Gadgets for the worker on the go

Nine low-cost devices for the busy traveler that fit in the palm of your hand

During the course of a year, a lot of products cross our desks here at Federal Computer Week's Test Center that don't quite fit into our regular review categories. They include some nifty devices that ease the burden of traveling professionals who try to complete work on the road.

We use our annual roundup of gadgets on the go to look at the most interesting products we've come across during the past year. Most of the devices can be held in the palm of your hand, and most of them cost less than $100. Some help you navigate from one place to another, some help you talk to people you find there, and several of the devices help you do your daily work while you're out of the office.

Digital Hotspotter:
Searching the ether for access points

Tired of pulling out your laptop computer and going to Windows' Network Connections just to find out if a wireless network is available?

Canary Wireless offers an access point-detection unit called Digital Hotspotter that's smaller than a wireless phone, and at $59.95, it is less expensive than most wireless phones.

The little unit has a single-line LCD display and a small button on the front. Press the button and the device will scan for access points within range. When it finds one, it reports the station identifier, if any, and signal strength, presence or absence of encryption, and the channel the network is running on. The unit, which runs on two AAA batteries, turns off automatically after presenting its findings.

Canary Wireless says the Digital Hotspotter is ideal for students and business travelers looking for hot spots in airports and cafés, and for network administrators searching for rogue access points, although we doubt that many administrators would trust their network security to Digital Hotspotter's detection abilities. Canary Wireless acknowledges that the little unit might not detect a number of popular access points, including models from Linksys, D-Link, Cisco Systems, ZyxXEL Communications and Colubris Networks. And we found that Digital Hotspotter was able to detect our Colubris CN-1050 access point — a model not on the device's trouble list — only some of the time.

  • Canary Wireless
    www.canarywireless.com
    Price: $59.95

    Euro Interpreter:
    Nothing lost in translation

    Parlez-vous francais? You might if you have the Euro Interpreter from Franklin Electronic Publishers. You could also learn a bit of German, Italian, Spanish, Dutch, Portuguese, Russian, Czech, Hungarian, Polish or Turkish.

    The Euro Interpreter is a handy little electronic traveling companion that translates words and phrases from any of the above languages to any of the others. You can also set the device to present menu items and instructions in any of those languages.

    Unfortunately, you can't simply type a phrase and have it translated. Instead, the device translates one word at a time or lets you choose from a list of preset phrases.

    That being said, the phrases cover just about everything we could think of that a traveler might need. They are organized into 13 categories, including "emergencies," "health," "travel and directions" and "eating and drinking."

    When trying to translate a single word, you don't always have to know the exact spelling, which is helpful. But your attempt has to come reasonably close.

    Beyond translations, the Euro Interpreter offers a world clock, a databank that can store up to 100 names and phone numbers with optional password protection, a calculator, a currency converter and games.

    The clock lets you view local times in 45 cities, but you have to know a city's three-letter airport code to look it up. In some cases, the code is easy to figure out, such as BER for Berlin. But Toronto's code is YYZ.

    The Euro Interpreter is powered by a 3-volt battery that is not rechargeable. Instead, you must change the battery when it gets low. If it dies completely, you will lose all the information in your phone list.

  • Franklin Electronic Publishers
    (609) 386-2500
    www.franklin.com
    Price: $79.95

    X9 Wristop Computer:
    A minicomputer in a wristwatch

    This minicomputer disguised as a wristwatch will do almost everything but take out the trash. At least it seemed that way to us when we read the manual.

    The X9 from Suunto is a navigational aid designed for recreational use. It harnesses Global Positioning System technology to pinpoint a user's location and help navigate routes. But it can also perform myriad other tasks without GPS connectivity.

    Be forewarned that when we say GPS, we don't mean those full-color, talking map displays you see in many vehicles. But it is serious stuff for serious outdoor enthusiasts. The GPS information appears as map coordinates that consist of seven-digit numbers.

    You also get an altitude reading and something called the Estimated Position Error, which is a term used by Airbus Industries to measure the estimated navigational performance.

    When we delved into the X9's other features, we were struck by how meaty they were. For example, the barometer function not only provides basic barometric pressure and temperature information but also displays barometric pressure at sea level and a graph of biometric pressure during the previous six hours. The X9 even has barometric memory, so it can display the pressure and temperature for the past seven days.

    The X9 also functions as an altimeter, compass, navigator and watch with all the standard functions and more, such as three separate alarms and a stopwatch that can display up to 29 split times.

    The navigation features form the heart of the X9. You can navigate a route with or without GPS — if you don't use GPS, you can use the compass for directional guidance.

    You can plan your trip on the X9 or use Suunto's Trek Manager software to plan it on your PC and then upload it onto the X9, which is the way we'd go. The software provides color topographical maps, and you can draw your route on them.

    Whether you use the X9 or Trek Manager, you can create up to 50 waypoints, which are reference points to use on your route, and 10 alarm points. Alarm points alert you to hazards along the way, such as rocks. Additionally, the X9 can store up to 50 routes in its memory.

