10 low-cost product add-ons that can improve employee productivity
Sometimes it's the little things in life that make a difference. The sole insert may count more than the shoe or the massaging seat cover may count more than the car. In this periodic moment of reflection, we take a look at the handful of products that have come through our labs in recent weeks that, despite having noteworthy virtues, generally haven't made it into the magazine. That's because the products don't quite fit into our normal review categories. Nevertheless, they promise to make your job easier.
In truth, not all of these products will have universal appeal.€ The screen filter that prevents passersby from seeing your monitor's display, for example, isn't of much use to someone who has a private office. And those who work only with documents probably won't care about an easy-to-use color calibrator. But this grab bag of devices likely has at least one that most users will be interested in.
It may be a little early for holiday shopping, but most of these gadgets are so inexpensive, with some costing less than $100, you might want to consider treating yourself. And most of them offer potential productivity
3M Privacy Filter: Stop those prying eyes
There's not much mystery about 3M's Privacy Filter. Slip the plastic-and-glass plate out of the box, hook it over your monitor's display and only those sitting directly in front of the monitor can see what's on the screen. Those trying to peek from the sides will see only a black screen. In addition to providing privacy, the filter also cuts down on glare.
There is one other thing to do: If you've purchased a deluxe model, which includes a grounding wire, the filter will automatically disperse static and block radiation from the monitor once you properly ground it.
The attractively designed filters come in a wide range of sizes to accommodate virtually any monitor.
We found only two drawbacks to the filters. First, they tend to darken the display considerably. Some users may find even the highest brightness setting a little lacking.
Second, the filter carries a price tag that gave us pause, with a retail price of about $350 for a filter fitting a 19-inch to 21-inch display.
ClipDrive Bio: Secure portable memory
Portable flash memory, which is a memory device that retains data after the power is removed, is convenient — until you lose it. If unsecured, anyone could gain access to your data. But place a fingerprint reader on the device and the equation changes.
Memory Experts International Inc.'s ClipDrive Bio allows you to protect data with a fingerprint and/or password. If the ClipDrive Bio is lost or stolen, nonregistered users cannot access the data. Furthermore, the 128-bit encryption based on the Advanced Encryption Standard (AES) prevents an attack on the flash memory if someone disassembles the device.
The ClipDrive Bio features two data partitions: one public and one secure. Each operates like a hard drive. No fingerprint or password is required to access the public partition, and no software needs to be installed.
The secure partition is hidden until a user presents a valid fingerprint. When hidden, it is invisible to file-management programs such as Microsoft Corp. Windows
The ClipDrive Bio supports two user levels: administrator and user. Administrators control enrollment and set the partition sizes. They can also require a password in addition to a fingerprint to access secure data.
The device can store 16 fingerprints in a hidden encrypted file.
Drivers and a software utility are required to use the secure partition, but for ease of portability, you can copy the software onto the ClipDrive Bio's public partition. This way, you can use it on any compatible computer without needing the installation CD.
One important note is that without the included extension cable the device is extremely difficult, if not impossible, to use on any computer with USB ports located in the back. This reduces portability because one end of the cable is essentially a minidock for the device. The minidock is about 3.5 inches long and a little less than 1.5 inches high on one side, and it is bulkier than the ClipDrive Bio.
The device is compatible with Windows 98, 2000 and XP. It cannot be used with Windows NT, which does not support USB, Apple Computer Inc.'s Macintosh or Linux systems, although Memory Experts officials plan for a future product that will feature Mac OS and Linux compatibility. The device is available in sizes up to 2G and comes in both USB 1.1 and USB 2.0.
BioStik: Secure portable memory that's Mac- and Linux-friendly
Index Security Inc.'s BioStik is another portable USB flash memory device with a built-in fingerprint scanner, but some functions differ from the ClipDrive Bio.
Perhaps most significantly, the BioStik is compatible with Mac OS and Linux in addition to Windows 98, ME, 2000 and XP. Downloadable drivers are required for use with Windows 98 and Mac OS 8.6, but all others are hot plug-and-play, requiring no software at all. Therefore, users can seamlessly transfer data among Windows, Macintosh and Linux systems.
The BioStik features one partition that appears as a removable drive, and no password option is available. The device can store up to five fingerprints.
