It’s time to re-assess the contents of your briefcase, your pockets, and your carry-on luggage. The inventions of the laptop, the cell phone, the electronic organizer, the portable DVD, the digital camera, the MP3 player, and the hand-held video game system made it possible — and even fun — to do business on the run. It sometimes seems that these business tools, and the satellite links that make them work anywhere, have been around forever. But it’s really only been anywhere from a few months — for the newest iterations — to a decade for the most basic tools.
Each of these gadgets was very cool when it was introduced, but piled one on another, they are getting to be a burden to carry around. That is one reason that convergence is so big, and that it may be possible to leave some of the hardware at home — even as new items, including sophisticated GPS systems, beckon.
This is a good time to figure out what you really need to do business — and stay entertained — on the go. Electronic tools are sporting more capabilities and lower prices. What’s more, all of the data stuffed into them can now be removed, stuck into a shirt pocket, and carried anywhere for easy transfer to another device in another location — and at a fraction of the cost that such massive memory storage and transfer commanded just last year.
So let’s take a tour of the new world of mobile digital products, with an emphasis on business tools. The themes for the new year include more capacity to store large libraries of media, better attention to the security of your digital data on the move, expanding beyond portable music and photos to video players, mobile GPS navigation, and further integration of all these features — especially in mobile phones and PDAs.
Since the mobile phone is always with us, that is a good place start in any post-holiday technology slim-down program. It is the obvious choice for adding features, even beyond the games and texting and E-mail and Web access that have already been available.
The big news with these mobile services is the roll-out of 3G (third-generation) mobile broadband service — or Internet on the go, with no need for wires, or even for the “hot spot” wireless connections offered by Starbucks, Panera, or a public library — and all for “DSL-like” data rates. The Verizon EV-DO 3G network is rated at 400 to 700 kilobits per second for downloads, and 40 to 60 Kbps for uploads. That makes it reasonable to access E-mail, including attachments, and surf websites, and even to play streaming videos.
Verizon and the other carriers continue to roll out their high-speed services. In my tests of EV-DO along the Eastern seaboard, I found that it is almost always available on train rides, except in rural Connecticut and short gaps in North Jersey, and it’s much better than a year ago at penetrating deep into buildings in Boston, New York, and Princeton — but not into some underground floors.
As a result, you never need to be out of touch again — you can obsessively read E-mail and monitor stock prices at any time, or, more reasonably, check the latest news or weather or travel schedules. Photographers can post new images and bloggers can post new entries to the Web on the go — all without needing to carry a laptop or hunt for a WiFi hotspot.
One poster child for today’s integrated high-speed mobile phones is the LG Chocolate (VX8500) — an interesting chunk of eye candy, with a smooth slider design that lights up with red glowing touch-sensitive navigation keys ($149, www.verizonwireless.com/chocolate).
This mobile phone comes with a 1.3 megapixel camera, microSD memory slot, and Bluetooth connection for hands-free headsets (3.8 x 1.88 x 0.69 inches, 3.53 oz.). As an Internet device, it supports mobile web, mobile instant messaging, and Verizon’s Get It Now applications. As a multimedia device, it serves as a music player that you can sync from your PC, and supports streaming and download V CAST music and video at EV-DO speed. And it even adds GPS support for navigation.
Of course, media on mobile phones is not new — we’re getting used to music playback and built-in cameras for photo and video capture and playback. New models like the LG Chocolate not only synch music from your computer, but also support the Verizon V CAST Music service to download tracks on the go, and Verizon V CAST Video for streaming playback of a library of news, sports, and entertainment clips ($15 per month subscription, getitnow.vzwshop.com). For a break from work, V CAST offers hundreds of game downloads — at about $6.95 each. The phones serve well for a number of games, including the addictive Zuma, but beware, air time keeps adding up as you play.
Sprint and now Cingular also offer media subscription and download services.
Of course, while a mobile phone can make sense as an integrated device — and now really can replace a laptop for the minimalist business traveler — it is rather limited by the small screen and numeric keypad. Thus the attraction of PDA phones, with larger screens, QWERTY keypads (albeit with tiny keys), and the ability to synch your office documents and run sophisticated applications.
If you’re a Windows fan, the Motorola Q is an amazingly slim and light device, available from Verizon for $199 (www.motorola.com/mdirect/q, estore.vzwshop.com/q). It has a full-color 320 x 240 display, QWERTY keypad, 1.3 megapixel camera, and miniSD expansion memory slot (2.5 x 4.6 x 0.45 in., 4.1 oz).
