Category: Travel usage tips

Using Bluetooth audio devices with your laptop computer

Braven BRV-X outdoor Bluetooth speaker

Braven BRV-X outdoor Bluetooth speaker – another of many Bluetooth speakers with speakerphone functionality

There is an increasing number of Bluetooth-connected wireless audio devices available for  use with smartphones and similar devices. But you may want to use these headsets, audio adaptors, Bluetooth speakers or Bluetooth-integrated audio devices with your laptop instead of those tiny speakers that are the norm for these computers. The best example for the speakers would be the Bose SoundDock speakers, especially the SoundDock 10, due to its good bass response, when used with the Bluetooth adaptor. As well, I ran a test setup with the Motorola DC800 Bluetooth adaptor connected to an older Sony boombox and had the review-sample Fujitsu LH772 laptop being fed through this Bluetooth adaptor.

Similarly, there are those of us who may want to use a Bluetooth headset like the Plantronics BackBeat Pro with a laptop computer so you can roam around the office or home listening to your favourite tunes or podcast or as a contingency measure to avoid missing that important VoIP call.

How a Bluetooth audio setup would function for a laptop

You can achieve these setups with Bluetooth-equipped laptops that run Windows 7, MacOS X Snow Leopard and Linux and newer versions of these operating systems. This is due to the supply of a class driver for the Bluetooth A2DP audio profile  and Hands Free Profile as part of the operating system distributions.

Initial setup

First, you have to set up the Bluetooth A2DP-capable audio device to become discoverable. The method for this is explained in the instructions that come with the device but you typically may have to hold down a setup button to achieve this goal.

Plantronics BackBeat Pro Bluetooth noise-cancelling headphones

Headphones you can treat your laptop to

Then you have to put the computer in to a “Bluetooth setup” mode in order to annex the device to the operating system. In WIndows 7, you would have to click on “Devices and Printers”, then click “Add Device”.

After you complete these procedures, both the device and the computer start to pair up and identify themselves to each other. The computer would then find and install the A2DP audio-device class drivers that are part of the operating system. In some cases, the class driver may be fetched from Microsoft’s or Apple’s Website. The same thing will also happen with the Bluetooth Hands-Free Profile or Bluetooth Headset Profile when you initially connect a Bluetooth headset, headphone audio adaptor or other device equipped for communications functionality.

Now the Bluetooth audio device is defined as a sound device and some Windows setups may have it run as the default audio device for all of the laptop’s sound output.

Which sound device

Bluetooth device listed alongside default audio device

List of audio playback devices including the Bluetooth audio device

But you may want to have a split setup so that music and video sound go to the Bluetooth speakers and all of the notification sounds come via the laptop speakers. Here, you would have to set the integrated sound subsystem as the default audio device. Then you would have to set iTunes, Windows Media Player or other media-management software to use the Bluetooth A2DP audio device.

This latter setup may not work well with software like games, the Spotify desktop program or Web browsers where there isn’t an option to specify the sound output device for that application. Here, you would have to specify the Bluetooth audio device as your default audio device to have the soundtrack from video on demand including YouTube videos, or your Spotify playlist coming through that device.

Bluetooth headsets and speakers with speakerphone functionality will cause Windows to purpose the Bluetooth Hands-Free Profile or Headset Profile as a Communications Device and may cause Windows 7 to determine it as a Default Communications Device.

The controls on these Bluetooth devices should map through to the applications’ controls courtesy of operating system support for Bluetooth AVRCP control profile for media navigation and the call-control functionality of the Hands-Free and Headset Profiles. This will apply to applications that currently have the focus for media playback or communications.

Multipoint Operation

The Sony SBH-52 Bluetooth Headphone Adaptor - supports multipoint operation for two devices

The Sony SBH-52 Bluetooth Headphone Adaptor – supports multipoint operation for two devices

An increasing number of communications-capable Bluetooth devices have support for “multipoint” operation where they can work with two different source devices. This function is typically to support people who use two mobile phones such as a “personal” one and a “work” one.

As I discovered when reviewing the Sony SBH-52 Bluetooth headphone adaptor, I fund that this function can also work with a computer. This can be of use if you are maintaining a playlist or listening to Web content on your laptop.

