Top Tools for Mobile PC Users: Hotspot Hot Stuff

Saturday Mar 15th 2008 by Daniel Casciato
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Uber-mobile workers rely on Wi-Fi to get their work done. Here, we share a comprehensive list of their favorite tools--from software to laptops and accessories--for working from public hotspots.

Uber-mobile bedouins rely on Wi-Fi to get their work done. Here, we share a comprehensive list of their favorite tools--from software to laptops and accessories--for working from public hotspots.


As a freelance Web designer who runs ClickNathan.com, Nathan Swartz's laptop is his office and his workplace is local cafés. Mobile workers like Swartz, known as "bedouins,"—named after nomadic Arabs who wander from place to place in the desert—use café-based and other public hotspots to operate their businesses.

 

Swartz has been a bedouin for nearly two years, often working from cafés in Pittsburgh's tony east end neighborhoods. It's a lifestyle that many are turning to, says Swartz, because bedouins have all the tools necessary to run their professional lives from anywhere.

 

If you want your local Starbucks to become your new workplace, nothing is more important than having the right "tools of the trade" at your fingertips. You just need the proper devices, applications, and even the right accessories, like a sturdy bag.

 

The right device

 

With more places adding hotspots, only one tool is necessary, says Joe Polk, a senior technical specialist with PENNTAP, a technical assistance program that provides free assistance to companies within the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania. 

 

"All you really need is a laptop," said Polk, who works with some clients who are bedouins. "When you're thinking about a laptop, you need to think about how portable you are. People tend to sacrifice size and weight for functionality, like a wider monitor, a numbered keypad, or an optical drive. Someone like me will take the middle ground. I travel and take my Dell Latitude D820 everywhere, but I don't do it that often where I worry about the weight, nor do I care about a massive screen."

 

If your business takes you to different client sites, you should always know where the closest Wi-Fi hotspot is, adds Polk.

 

"When I have time in between client meetings, I may grab lunch or coffee at a place that has Wi-Fi so I can check my e-mail or do research before going to my next meeting," he said. "So always plan ahead and map out your day if you're traveling to different locations."

 

While laptops are more commonly associated with portable productivity, the smartphone--like Apple’s sleek iPhone and or RIM’s BlackBerry—is another weapon of choice for bedouins because it's lightweight and has longer battery endurance. Andy Abramson, president of marketing communications agency, Comunicano, and one of the world's first bedouins, warns not to confuse lifestyle devices with useful business devices.

 

"The iPhone is a very nice lifestyle device," said Abramson, who also writes two blogs, Working Anywhere and VoIPWatch. "It looks good, has a great interface, and lets you receive e-mails. However, you won't write a tight memo of more than a few lines given the iPhone's interface. It's just not convenient to type on. Yes, you can bang out some fast notes, but it's really just glorified SMS. It's a useful lifestyle device over the weekend."

 

Abramson says that an iPhone doesn't replace a smartphone–such as a Nokia E61i, a Nokia E90, or Blackberry Curvefor business owners.

 

"A smartphone is a business device," he said. "They are easy to compose your thoughts on, you can quickly get access to your e-mail, and if it's on the right network, you can browse the Web. A smartphone is a business essential."

 

The key to devices is what's right for you, says Laura Merritt, spokesperson for Verizon Wireless for the Ohio/Pennsylvania region.

 

"It depends on how you plan to use the device, whether it's a phone, PDA, smartphone, or Wi-Fi-enabled devices," she said. "Recognizing that everyone has different needs, we take a consultative approach in helping customers find the right solution."

 

Merritt advises test-driving any device first.

 

"We always let our customers try our devices," she said. "If you don't like it or it doesn't support what you need to do, you can return it within 30 days and try something else. We're sure you'll find something. We support Wi-Fi with some of our devices. But if you can't connect to a hotspot, our EVDO technology allows you to have an alternative to make sure you're connected." 

