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Desktop KVM switches add convenience to using more than one computer

If you’ve got two or more computers — say, a desktop and a notebook — or perhaps two desktops and a notebook — or three notebooks — switching among them can be a nuisance.

It’s particularly a nuisance if you want to be switching back and forth among systems during over a session, like if one is your “business production” system, another is your testing platform, plus you’ve got a notebook for when you travel.

One way to do this is to use “remote desktop/remote control” software like GoToMyPC, LogMeIn, TeamViewer, VNC, or the many other offerings. These programs let you manage your computers via WiFi or Internet connections, or even from a smartphone or tablet like an iPhone or iPad.

If your computers are going to be right next to you, another option is a KVM — K for Keyboard, V for Video, M for Mouse (or other pointing device, like a trackpad or trackball) — switch.

A KVM switch is the computer equivalent of the input selection button on your television that lets you toggle between the cable, DVD player, or that old VCR.

A KVM switch lets you connect multiple computers — how many depends on the switch — and with the touch of a button, change which computer the keyboard, display and mouse are connected to. Unlike using remote desktop programs, only the computer you want to use has to be on — or you can have multiple computers on, and be switching among them like you do among windows within a given computer.

Many data centers use KVM switches to let IT admins connect to several machines from a single terminal. But KVM switches can be useful for office, home office, and home users as well.

To connect up a office/home KVM switch, you plug your keyboard, mouse, and display (some KVM switches support two displays) into the back. You then connect a KVM cable between the KVM and the computer — typically, the KVM cable includes a video cable, two USB cables, and A/V cables. Connect the KVM power supply, and, optionally, plug peripheral(s) into the KVM’s front-side USB ports — and you’re ready to go.

I’ve been using KVM switches for more than 25 years. While I typically only have one computer running at a time, KVM switches are a great convenience when I’m testing a new machine or need to access my travel notebook.

Though data-center-grade KVM switches can cost up to several thousand dollars, office/home-class KVMs are much less expensive.

KVM switches start at around $20 for two-to-four-machine switches. For example, is currently listing the “IOGEAR GCS612A MiniView Micro PS/2 Audio KVM Switch with Cables” for $25.99 (MSRP $29.99). A four-to-eight port KVM that supports two video monitors and with other features may run you several hundred dollars — and would be worth it.

Don’t hesitate to bargain hunt for slightly older machines — but check the notes at the bottom of this article, and also see whether the price includes a set of cables

The KVM switch I’ve been using for the past five or more years is an IoGear MiniView Symphony.

KVM Switch

It’s got four ports, meaning it accommodates and can switch among up to four computers.

KVM Switch

It has two front-side USB ports for peripherals. Pressing a computer selector for a few seconds switches these USB ports to that computer. It also has a four-port Ethernet switch built-in.

KVM switches don’t seem to wear out, but they may not meet the requirements of your newer computers or displays. In particular:

1) Older KVMs may not connect to Windows 7 machines.

2) Older KVMs may not support the video resolution you need.

While remote-desktop software may be the wave of the future, KVM switches are an inexpensive, easy way to meet for basic needs of switching between systems.




Bluetooth headsets, what to look for?

Bluetooth HeadsetOne of the most essential accessories for your cell phone is a Bluetooth headset — one of those little metal-bug-like things that fits in (and perhaps over) your ear, allowing you to chat without having to hold the phone up to the side of your face, or have a wire dangling between your head and one of your pockets.

Bluetooth headsets are useful for working with your mobile phone, tablet, or notebook computer and they cost anywhere from $15 to $150. Obviously, they’re not the same. So what should you be looking for, feature wise?

Based on having tried/used a dozen or so over the past several years, here’s my advice:

Staying Power

An earpiece that won’t stay on your ear won’t last long. If it’s going to fall off and get lost, it’s a bad investment. You’re moving your head around as you walk, talk, get in and out of your car. If it falls out easily, it could be minutes or miles before you even notice it’s missing.

My current favorite with this in mind are SoundID, which has a clear plastic earloop. I also like the Jawbone, but its earloop can come loose from the headset too easily. I’m partial to earloops, and to earloops that can’t detach, or at least not without some effort.


If you’re going to be wearing this for hours at a time, it’s got to be comfortable enough, even if you wear glasses.