Here, you have to determine which device is your “priority” device which allows the headset to primarily control that device. This is something you would do either through the device’s setup menu, a desktop or mobile control program or a certain keypress sequence depending on the device. You may be able to at least use the call-control button to answer and end calls when you are using your secondary device. It is a good idea to set the laptop as the priority device when you are playing content from it or are wanting to use a VoIP app that may come across as being rickety.

Conclusion

Once you know what your Bluetooth-capable laptop can do with those Bluetooth audio accessories, you can then let it perform at its best with these devices and they don’t need juhst to be considered for mobile phones anymore.

Updates

This is to reflect newer Bluetooth hardware that I have reviewed along with highlighting the Bluetooth Hands-Free Profile used for communications purposes and multipoint operation offered by an increasing number of Bluetooth devices.

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Keeping your portable equipment safe through the summer

Beach shotThrough the summer, we are likely to take our portable equipment with us more frequently as we spend more time outdoors. This is whether to play music off an MP3 player in the car, use our smartphones on the road more frequently, take heaps of pictures with our digital cameras at the beaches and beauty spots we visit, or entertain our kids during the long road trips using a tablet or laptop.

Device security

Samsung Galaxy Note 2 smartphone

Smartphones are so well used during summer yet misfortune can happen to them

When we are on the road, we are likely to carry our gadgets with us more frequently. But this becomes a temptation for light-fingered thieves to get their claws on our stuff. This has ranged from gadgets like smartphones disappearing at the beach to cars being broken into and possessions being stolen.

You can store your devices securely in your car. As well, making sure you don’t leave handbags, backpacks, laptop bags or similar luggage lying around in the car. This is because thieves can deduce that these bags contain items of value and break in to the car to steal these bags.

A locked car trunk (boot) can be the safest place to store your mobile technology when you are out and about

A locked car trunk (boot) can be the safest place to store your mobile technology when you are out and about

If you are using a sedan (saloon) or similar vehicle that has a separately-lockable luggage compartment i.e. the boot or, in the US, the trunk, this is the safest place for these valuables if you are not using them at your destination. This can apply to tradesmen’s utes (pickup trucks) where there is a lockable box that is securely attached to the cargo bay on these vehicles.

Volkswagen Golf hot hatch

Hey, do you know where the luggage blind is for your hatchback or 4×4?

Hatchbacks, station-wagons (estate cars) and SUVs (4-wheel-drives / 4x4s) aren’t all that secure in this context but using the luggage blind or removeable luggage shelf that may come with your vehicle can make it easier to keep the valuable items “out of sight, out of mind” but these aren’t necessarily secure. For that matter, where is that luggage blind or luggage shelf that came with your car if your car came with that?

The glove compartment in the dashboard or the box in the centre console that doubles as an armrest serves well as a secure storage location for small items like MP3 players, smartphones or small digital cameras. This is more so  especially if you can lock it with a key.

If you are at the beach, pool or beauty spot as a group, you may be tempted to keep all the smartphones, cameras and similar equipment in a pile near the drinks or picnic food especially as some of you go off for a swim or to admire the beauty. In these situations, make sure there is a trusted adult near that pile of equipment at all times to keep watch on it. Also hiding the equipment amongst bedding, towels, picnic rugs, the picnic basket or in common-looking bags may work as a way to make it less attractive to thieves.

Avoiding damage

One major cause of damage to a lot of the portable gadgets during the summer is water and other fluids; or sand getting inside the devices.

If you find that there is a greater risk of this kind of damage happening to these devices, it is a good idea to have liquid-tight containers for the devices. For cameras, you can purchase weatherproof cases from your favourite camera store. These come either as a generic case that suits cameras of the type or a manufacturer-designed case that suits a particular camera model. You may also come across weatherproof containers for smartphones and tablets like the iPad.

The common zip-lock sandwich bags that you can get from the supermarket can work well with smartphones, portable media players and remote controls that are more likely to be baptised in swimming-pool water or have a drink tipped over them.

Avoid the temptation to carry a smartphone or MP3 player in your pocket or wedged in on your swimwear when you are near the water unless it is kept in a zip-lock bag or something similarly waterproof.