 

With new devices frequently penetrating the marketplace, Abramson says to buy what you like.

 

"There's something new every month," he said. "You have to buy what you like and when you find something that you like, use it until what can really replace it comes along. Because what you'll find is that if you jump to the next thing because it's the hot flavor of the month, it's not going to satisfy you."

 

Necessary applications

 

Bedouins also have to decide which applications are right for their devices.

 

"Can you open up a Word document, can you read an Excel spreadsheet, and can you look at an Adobe .pdf?" asked Abramson. "Once you make those decisions, then you can decide which device is best for you. I would contend that there's no one device perfect for everybody. But there are devices that are better for like-minded people. It all depends what segment you fall into. What may be good for an accountant may not be good for a lawyer."

 

When Dave Tremel, president of Cranberry Technology Solutions in Cranberry Township, PA, is on the road, there are a few applications he has found useful.

 

"With my Mac, I use Spanning Sync to sync iCal with Google Calendar," said Tremel."I can update and check my calendar using Google Calendar while on the road. For storage, I use Amazon S3 because it makes it easier to access files. This way, I don't have to have everything I need with me and know I can still get to it. Amazon doesn't provide a direct interface to S3 so for that I use Jungle Disk."

 

Also, if you have a USB drive and don't want to take your computer with you, Tremel says that Portable Apps allows you to take your applications and data wherever you go.

 

"All you need is access to a computer, all of the applications run from the USB drive," he said. "The applications need to be configured, but once this is done you plug your drive in and you have everything you need. There is also a version of Jungle Disk, which runs from USB drives."

 

Phone services and VoIP

 

Greg Kalish, a PR consultant from White Plains, NY, spends half his week working out of bedouin havens like Starbucks, Cosi, Borders, and Barnes & Noble, using his T-Mobile and Boingo accounts. His essential items are a laptop, Blackberry Curve, extra laptop battery, an extension cord for his power cord, wireless mouse, and a Bluetooth earpiece.

 

He also raves about Spinvox, a voicemail-to-text service that converts voice to text and allows users to receive their voicemail messages in text form as SMS and e-mail.

 

"This is ideal for when I’m in a crowded place and where all the background noise makes it difficult to hear a voicemail message the traditional way," he said. "I can respond to spoken voice messages by text. Plus, it allows me to have a written record of all my voicemails so I don’t have to listen to a message multiple times to catch a name or number."

 

Although, Kalish uses T-Mobile frequently, he buys Boingo day passes where T-Mobile isn’t available.

 

"Boingo seems to be more much widely available at airports and overseas," said Kalish. "It’s saved me money when traveling overseas. I have used Boingo several times in London to connect to a Wi-Fi network and then use my Vonage V-Phone to make VoIP calls. I’ve probably saved thousands of dollars in international roaming fees had those same calls been made from my cell phone."

 

For VoIP calls, Abramson prefers Truphone.

 

"I can call in to any user who has a Truphone account for free," he said. "I can make calls all over the place for free or at low cost. I can make calls back and forth to the states using the Truphone service without using roaming minutes and the call quality is great."

 

Other essentials

 

Other necessary items for a bedouin include an extra laptop battery, extra batteries for other powered devices (like a wireless mouse), an "air" card (for those times when Wi-Fi just isn't working), an extension cord, blank CDs or DVDs for your burner, inexpensive thumb drives (for sharing/giving away), un-powered USB hub, and earphones.

 

The most essential item for Eamonn Carey (right), who runs Random Thoughts Media, a mobile and online video production company and Fanscast.tv, is simply a laptop with good battery life. eamonnwork.jpg

 

"Some cafes make your life difficult by providing only one or two power points for customer use," said Carey from Dublin, Ireland, who has spoken at conferences and trade shows about bedouins. "A fully charged cell phone also helps. I use a Nokia N95, mainly because I work in digital media and can use it to record video, audio clips, and high quality photos. Most of my e-mail comes through a Google Apps account, which I access from Gmail for Mobile, so even if I'm on the train or away from my regular hotspots, I can still access email. Plus, it has a built-in radio to keep me entertained where necessary."