USB Charging Port

This isn’t as much of a problem as it was even a year or two ago, when Jawbone, Plantronics and others had proprietary, and often annoying charging ports. Thankfully, now almost all mobile vendors (other than Apple) have standardized usage of smaller USB ports, so your tech travel kit is likely to include the right cable, and if it doesn’t, you should be able to borrow or buy one easily enough.

Sound Quality at the Other End

How do you sound to whoever you’re talking to? How’s the sound cancellation — can you talk quietly in a crowded coffee shop, or as you walk by a leaf blower? You’ll need a testing-buddy to check this with, and you may want to ask a friend to wear the headset so you can hear what they sound like.

The various vendors tout a range of continually evolving noise cancellation and other audio features. Whether they make a difference — and if they do, enough to override other considerations — only you can decide.


Bluetooth headsets don’t have a lot of controls – basically, on/off, answer/end call, volume, and maybe sensitivity. Some have voice-control. Are the buttons/controls easy for you to reach up and use? Or are you making more mistakes than correct reaches?

For out-of-office use, you’ll probably also want something relatively unobtrusive — small. In the office — or if you don’t care — you may prefer a Bluetooth headset with a boom mike, either short or long, which can pick up your voice better. Similarly, you may look for one that really is a headset, meaning it has some over-the-head loop, rather than just stick-in-and-over-your-ear.

Now all you have to do is not lose the headset when you’re now wearing it…

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Beyond “My Documents” — Organizing your files to make things more findable

Beyond My DocumentsLike the stuff in your office, closets, bookshelves, and everywhere else in your physical life, the number of data files on your computers (including cloud storage and online backups) keeps growing.

If you use your computer for business purposes — and even if you simply use it a bunch for personal reasons — that means you quickly have too many files to simply have all in one directory, just like your bills, correspondence, and other paperwork really need to be organized.

Tools like Windows 7′s built-in indexing, or the “Find” command in your file manager, may make it surprisingly easy to find a file quickly, similar to how Google (and other web search engines) help you find online stuff.

But, just like there’s no substitute for good labeling and organizing your paperwork into named folders and file drawers, that’s no substitute for good practices in naming and organizing directories and files, so that you can find things later on.

One reason is you may not remember the right keywords to search for. Another reason is you may have to look through a drive or directory using a different machine or OS — or a cloud back-up — which doesn’t have that index, or support as easy searching within files.

I’ve used two methods that since I started with computers — going back to the pre-Windows days of DOS, and working on Unix systems:

  • Giving files and directories self-explanatory names
  • Organizing my directory structure in a logical manner

A directory called STUFF, or NEW, isn’t helpful. Especially if I haven’t look at it recently. Directory and file names should tell you exactly what the file is. For example, I give directories names such as:

  • AA_WORK (current projects — I’m using the “AA_” to force these alphabetically at the top of the directory listing)
  • AA_ARCHIVES (projects I’m done with)
  • AA_PERSONAL (home, health, family, etc.)

For files, let’s work through a recent project of mine, a review of Bluetooth Keyboards. I called the finished product “Dern-TabletPubs-Review-BluetoothKeyboards.doc” and the invoice that goes with it “Dern-2012-137-TabletPubs-03-Review-BluetoothKeyboards.doc.”

Of course, there are also several files associated with the writing of this project:

xcr-TabletPubs-Review-BluetoothKeyboards.doc (xrc is my shorthand for an interview transcript)

Notice that each document contains the project name (Review-BluetoothKeyboards) and the client name (TabletPubs — a pseudonym, of course).

As a freelance writer, I keep a directory for each client. Within each client, I maintain a directory for each project. Within TabletPubs, I have:

  • Feature-TabletsInEnterprise
  • Feature-Windows8-MythOrMenace
  • Review-BluetoothKeyboards
  • Review-FunAccessories

My general point: I should be able to know, or at least have a good idea, of what a file and directory are about from their names — and if for some reason I find a file in a place I don’t expect (typically because the application saved it in the wrong place) I can quickly figure out where it should go.

And, equally, I should have a good chance of finding the directory or file based on a name search, without having to search inside the files. (I’m not opposed to searching file contents, but that can often turn up way too many matches.)

Directories for active projects are in the directory AA_WORK. Once a project is finished, I move it to AA_ARCHIVES.

Anything else about my business other than projects is in AA_ADMIN, such as CONTRACTS (with a sub-directory for each client), INVOICING, RECEIPTS, TECHSUPPORT, TRIPS.

