Tag: laptop accessory

Building out a desktop workspace for your laptop computer

Desktop workspace with Dell XPS 13 laptop computer

The laptop-centric desktop workspace

Increasingly, a significant number of laptop-computer users set up a desktop-based workspace to use their computer at. With this arrangement, they equip the workspace with a full-sized keyboard and mouse alongside a large screen, with the computing power taking place inside the portable computer.

Why a desktop workspace for your laptop computer

The establishment of a desktop workspace for your portable computer is primarily about creating an ergonomic environment with full-sized input devices and larger screens that can stand long work sessions.

Some users may find this more important with ultraportable computers that use a smaller keyboard or omit things like numeric keypads. Similarly, you may find that a full-sized mouse may have work better for you than just relying on the computer’s trackpad.

Increasingly this arrangement appeals to the idea of running two screens thus creating a larger visual workspace. In most cases, this can be achieved through the use of a desktop monitor along with the laptop’s own display with them both set up to be a single display.

J Burrows lap desk used with a laptop computer on a couch - product image courtesy of Officeworks Australia

The laptop still is portable for use in the lounge during winter

Here you don’t lose the flexibility associated with using a laptop computer thanks to its portability. For example, your computing arrangements can suit the seasons at home if you have a good outdoor space that you use when it’s warm or you have a solid-fuel fire or a heater which conveys the look of a fire that you use when it’s cold. Or you can use a café or similar location as your “secondary office” when you want to work away from distraction. But you then are able to head back to your primary workspace where you want to benefit from what it offers.

Where is it relevant

A fully-equipped desktop workspace for your laptop computer is relevant to one or more areas you place a significant amount of your working time at. For a work-home laptop, this could be at your desk at the office you work at as well as your home office if you maintain this space. It will also have a strong appeal to those of us who run small businesses or community organisations with a physical shopfront but do a significant amount of the “homework” associated with running the organisation at home.

It also appeals to the “hot-desk” concept where different users end up using the same workspace but want to bring their computer, therefore their data, to that workspace. This is a significant trend that is being encouraged in new-style workplaces who are moving towards practices like telecommuting. But it also appeals to situations where, for example, members of your family want to use a fully-equipped workspace to do a significant project.

Secondary workspaces

Similarly you can create multiple desktop workspaces with this kind of setup at different locations. I mentioned this earlier in the context of a “work-home” laptop taken between your workplace / business premises and your home.

But this can also extend to a secondary residence like a holiday or seasonal home, whereupon you can establish a similar desktop workspace to use with your laptop computer at that location. Or this could be about a similar workspace set up in a study for your older children to use while completing their assignments and projects on their laptops.

Here, you may end up “pushing down” older equipment that has mileage left in it to this secondary workspace as you buy newer better equipment for your primary workspace. Examples of this would be to upgrade to a more capable USB-C or Thunderbolt 3 dock or a better monitor while your existing USB-C dock or monitor ends up at the secondary residence.

The equipment

Most of the equipment will be similar to what you would equip a standard desktop computer with but you may have to be particular about the connectivity issue concerning your laptop computer.

Input devices

Full size mice can earn their keep here at your primary workspace

You will need to equip your desktop workspace with a full-sized keyboard and a full-sized mouse or other input device. Here, make sure you choose the keyboard or input device you are comfortable with. Be aware that if you find that the travel-sized mouse can suit your needs equally for continual use as a full-size mouse, so be it.

These can be either wired or wireless with the former requiring a USB Type-A port on the computer for each wired device. Or the latter can be wireless, either using a transceiver dongle that plugs in to the computer’s USB Type-A port or Bluetooth which uses the laptop’s Bluetooth interface.

Some of the wireless “desktop sets” which consist of a keyboard and mouse in one package may allow one transceiver dongle to work with both the keyboard and mouse. But with Bluetooth you don’t need to deal with transceiver dongles because you are using the computer’s Bluetooth interface.

Screens

LG's 32" 4K monitor with HDR10 - press picture courtesy of LG USA

LG’s 32″ 4K monitor with HDR10 – larger monitors like these are relevant for the desktop workspace

If you have a 2-in-1, especially of the convertible type, you may find that having it set up in the “viewer” or “tent” mode will allow you to have a screen without its keyboard or trackpad being active. You may have to make sure Windows 10 is operating in “desktop” mode if you are using the external keyboard and input device.