 

Carey also recommends buying a good pair of earphones.

 

"I have a pair of Bose in-ear headphones for watching any video content I receive during the day," he said. "Also, if you're in a particularly busy cafe, it's nicer to listen to music on your laptop than it is to listen to the seventeen conversations happening around you. Better earphones don't bleed as much, so the people around you aren't going to have to listen to a hiss coming from your ears once you go past a certain volume."

 

Abramson likes a new brand called Iqua SUN.

 

"A great earphone is important but the challenge is that the headset's battery runs out," he said. "SUN is solar-powered and environmentally-friendly. Because it works off solar power, you can charge it under a light or when you're out and about. As long as you're working in sunlight or under light, it recharges automatically."

 

Low-tech accessories

 

A good bag is another essential item for mobile workers, says Gwen Harrison, who runs Florida-based Advanced Virtual Services, a virtual assistance business, and can often be found at local cafes about twice a week.

 

"I had a few different laptop cases, but finally splurged and bought a Samsonite rolling laptop case," she said. "I really enjoy it because sometimes I need to take a bunch of files with me. The over-the-shoulder cases don't have much room, but this one has plenty of room and I don't have to sling it over my shoulder."

 

Carey and Abramson agree that the right bag is important.

 

"Given that your laptop is effectively your office when you work like this, you need something that will protect it in the event of everything from heavy rain to occasional clumsy drops," said Carey. "Chances are, you're going to be lugging your laptop, a notebook, a charger, and several other items around with you every day, and if, like me, you tend to walk or use public transport rather than driving, it can get a bit heavy after awhile."

 

Abramson likes the Waterfield line at SFBags.com.

 

"I like Waterfield bags because they're light, sturdy—they use parachute release hooks, and have springy shoulder straps," he said. "I also like the line from Crumpler."

 

Finally, don't forget the shoes. Carey recommends sneakers.

 

"Because I try not to drive, and walk as much as possible, comfortable shoes are a must," he said. "I wear sneakers quite a lot, and I think I get away with it at this point. If I'm meeting VCs, accountants, or lawyers, I'll put on my suit and make more of an effort to look like a businessman, but on any regular day, I'm more likely to be dressed casually."

 

Continued: Recommendations for the Best Tools

Below is a collection of a few more "tools of the trade" that will make any bedouin's life easier.

 

Devices

 

Nokia 810 Internet Tablet, $479.99

 

The Nokia N810 Internet Tablet (below) is a sleek and pocket-sized Wi-Fi device. If you want Internet access on the go, but don't want to lug a big laptop around, Abramson recommends this ultra mobile personal computer. Some of the key features: lightweight, slide-out keyboard, and touch screen. Nokia-N810.jpg

 

ASUS Eee PC, $399.99

 

This is another recommended device by Abramson.

 

"I just bought one and I love it," he said. "It's great. It weighs less than a couple pounds. It runs on LINUX. It's easy to use and easy to work with. You can check e-mail, surf the Web, it has Open Office so you can do everything with the Office Platform." Read our review here.

 

MacBook Pro, Starting at $1,999

 

You can always find Swartz armed with a MacBook Pro, which has a built-in camera for quick, quality picture taking and a built-in microphone/speakers that, when combined with Skype, makes a portable phone when cellular isn't available.

 

"They're super light, relatively thin and something about them just screams 'I know what I'm doing,'" said Swartz.

 

MacBook Air, Starting at $1,799

 

The ultra-thin MacBook Air has become the envy of MacBook users. It has a 13.3-inch widescreen LED display, full-size keyboard, and large multi-touch trackpad. Perfect for bedouins who want to lighten their load, but still want a powerful laptop.