    When you're on the trip, the X9 can show you just about every statistic you'd need to know, such as the total distance of the route, distance to the finish, time to a waypoint, estimated time of arrival, altitude to finish and more. It can also guide you back to your starting point.

    When you're en route, you might also want to use the Activity Mode, which displays all kinds of data about your current activity. This includes your speed, traveled distance and time passed since the trip's start. The X9 can also record your route with a speed and altitude profile that you can later download and view on your PC. And while you're on the road, you can hit a button to pull up a log summary of the trip.

    Safety features include a weather alarm that checks barometric pressure every 15 minutes and warns you of rapid weather change. It also has an alarm that warns you when you hit a predefined altitude.

    One drawback to such a small and feature-rich product is that it takes a while to learn them all and figure out how to navigate the device.

    Fortunately, Suunto's designers realized this and have included a laminated pocket guide and a small Quick Guide you can easily take with you.

  • Suunto USA
    (800) 543-9124
    www.suunto.com
    Price: $769

    Seagate Pocket Hard Drive:
    Data in your pockets

    We're suckers for almost anything disc-shaped — flying saucers, Frisbees, even DVDs. So our eyes lit up when we first saw the Seagate Pocket Hard Drive. The disc-shaped contraption is about 3 inches in diameter and a little more than 2 inches thick.

    The unit has a USB cable tucked into the side, and if you gently turn the disc, the cable will unwind so that you can plug it into your computer. Seagate's developers have also thoughtfully put two small rubber treads on the bottom of the unit so that it doesn't slide around on a desk or other hard surface.

    Even better, this disc holds more data than most USB 2.0 flash drives. The Pocket HD comes in 2.5G and 5G versions. The 5G version we tested has a suggested retail price of $159.

    We didn't have to install any drivers to get the Pocket HD working. We just plugged in the USB cable and presto. What's more, because it's a USB 2.0 device, throughput is 480M. And, like other USB devices, the Pocket HD is hot swappable.

    The device is an actual 3,600 rpm hard drive and seems to offer more sprightly performance than most solid-state flash drives. But don't think the Pocket HD is fragile. The unit weighs only 2.2 ounces, but we discovered after a couple of drops that the drive is protected.

    The device works with both Microsoft Windows and Macintosh computers, though you can only password-protect your data using Windows. The only significant drawback to the system's password- protection scheme is that it's an all-or-nothing proposition: If you impose password protection, the entire drive is protected. You can also write-protect the drive.

  • Seagate Technology
    (831) 438-6550
    www.seagate.com
    Price for 5G version: $159

    Laptop Legs: But can they dance?

    It's got legs, and it knows how to use them.

    If your laptop computer has been feeling plain lately, you can give it LapWorks' Laptop Legs, which provide ergonomically friendly typing and better ventilation when the machine is on a flat surface.

    Laptop Legs are made of sturdy, gray, polycarbonate plastic and adhere to the bottom of any laptop computer. Just peel and stick. The dual-height legs provide elevations of either 1 inch or 1 and 3/8 inches.

    When the legs are folded, rubber pads on the bottoms provide traction and protect the desk surface from marks.

    The legs sell in packs of four for an introductory price of $19.95, which will last at least through June. The legs' regular price is $24.95.

    The user manual instructs customers to attach Laptop Legs symmetrically to the bottom of a laptop computer's rear corners. But that's where we encountered a problem: Our Toshiba America Tecra laptop didn't have enough free real estate in those areas.

    On the upside, the legs are removable, so if you cover a little-used screw or sticker with them, you can still access those items if you need to.

    But we also noticed another potential problem. Both of our test notebook computers had docking ports on the bottom toward the rear. A pair of Laptop Legs, even when folded, would prevent the computer from sitting flush on a docking station and connecting properly unless the legs and the station somehow did not overlap.

    The bottom line is that these are handy little devices, but make sure you check the bottom of your laptop before you buy them. Those who use docking stations might want to skip the legs altogether.

  • LapWorks
    (909) 948-1828
    www.laptopdesk.net
    Price for a pack of four: $24.95

    3Com OfficeConnect Travel Router:
    Create your own wireless network on the fly

    It's a common problem: You have your wireless notebook computer, but the only connection in the hotel room is via a hard-wired Ethernet port. Another problem: You need to run more than one computer on the single Internet connection.

    Why not just throw 3Com's OfficeConnect Travel Router in your briefcase? The diminutive device — about the size of an electric shaver — serves as a wireless access point, a router and a wireless client bridge. It has a single Ethernet port in the back, which you can use to plug into a local-area network or an Ethernet port in a hotel or conference room. From that point, you can create your own wireless network on the fly.

    The Travel Router is 802.11g-compatible and supports data transfer rates of 54 megabits/sec. Up to 16 clients can connect to the router, and the unit offers a built-in Dynamic Host Configuration Protocol server.

    The device's Web interface makes setting up security for the network easy. You can employ Wi-Fi Protected Access or the more basic Wireless Equivalent Privacy. In addition, in router mode, the device offers a stateful packet- inspection firewall, which tracks each connection of a packet for policy violations, and support for virtual private network pass-through.