The battery, SIM and memory cards have to be removed from the device if it gets wet

The battery, SIM and memory cards have to be removed from the device if it gets wet

Attention hotels and similar establishments: You could make sure that your Housekeeping department keeps a supply of the zip-lock bags of varying sizes on hand! This can come in handy with guests as a way to contain leaks from toiletry bottles or allow guests to protect their smartphones from water damage.

Water or other fluids inside device

The battery should be removed from a waterlogged camera while they are switched on so the lens doesn't retract

The battery should be removed from a waterlogged camera while they are switched on so the lens doesn’t retract

If water does get inside a device, these steps may help in mitigating the damage that this may cause to the device. Situations like the device falling in to sea water, a swimming pool or accompanying a load of laundry through the washing machine can make things worse due to chemicals being part of that water.

Shut down the device fully. In the case of a camera with a lens that retracts when it is turned off, remove the battery while the camera is on and the lens is extended. With smartphones and tablets, this may involve following the operating system’s shutdown procedure like pressing the sleep button for a long time to bring up a shutdown menu, then selecting the Shut Down option.

SIM card

Dry SIM and memory cards with a soft tissue or micro-fibre cloth

Remove all batteries, memory and SIM cards from the affected device if possible. Dry off the memory and SIM cards with a tissue or micro-fibre cloth before you consider installing them in another device like a spare mobile phone.

Shake as much of the water out of the device as you can. Avoid the temptation to run a hair-dryer over the device or run it under that hand-dryer in the public restroom. This introduces extra heat to the device which can damage some components very easily.

Smother the device in a bowl of raw rice or place it in a zip-lock bag with a dessicant pouch or plenty of raw rice. Make sure that all of the covers and doors for the various compartments on that device are open when you do this. Leave it in this bowl or zip-lock bag for three days in order for the device to dry out effectively. This procedure effectively mitigates the damage that the water does to the device’s circuitry, switches and mechanisms.

Sand or dirt in your equipment

You can get dry sand or dirt out of your electronic equipment either by shaking it out, using compressed air to blast it away from the equipment or using your household vacuum cleaner to suck it out. If you use the vacuum cleaner for this purpose, you may find that the crevice nozzle that isn’t perforated on each side may give you better results.

Before you do this with a camera, smartphone or other device that has small removable memory or SIM cards, make sure you remove these cards from your device before you clean it out.

Dealing with insurance

Smother the wet device with dry rice and leave for a few days

Smother the wet device with dry rice and leave for a few days

When you purchase any device, make sure you have the receipt or the instruction manual for that device. In the case of a smartphone, MiFi or similar communications device that you have bought as part of a subsidised-equipment contract, keep the details about the contract that you bought this device under. These documents are useful for your insurance claim as a way of proving you own that device.

As for home / contents insurance policies along with travel insurance policies, make sure that the policy does cover for accidental damage to portable electronics while they are used on the road. Beware of those policies that require you to pay a large excess on accidental damage claims because these large excesses may be more than equipment of a similar standard is worth in the case of small devices. In some cases, an insurance policy that offers excess-free coverage for theft and accidental damage to portable equipment on the road for a modest extra on the premium may be worth its salt.

Similarly, some mobile carriers may offer a specialised policy that covers smartphones and associated devices for theft and accidental damage, usually for equipment that is part of an ongoing subsidised-equipment contract. These may be worth investigating especially if they offer coverage for associated accessories, “on-the-road” damage or “other-device” coverage; along with excesses that you pay during a claim. The main limitation with these policies is that they provide cover for specified devices, namely the smartphone or tablet that is part of a particular contract.

Conclusion

Once summer comes, it is worth making sure you don’t run in to trouble regarding your valuable electronic equipment.

This article will be published around May to coincide with summertime in the Northern-Hemisphere countries like the USA, Canada, UK and Europe, but will be re-published during November for summertime in the Southern-Hemisphere countries.

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The AV connection panels in hotel rooms–a very useful amenity for the connected user

In-room AV connection panel

In-room AV connection panel at Rydges Hotel Melbourne

A feature that is starting to appear in an increasing number of hotel rooms is the AV connection panel. Sometimes known as a “jack pack”, ”media panel”,  “aux panel” or something similar, these are wall-mounted connection panels or connection boxes located near the TV which provide a simplified way to allow you to connect your portable computing equipment to the TV and make use of it as a display and amplified speakers.