 

iPhone, Starting at $399

 

For Swartz, this is the easiest way to work when he can't open his laptop.

 

"The headphones and speaker system work great for having meetings while walking around, or for use as a hands-free set while you're typing or browsing during meetings," he said. "In addition to having great access to Gmail and other online services, it also has a plethora of Cloudware programs that allow you to store all of your information digitally, so your rolodex and a small encyclopedia of client info are always available."

 

Looking for Wi-Fi

 

Devicescape, Free download Devicescape.jpg

Silicon Valley-based Devicescape enables secure and seamless access to the world's largest Wi-Fi Network. Devicescape connects your device to potentially millions of hotspots around the world. Once you have downloaded and installed Devicescape, it will automatically find and connect your laptop or Wi-Fi enabled device to any Wi-Fi hotspot around the world.

 

Wi-Fire, $79.00

 

Wi-Fire is a great gadget for bedouins who want to reach out to those weak Wi-Fi signals from a local hotspot to access a good Wi-Fi connection. Users benefit from the increased mobility and greater range with faster speeds in comparison to other standard Wi-Fi adapters and it works with any 802.11 b/g access point. Users connect to a Wi-Fi network from up to 1,000 feet—more than three times the range of standard adapters—often at significantly higher speeds, and even in locations where no wireless signal could be detected previously.

 

The Digital Hotspotter, $59.95

Want to find the nearest accessible Wi-Fi network without booting up? Check out the second-generation Digital Hotspotter device, the HS20, from Canary Wireless. The HS20, a Wi-Fi detection and analysis tool with an LCD display, is lighter and slimmer than its predecessor, and has an improved user interface. The locator device provides network ID, encryption status, and channel data for 802.11 (b, g, and n) networks. It also features many added benefits including a "scroll" feature to toggle between multiple available networks, a backlit display and a larger screen with quick glance icons.  Read our review here.

ZoneFlex, Dependent on number of access points

 

Frustrated with the slow connection speeds at your favorite coffee shop? You may want to suggest to the owner to spring for Ruckus Wireless' ZoneFlex. Its smart antenna array addresses problems of interference, and makes Wi-Fi networks in hotspots able to serve more people and more bandwidth-intensive applications, and provides extended range.

 

"It’s designed to do something that Wi-Fi hasn't done before and that's to be more predictable and reliable," explained David Callisch, the company's Vice President of Marketing. "Wi-Fi has historically been an unreliable medium because of its sheer technology that uses radio frequencies which are open, unlicensed, and available to anybody. That's great, but also bad, if you want to do anything meaningful with it, like trying to run a high bandwidth application."

 

NETGEAR Wi-Fi Phone, $149.00

 

NETGEAR’s Wi-Fi Phone with Skype lets you make and receive Skype calls wherever you have Wi-Fi access without a PC and with no monthly fees. In addition, the NETGEAR Wi-Fi Phone connects to any open Wi-Fi network, including nearly 8,500 T-Mobile hotspot locations across the country.

 

Nikon’s COOLPIX S51c, $279.95 S51c_Sl_front_lo.jpg

 

The COOLPIX S51c is a compact digital camera with Wi-Fi access. Users can e-mail pictures directly from their camera without going near a computer. The camera has 8.1 megapixels, a 3x optical zoom, and a huge 3.0-inch LCD display.

 

"We're able to connect to any open Wi-Fi hotspot and send photographs directly from the camera to anyone's e-mail address, Flickr, blog, and even have developed our own photo infrastructure called MyPictureTown where the camera can automatically synchronize all your images and can be stored there," said Steve Heiner, Senior Technical Manager at Nikon. "It's a great camera for mobile workers."

 

The COOLPIX also comes with six months of free T-Mobile.