    The Travel Router is a slick little device that offers a lot of capability for power users on the road. And for nonpower users, it offers an easy way to connect multiple computers via a single Internet connection. What's more, it cuts the tether to cabled Internet connections.

  • 3Com
    (800) 638-3266
    www.3com.com
    Price: $68.90

    Microban protection:
    Germ-free keyboards

    If the thought of typing on something dirtier than a public toilet seat gives you the willies, you might want to chuck your bacteria-infested keyboard and buy one from Fellowes with Microban antimicrobial protection.

    The company cites a recent study that found that the average desk has 400 times as much bacteria as the average toilet seat. That had us running for our Microban review unit.

    Fellowes says the Microban protection inhibits uncontrolled growth of damaging microbes. We haven't seen any keyboards half-eaten by microbes, so it's unclear how Microban protects the product. But presumably, the absence of microbes on the keyboard could help prevent the spread of colds and other illnesses.

    The Basic 104 Keyboard with Microban Protection, which retails for $29.98, is a standard PS/2 keyboard that does not require any software or drivers.

    Fellowes also makes mice, mouse pads and ergonomic keyboards with Microban protection.

  • Fellowes
    (800) 945-4545
    www.fellowes.com
    Price: $29.98

    Scala-500:
    No wind interference

    We weren't blown away by the Scala-500 bluetooth headset from Cardo Systems — but that's a good thing when you're talking about wind interference.

    Cardo's patent-pending WindGuard technology is supposed to significantly reduce wind impact, and our tests supported that assertion. We placed a call while driving at about 35 mph with the window down and the recipient reported hearing some traffic noise but no wind. The sound quality was good overall, with a little bit of cutting in and out.

    The headset can be purchased separately for a suggested retail price of $75 or as part of a $119 kit that includes a Bluetooth adapter so you can use it with a non-Bluetooth phone.

    The adapter kit worked well too. We could use the headset up to about 30 feet away from the phone, as advertised. You can attach the adapter to the back of your phone with the included Velcro pads, but you won't be able to slip the phone into your pocket that way. Alternatively, you can attach the adapter to a belt or shirt pocket with the included clip.

    The process of getting the headset to communicate with the adapter (called pairing) was a bit confusing at first, but that's the fault of the Bluetooth technology, not the headset. You have to carefully read the manuals for both the headset and the adapter and memorize the meaning of various patterns of flashing and blinking red and blue lights on each device before starting the process.

    Once the devices were paired, though, operation of both was easy. We liked the convenience of being able to initiate, answer and end calls from the headset itself with the push of a button.

    The headset was light and comfortable to wear, with handy extras such as a special clip for attaching it to a pair of glasses and a cord for hanging it around your neck when not in use.

    The Scala-500 advertises up to nine hours of talk time and more than a week of standby time.

  • Cardo Systems
    (412) 788-4533
    www.cardowireless.com
    Price: $75

    DocuPen:
    Portable scanning made easy

    Cute! We just had to say it when we unpacked the DocuPen R700 scanner from Planon System Solutions.

    Although the scanner is advertised as being the size of a pen, at 8.5 inches long, that's a stretch. Still, it's the smallest portable scanner we've seen, weighing next to nothing — less than 2 ounces — and easily slipping into a bag without taking up any appreciable amount of space. It even comes with its own leather carrying case.

    Regarding the length, you wouldn't want a document scanner shorter than 8.5 inches anyway because that's the width of a standard piece of paper.

    We were surprised at the scanner's capacity considering its size. Its 2M of flash memory can hold up to 100 documents containing light text and graphics when scanned at 100 dots per inch. If you scan at 200 dpi, the DocuPen can hold up to 50 pages with light text and graphics.

    If you scan pages with heavy text and graphics, those numbers decrease significantly to 25 pages at 100 dpi and 12 pages at 200 dpi.

    We love the fact that the DocuPen battery charges through a PC's USB connection. That means there's no power brick — the bane of many portable devices — to carry around.

    In fact, you don't even need to take the USB cable with you in most cases because Planon says that a fully charged battery provides enough power to scan until the device's memory is full. The company also says that the time it takes to upload documents from the scanner to a PC is sufficient to fully recharge the battery.

    Scanning with the DocuPen isn't difficult, but you need to be conscientious. You must scan in one slow, continuous, smooth and straight motion.

    With a little practice, we got the hang of it, and the DocuPen helpfully includes an LED indicator that lets you know if you're scanning too quickly.

    Four LEDs alert you about remaining memory capacity. They indicate whether the device is actively scanning and show whether you're scanning in high resolution.

    The DocuPen's driver lets you control it from nearly any PC scanning and imaging software because it uses TWAIN, the de facto interface standard for scanners. What's more, Planon bundles ScanSoft's PaperPort optical character recognition software so you can manage and manipulate scanned documents.

  • Planon System Solutions
    (905) 507-3926
    www.planon.com
    Price: $200

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