Here, these panels are a way to provide a “walk-up” method for guests to connect their technology to the TVs while the TVs remain anchored in place on the wall or in the cabinet. It also avoids the need for guests to grope around the back of the set to find the appropriate connections and risk unplugging existing equipment or plugging something in the wrong hole, which can cause an unnecessary maintenance request. This is in response to guests “bringing their own content” with them and wanting to view it from their gadgets on the large-screen TV in the room rather than watching regular TV or pay-per-view movies.

I have used one of these when staying overnight at Rydges Melbourne to connect my Galaxy Note II smartphone to the TV’s speakers to play music that is held on the smartphone. Here, this is a wall-mount panel that is equipped with RCA and S-Video sockets for stereo audio and analogue video, a VGA input and a 3.5mm audio input for computers alongside an HDMI input for most of the recent crop of laptops and other video equipment. There is also a USB “plug ’n’ charge” socket where you can connect your smartphone or other gadget to charge it. As I had previously mentioned, you can use the 3.5mm audio-in jack to connect your smartphone or other personal-audio device to amplify it through the TV’s speakers.

This particular setup has you selecting the different inputs as though they are “virtual channels” where you enter a particular channel number to select that input, similar to how some TVs and video recorders had you select a particular channel number to use the video inputs. Here, these “virtual channels” are listed on a reference card that is usually kept on the desk near the media panel.

If you are playing an audio device, you will find that the TV will show the blue screen and a reference to that channel as a way of showing that the selected input is working.

Who would benefit from these setups?

Laptop / notebook computer users

HP Envy 4 Touchsmart Ultrabook at Intercontinental Melbourne On Rialto

An Ultrabook that can easily benefit from these AV connection panels

Connecting your laptop or notebook computer to the TV via the media panel’s HDMI input or, for older laptops, the VGA input for display and 3.5mm audio input for the sound, can open up increased functionality for these computers.

If you use the Internet service provided by the hotel, you can take this further by playing online media services like “catch-up TV” / video-on-demand services through the big screen. You also have the same benefit when you play video files that exist on your computer’s hard disk or use an integrated or USB-connected optical drive to play DVDs and Blu-Ray discs.

Those of you who like to play games on the laptop as a form of relaxation can benefit from the hotel room’s TV serving as a large screen for that game. It would be something that could impress business associates who do like to see these games as a way to rest between delivering those presentations.

Speaking of which, the large screen can come in handy for reviewing that presentation you have to give so you can be sure the graphics are in the right place and that each slide doesn’t look too overcrowded or dull. You are also at a better position for seeing the presentation from how your audience would see it. It is also a good chance to “dry-run” that multimedia presentation that you are running on your laptop so you are sure it is going to go to plan without things going wrong.

Similarly, the large screen will earn its keep with videoconferencing applications like Skype and Lync. Here, you can see your correspondent’s face on the large screen and hear your correspondent’s voice through the better-sounding speakers which may make their voice easier to understand.

Tablet and smartphone users

Toshiba AT300 10" Android tablet computer

Toshiba AT300 10″ Android tablet computer – can benefit from the large screen when you are watching online video

If your tablet or smartphone has an HDMI or composite video output, you can benefit from the TV being a large screen for these devices when it comes to gaming or playing online or stored video content. Here these devices will most likely use an MHL jack which works with these panels if you use an MHL-HDMI active patch cable. Older smartphones may also use the 3.5mm headset connector as a video / audio output and you would need to use a 3.5mm – 3xRCA breakout cable to play composite video from these smartphones.

As well the TV can simply serve as amplified speakers for these devices simply by you connecting the 3.5mm audio-input jack on the panel to your smartphone’s or tablet’s headphone jack using one of those 3.5mm plug-3.5mm plug cables..

Digital still and video cameras

You can preview your still images or footage you have taken on that large screen if your camera or camcorder has an HDMI or composite video output. Most of the recent digital cameras will implement a “mini HDMI” connector and/or composite video output via a 3.5mm multi-conductor jack due to their low-profile design.