As well, a good-quality display monitor with the screen size you are comfortable with and resolution that suits your needs can work well as your main or secondary display. The secondary display can come in to its own by providing an increased screen size and you may find that you have to use a laptop stand or bracket that suits your computer in order to prop your computer up to screen level.

If the monitor has its own speakers and connects to the setup via HDMI or DisplayPort including USB-C DisplayPort alt, you will need to have the default sound device being the laptop’s graphics-infrastructure display-audio device. Preferably in this case, the monitor should have an external audio output if you want to use headphones or a better sound setup with it.

Dell Inspiron 13 7000 2-in-1 Intel 8th Generation CPU - presentation mode

Having a 2-in-1 like this Dell Inspiron set up in viewer mode like this and using it with a keyboard and mouse may be a starting point for an enhanced workspace

Most operating systems will have the ability to have the screens work as either a copy of each other or as though they are one large display. It is in addition to setting up your computer to only use the external monitor as its display rather than its internal one. In this case, you may want to have the screens work as one large display if you value the increased desktop real estate or simply use your large monitor as your working display at your main workspace.

You can even go about having both screens as one large display but use the laptop’s built-in screen to “park aside” windows that you aren’t working with while  you have the larger screen for what you are currently focusing on. That would be effective for those of us who use a 12”-14″ ultraportable as part of this setup.

Sound

Creative Labs Stage Air desktop soundbar speaker

This Creative Labs Stage Air soundbar and similar desktop speakers could provide the sound for your desktop workspace

This can be satisfied through the use of desktop speakers, including a desktop soundbar like what Creative Labs offers. Or that old amplifier or receiver connected to a pair of bookshelf speakers can do the trick. In the same way, that 1980s-era “ghetto blaster” that has a selectable line input can answer the same need.

The speakers or amplifier can be connected to your laptop’s or monitor’s headphone or line-out jack or you may want to use an outboard sound module for this purpose. You may find that that the dock you use to provide one-cable connectivity to your laptop will have a built-in sound module that has very similar functionality to a USB sound module.

But the standalone sound modules are more likely to have better audio connectivity or audio reproduction electronics. Here, this may be of benefit for those of you who have a  home-office “den” that is equipped with high-quality audio equipment or you are using turntables or tape decks to salvage legacy media to digital form.

Such a setup may work well if you want better sound at your primary workspace and don’t want to rely on the laptop’s tinny built-in loudspeakers there. This would be important if you listen to music, watch videos or play games using that workspace.

Storage

USB portable hard disk

These portable USB hard disks are seen as a way to expand storage capacity for your workspace

You can also get by with using a USB hard disk or solid-state-storage device not just as a data-backup device but to offload data that you won’t be needing to keep on your laptop’s own storage subsystem. This will be of importance with those computers that use a small SSD as their onboard storage.  On the other hand, a network-attached storage could serve the same purpose as a data-backup or offload storage device. This is more important if you want to keep multimedia data available to your home network.

If you deal with optical disks like DVDs or Blu-Rays, you may find that a USB optical drive compatible with the disks you deal with may work well for this setup. This is more so if you are using the disks primarily at your desk, perhaps primarily to archive data; or simply want to play CDs, DVDs or Blu-Rays through your computer including ripping them to the computer’s storage subsystem. The same goes for other legacy removeable media like floppy disks or ZIP disks whereupon you use USB-connected drives for gaining access to data stored there.

Pioneer USB Blu-Ray optical drive

A USB optical drive can come in handy here if you use CDs, DVDs or similar discs at all.

Some of you may find that keeping a highly-portable USB hard-disk / SSD and/or optical drive may answer your needs if you are intending to use them on the road. This may be about moving photos you take with your camera off your laptop or watching a DVD or Blu-Ray during the long-haul flight. In the case of secondary residences or similar premises, you may prefer to take the highly-portable USB storage device with you when you leave so your backup or offload data stored there is safe with you.

Network connectivity

You may find that if you have an Ethernet connection near your workspace, you may want to connect your laptop to the network and Internet via Ethernet rather than Wi-Fi wireless. In most cases, this will allow high-throughput low-latency network and Internet connection and you may come across this if you have located your router in that workspace, wired your home for Ethernet or your business has wired Ethernet infrastructure.

This situation is answered through the use of a USB-based Ethernet network adaptor that plugs in to your computer’s Ethernet ports. But a lot of well-bred USB-C and Thunderbolt 3 docks have this function built in to them. Let’s not forget that you may find that your laptop has its own Ethernet port especially if it is a mainstream business or gaming unit.