The Q runs Windows Mobile 5.0 for Smartphone, which includes mini-Office applications, and the Windows Media Player. As a media player, the Q supports a wide variety of standard-based, Windows Media, and phone media formats. Yes, you indeed can browse to a video website and just start playing files.
And for Palm Treo fans, Palm has crossed over to the dark side and now offers the Treo in both Palm OS and Windows Mobile versions (www.palm.com/us/products/smartphones). These are available from Sprint and Verizon for $399 or even $299 with rebate. They both support 3G EV-DO speeds and have an Intel XScale 312 MHz processor, 128 MB built-in memory (half used by the OS), SD/SDIO/MMC expansion slot, 1.3 megapixel 1280 by 1024 camera, with a touch screen, backlit QWERTY keypad and five-way navigator control — and the same form factor (2.3 x 4.4 x 0.9 in., 6.4 oz).
The Palm Treo 700w runs Windows Mobile 5.0, Pocket PC Phone Edition, but has a lower 240 x 240 screen resolution. It’s designed to sync with Outlook, runs pocket version of the familiar Microsoft Office applications, and has built-in music and video playback with Windows Media Player 10.
The Palm Treo 700p runs Palm OS 5, with a 320 x 320 screen. While Palm OS has been something of a lost stepchild, it is improved, and the result is still a more convenient to use interface than Windows Mobile, especially one-handed. It also syncs nicely with Outlook and uses third-party applications like Documents to Go to sync and edit Office documents and E-mail attachments. The media support also still leans on third party applications, with built-in playback of photos and camera phone video formats, Windows Media Video playback in the browser, and the Pocket Tunes music player, with synching to the Windows Media Player and support for a variety of formats (after upgrading).
The combination of a reasonable screen size and fast 3G data service also opens up interesting possibilities for streaming video direct to your cell phone. The Treo 700s can stream Windows Media files directly from websites.
You also can use third-party applications like MobiTV to watch live television on a variety of phones and PDAs — with subscription access to 30 plus video channels ($9.99 per month), plus digital radio (www.mobitv.com).
This is the big benefit of PDA phones — big enough screen, keyboard, and good enough processor to run all those interesting Palm and Windows Mobile/Pocket PC applications. Now add the high-speed data connection, and things get even more interesting, even beyond multimedia.
For example, the Google Maps service runs on a wide variety of phones and Treos, but really sings on the Treo 700p (www.google.com/gmm). You simply enter an address in typical flexible Google search format, and the map appears on your screen. You can zoom in and out, or drag the stylus to scroll — with the new map image filling in almost instantly. As on the Web, you can switch between map and satellite view, and even overlay traffic information (highlighting busy roads). And you can search for nearby businesses, or get directions for a trip, step by step with maps and text. However, this is not (as yet) linked to a live GPS signal to track your actual location.
With so many functions, mobile phones and PDAs can quickly fill up with Word documents, photos, audio clips, and video presentations. There is often a need to off-load some of this, to transfer it to an office computer, or to slip it into a client’s computer. That is why digital storage is the core of all these devices. It lets you sync data and media to access on the go.
While we’ve become so used to constantly increasing performance and rapidly dropping prices in the computer and consumer electronics industries, amazingly the memory and storage world is moving even faster. Last year’s $100 pricing for a 1 GB memory card is now dropping below $50, and the capacity for solid-state flash memory has increased from megabytes to gigabytes — from 1 to 2 to 4, and now 8 GB — and that’s 8 GB for under $400.
(However, do remember that the cost for large hard disks — spinning magnetic platters — is more like $1 per GB, so there’s still a significant premium for the convenience and reliability of the flash memory that you want for the road.)
Eight GB of memory means that an enormous amount of data can be carried around, a big boon for business people with lots of charts, blueprints, and photos to carry around the world, but unfortunately there is a ridiculous profusion of memory card formats, from what now seems the huge matchbook-sized CompactFlash (CF), to postage-stamp Secure Digital (SD), to miniSD and now microSD — the size of your smallest fingernail.
The format you need will be determined by your specific device — you can use SD to add memory to digital cameras and PDAs, Sony Memory Stick for your PlayStation Portable, and the tinier mini and microSD for smaller devices including mobile phones (see www.sandisk.com/Compatibility).
Memory cards also come in different grades, with high-performance (and higher-cost) “extreme” or “rapid” cards required for applications like rapidly shooting high-resolution images and capturing video clips in real time on digital cameras. For example, the high-speed Ritek RiDATA PRO series CF and SD memory cards support 150X speed, compared to 60 to 80X for the standard cards (www.ridata.com).