The benefit you have with this is that it makes it easier to have “many eyes” looking for imperfections in the images and footage you have taken or have the benefit of a large screen to review those images or footage more easily. Even the speakers built in to these TV sets would do rings around the cameras’ integrated monitor speakers

Other personal audio and video players

Those of you who use portable DVD players or portable media players can have these devices play through that large screen in your room as an alternative to what is available on the pay-per-view movie service.

Similarly, your iPod Classic, MP3 payer, Discman or other legacy-media personal player (think cassette or MiniDisc) can benefit from being able to be played through the TV’s speakers with a louder sound. If you are using a handheld “note-taker” recorder, whether tape-based or digital, the TV speakers may allow you to hear the recording of that meeting that you made more clearly compared to the small integrated speakers that these recorders have. This could allow you to hear the muffled or soft voices, the voices with hard-to-understand accents or the distinctly-important background sounds more clearly.

Tips to get the most out of these connection panels

  • Keeping a supply of cables handy
    A good practice to gain advantage from these media panels is to keep a supply of cables with you when you travel. These should allow you to connect your gadgets either to 3.5mm stereo jacks or RCA jacks for audio or HDMI, S—Video or RCA composite video for video applications. A good starting point when it comes to smartphones is my article on “essential smartphone accessories” where I mentioned about making sure you are equipped with a 3.5mm-2.5mm stereo patch cord along with a 3.5mm – 2xRCA patch cord for your smartphone’s audio needs.
  • What sound playback device is this
    The HDMI input's audio function serves as its own soundcard

    The HDMI input’s audio function serves as its own soundcard

    Laptop users who use the HDMI connections on these media panels will find that the HDMI audio connection is enumerated as a separate sound device. Here, they may have to use the Sound Devices option in their operating system or application to direct the sound through the TV’s speakers with this connection.

  • Avoiding distorted sound through the TV speakers
    To avoid distorted sound from these setups especially if using the RCA or 3.5mm connections, adjust the sound volume at your device to 75%-90% volume level and turn off any equalisation or sound-processing on the device if the device or software has this kind of adjustment. Here, you could get by with turning your device up to maximum volume and backing the device’s volume adjustment off slightly to set the input volume. Then you adjust the sound volume to your taste or programme content using the TV’s remote control. Some mobile devices implement a “Line-out” mode which bypasses all tone controls and sets the device’s output level to a nominal level so it works with external amplification.
  • Setting up effective wireless operation
    Pure Jongo A2 network media adaptor

    A Bluetooth audio adaptor can allow you to wirelessly play the music on your smartphone or tablet from your bed or armchair

    You can set up a level of wireless operation with these media panels using an A2DP-compliant Bluetooth audio adaptor for music from your Bluetooth-capable laptop, smartphone or tablet; or a Wi-Fi-Direct-based Miracast adaptor for audio and video with Miracast-compliant laptops and Android devices.

  • What are the channels to select for your equipment when you stay at that hotel?
    If you are a regular guest at a particular hotel, it is a good idea to make note of the “virtual channels” used for particular device connections in your travel notes. This is more so as you bring particular gadgets, especially newer gadgets, on to the scene when you travel.
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IHG to raise the bar for free Internet access by frequent-lodger-club members

Articles – From the horse’s mouth

IHG Hotels

Product site (IHG Rewards Club)

Press Release

My Comments

Just previously, I have covered the issue of paying for Internet access at the big-name hotels and mentioned that it is worth checking for accommodation packages and frequent-lodger programs that include Internet access as part of the package. As part of citing the “Business Sense” accommodation package that the Intercontinental Melbourne The Rialto hotel were running, I learnt further from this hotel and the hotel chain’s PR agency about revisions that were underway for their Priority Club Rewards program.

Here, they are revising this program to include Internet access at the participating hotels for all members. Unlike some of these programs that include this benefit but limit it to a requirement that you stay in the hotel overnight or rent meeting space at that hotel before you can use Internet service, the IHG Rewards Club program allows members to benefit from the Internet service unconditionally. This means that even if they just attend an event, visit the restaurant or bar for something to eat or drink or see a guest who is staying at that hotel, they can use the wireless Internet service there.

