15GB data plan. The R215 is a small device that takes its own sim card and can connect up to 150Mbs (although the fastest speed we saw on Vodafone’s 4G was 60Mbs). It’s pretty simple to use. However, inside a typical house, speeds fall off dramatically: it’s not unusual for it to degrade to 2Mbs or 3Mbs.
On balance, this is a device that’s meant for someone in an apartment that benefits from a strong mobile signal or someone who works a lot in hotels or cafés. Leave it near a window for best performance.
On a budget
Logitech Bluetooth Multi-Device Keyboard K480
Price: €50 from Harvey Norman
Technically, we’ve had the ability to use our smartphones as full-on word processing tools for some time. All that was required was a flick of the Bluetooth switch and an accompanying wireless keyboard. But how appealing has that prospect realistically been, using 4-inch handset? The switch to ‘phablets’ such as the iPhone 6 Plus may change our minds on this, however. In such an eventuality, Logitech’s multi-device K480 keyboard is waiting in the wings. The keyboard is actually capable of working with any tablet or (Bluetooth-enabled) PC and has a one-size-fits-all narrow dock that can stand any type of flat screen up into a de-facto monitor.
That includes smartphones. I tried it with a couple of different handsets and it worked flawlessly with all of them. I’d say that the cheap and cheerful battery-operated keyboard is more suited to a permanent home (on a desk or kitchen table) than in a briefcase, as it’s relatively clunky and heavy. But if you’re looking for a writing tool on a budget, this is a good buy.
Cross Tech 2
Some manufacturers make much of their products’ stylus compatibility. Microsoft (with its Surface) and Samsung (with its Note smartphones), do this a lot. But despite having used a Samsung Note phone frequently over the last two years, I rarely utilised its attached stylus. There just isn’t any point: by the time you scrawl out a message and try to have it optically recognised by the phone’s processor for editable text purposes, you may as well simply have tapped out the message on the keyboard. That isn’t holding the luxury pen manufacturer, Cross, back. It has spent a good part of the last two years trying to add a little digital caché to its line of pens. Its most affordably priced example is the Tech 2, which adds a touchscreen-friendly rubber nub on the top of a regular ballpoint stylus pen (available in a range of colours). The pen itself is a nicely calibrate piece of analogue kit: comfortable, elegant and made of non-cheap material. The stylus bit works fine, too. But I’ve used it exactly once (just to see that it was functional).
Nifty Drives minidrive
If 128GB seems a little parsimonious, this is a low cost way to boost storage space on a MacBook Air. The Nifty Drives case, which slots into a MacBook’s SD memory card slot, is designed to house microSD cards. This means that it can fit in entirely and present a ‘flush’ exterior with the laptop’s side styling. In other words, you won’t have a bit of a memory card sticking out the side all the time. MicroSD memory cards now go up to 128GB for around €100, whereas a 64GB model costs about €50. (The minidrive itself comes with a 4GB card to start you off.) The MacBook can be configured to back up to the memory card using its Time Machine system, too.
Otterbox Defender iPhone 6
About one in ten smartphones end up with a cracked screen. This is why it makes sense for some to get a protective case. There are plenty out there, but few come with more armour than Otterbox’s Defender series. This will bulk out your phone quite a bit, mind, and add about an extra 20pc of weight. For that compromise, you’ll get a scratch-proof screen and a tough outer polycarbonate shell buttressed by a thin layer of foam inside the case. It also comes with a fairly tough clip that lets you attach it to a belt or something else that isn’t too big. And it comes in a couple of colours. The only downside to this is that it’s pretty tricky to open and close.
Logitech AnyAngle iPad Air 2 case
I often get cranky with tablet cases with stands. When you flip out their supports, they’re often pitched at an inconvenient angle. While it doesn’t matter too much for flat surfaces such as tables, it makes it much harder to use for your lap or on a sofa or a bed (all much more likely places to use a tablet than a table or workdesk). This gets around that by using a stiff stand that can be pitched at any angle. I used it with an iPad Air 2 and it worked fine. It’s also a fairly effective protective case to guard against bumps and scratches.
Price: from €1,500
While it’s quite pricey, Apple’s MacBook is undoubtedly the hottest new travel laptop you can buy. It’s not just that the 12-inch machine is lighter (0.9kg) than either of Apple’s current MacBook Air models, making it easier to carry around. It adds in a high definition ‘retina’ screen, a revamped keyboard and a newly-designed trackpad, making its functionality match its gorgeous aesthetics.
It is not entirely without compromise. Despite its Intel Core M processors allowing it to do away with an internal fan and prolonging battery life, the chip is less powerful than i3 or i5 processors found in other laptops. But for most uses, this won’t matter much. The other notable development is the inclusion of just one port, the new USB C standard: this charges the laptop as well as connecting it to the usual external devices. (Apple, as is its wont, will sell you an accessory that connects your existing cables to the new USB C port while peripheral manufacturers catch up.) Its other specifications are relatively good: a 256GB solid drive and 8GB of Ram.
Asus Transformer T300 Chi
A new breed of Windows-based hybrid laptop-tablet devices is making a reasonable attempt at being something more than a series of Netflix devices. Asus’s new Transformer T300 Chi, which comes with a clip-on keyboard, is one of the more remarkable specimens in the genre. At just 0.8mm thick, it is the thinnest convertible laptop in the world (and a couple of millimetres thinner than Apple’s super-slim new MacBook). The 12.5-inch machine also has a high definition screen, a 128GB hard drive, 8GB of Ram and a battery life of eight hours. It uses one of Intel’s new low-power Core M chips. On the downside, this has no full size USB port, which may be an issue for some.
Microsoft Surface 3
Price: from €610 (keyboard costs €135 extra)
A nice size, fairly light and its perfectly-sized 11-inch touchscreen display is one of the best around. (This is important, because tablet hybrids’ audio-visual properties are now among their most important features, as more of us turn away from tellies and use our work devices to watch movies and TV series.) This means it has great portability. It lags non-hybrids for overall speed, due to its pared-down Atom chip, smaller (64GB) hard drive and modest 2GB of Ram. Despite being backlit, its snap-off keyboard’s smaller trackpad slows you down a little. If you like using a stylus device (I have yet to meet anyone who does), this is also good, with many of the Surface’s functions working well with Microsoft’s stylus. An extra €250 for a Surface Pro 3 makes sense for those looking for better power, but this is a nice intermediate option.
Panasonic Toughpad FZ X1
The market for so-called ‘rugged’’ devices has always been a niche one, but builders, architects and even military personnel are regular users. Panasonic, which has long had form in this segment, has a five-inch tablet that can withstand three metre drops onto concrete and 30 minutes under a metre of water. It also has a built-in heater, so sub-zero temperatures won’t drain the 6,200mAh battery. (That battery is twice what rivals offer.) The tablet matches a standard high-end configuration, with a quadcore processor, 2GB of Ram and 32GB of onboard storage. There’s also an 8 megapixel camera. This isn’t the slimmest device around, a result of its ‘rugged’ design. If, for some reason, you prefer to have this in Windows form, there’s a Windows 8.1 version with the same spec for around the same price.