 

Zpen, $129.95

 

Some mobile workers, like writers, often jot notes down on whatever scrap paper, or napkin, happens to be nearby. With a Zpen you can still take notes, but this writing instrument uses advanced digital positioning technology, meaning that you can upload those handwritten notes onto your laptop to view, save, and convert it to digital text. Another nifty feature is that the Zpen can be used as a standard USB drive (1GB capacity). Currently, you can purchase the Zpen online at Samy's Camera Stores.

 

3M Privacy Filters, Prices range from $40-$150 (depending on size of computer screen)

 

Most bedouins load their laptops with security applications to prevent malicious users from virtually swiping data. But data can be stolen in other ways too. Users with wandering eyes can peer at your laptop from the table next to you, and steal confidential data. 3M Privacy Filters can help mobile workers have more privacy by making the screen visible only to them. The filters work like vertical blinds to restrict viewing from the side and help shield sensitive information.

 

Hotspot Services

 

Boingo, starting at $21.95 per month

 

With a Boingo account, bedouins can connect to any Wi-Fi hotspot at over 100,000 locations from more than 150 leading Wi-Fi operators. One Boingo account is all you need to connect to its global commercial Wi-Fi network.

 

iPass, starting at $29.95 per month

 

iPass unifies mobility management over any Internet connection. iPass not only works with Wi-Fi hotspots, but also international 3G mobile data, Ethernet broadband, satellite, and dial-up.

 

"Essentially, you would buy our service through one of our partners," explained Rick Bilodeau, iPass' VP of corporate and channel marketing. "You could go to a Starbucks and use our software to connect to its networks or other free networks. You have a single interface with one username and password so you don't have to subscribe to all of these different services. The size of our network is advantageous because we have more hotspots than anyone else."

 

For Your Ears

 

Comply Foam Tips, starting at $17.95

 

These low-tech foam tips attach to existing earphones and the passive noise reduction technology minimizes interruptions from the outside. Along with reducing ambient noises, these foam tips provide comfort, enhanced bass response, and a secure stay-in-ear fit.

 

Plantronics .Audio 480-USB Virtual Phone Booth Headset, starting at $89.95

 

These are great when you're in a crowded café or a busy hotel lobby. The Plantronics .Audio 480-USB’s flexible boom lets you bring the microphone close for private conversations. Sound-isolating ear buds block out unwanted noise. Callers benefit too—a noise-canceling microphone minimizes external noise, making it easier for them to understand you.

 

Plantronics Voyager 855, $149

 

The Voyager 855 Stereo Bluetooth headset is another great device from Plantronics. Jam to some tunes while you're working or switch over to make that important business call.

 

Jawbone Bluetooth Headset, $119.99

 

The Jawbone Bluetooth headset for mobile phones adapts to the noise environment around you. It blocks out background noise in cafés or street noise (if you go outside to take your calls) so you can hear and be heard. It's also a pretty chic and hip-looking gear. Jawbone provides up to six hours of talk time and is available at a number of retail outlets.

 

Digital and Non-Digital Storage

 

500GB MiniStation, $329.00

 

Although laptops today are equipped with more storage space than ever before, it always helps to have extra storage. With Buffalo’s 500GB MiniStation TurboUSB, bedouins can store, backup, and transport digital content at 60 percent faster transfer speeds than standard devices, and have the peace of mind that data is secure with shock resistant technology, protecting your MiniStation from bumps, drops, or shocks.

 

Mouse Trap, $12.99

 

Zip up the Mouse Trap and it becomes a pouch for storing small items like a travel mouse, flash drive, USB, and iPod cables. Unzip it to reveal a mouse pad with rubber grips you can use on most surfaces.

 

APC Power Ready Notebook Sleeve, $29.99

 

The APC Power Ready Notebook Sleeve is a slim, durable case. With a dedicated battery pocket and storage for additional accessories, users can easily connect charging electronics and work directly from this case.

 

Grove Convertible Backpack/Messenger, $79.99

 

Another product by Targus, which bedouins may find useful, is its eco-friendly Grove Convertible Backpack/Messenger, made of PVC-free material, recyclable plastics, and nickel-free metal. You can protect your laptop in the quilted laptop compartment, while tucking away your other belongings in its numerous pockets and compartments.