The progress continues as flash breaks through the 10 GB barrier: SanDisk has announced 12 and 16 GB Extreme III CompactFlash cards for the end of 2006, albeit at high-end pricing of $779 and $1,049 respectively (www.sandisk.com/Products).
You can get branded cards with pre-stored music and other content, cards with a built-in USB adaptor, and now even a card with a built-in display to show the available space — the A-DATA info SD (www.adata.com.tw).
However, while memory cards are great for portable devices, they’re not so convenient for computer storage, since you need to have a compatible card reader device. Even worse, there are multiple formats, so you need a reader that supports the particular collection of formats for your devices.
Or, get a universal reader — or at least as universal as possible — like the Kingston 15-in-1 Hi-Speed Reader ($20 at www.kingston.com/flash). Yes, that’s 15 different currently active card formats supported with four different types of slots (some requiring the standard adapters to fit the teeny tiny new formats into standard-sized slots): CompactFlash and Microdrive, SmartMedia, Memory Stick, and SD/MultiMediaCard (MMC). Yikes!
A better approach to portable memory for computer use is to add a USB connector, to make what is called a USB flash drive or “thumb drive.” At pretty much the same price as an equivalent capacity memory card, these devices are the new floppy — just insert them in your computer’s USB port and drag and drop files like any other disk. They’re especially convenient for easy backup, taking important files on the road, and for sharing files.
You can also carry files in this way with other devices, including many music players and even digital cameras. Since these devices include removable storage and use a USB connection, when you plug most of them into a computer they also appear as a removable disk — so you can drag and drop word processing documents onto your MP3 player and spreadsheet files to your digital camera. Just don’t expect to be able to play them from the device.
The USB drives offer a wild assortment of fashionable styles and sizes, and again with pricing to match for additional protection, performance, and capacity. For example, on the fun side, the Kingston DataTraveler Mini Fun comes in an assortment of colors and a design that looks like Lego pieces (1 GB for $29, www.kingston.com/flash).
For lots of storage in a minimum size, the Sony Micro Vault Tiny is basically a memory card with a minimal USB connector, and comes in a handy little pouch (2 GB for $69, www.sony.net/Products/Media/Microvault). It is indeed amazingly tiny — lots of data in a bite size — just remember where you stashed it!
For more protection and performance the SanDisk Cruzer Titanium USB Flash Drive has a rugged design and retractable USB connector, with a Liquidmetal casing that is crush-resistant to over 2,000 pounds (1 GB for $49, 2 GB for $69, www.sandisk.com).
However, storing so much data on a tiny device does increase the security risk if it’s lost or stolen. You can use security software with some drives to create an encrypted partition with password protection. But as this trend moves to even better security, some corporate IT departments may prefer to require the use of a device that always encrypts the entire contents of the drive, like the Kingston DataTraveler Secure with 256-bit AES hardware-based encryption (1 GB for $69, 4 GB for $255, www.kingston.com).
Or you can go a step further and get a drive with a biometric finger-print recognition sensor — no password, just the touch of your (clean) finger. Although with the extra hardware, these drives have less capacity. For example, there’s the Lexar JumpDrive TouchGuard 256MB (lexar.com/jumpdrive), the Sony Micro Vault with Fingerprint Access (512 MB for $59, www.sonystyle.com), and the SanDisk Cruzer Profile (1 GB for $74, www.sandisk.com/Products).
Another trend related to security comes in handy for travelers who need to plug in precious data at an open public computer in a hotel lobby or coffee house. USB drives from companies including SanDisk and Verbatim now support the U3 “Smart Drive” technology, so you can store not only your data but also your applications on the device, so you do not need to depend on the specific setup of a guest computer (www.u3.com).
The Mingo portability software goes a step further, letting travelers set up their own personal Windows desktop when plugging in to a guest computer, and then tear it down to avoid leaving traces of work behind ($29, www.migosoftware.com).
The next step up for both storage and portable media players is from single-GB flash to multiple tens of GBs of storage using a larger hard drive — but still highly portable. In media players, for example, there’s the jump from the flash-based Apple nano (up to 8 GB for $249) to the Apple iPod video (30 GB for $249, and 60 GB for $349). Similarly, a wide range of companies, including LaCie (www.lacie.com), Western Digital (www.westerndigital.com), and Seagate / Maxtor (www.seagate.com) offer shirt-pocket-size hard drives offering a lot more capacity (ranging from 40 GB for around $79 to 160 GB for $199).
Take advantage of all of this power in the new year. Look into combining the functions of all of your devices into just one or two light weight, up-to-date devices. This is a great way to get organized, to get away from your desk more — and to give your shoulder a break from carrying around 10 pounds of electronics.