This ability to use the Internet-access independent of whether you are staying at the hotel answers a key reality with people who use portable computing equipment. Here, one could be using the bar or restaurant as a meeting place or “second office” for activities like showing data that you have drawn down from work to show a colleague or client; or simply catching up with emails and similar online activity while away from the office.

The feature is intended to be rolled out gradually with Elite-level members being the first to benefit from July 2013, with all members benefiting from 2014. The IHG Rewards plan also is intended to work across all of the IHG hotel brands ranging from the premium Intercontinental hotels through the Crowne Plaza to the cheaper Holiday Inn places.

What I see of this is that it could be a chance for the hospitality industry to look at the realities concerning how people are using portable computer equipment on the property and work better towards improving the tariffs and packages for this reality.

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You may not have to pay extra for Internet access at that business hotel in some situations

Introduction

Rydges Melbourne

Some accommodations plans offered by hotels like this one do include wireless Internet access

A common gripe I have heard from travellers in relation to Internet access at hotels, especially the “big-time” hotel chains is that they charge too much for Internet access rather than providing it as a complimentary service.

There are two ways you can benefit from this access without having to pay extra.

The business-focused accommodation deal

Some hotels offer a business-focused deal which includes at least accommodation, breakfast served in the main restaurant along with the Internet access for the duration of your stay. Most often, some of these packages are offered through the weekdays and, in some cases, may be cheaper that the standard accommodation-only rate. Different properties may throw in extras like reduced business-centre costs, or a rebate on your food or drink bill.

This is in a similar vein to how some of the accommodation+breakfast deals may cost slightly more than the accommodation-only deals yet you have the breakfast which would cost significantly more as part of the package.

Examples of these include:

It is also worth paying attention to the club-floor or concierge-floor programs that some of these hotels offer which will have complimentary or reduced-price Internet access. These premium-priced programs are related to a cluster of rooms on a particular floor where you also have access to an exclusive-access lounge, complimentary food and drinks amongst other things depending on the program.

That frequent-lodger program that the hotel offers

Some of the hotels who run a frequent-lodger program may offer cheaper or inclusive Internet access for all members of the program. An example of this is the Marriott Rewards program which provides inclusive Internet access to guests checking in using this plan. Another example is the PriorityGUEST program which reduces the standard property-specific Internet access costs by half for members who check in at a Rydges, QT or Art Series hotel with their PriorityGUEST card.

Conclusion

It makes sense to spend extra time trawling through Websites and similar material offered by a big-name hotel chain or other hotel that charges for Internet access and look for the accommodation packages or frequent-lodger programs that integrate access to this service.

It is worth knowing that any particular package or promotion that I mention in this article may be subject to change.

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HP’s take on your office in your briefcase–plus some extra comments

Article

HP Communities – Your Office in Your Briefcase – HP Communities

My Comments

HP Elitebook 2560p at Intercontinental at Relto, MelbourneI have reviewed a significant number of the ultraportable computers and had assessed them in their capacity for “working on the go”. The regular 15” computers would work well if you do most of the travel by car, but I have found the 13”-14” computers as being able to come up to the job when you do a lot of travel, by offering a lightweight form while being able to type easily and benefit from an easily-viewable screen.

Input devices

I have written an article about the kind of pointing device to use with your laptop, including the situations when the integrated trackpad would come in handy. For the wireless mice that the article was suggesting that we use, I had found that most wireless input devices would require a proprietary dongle transceiver that plugged in to the USB port on the computer. Here, I would prefer that we go for a Bluetooth or Wi-Fi Direct mouse especially as nearly all laptops have integrated Wi-Fi and Bluetooth and you wouldn’t need to carry or worry about losing those dongles.

Power Needs

As for power supply, it may be wise to check through the manufacturer’s direct-sale Website store incase they offer one of those AC/Auto/Air adaptors. These adaptors have a DC input and a cord which connects to the EmPower airline DC connector or the cigar-lighter socket in a car; alongside an AC socket for the regular power cord.

If you do visit one or two particular countries or regions regularly, you could use AC cords that have plugs that are local to those particular areas for your laptop and other gadgets that use standard AC input sockets. This can be seen as a way to “free up” travel adaptors for other gadgets like mobile-phone chargers or bathroom necessities.