The same applies to non-business stuff, e.g. under my PERSONAL directory, I’ve got directories like CAR, DIRECTIONS, DOG, HEALTH, HOUSE.

One last tip: I also use this organizational approach to simplify and reduce my file backup requirements. Stuff I want backed up goes in one set of directories. Stuff I don’t care about, like manuals I’ve downloaded, articles I want to read, presentations I was sent for articles I was doing, vendor press kits, all go under one top-level directory like STUFF2SAVE_BUTDONTBACKUP.

Of course, I periodically rethink how I’m labeling and organizing my files — often as new topics and groups of things emerge. The same is true for my paper files, my shoeboxes of electronic doohickeys, etc. But generally, I’m able to find something quickly enough, so it must be working, at least, for me.


For international data service: Rent a WiFi Hotspot, and/or get WiFi

In the United States, a broadband data service for your smartphone, tablet, notebook, mobile hotspot or other device can be relatively affordable. To vastly oversimplify, plans run from $30 to $50 or so per month, or about $10 to $15 per gigabyte.

But if you’re traveling outside the U.S., mobile data isn’t that cheap — and not that simple. For internationally roaming travelers, network charges — not just for data, but also for voice calls, GPS signaling, and any other interactions with the carrier networks — can be ultra-expensive. Data can easily cost fifty cents a megabyte — or more.

For example, in October 2011, PCWorld reported) that a Florida woman whose brother brought her phone with him to Canada ran up a $200,000 bill over two weeks. Uploading a few photos or watching a three minute video can ding you for $100; if your GPS keeps checking location, or apps check regularly for updates, that sound you hear is your bill going wild. (And it’s not just data — even a few short international cell phone calls can quickly run up about $400 of charges.

You can get better — and more controlled — phone service by either getting a local SIM card (assuming your phone is “unlocked), or renting a local-country phone.

International Wi-Fi TipsYou can do your best to minimize data usage. When in doubt, turn it off: turn off apps, turn off “data roaming” and “fetch data” and automatic synching, turn off anything that does automatic updating. And turn off network and GPS services, other than WiFi. (If you’re willing to turn off WiFi, you can set the phone to “Airplane mode,” although on some phones this also disables Bluetooth, which you may still want to use.)

But that doesn’t solve the problem of affordable — and controlled — data service.

Renting or Buying a Mobile WiFi Hotspot

A “mobile WiFi hotspot” is a pocket-sized device that talks to a mobile broadband carrier, and includes an 802.11 WiFi router — i.e., it creates a local WiFi hotspot area. Novatel introduced its MiFi, the first of these compact products, in 2009. Today, AT&T, Sprint, Verizon and other carriers offer MiFis, and Novatel offers MiFIs that can be used in over 200 countries. Other companies, like Option XYFI and Zoom Telephonics, offer “unlocked” mobile hotspot products that accept SIM cards and can be used in many countries.

But you don’t even have to buy one. You can now rent a mobile WiFi hotspot just like you can rent a local cell phone — and the price may be hard to beat., for example, offers rental MiFis for use in over 175 countries, with unlimited data, for around $15/day for most countries. (A given MiFi won’t necessarily work in all the countries you may be visiting in a trip, always confirm usability and pricing.) Thought the company currently has pickup/drop off only in Los Angeles and New York, but you can pre-order a rental unit via the web site.

And, of course, other companies are getting into the international MiFI rental business, such as

So while you definitely need to master turning off cellular, GPS and other data usage for your smartphone and any other devices you carry (e.g. a broadband enabled tablet or notebook), you’ve got options other than “being cut off” or “going broke staying connected.”

Don’t Overlook Local WiFi

Depending on where you’re going to be, another option may be relying on WiFi. While not as exorbitant as international carrier data service, local hotspots can still get costly, especially if you’re moving around and would have to buy an hour at your hotel, an hour at the coffee shop, another hour at the airport, a day at your next hotel, and so on.

One way you may be able to slash your WiFi costs — and certainly control them — is through, which offers access to hundreds of thousands of WiFi hotspots around the United States and internationally. Plans include options for multiple devices, so you wouldn’t have to purchase separate access for your smartphone, tablet and notebook.

So plan ahead:

1) Learn how to turn off data-using activities on your devices
2) Look for affordable devices and plans for where you’ll be going.