The flash memory is protected from tampering by an epoxy that will self-
destruct if the casing is damaged or removed. In addition, removing or tampering with the integrated circuit renders the data useless.
This version of BioStik comes with an administrative feature that makes the first two enrolled fingerprints permanent. The advantage is that users cannot accidentally erase administrators' fingerprints. The obvious disadvantage of this design, however, is that you can't change administrators without sending the BioStik back to the vendor.
Its extension cable does not have a docklike device on one end as the ClipDrive Bio does, so the cable is slightly more portable. Further, the BioStik comes with a built-in clear plastic protector for the fingerprint scanner that slides into place.
The 256M BioStik's $200 price tag is the same as that of the 256M USB 1.1 ClipDrive Bio.
ColorPlus: Fix monitor colors without breaking your budget
Getting tired of those bold reds on your PowerPoint slides looking like pasty pinks when you print or project them? Even if your monitor was correctly calibrated when you first started using it, it needs to be recalibrated periodically. Calibration tools have been around for years, but their prices were too steep for most nongraphics professionals.
Now, ColorVision Inc. officials have released ColorPlus, a calibration tool for the rest of us. With its estimated retail price of $99, the product is affordable. But does it make a difference?
In truth, the answer depends on your monitor. If you're using a new, well-calibrated monitor, you may not see much difference. In our testing, we noticed significant though not dramatic differences.
We found ColorPlus to be easy to use, though it lacks the
finer controls of higher-end calibration tools. The hardware, which is connected to your computer via a USB port, is simple to attach to either a CRT or LCD monitor, and the device's software automatically samples your monitor's color and makes adjustments. The process takes about 10 minutes.
An important note: It takes 10 minutes if it works at all. Our first attempts ended with error messages. We checked the company's Web site and discovered that the product had a glitch with LCD monitors and that a free downloadable patch was available to fix it. After downloading the patch, the device worked fine.
ColorVision officials recommend using ColorPlus to calibrate monitors at least once a month.
INport: Giving voice to PowerPoint
Xitel Pty Ltd.'s INport solves a relatively simple problem: getting recorded analog sound into the digital format that can be used by your computer for presentations or other purposes. Some sound cards offer inputs for connecting to stereo equipment and built-in digitizing. But if your computer doe not have a card with digitizing capabilities, INport is an easy-to-use and affordable solution.
The digitizer is a small — 3 inches by 2 inches by 1 inch — silver box with stereo input jacks on one end and a USB port on the other. The cable connects the device to any USB port on your computer. The package also includes a 30-foot, high-quality audio cable so that you don't have to set your computer right next to the stereo.
Whatever you record is saved as a WAV file and can be edited on your computer. The package includes software for recording and for basic editing chores, such as splitting the recording into separate files.
The device installed easily, and we were impressed with the results. Bear in mind, however, that it only works with systems running Windows 98, ME, 2000 or XP.
Laptop Desk Ensemble: For the real laptop user
Tired of balancing your notebook on your lap and getting scorched by its heat? This handy set of products is great for notebook users on the road or at a desk. It's low-tech but useful, like the paper clip. LapWorks Inc.'s Laptop Desk Ensemble consists of the Laptop Desk, SwivlPad and MouzPad.
The Laptop Desk is a bit of a chameleon. On your lap, it's a wide plastic platform that shields your thighs from most of the notebook's heat and provides extra space on the sides for a mouse or other small tools.
On a desk, it folds in half, and the top is propped up by a support arm adjustable to five heights. Thanks to the rubber grip pads, you can simply set the notebook on the angled surface and begin working. We found it more comfortable and ergonomic to use a notebook with the Laptop Desk rather than flat on the desk surface.
Additionally, the Laptop Desk allows for proper notebook ventilation because of its beveled surface.
The SwivlPad is a pair of rubber disks connected in the center and placed under the Laptop Desk when it is set on a stationary surface. It allows you to swivel the Laptop Desk for sharing views with other people. Take note, however, that the textured rubber SwivlPad can leave indentations in lacquered wood surfaces if left for an extended period of time.
Finally, the MouzPad is a wide plastic surface that snaps onto either end of the Laptop Desk for use on a lap. It's large enough to use any mouse comfortably, but not so large that it's awkward.
All three products are small and thin enough to fit inside a notebook carrying case either individually or together.