If the laptop uses a user-replaceable battery, you could find that you can run longer with a spare battery. It is also worth paying attention to the optional “long-run” battery packs like what Sony offers as an option for their VAIO S and Z Series notebooks. These high-capacity battery packs clip on to or install in the computer and run as secondary batteries that provide a lot of extra run time.

Of course, there had been mention about the use of headphones or a headset for your laptop as well as use of Microsoft’s Office 365 and Office Web Apps as part of your business computing needs.

Conclusion

One might say that, because the article was written at an HP Website, it may favour the HP products but I would still give the competing products like the Acer and Sony products a go.

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Choosing the right input device for your laptop

Some of you may want to decide whether you want to use a laptop’s integrated trackpad or thumbstick as your pointing device on that computer. On the other hand, you may want to use an external mouse or trackball as your pointing device “on the go”.

Each device has its own application

Laptop trackpad

The laptop trackpad which is good if you are on the couch or in an airline seat

I would find that the external mouse can do the job better if you are frequently using your laptop computer on a table or desktop. This is more so if you are doing advanced graphics work and you find that these devices are easier to manipulate for this work and you have the benefit of the larger table or desk surface as your working area. Some of the external mice are available in a very small size so you can stow them in your laptop bag without them taking up too much room.

The regular mouse which works well at a table or desk.

The trackpad or other integrated pointing device can become more handy when you are in a lounge area or are travelling in a plane or train because you don’t have to worry about the extra mouse or trackball in these circumstances. As well, you don’t necessarily have the room to move a mouse around if you are confined to an armchair or sofa. In the case of working in a lounge area like the hotel lounge or someone’s lounge-room, you may get away with moving your mouse around the coffee table if the computer is on that table or on a thick armrest if the computer is on your knee.

It is also worth knowing that you may have trouble using your optical mouse on a glass table due to there not being any reflection or texture that the mouse can work with. You can work around this problem by placing a tablemat, napkin or piece of paper on the table and moving the mouse on that surface. This may not be of concern if you use one of those wooden dining tables that is finished off with a glass top.

A laser mouse which uses a laser as its tracking light is more flexible with different surfaces like glass tables than the regular optical mouse.

What kind of connection

Wireless mouse dongle

The typical easy-to-lose dongle that comes with most wireless mice

When you choose an external mouse for use with your laptop, you could go for a USB-connected wired mouse or a wireless mouse. If you do go for a wireless mouse, I would recommend that you look for a Bluetooth or WiFi-Direct mouse like the Logitech Bluetooth Mouse M555b rather than the common type that come with a receiver dongle so you don’t need to carry around an extra dongle that you could easily lose.

This is due to the mouse using the laptop’s integrated Bluetooth or Wi-Fi circuitry as the connection path rather than something that is as big as a key and at risk of being lost.

Driver software

Most mice and other input devices don’t need to use any user-installed software for them to work with the host computer. Here, they just use class drivers that are integrated in to Windows, MacOS X or Linux for their basic functionality. Some of them may use a manufacturer-supplied driver for touch functionality or other advanced functions.

Batteries for your wireless mouse

Most of these wireless mice work on AA or AAA batteries so it is easier to get your hands on a set of the batteries for your mouse. You could just pick up a set of them from a drugstore or supermarket or ask Front Desk or Housekeeping for a set of these batteries if you stay in most hotels.

If you are using a wireless mouse, it may be worth running it on lithium batteries rather than the regular alkaline batteries. These allow the mouse to perform at its best at all times that you use it because they are adept at handling short bursts of short power demand. Similarly if you use it with a laptop that you only use during travelling, the lithium batteries have a longer shelf life.

Rechargeable batteries can come in to their own if you use the mouse very frequently such as with a main computer. Some of these can simply be charged on an overnight basis if you are using them daily. The chargers can be ran from AC power directly or there are some that run from a USB socket which would be handy if you have a laptop that uses a “sleep-and-charge” USB port or you use USB power supplies.

Conclusion

Once you choose and use the right input device for your laptop, you are then able to gain better use of the computer for the situation that you are using it in.