And enjoy being able to afford to stay connected.




Whole House Surge Protection

I’ve always been a believer in using a UPS (Uninterruptible Power Supply) to protect my desktop computer and surge protector strips to protect my computer peripherals (printer, etc.). For the computer, power hiccups can do anything from scramble data to damage the hardware. I don’t want a surge to leave me with lost work or ruined investments.

But what about everything else electrical or electronic in the house which a power surge could damage? After all, today’s flat-screen TVs can easily cost more than a computer. And everything today from microwave ovens and stoves to washers and dryers have electronics in them. If you’ve got home automation/control and/or security systems, they, too, are vulnerable.

But putting a surge strip at each wall outlet quickly gets expensive and complicated — not to mention some outlets are hard to get to, and some things, like the furnace and the air conditioner, are hard-wired, keeping you from plugging them in via a surge strip.

Answer: a whole-house surge protective device (SPD), installed at the circuit breaker box. (Note: before considering this approach, you should either be a homeowner or have a good relationship with your landlord.)

Whole Home Surge ProtectionOur house has one, put in at my request a decade or so ago while the breaker box was being replaced. I’m sure the technology has evolved; ours looks like a gray double-high soda can.

Have we had any whole-house surges since then? I don’t know. Have our neighbors? Ditto. But it seemed like an affordable investment, as long as we were having the related work done.

Steven Krasner, the owner and founder of OnlyConnect, a Belmont, Mass.-based electrical contracting company, says, “A whole-house surge protector helps, among other things, if the power line gets hit by a lightning bolt… or if the power from your utility company has surges. And it deals with surges that can occur within your house, like when you turn off something that has a motor.”

According to NEMA Surge Protection Institute statistics cited by, “60% to 80% of power surges start inside the home, typically from major appliances and systems that cycle on and off, such as air conditioners, refrigerators, and clothes dryers.”

This doesn’t replace all the little surge protectors inside your house, Krasner stresses. “It’s another line of defense. The surge protector in front of your computer won’t stop large current surges, like from a lightning strike.” Does this make a difference? Says Krasner, “Anecdotally, I’ve talked to people who have lost a few devices, where a neighbor who had a whole-house surge protector didn’t.”

How much will this cost you? As a starting point, Home Depot’s website has twelve products listed under “Whole-House Surge Protectors,” ranging in cost from about $30 to $250. You may also need a circuit breaker. Depending on how your current electric panel is set up, and whether there’s enough additional room readily available, it could take a professional electrician only an hour or less to install.

After the initial cost, if your home gets hit by a big surge (or many little ones)little ones, you may need to replace one or more components — but this will be much less than the initial expense.

Like many of the surge protectors and UPSs you plug into a electrical outlet, many of the whole-house SPDs will also protect your coaxial (TV/Internet) and land-line connections from surges that can come in through these wires.

As you invest more money in — and rely increasingly on — electrical and electronic products in your home, it makes sense to invest a small amount — probably an average of less than $100/year over time — to protect them from harm. You’d spending more than that on insurance, why not go a step further and spend some on protection?


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Selecting USB drives for your keychain: What to look for, avoid

Selecting USB Drives for Your KeychainMobile devices and online storage have made it easier than ever to carry or access information away from our home or office system — but it can also make sense to carry key documents and/or apps around on a USB drive.

You might not have your mobile device with you — maybe you left it behind or it ran out of power. Even if it’s working, you may need to use the data on the device on a different system — and moving data between a mobile device and another computer, particularly one that isn’t yours, isn’t always quick or easy.

Similarly, it’s easy to park copies of your data online (such as in an IMAP email account or elsewhere on the cloud), , but you can’t always get Internet access when you want it (or may not want to risk having your password keystrokes captured).

USB drives are a great way to carry information around for when you need it. They continue to get higher in capacity and lower in price– capacities range from two to 64 GB and cost less than a buck a gigabyte. The stored data is, unlike that on hard drives, not damaged by being dropped; nor, unlike those nearly-extinct floppy disks, scrambled by a magnet.

Reminder: Like any data you take out of your office or home, you should be sure to encrypt anything that’s “sensitive” — personal, financial or other information. If you also include apps on the drive, encrypt access to the drive as a whole, in case your passwords have been auto-saved by the apps.