LongView Wireless: Cut the tether to your CPU
Imagine your computer as the Wizard of Oz — out of sight as you work in plain view or even in another room — all without cables.
Avocent Corp.'s LongView Wireless KVM extender makes this possible. A transmitter unit attaches to the PC like any keyboard, video and mouse (KVM) device, and a wireless receiver attaches to a monitor, mouse or keyboard located up to 100 feet away. The distance varies depending on walls and obstacles between the two units.
The product uses 802.11a wireless, which differs from 802.11b in several ways. While 802.11b provides 11 megabits/sec transmission in the 2.4 GHz band, 802.11a provides 54 megabits/sec transmission in the 5 GHz band, which is seldom used and less crowded. Finally, 802.11a's encoding scheme leaves the signal less prone to interference.
LongView Wireless uses AES encryption and features a graphical on-screen menu that can automatically adjust video settings. You can make other manual adjustments, such as changing video settings.
The device is plug-and-play and requires no software or drivers. It also comes with an audio cable for remote use of speakers or headphones.
Mobile Bluetooth Headset: Comfort, style and mobility
Wires and tethers, begone! You can say that if you use this nifty headset, which is attractively styled and cleverly packaged. The charger of Logitech Inc.'s Mobile Bluetooth Headset doubles as a carrying case. The ear clip is shaped like an upside-down U, so it fits comfortably and securely on either ear. However, C-shaped clips are not as secure on the left ear.
The volume and power buttons are easy to reach, though a bit counterintuitive. We were surprised to find that pressing the top of the oblong volume button decreases volume while pressing the bottom increases it.
You can mute a call by pressing either end of the volume button for four seconds. To end muting, simply push either side of the button again. An audible tone sounds every two seconds while the headset is muted.
A multifunction button turns the headset's power on and off, places the headset in pairing mode, which allows it to communicate with the phone, and can answer and end calls.
We tested the headset with a Sprint wireless phone made by Sony Ericsson Mobile Communications AB, Model T608. We loved the phone overall but encountered the same problem we have had with most other Bluetooth products we've tested: The documentation for Bluetooth was sorely lacking. In fact, there was no Bluetooth documentation at all in the phone's user manual.
It took some trial and error to figure out the phone's headset pairing process, but once we did, everything worked without a hitch. Pairing took just a few seconds, and the headset's sound was as good as wired headsets for both calling and receiving.
When you place a call, a phone menu appears asking if you want to transfer the sound to one of a list of paired devices. When we selected our headset, the sound transferred during the first ring.
When answering a call, simply pressing the headset's multifunction button answers it and automatically transfers the sound.
OtterBox Armor 3600: Low-cost ruggedization for PDAs
Sand is sand and rain is rain. And your personal digital assistant (PDA) doesn't like either very much. Whether you work for the military, the Forest Service or the U.S. Geological Survey, if you take a PDA or Global Positioning System (GPS) unit out in the field, you know the importance of keeping it safe from the elements. Otter Products LLC's OtterBox Armor 3600 offers lots of protection at a low price while preserving the functionality of your device.
The Armor 3600's plastic-and-rubber case is dustproof, waterproof and crush-resistant. Once you've placed your PDA in the device, you can easily access it through a clear flip-up screen, but your PDA will still be protected by a plastic membrane. Optional fittings allow you to connect cables, GPS receivers and other devices without sacrificing protection.
ProTouch PB: Spill protection for your Apples
We're all susceptible to the oops
factor. That's why we're glad companies such as iSkin Inc. make products like the ProTouch PB keyboard protector.
The ProTouch PB is made for Apple iBook, PowerBook G4 Ti and PowerBook G4 Aluminum models. It also fits the older PowerBook G3.
The cover is made of flexible silicone and protects against spills, crumbs, dust and other debris. Although it fits snugly, the ProTouch PB is not sealed around the edges, so your spills better be limited to the middle of the keyboard.
You can leave the cover on at all times; it does not interfere with closing the notebook. It also does not interfere with typing because although it fits the keys snugly, it allows plenty of key movement.
Another benefit of the ProTouch PB is that it quiets the keystrokes, which is convenient for working during meetings and at libraries.
You can easily wash the product with a mild solution of dishwashing liquid and warm water.
Our ProTouch PB was transparent electric blue, but a frosted transparent version is also available.
NEXT STORY: NASA’s O’Keefe: We saw the trouble coming