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External hard drives–a useful little travel helper

 

External hard disk

A typical external hard disk

An accessory worth having on hand for your laptop is an external hard disk. These typically connect to the computer using a USB or eSATA connector and, in the case of smaller-sized USB drives, are powered off the host computer.

Backup tool

One often-promoted use for these hard disks is for them to be a data-backup tool. Here, you could copy all of your work to an external hard disk, either by copying out your user-data folders to the hard disk or using a backup tool supplied by the operating system vendor or a third party.

What you can do is keep this backup hard disk somewhere safe such as that in-room safe in the hotel you are staying in. Then you work your data on your laptop and perform regular backups of that data. If the backup software allows this, you could perform a “disk-image” backup of your programs and data so that if something happens to the hard disk, you can restore this “image” to your new hard disk.

In some cases, you could do a full or “disk-image” backup of your computer’s storage to one of these external hard disks and send the external hard disk to your home or workplace by registered or certified mail or a courier service. Here, you would need to make sure the service has proper insurance cover for the equipment under transit and it may be something that you may have to buy when you send the item onwards.

Data-offload tool

eSATA port on some laptops

eSATA / USB port on some laptops

Another application would be a “data-offload” disk. Here, you could move surplus user data to the external hard disk before you find that you are running out of disk space on the laptop’s main disk.

If you do need the data, you could just connect the hard disk to your laptop so you can get at that data. Of course, some of you who own a high-capacity iPod may move all of your digital music collection to the iPod and not have it on your computer’s hard disk.

This common application would be increasingly important with Ultrabooks and other small notebooks that don’t have much in the way of capacity on their main secondary-storage. Here, this situation can allow you to have the best of both worlds – a compact computer with a quick-access storage and a large amount of space to hold those photos or music tracks.

What to choose

Interfaces

U3.0 socket on laptop

USB 3.0 socket (in blue) on laptop

Personally, I would prefer a USB 3.0 or eSATA unit if the computer is equipped with a USB 3.0 or eSATA port. This allows for higher data throughput which would be important if you are moving a lot of data at once. If you are doing small incremental data transfers, you could get by with a USB 2.0 hard disk.

Most small USB hard disks run off the host computer’s power rather than a separate power supply. The same doesn’t hold true for eSATA hard disks because the eSATA interface doesn’t pass power from the host computer to the drive. That situation can avoid the need to carry extra power cords or adaptors if you want to use an external hard disk.

Physical size

The size that would work well for travel would be a unit that is no bigger than a pack of playing cards or, if you were old enough to remember them, an audio cassette. This then means that the external hard disk doesn’t take up much space or add extra weight to your luggage. It also means that your backup disk doesn’t take up much room in the in-room safe and wouldn’t cost much to send by certified post if you had to send it home under separate cover.

Capacity

When you do purchase these hard disks, be prepared to buy as much capacity as you can afford. This is something I stand for when recommending any equipment that uses a hard disk, so you are not always running out of capacity or having to move and delete data off the device.

What is worth knowing

Integrating images with the main digital-image collection

If you are using the external hard disk to offload digital images that you have downloaded to your Ultrabook, you can use your main computer’s image-management program’s “import” method to import the images. Here, you would have to use “Open Autoplay” in Windows to invoke this functionality.

On the other hand, you may just simply copy the image folder on the external hard disk to the main computer’s image folder under a particular folder name of your choice. Here, you may have to rotate images to view them the correct way. This is more so if you haven’t used an image-management program to import your photos from the camera’s memory card to your Ultrabook’s storage.

A possible workflow idea

What you could do to manage images while travelling could be to use iPhoto or Windows Live Photo Gallery to import the pictures from your camera card and smartphone to your “traveller” computer’s main storage.

These tools give you the ability to pre-process your images such as making sure they are the “right way up”, doing basic cropping or panorama creation or simply adjusting exposure. As well you use this image collection to post up select pictures on Flickr, Facebook and similar online sharing or social-networking services.

Then you use the external hard disk to offload images whenever you find you are running tight on space or simply to make a backup copy of those pictures.

When you arrive home, you just simply copy that image collection to your main image folder on your regular computer and / or your network-attached storage.

Conclusion

Once you know about these external hard disks, you would then value them as an compact auxiliary storage unit for the data you create using that laptop while you go travelling.

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