Some flash drives include built-in encryption. If yours doesn’t, and you want to carry any sensitive information, be sure you install and use an encryption app, such as TrueCrypt, or Windows 7′s Bitlocker To-Go.)

Many USB drives include a lanyard, making it suitable for carrying around on your neck. (Downsides: The lanyard may be visible and a temptation to thieves — and you need to remember to take it off at airport security.)

The obvious place for data you want always with you is on your keyring.

But, astonishingly — or perhaps not surprisingly — most of the USB flash drives I’ve accumulated (some as review samples, most from trade shows, holding press kits or sales info) aren’t designed to reliably survive this treatment. Over the past few years, I’ve encountered several types of failures (many which also apply to non-keychain uses):

  • Tops that don’t stay on. A lot of USB drives have plug covers that don’t stay on reliably, falling off in your pouch or pocket.
  • Tops that can’t be “parked” on the other end when you’re using the drive. Like the gas tank cover in an automobile, a USB flash drive should be have some place to go when it’s not in use — like the other side of the USB drive. Otherwise, the odds are you’ll lose it.
  • Drives that come loose from swivel holders. Many flash drives swivel within a “U”-shaped piece of metal, and the drive can easily fall out of its casing.
  • Keyring-clip that easily breaks. Many flash drives have little metal circles made of very thin wire. These (as well as the thinner plastic half-loops) don’t stand up to the wear and tear of life in your pocket.
  • Flash component that comes loose from the holder. My favorite USB drives are shaped like real keys… but I’ve discovered that the flash portion can all-too-easily come lose.

In general: you want something that won’t break, or lose a piece, or fall off.

I’m not sure I’ve found the perfect USB drive for a key ring yet.

Meanwhile, “good-enough” ones seem to be the smallest ones with a hole for the keyring — although they look like they could break, or the contacts could get too dirty.

And remember to either not put sensitive data on these — or encrypt them.

Image Credit: Gold Brick Custom USB Drives / molotalk / CC BY 2.0

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The Traveler’s Notebook Accessories List

The pile of accessories I pack for my notebook isn’t as big as it used to be. Unfortunately, it’s still easy for it to be as heavy and bulky as the notebook itself.

Specifically, my current travel notebook is a newish (purchased December 2011) Lenovo ThinkPad X120e, with an 11-inch display.

At three and a third pounds (with the 6-cell higher-capacity battery) and 0.6 to 1.14 inches thick (it’s wedge shaped), my X120e is admittedly not as svelte as an Apple Mac Air or sundry Windows-oriented “ultrabooks.” But it’s portable enough — and the sale price was “svelte,” letting me get a current machine when I needed a new one, while saving some cash for the ultrabook I really want.

To take advantage of this portability, you want to streamline the amount of additional gear you bring along with you. In theory, you can get by with just the AC power supply; in reality, you’re still going to want enough to be prepared for various situations.

Deciding What to Pack

What I take depends. If I’m just going to be out at around, say, planning to work at a library or a meeting, I only take the bare minimum. If I’m going on a several-day non-business trip, or a non-trade-show business trip, I’ll typically add a few more things. If I’m going to a trade show, there’s yet a few more items I’ll toss in.

Similarly, if I’m also packing a digital camera, there may be one or two more things I’ll take, over and above accessories for the camera.

There’s also sundry accessories for my iPhone and iPad, some of which are also useful with my notebook and/or camera, or vice versa.

Stuff I’m Happily No Longer Packing

I’ve been a tech-toting traveler for enough decades that a fair amount of accessories are no longer relevant. Things I no longer take (but still have) include:

  • External floppy drive
  • PCMCIA cards and adapters
  • External phone modem, phone line tester/protector, and 10+ foot phone wire.

And if I really go back in time, things like “acoustic coupler” for modem (which I still have, although haven’t used in eons).

Accessories for Day Trips

For a short, during-the-day outing, the most important thing is to make sure that you can keep your devices powered.

According to the folks at Lenovo, the high-capacity battery should be good for up to 7.5 hours, but I’ve found that 3 to 5 hours is more realistic. If I’m not sure how much work I’ll be doing, I may grab the power supply. Lenovo’s power brick is modest in size, but the brick-to-wall-outlet wire is, of course, thick and bulky, about the same as the power brick.