Connecting many devices

The question that will come up frequently is how do I connect the many devices to my computer especially if it has fewer ports. Usually this would be about connecting and disconnecting many cables as you bring your computer to this workspace

Hubs and docks

To simplify this process, you may find that a USB hub or dock (expansion module) may come in to its own here.

Belkin USB hub

A typical USB hub

A hub will have a number of USB ports for use with USB peripherals while a dock will have a range of different connections and interface circuitry for different devices. You may find that your monitor may have some of this functionality built in to it and this can be a real boon because you don’t have to deal with a separate box. It will be more so if you are dealing with a USB-C monitor.

Here, you connect all of your peripherals that would be normally connected to your computer to this device. Then you have a cable that connects the hub or dock to your computer to expose all those peripherals to it and its operating system. Previously these used a USB 3 Type-A connector but most of them now use a USB Type-C or Thunderbolt 3 connector due to the high data throughput and, in some cases, power-supply functionality that they offer.

Dell WD19TB Thunderbolt dock

A USB-C or Thunderbolt 3 dock like this Dell WD19TB dock is relevant for this kind of workspace

If your computer supports USB Type C or Thunderbolt 3 connectivity, these devices come in to their own with a DisplayPort “pass-through” monitor connection. In a significant number of cases, you will find that the hub or dock comes with a power supply and works to USB Power Delivery specifications. This will mean that you will be able to keep your laptop’s power supply in your laptop bag rather than always bringing it out when you want to work at home. With the power capacity, I would look for something that is at least 45 watts in order to cover most computers’ needs.

On the other hand, if your computer doesn’t have a USB Type-C or Thunderbolt 3 connection, you will have to connect your external monitor directly to the computer’s display socket. Some of the USB 3.0 docks will have a display connection of some sort and this will be facilitated through the DisplayLink standard which “pipes” the video output from your computer’s graphics infrastructure via the USB 3.0 output to the display connection. This setup may appeal for a secondary-display application where display latency isn’t an issue.

The rule with these devices is to make sure you are purchasing one that suits your current needs. As well, if you do choose to upgrade an existing hub or dock  you can “push” your existing hub or dock in to service for another workspace that you use less regularly. Or if the hub or dock is small and light enough, it could be something you could stuff in your laptop bag to connect up other peripherals when on the road.

Accessories

Some of you may use a laptop stand or bracket as part of your desktop workspace. Here, your computer will either clip in to the bracket or rest on this stand, typically to have the laptop’s display at the same height as your main computer monitor.

Here, make sure that the laptop stand or bracket is sturdy and can continue to do its job for a long time. It is also worth making sure that the stand is adjustable so that the top of the computer’s screen is at the same height as the top of the monitor’s screen.

Moving from desktop to laptop?

Some of you may be building out that desktop workspace for your laptop computer as part of moving from desktop to laptop computing.

Here, you can retain most, if not all of your desktop computer’s peripherals and connect them to your new laptop computer, whether directly or via a hub or dock. As well, an independent computer store or electronics store may offer self-powered USB disk-drive enclosures that fit most standard-sized internal-mount hard disks or optical drives used in desktop computers. This will mean that you can move hard drives, SSDs or optical drives out of you desktop computer’s case to these enclosures so you can continue using them, something that can be done with a screwdriver.

Lenovo even had this idea in mind with their BoostStation external graphics module which connects to the host computer via Thunderbolt 3. Here, this unit didn’t just have room for a graphics card but also had the ability for you to install a hard disk or SSD like the one you have removed from your old desktop computer.

Similarly, you will have to remove the hard disks or solid-state storage device that are in your desktop computer from that computer before you send it off for e-waste recycling. This is to preserve your privacy and the confidentiality of your data. Again, if you needed to, that computer store may have a USB disk-drive enclosure or a USB hard-disk docking station so you can get at any of your data on the hard disk or SSD.

This approach is worth taking if you find that your desktop setup’s peripherals have a significant amount of mileage left in them or you use certain peripherals that fit your needs exactly.

Conclusion

Once you build out one or more desktop workspaces for your laptop computer, you are then able to have the best of both worlds – comfortable ergonomic computing at your desk and portable computing with your laptop.

Laptop screen protectors and privacy screens–are they worth their salt?