 

More Power

APC Universal Notebook Battery 70, $149.99

Does your battery drain after a couple hours use? Another essential tool is an extra battery. If the coffeehouse you frequent is packed one day and it's difficult to find an available outlet, you may need an extra battery. Check out the APC Universal Notebook Battery 70, a slim external battery designed to fit easily under a notebook computer and provide up to six hours of additional runtime.

 

Travel Power Outlets, $19.99

 

Don't want to be an outlet hog? Targus’ Travel Power Outlets with Surge Protection has four outlets for you to plug in your laptop, camera, and cell phone when only one outlet may be available. Its compact design is the perfect solution for those hidden outlets in small, hard-to-reach places. It also features surge protection to help keep electronics protected from unexpected surges or spikes.

 

Chargepod, starting at $49.95 ChargePod.jpg

 

The Chargepod, a 6-in-1 charging device from Callpod, Inc., allows you to charge multiple cell phones, PDAs, headsets, MP3 players, BlackBerries, and other mobile electronic devices with a single power cord from almost anywhere, including your car. The Chargepod uses voltage regulator technology and interchangeable power adapters to charge all of your mobile devices regardless of manufacturer or model.

 

Software Applications

 

Hotspot Shield, Free download

 

Public Wi-Fi hotspots are often not secure and make your computer and communications vulnerable to hackers and security breaches. Hotspot Shield (HSS) is a free security download to keep Internet connections secure at Wi-Fi/hotspot locations. HSS prevents hackers and other forms of online ID theft by establishing a closed-off connection between wireless routers and laptops connected to open Wi-Fi networks. HSS auto-encrypts and protects inbound / outbound Internet traffic (e-mail, instant messaging, VoIP calls, Web surfing, etc.) as it's transmitted thru the air, thwarting wireless hackers and keeping your personal data locked down.

 

Gmail, Free Web-based client

 

This is Swartz's preferred method of sending and receiving e-mail.

 

"I can get e-mail wherever I'm at, whether it's my own laptop, my cell phone, or some random computer on a cruise ship in the middle of the Caribbean," he said. "Plus, you can store all of the information you need to know in Gmail, such as client contact information, contracts, receipts, addresses of places you need to go, and then that information is available just by searching. Plus, Gmail's conversation view, search capabilities, and labels make it so much better than any other e-mail experience." 

 

Remember the Milk, Free download

 

Another application recommended by Swartz.

 

"This is hands down the best To Do list manager I've ever used, with a great balance of ease of use and features," he said. "Plus, if you run Firefox, you can get it right in Gmail, and they also have an iPhone customized version as well."

 

PCMobilizr, $9.50 monthly fee (PC; available for Mac next month)

 

PCMobilizr allows users to remotely and securely access their computers from their mobile phones, display the computer's screen, and control the keyboard and mouse--as if you are right in front of your computer, giving you instant, complete access to every file and application on your laptop or computer. PCMobilizr operates on BlackBerries or any device that runs Windows Mobile, and will be available on the iPhone and Nokia devices soon.

 

LoJack for Laptops, $49.99/year

 

LoJack helps track down and locate lost or stolen computers. Software installed on a computer works behind the scenes to silently and securely contact a Monitoring Center, and if stolen, report its location using any Internet connection. Absolute Software’s Recovery Team then tracks the computer’s location and partners with local law enforcement to get it back to its rightful owner.

 

SpinVox, Pricing depends on carrier

 

SpinVox is a voice-to-text company whose technology captures voice, converts it to text and sends it via e-mail, SMS, or blog post. It eliminates the need for bedouins to dial-in and listen to voicemail. By clicking a single button, the message recipient can elect to respond either by calling back or by text.

This article was first published on Wi-Fi Planet.com.

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