When I’m organized enough, I instead pack my Targus Premium Charger, which has the AC prongs right in the power brick. The Targus also has a mini USB charging cable, which I find useful. Just make sure you bring along the correct power tip.

Targus Notebook Accessories

Depending on how much other stuff I’m packing, I’ll also throw in a power strip.

Since I’ve got an iPhone and iPad, I like keeping one of my spare iOS dock/USB data/charging cables in my notebook sleeve case — they don’t take up any extra space or weight, and I don’t usually carry one around with my phone. (Apple’s are $19.95 each, but you can easily find third-party ones for less than half that price.)

I also have an ergonomic wrist pad packed — one with each computer sleeve or carry bag. Using it keeps my hand from hurting when I type (which is most of what I do on the computer). If you need something like this, I recommend you have several — one at your desk, one with each tech travel kit.

Gear for Longer Trips

For longer trips, my list also includes:

  • Power strip
  • Standard USB cables (preferably 1 to 3 feet long).
  • USB multi-jack or hydra connector with A and B standard, mini and micro connectors, plus any less-standard ones used by my digital cameras, Bluetooth headsets, etc.
  • USB hub: Look for a small four-port hub with a 2-6″ cable.
  • Flash drives and media: a few flash drives, ~2-4GB, and an SD card or two, like 4 or 8 GB or even 16. With 16+ GB cards going for under a buck a gigabyte, it can’t hurt to have an empty one with you.
  • USB card reader: My notebook has an SD card reader, but not everybody’s do; somebody may want to borrow one, or I may need it to move stuff, or use it with somebody else’s readerless system.
  • Small rechargeable power pack: This is useful if I need to charge up a headset, camera, or my iPhone without having access to AC power. The small ones won’t power an notebook, but are great for when I need to walk-and-charge.
  • Stuff I might bring, or am considering adding:
  • USB mini-mouse.
  • Automobile “cigarette lighter” USB charger
  • Wifi Hotspot, for broadband sharing. I’m still looking into these (I recently did a big non-review article). I don’t travel enough to justify a regular contract, but it’s worth considering. There are also WiFi hotspot rental companies, around $15/day — a bargain for international trips!
  • Video adapters (HDMI adapters from USB, VGA, mini-HDMI, etc.), if you’re planning to do a presentation, or even thinking of watching video from your computer on your hotel room’s TV.
  • Ethernet cable, for when there’s no (or not good) WiFi available, but there are Ethernet ports. I’ll probably never need it — except the one time I don’t bring one.
  • Power outlet tester.

Additional Accessories for Multi-Day Trade Shows

My ThinkPad doesn’t include a CD/DVD drive — but a lot of companies still put their press release and other show news on disks. Bringing one lets me read them if I’ve got an article to write, or lets me start consolidating the content before I get home. USB-powered external optical drives are small and highly affordable — and they’re handy for some software installs or burning backup disks on machines that don’t have an optical drive.

I also might consider bringing my CardScan business card scanner, although at about the bulk of a paperback book, it’s a hard call. (I need to look at card-scanning apps for my iPhone.)

Summary: The computer needs fewer accessories than ever. But it’s still not hard to have a pile of cables and accessories as big or bigger than the notebook. Good luck!



Travel accessories for your smartphone, tablet

Travel Accessories for Smart Phones and TabletsJust because travel tech accessories are getting smaller, it doesn’t mean that you want to take all of them with you.

There are hundreds — maybe even thousands — of potentially useful smartphone and tablet accessories on the market, ranging from camera lens adapters to beach speakers. However, there are a few that I believe are necessary for a short trip.

My recommendations are based on the iPhone and iPad. Depending on what you have, you may be looking at different vendors or models, but I believe the underlying suggestions remain valid.

Travel demands accessories above-and-beyond those you may be using at your office or home, such as:

  • Bluetooth keyboard
  • Screen protector, like a ZAGG invisibleSHIELD
  • Cover or case, like an Apple SmartCover (for the iPad), or an OtterBox or LifeProof case for your iPhone.
  • Headset, wired or Bluetooth (or both).

Minimum Kit, For All Occasions

Here’s what’s in my standard iPad kit. Total cost: less than $100.

  • iPad-class AC adapter

Remember, the iPad needs 10 watts — twice what the iPhone’s tiny AC adapter or a powered USB port provides. So you need to bring this, whether it’s Apple’s or a third-party one. There are even some two-port 15 watt ones, like the Innergie mMini Combo 15W AC (Wall) Duo USB Charging Kit. (I also suggest carrying an iPhone AC charger as well.)