Article

Dell XPS 13 8th Generation Ultrabook at QT Melbourne rooftop bar

A screen protector or privacy screen can be a valuable cost-effective accessory for that laptop

Do laptop screen protectors affect touchscreen sensitivity? | Windows Central

My Comment

An accessory that you could get for your own laptop computer or give to someone who owns one is a screen protector or privacy screen. These accessories are considered very affordable and you would be safe to give one as a gift for any occasion. It is not hard to come by these accessories, typically found in accessory departments of computer, consumer-electronics, office-supply or similar stores or available online through the likes of Amazon.

The screen protectors, typically made of plastic or tempered glass, protect the screen from scratches or dust. The plastic option is an economy option but it itself can be scratched and is not always likely to cover the whole of your screen as well as itself becoming a “dust magnet”. The glass option costs extra but is more damage resistant and will cover your screen fully. That is more important especially for tablets and 2-in-1s due to you interacting with the screen more frequently.

Privacy screens are a screen protector that uses a fresnel-lens approach thanks to polarisation to limit the viewing angle to directly in front of the screen. This is to prevent others who are sitting beside you from viewing what’s on your screen, but if a person is directly behind you, they can see what you are doing. It is good if you are using your computer to work on confidential material in a high-traffic area regularly like making use of that “second office” cafe or bar, or using it to do your work on public transport or while flying.

Dell Inspiron 13 7000 2-in-1 Intel 8th Generation CPU at QT Melbourne hotel - presentation mode

This is more so with these 2-in-1 convertible laptops

You may expect to have reduced sensitivity from touchscreens or active-pen setups due to the extra material but this may be a slight effect. In some cases, a screen protector that has a textured surface may provide a better inking surface than using a glossy screen alone or a smooth-surfaced protector. This is more so if it has a paper-style texture.

When choosing a screen protector or privacy screen, pay attention to ease of installation and removal. This is important if you find that it doesn’t fit your computer properly or suit your needs or the screen becomes too dull as you use it. In some cases, you may find that particular screen protectors may fit a particular model of laptop rather than working for a particular generic screen size.

Something else you may may have to pay attention to is whether the screen protector does impact your computer’s screen brightness for comfortable use over its lifespan. This is more so if you have to increase the screen brightness which can have an impact on battery runtime. Let’s not forget how the automatic brightness functionality on some screens may be affected by the use of the screen protector and you may have to raise the brightness slightly.

Considering these points can allow you to choose the best value screen protector or privacy screen for your laptop or tablet so you can gain long-term use out of these accessories.

Kogan are offering a highly-capable USB dock for $120

Article – From the horse’s mouth

Kogan

Wavlink USB 3.0 Multi-task Universal Laptop Docking Station & Hub (WL-UG39DK1) (Product Page)

Wavlink

USB 3.0 Universal Docking Station Dual Video Monitor Display

My Comments

I had come across in my email a Kogan ad where they were offering a highly-capable USB dock with integrated video support for 2 displays. Here, they are offering the product for AUD$120 including tax but excluding shipping.

This device has 2 USB 3.0 ports and 4 USB 2.0 ports, which can come in handy with a mix of USB input devices and USB storage devices along with an integrated USB sound module and USB-Gigabit-Ethernet network adaptor.

For video, there is a DVI connection and an HDMI connection for displays that work to DVI or HDMI specifications. From the manufacturer’s site, there is also meant to be a DVI-VGA adaptor so you can use it with that VGA-only display or projector. This functionality is supported according to Displaylink standards for USB-video adaptors.

It is targeted at laptop users who use current-spec laptops but want to maintain a desktop workspace with “full-bore” peripherals like full-sized input devices or larger monitors, let alone a reliable Ethernet or HomePlug AV500 connection to the network. Here, the idea is that a person who uses a “work-home” laptop can quickly connect and disconnect the laptop to and from this expansion module using one plug while all the peripherals are in place, connected to this device.

In some cases, it can also be of benefit to those of us who use small desktop computers like all-in-ones or “Next Unit Of Computing” devices where there isn’t much in the way of connectivity; or for those of us who carry around a laptop that doesn’t have much in the way of external-device connectivity but don’t want to worry about losing adaptors left right and centre when you move from place to place.

USB Type-C appears as a car charger and external battery pack

Nomad RoadTrip

Article

The First USB-C Car Charger Also Throws In A Backup Battery | Gizmodo

From the horse’s mouth

Nomad

RoadTrip Car Charger (Product Page)

MOS ReachGo Battery Bank

Article

The First USB-C Battery That Can Charge A Laptop At Full Speed | Gizmodo

From the horse’s mouth

MOS

Reach Go (Product Page)

My Comments

Two companies have put forward power supply accessories which implement the new USB Type-C connector along with the USB Type-A connector.This is to capitalise on the newer phones, tablets and laptops that will be equipped with this new USB connector and provide a future-proof setup

The MOS ReachGo which is the first external battery pack to implement USB Type-C connectivity is similar to most USB battery packs although it is a slimline device. It has two USB Type-C and 2 USB Type-A connections with the ability for it to work as a USB 3.0 hub. It capitalises on the USB Type-C standard by being able to charge up a MacBook Air at full speed courtesy of its 15000mAh battery.

The Nomad RoadTrip is the first USB car charger of the kind that plugs in to your vehicle’s 12-volt accessory socket or cigar-lighter socket to implement USB Type-C connectivity. This unit provides 2.1A each to both the USB Type-C and USB Type-A sockets and has an integrated 3000mAh battery pack so it doubles as an external battery pack for your thirsty smartphone. It would most likely be able to work well with most mobile devices but may not provide the power to charge up a laptop like the MacBook Air.

It is worth knowing that you can use the Type-C connectivity on these chargers with your existing USB device if you use a USB Type-C adaptor cable. Out of the two, I would find that the MOS ReachGo battery pack as being one that shows promise for the Type-C capabilities.

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.

Sound devices that you can send an app’s sound output through

Windows 10 has improved on this problem by allowing you to use the operating system’s user interface to determine which audio output device a program uses. But if you are using a Web browser, the same audio device will be used for all sessions of that browser, whether they appear as separate tabs or separate windows. In this situation, you would have to have the audio output device associated with your laptop’s inbuilt speakers as the default audio device while you set Spotify or a similar multimedia program to play through the Bluetooth device. This is available for the Windows 10 April Update (Build 1803) available since May 2018 and newer versions of that operating system.

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 found 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. But some devices like the JBL E45BT headphones may implement a simplified “priority-device” setup which is dependent on the device that you are currently using rather than you having to determine that role.

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 article is subject to regular updates based on my experience with 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. It will also be updated as desktop operating systems are being refined for Bluetooth-device operation like what has happened with Windows 10’s April Update.

What to look for with “checkpoint-friendly” laptop luggage

Article – From the horse’s mouth

TSA: “Checkpoint Friendly” Laptop Bag Procedures

TSA Website

My Comments

Background

One major goal with airport security is to be sure that the item being taken on board an aircraft is what it really is and not carrying a bomb or other payload dangerous to aircraft or personal safety. Most of us see this function being performed at the security checkpoints using the X-ray scanners.

As far as laptop users are concerned, this has often required the security staff to use these X-ray machines to determine whether it is a computer or not. Along with this, there has been the issue of high-throughput checkpoint lanes, with the use of trays to consolidate passengers’ small-size belongings as they pass through these machines. Some people also reckon that the trays are there to permit a high quality X-ray image out of the machines, especially if there is item-recognition software in place.

As I have encountered from personal experience with the Dell Inspiron 15r during a previous Sydney trip and from a friend’s experience with their laptop, some of the aforementioned trays can’t allow a 15” or 17” laptop to lie flat. In some cases, the laptop could drop down on these trays too easily and this could cause the computer’s owner to worry about its hard disk.

TSA-approved “checkpoint-friendly” computer luggage

The Transportation Security Administration in the US have established a benchmark for computer luggage that allows the laptop to be scanned “in-situ”. This is meant to avoid the need to take the computer out of the luggage and have it scanned separately or have the luggage manually examined.

What makes a laptop bag or case “checkpoint friendly”

The bags or cases are designed in a fold-out style, with one style that folds out like an open book; and the other style being a three-fold design that folds over twice. Another style is the common laptop sleeve that you slide your laptop or iPad into.

The cases don’t have any metal fastenings on the side of the designated laptop pouch or inside that pouch; and there aren’t any pockets on the side of or inside that pouch or sleeve. Typically this will allow for a zipper along the edge of a laptop pouch or sleeve or have the pouch or sleeve secured shut with a plastic zip / press-stud (snap fastener) or a Velcro strip.

The material will be thick enough to protect the computer but thin enough for X-rays to pass through when it passes through the X-ray scanner. As well, the decorations on the case will appear to be thin and made out of materials other than metal for this same purpose.

The bags will typically have the laptop accessories, documents and other items held in other pockets.