The adaptor you bring on your trip preferably should be a spare, to keep in your travel kit, so you can leave your regular one(s) at the office/home.

  • Docking/USB power/data cable(s)

While you can buy these iOS cables in most computer/tech/office supply stores, and even many convenience stores, you should bring one. Or even two or three. (Third-party cables are available for less than half of Apple’s own $19.95 ones.)

  • Media/USB transfer/connection adapters

If your devices don’t have SD slots or USB ports — Apple i-devices have neither, of course — bring adapters. At minimum, get Apple iPad Camera Connection Kit. Apple’s own iPad Camera Connection Kit consists of two adapters, or dongles: the SD Card Reader and the Camera Connector. The iPad still doesn’t have an SD slot; this lets you move photos from a camera’s SD card. The kit also includes a USB adapter — however, since the iOS dock port doesn’t provide as much power as a standard USB 2.0 “powered port,” there’s no guarantee that other USB peripherals — or, for that matter, other card readers — will work.

  • Credit Card payment-taker

The Square Credit Card Reader (plus its free app) is small — about one square inch by 1/3 inch — and provides an easy way to take credit card payments via your iPhone. It’s not only good for selling home-business crafts or yard sale items, but also makes it easier to split the check in a group. You don’t even need the Reader, but using just the app costs a tad more.

  • Accessory pouch

These things are small, and easily lost. Whether it’s a ziplock bag or something else, make it easier to keep track of them.

For Longer/More Involved Trips

Other things to consider bringing include:

  • Rechargeable power pack

There no shortage of ones that will recharge a smartphone one to three times, but only some can deliver the power to recharge an iPad or other 10-watt device. Innergie, Radio Shack and Targus all offer ones that can, albeit not necessarily a full charge.

  • Automobile USB charging adapter

If you’ve got an iPad or other tablet, make sure you get one that provides the right amount of power.

  • Mobile broadband hotspot (and service contract)

If your tablet doesn’t have its own broadband and contract (e.g., with AT&T, Sprint, Verizon…), and you don’t want to simply up your smartphone data plan to allow tethering, a mobile hotspot will let your tablet be online when there’s no WiFi nearby.

  • Video connectors

Connectors like an Apple Digital AV Adapter and an Apple VGA adapter are helpful for watching iPad content on a larger TV, doing presentations, etc.

You’ll probably find some more stuff that you want, of course. (Feel free to let me know what I’m missing!)



Why you should always pack a power strip with your notebook/tablet

There are many accessories that are useful for traveling with your notebook or tablet. Here’s a must have: a power strip.

Here’s some reasons why:

1.) Sharing versus hogging

With more and more people carrying notebooks, tablets, and other device, power outlets at airport gate waiting areas, and other places like meeting rooms, are increasingly already “full up” from people already camped out using or recharging.

Yes, many airport gates now offer “charging areas” with AC outlets and USB charging ports — but these, too, may be in use.

Having a power strip means you can ask someone if you can share the outlet — and even offer to let somebody else also plug in.

And if you have managed to get the last free outlet, this lets you share with newcomers, rather than have to determine whether you’ve got enough juice to let somebody else have a turn.

2.) Multiplying/centralizing available outlet(s)

Hotel rooms often don’t have enough outlets for your notebook plus your phone charger and maybe one or two additional devices. Or not enough by the desk area where you want to work. Having a power strip avoids scattering your recharging devices around the room, including risking them being in the bathroom (near water, never a good idea).

3.) Going the distance

Notebook AC cables may be five to ten feet long — but sometimes the outlet you want is just a little too far away. Even a short cable on a power strip can make the difference.

4.) Accessing hard-to-get-to outlets

In hotel rooms — but also some offices, libraries and other spaces — the only available outlet is often in a hard-to-reach place. Some are positioned in a way that’s difficult to plug chargers where the AC prongs are right on the power brick. Or the other things already plugged in may not leave the right shape of room for your device’s power adapter. The power strip’s cord, even if short, should make it easier to plug things in.

5.) Charging USB devices

Not all power strips include USB charging ports, but some do. This can often be helpful. If they do, it will be a standard-power one — 5 watts, enough for a smartphone, Bluetooth headset, etc — but won’t be enough for an iPad (which needs 10 watts) or presumably most other larger tablets.