But what should you look for

When you choose any laptop luggage, check the case for good quality stitching on the bags. This includes any straps and handles. The laptop pouch must have well-sewn Velcro strips or a good-quality fastening along the pouch. Other fastenings on the rest of the bag should also be good quality and it is worth looking at the warranty that the manufacturer offers on these items. Sometimes a good clue to pay attention to is the manufacturer’s warranty on the bag or its fastenings.

This is important so that you don’t risk damaging your computer equipment due to the case coming apart because of poor-quality stitching or fasteners.

Existing or preferred luggage

If you do use existing or preferred hand luggage like that company briefcase or that backpack, you can get away with using a laptop sleeve to protect your computer even more. Then you just put the laptop in its sleeve directly on the conveyor belt at the airport security checkpoints.

On the other hand you could just place the laptop in to its own tray as the last item to go through the X-ray scanner. Then, after you have passed the checkpoint, you put it in your existing hand luggage.

Once you choose the right kind of well-built luggage, this can lead you to many years of reduced-hassle air travel.

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.

Those who play computer games will also benefit from using USB hard disks. Here, it is about offloading the data associated with these games so you can keep your laptop for productivity use and will be important as your games acquire extra abilities like downloadable content. You may even find that you could offload games you aren’t touching so you can focus your computer’s storage resources on the one you are currently playing. Steam and other game-distribution platforms have support for this kind of arrangement including offloading games.

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 at the time this article was initially created.

The newer connection that is appearing is the USB Type-C connector. Here, this provides a high-throughput data transfer rate when implemented to USB 3.2 or newer standards as well as being a highly-compact connection form. Here, this connection is being used as the only peripheral connection type for ultraportable laptops but is also appearing on some of these portable hard disks.

Dell Inspiron 14 5000 2-in-1 convertible - keyboard left hand side connections (USB-C, HDMI, 2 x USB 3.0, audio jack)

Newer USB-C socket on a Dell Inspiron 14 5000 2-in-1 laptop

You will also notice that USB portable hard disks that work to the USB 3.0 or USB 3.1 standards and don’t have a USB Type-C connection will have a USB Type-Micro-B 3.0 “blade-shaped” connection that plugs in to the hard disk unit itself. They will came with a cable that has this connection and the traditional USB Type-A host-connection plug. But you can use them with newer computers that have the USB Type-C port if you purchase a cable with a USB Type-Micro-B 3.o plug on one end and a USB Type-C plug on the other.

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.

For that matter, I have written an article about what is the difference between an external USB hard disk versus a portable USB hard disk. Here, it is about how these devices are powered and their size, but it also encompasses whether the hard-disk mechanism is designed for increased resilience to accidents.

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.

Updates:

15 December 2020

Added newer information about the USB-C connection and USB 3 Micro-B connection that appear on these USB hard disks.

Also referenced an article about the difference between portable and external hard disks; along with information about offloading games to these hard disks without breaking them.

Lenovo now makes available a USB 3.0 desktop expansion module for your Ultrabook

Article

Lenovo ThinkPad USB 3.0 dock lends its ports to your deprived laptop via DisplayLink, available May 15th for $180 — Engadget

My Comments

I have previously talked about on this site about the concept of standards-common expansion modules for use with laptops, especially Ultrabooks. These devices, also known as docking stations, would have connections for peripherals that you would typically used at your desk like larger displays, Ethernet network connections or work-specific peripherals.

Infoact one of these devices was part of an ultraportable laptop that I had reviewed, namely the Sony VAIO Z Series unit; and this one included a slot-load optical-disc drive that reads Blu-Ray Discs.

Now Lenovo have presented the ThinkPad USB 3.0 Dock, which connects to the host laptop using a USB 3.0 connection, already common on most laptops including higher-priced Ultrabooks. But it exploits the higher data throughput of USB 3.0 to allow for more than what one would typically expect from these devices.

For example, the expansion module is a network adaptor for Cat5 Gigabit Ethernet networks and an external sound module as well as a self-powered USB 3.0 hub for five peripherals. The self-powered USB hub also has the advantage of supplying power to USB peripherals independently of the host computer so that you could charge up smartphones and other gadgets or use it as a power supply for USB-driven gadgets.

But it uses DisplayLink technology to use the USB 3.0 connection to drive external displays while using the host computer’s graphics subsystem. This can encourage us to use the large displays with these laptops without needing to connecting them to the computer itself.

What I would like about this expansion module and any expansion modules designed along this line is that it isn’t dependent on the laptop being a Lenovo ThinkPad model at all, let alone a Lenovo unit. Compared to the Sony solution which exploited a proprietary “Light Path” setup over USB 3.0, this could be used with computers that use any USB 3.0 port.