Recommended Power Strips

If you’re seriously strapped for space, you can just get a three-in-one outlet adapter, but I recommend a power strip instead.

My favorite power strips are from Monster’s Outlets To Go line – they’re compact, with the power cord wrapping around the strip and plugging into one of the outlets.

If you want a USB port, check out the Outlets to Go 3 USB , which has three outlets plus a 5-watt USB charging port.

Otherwise, consider the four-outlet Outlets to Go , or the more compact three-outlet one.

The cord length on the 4-outlet Outlets to Go is eleven inches.

Important note, Monster’s Outlets to Go are just power strips. They don’t include any surge protection. If that’s a concern, look for something else, of course.



Stocking a few spare tech parts, what and why

Stocking a few spare tech parts, what and why If you use a computer as part of your daily work or personal life — and you probably do — then you know that they often run into minor problems.

Some can be fixed quickly and easily by simply re-booting the machine, or by doing software stuff. (I covered these in the post “Basic Quick Fixes for Troubled Gear.”)

Some of these fixes are best left to an IT professional or somebody else with experience in fixing computers — in particular, anything that involves opening up the case. Not only can this be dangerous if you don’t know what you’re doing, but you can also create additional problems if you aren’t careful.

But there’s a lot that you, a coworker, family member or friend can do if you have the right part on hand.

And since many of these problems occur when it’s not convenient to go out and buy the part — you may be on deadline and can’t take the two hours. Or the weather may be abysmal. Or it may be midnight or a holiday when the stores you want are closed. As for going online, you may not be able to wait for delivery — and the problem you’re facing might mean you can’t get online, anyways.

I’ve found it’s best to have a few spares and other things on hand.

The best — and certainly most extreme — “spare part” is another complete computer, of course. Of course, that’s not always an option. Luckily, a remarkably small set of things will solve many common problems.

The Basics: Peripherals and Cables

Here’s my recommended starter list:

  • Keyboard

All it takes to ruin a keyboard is a little dirt or spilled coffee — even one bad key can keep you from working comfortably.

Because keyboards aren’t all exactly alike, get one that’s the same as the one you use. For example, I use a Microsoft “ergonomic” keyboard, which has the keys angled — I can use a “regular” keyboard, but it’s much less comfortable. (Make sure that it has the right type of plug as your current keyboard, e.g., USB, PS/2, Bluetooth wireless.)

  • Monitor

When you buy your next monitor, save your old one if it still works.

  • Mouse (or other pointing device)

Like keyboards, make sure you have a spare like what you use. For example, I use a trackball. I could use a mouse if I had to, but I’m comfortable with my trackball. And, if you use one, a mousepad.

  • Headset (if you normally use one)
  • Main cables

Your computer’s power cable or video cable aren’t likely to fail, but it’s better to be safe than sorry.

  • Other cables

I keep several spare cables around, including a printer cable, an Ethernet cable, and a few USB cables (there’s several types of USB jacks, make sure you’ve got the right bunch).

  • Any other ergonomic accessories you use, like wrist pads.

Extra-Credit Suggestions

Even if your computer has a built-in optical CD/DVD drive, having an external USB-powered one can’t hurt — there’s other good reasons to have one anyway.

A handful of cable adapters, including “gender-menders” and type-to-type adapters, e.g., 9-to-15 pin VGA, and a VGA/HDMI adapter.

If you’re comfortable and confident, a spare hard drive may be useful — along with an external USB hard drive adapter/chassis.

Depending on how old the computer is (some of your friends and family still have a few that are five, ten, or more years old, I guarantee), you may also want a USB floppy drive.

My list isn’t that long, you’ll notice.

I’m not saying you should rush out and buy all this stuff — other than the keyboard, if you don’t have a spare already. But keep your eyes open at yard sales (see my post, “Yard Sales: A Good Place for Tech Bargains“) and other places. Used/yard-sale prices for keyboards and mice are usually one to five bucks — if friends don’t have some to give away. Smaller (19″ and under) , classic-format flatscreens should be ten bucks or less — or free. (You should be able to get a good CRT for free, but flatscreens are less bulky to store, of course.)

And put as much of these in a box, label it carefully — and remember where you put it all.

Sooner or later, you’ll thank me for this advice.