This is more so as the next generation of Ultrabooks come with USB 3.0 ports integrated in to them but may have two or three of these ports as well as fewer connections for other wired peripherals. Infact the more of these devices that exist, the better it would be for people who use “work-home” laptops or 13” ultraportabls as travel/desk computers/

Could an expansion module for an Ultrabook be a viable product?

Introduction

Sony VAIO Z Series and docking station

The Sony VAIO Z Series ultraportable with functionality expanded by an add-on module

Previously, I reviewed the Sony VAIO Z Series ultra-thin premium laptop and the review sample cam with an expansion module that linked to this laptop with an LightPeak-(Thunderbolt)-via-USB3 connection. This provided discrete graphics circuitry, an Ethernet connection, video outputs, extra USB sockets as well as a slot-load Blu-Ray reader / DVD-burner optical drive. A cheaper variant of this laptop had the expansion module as an optional accessory rather than in the box.

Well, the age of the Ultrabook is here and some of us may want to have these machines benefit from extra connectivity or functionality at our main work locations yet benefit from a lightweight design when out and about.

Most of us would expand these computers with a myriad of adaptors and modules that plug in to these computers’ USB ports and this could yield a mess when you have many of these peripherals and too few USB ports on the computers.

Docking Stations before

Previously, some manufacturers used to supply docking-stations and port-expanders that integrated with some of their laptop lines usually through a proprietary multipin connector. These typically served one main function i.e. to connect larger desktop peripherals to the laptop but allow the user to quickly remove the laptop when they hit the road.

Data connectivity nowadays

Now the USB 3.0 and Thunderbolt connector can make this concept real for most Ultrabook models when it comes to data transfer; and this can work well with setups that just provide access to an optical drive and / or extra connectors.

These connections allow for high-bandwidth data throughput which can support the requirements of Blu-Ray Discs, high-capacity high-throughput hard disks, Gigabit Ethernet, data for discrete-video GPUs serving high-resolution displays or many more USB 2.0 connectors.

A current problem

Expansion unit as a power supply

But there are issues involved if the expansion module is to be a power supply for the portable computer. Here, most manufacturers ask for different input voltage and current levels for their different notebook computer designs, and they also use different DC plug sizes for some of their products.

This can be easier if the goal is to have the device work with one particular make or model-range of computer. But it can be harder if you expect an expansion module to work across a larger range of products such as a manufacturer’s complete lineup or products made by different manufacturers.

If there is an industry expectation that all Ultrabooks and, perhaps, other ultraportable computers, are to have a particular power-supply requirement for outboard chargers, the power-supply functionality could be answered through the provision of a standard flylead from the expansion device to the host computer.

This could be facilitated through the use of a standard power-supply requirement and connection type for portable computer power-supply connections. It can then allow for power-supply innovation by computer manufacturers and third parties to provide power to these computers from different power sources.

What can be provided

Optical disc

These modules could provide an optical disc drive so one can play or burn CDs / DVDs / Blu-Ray Discs with the Ultrabooks. This could come in handy either with entertainment or with installing software held on these discs. In some cases, people could burn data to these discs due to them being sold for a “dime a dozen”.

Extra connections

Another benefit would be to provide increased connection and expansion abilities for the Ultrabook. This would play well for those users who press a 13” laptop as a computing device at their main location, having it hooked up to a large screen and a keyboard and mouse fit for use with a desktop computer as well as some decent speakers or a nice sound system at their main workstation.

Typically this would manifest in extra USB sockets of the 2.0 or 3.0 variety as well as an Ethernet socket for connecting to a Gigabit Ethernet or HomePlug AV network.

Improved video and audio

An expansion module could help a manufacturer raise an Ultrabook’s multimedia credentials whether it is to enjoy creating or playing audio, video or photo content.

If the manufacturer decided to follow Sony’s example, they could house discrete video circuitry in the expansion unit in order to provide for enhanced multimedia-grade graphics. These could service the laptop’s integrated display or a display connected to video terminals on the expansion unit. In some cases, the expansion module could be a display in the order of 21” or more working as a second screen.

Similarly the sound quality available from an Ultrabook could be improved through the use of discrete sound-processing modules like the Creative Labs modules. This could open up paths like analogue RCA inputs and outputs or SP/DIF digital connections (Toslink optical or RCA coaxial) to connect to good-quality sound systems. As well there could be the use of one or more 1/4” jacks that can be used to connect good microphones or musical instruments to this module for recording.

In some cases, this could extend to the integration of broadcast tuners in to these modules to permit an Ultrabook to receive radio or TV broadcasts.

Providing to the market

Manufacturers should be encouraged to provide more than one different expansion module so that customers can choose the right unit to suit their needs and budget rather than just their computer. As well, they can make sure that these units can cover a larger range of their small notebooks. It can also allow for customers to upgrade their notebooks to suit different needs as well as purchasing different expansion modules for different needs at a later date.

Conclusion

Yes, an expansion module for the new class of Ultrabooks can be a viable computer-accessory product and, once worked out properly, could serve a large range of these computers.

Product Review–Cooler Master NotePal Infinite Evo laptop cooling pad

I am reviewing the Cooler Master NotePal infinite Evo laptop cooling pad which is one of may laptop rests that are equipped with a forced-air cooling subsystem. Here, these units use this fan-forced air to cool the underside of the laptop which, in a lot of older and “thin-and-light” designs, can become very hot. An example of this was the HP Envy 15 laptop that I had previously reviewed on this site. Here, this unit wouldn’t take long to become uncomfortably hot during operation.

This situation may lead to the computer being uncomfortable to use after a significant amount of time and there can be a chance of heat building up under the computer, thus causing overheating and a shortened lifespan for that laptop.

Cooler Master is a name primarily associated with the manufacture of aftermarket computer cooling systems for desktop PCs. These are usually in the form of CPU fan subsystems or add-on case fans that are used as part of tuning-up “LAN-party” PCs for maximum gaming performance, similar to “hotting up” cars for maximum street performance.

Cooler Master NotePal Infite Evo laptop cooling pad

 

Recommended Retail Price: AUD$59

The unit itself

Cooler Master NotePal Infinite Evo power input and fan controls

USB input, Fan controls and DC input

This NotePal Infinite Evo is based around an aluminium panel with rubber strips to hold the laptop on. This panel is positioned ant an angle and has two small fans underneath it to create the air draught under the computer. This is the reverse to the typical fan heater which draws the cold air in the top and forces the heated air out the heater’s front grille. Both of these fans are variable-speed fans that are adjusted by use of a thumbwheel on the left side of the unit.

Cooler Master NotePal Infinite Evo USB hub connections

USB hub connections

This is powered through a USB connection to the host laptop computer and there are 3 USB 2.0 ports on the right side of the laptop cooling mat.This is unlike most of the cheaper laptop cooling pads that don’t have a USB hub, thus leaving you without a USB connection when you use them. Thee is also a 5V DC power connection for use with a 5V power adaptor if you need to run this unit as a self-powered USB hub. Here, the external power supply would be required if you were to connect the typical 2.5″ USB hard disk to the unit’s hub while using it as a cooling pad.

Cooler Master NotePal Infite Evo laptop cooling pad intake grilles

Rear-mounted intake grilles

The air is drawn in through large grilles on the back of the unit and expelled through a small air scoop just under where the computer sits.

Usage

Judging from how I handled the Cooler Master  laptop cooling pad, I noticed that it was very well built. There was nothing loose about it and the controls operated properly and smoothly as on good-quality equipment.

The NotePal Infinite Evo mat is lighter than the typical 15” laptop which makes it easier to transport with the laptop. There are large rubber pads to prevent the pad slipping across table tops and protect those polished wooden dining or coffee tables from scratches.

During operation, there is a slight buzz from the fan at high speed, which is well below typical conversation level. I have observed this with a regular laptop being placed on the cooling pad. I have checked for excessive vibration while the fan is at the same high speed and there wasn’t any of that vibration.

The USB hub works according to the standards for a USB hub without the need for driver CDs. Remember that it is a bus-powered USB hub unless you connect a 5VDC power supply to the DC-IN jack on the left of the unit.

Points Of Improvement

One point of improvement that I would like to see is a version that suits subnotebook / ultraportable computers and is big enough for them, without sacrificing the build quality and quiet operation.

As well, Cooler Master could provide an external power supply kit as an option for the NotePal Infinite Evo units so they can work as a self-powered USB hub when used with USB hard disks or as a charging bar for mobile phones.

Conclusion

I would recommend that people who find that their laptop computer runs hot too easily during games or graphics-intensive work should purchase the Cooler Master NotePal Infinite Evo cooling pad. It does the job without intruding on one’s computing life and is designed to last a long time. As well you don’t lose the functionality of the USB socket it is connected to.