The Laptop Gear You Must Have
If you've configured a laptop online, you've faced dozens of buying decisions. Which operating system? How much memory? What size hard drive, and at what rotational speed? What kind of video card and sound system? The mind reels.
As if that weren't enough, a staggering array of laptop accessories are available. But what do you truly need to equip your laptop for maximum productivity, safety, and security? The following buying guide will help you sort through the main types of laptop add-ons so you can decide which are must-haves, nice-to-haves, or don't-need-to-haves.
First, a note: Most prices quoted here represent the lowest prices found online when we researched this guide. Since prices change constantly, we've provided links wherever possible to PC World's Shop and Compare tool, so you can quickly get current pricing.
Most current laptops offer built-in Wi-Fi and Bluetooth. A growing number provide built-in cell phone modems, too, for connecting to broadband data networks from Verizon Wireless and other carriers. If your laptop doesn't include these wireless connections, you can easily add them.
Wi-Fi is essential for anyone on the go. Wi-Fi adapters are available as USB devices or PC Cards, such as Netgear's WG511 ($38).
But finding a Wi-Fi hotspot isn't always easy. Some hotels still offer only wired in-room Internet access. A portable router, such as the Linksys Wireless-G Travel Router ($75), makes a wired network wireless, for sharing with a travel companion and connecting from anywhere in your hotel room. A Wi-Fi finder, a gadget that fits on a keyring, helps you detect nearby hotspots without turning on your laptop. The Targus WiFi Scanner ($46) has an LCD that displays wireless-network signal strength and security level.
You may not need Bluetooth unless you want wireless connectivity to print or to sync your smart phone with your laptop. If so, try D-Link's Wireless Bluetooth 2.0 USB adapter ($26).
Cell phone modems are available as PC Cards, ExpressCards, or USB devices. Check with your wireless carrier to see what's available. A USB cellular modem is a safe choice, as all laptops have USB ports but not all have slots for PC Cards (which are being phased out) or ExpressCards (being phased in). One example: Sprint Nextel offers the Sierra Wireless 595U Aircard, a USB device, for $80 (after rebates and with a two-year contract). Your wireless carrier will charge $60 or more per month for an unlimited broadband data plan, however, and plans usually require a one- or two-year contract.
Stay Powered Up
On the road, your laptop is only as good as its battery. Many laptop makers offer extended-life batteries as optional purchases. The more cells a battery has, the longer its charge lasts, so look for batteries with six or more cells. The downside: The more cells, the larger and heavier the battery.
Avoid buying multiple lithium ion batteries. They can be dangerous if not properly packed. Also, buy batteries from your laptop maker that are designed to work with your computer; third-party batteries may void your warranty and may damage the laptop.
Another option is to purchase an external power source, such as Black & Decker's Laptop Power To Go ($78) or Xantrex's PowerSource Mobile 100 ($100). Both devices provide laptops and other portables with hours of additional power. Mobility Electronics' iGo everywhere85 ($130 list) doesn't supply power away from a socket, but when plugged into the wall, it can power a wide variety of devices--several simultaneously--and it comes with car and plane adapters, too. You may need to buy additional tips (about $10 each), which connect devices to the power brick. Several are included in the box.
Lug and Secure Your Laptop
A good-quality bag can make all the difference when you're on the road, where you'll always need to protect your laptop from theft and damage.
Laptop bags come in all shapes and sizes--wheeled bags, backpacks, messenger bags, and briefcases. Wheeled bags are easier on your body but can be difficult to roll down narrow airplane aisles. Backpacks are hands-free but too casual for some people. Messenger bags are stylish but cause shoulder strain. Computer briefcases add a polished, professional look but are cumbersome to carry.
For top-quality bags, go with Tumi, Victorinox, or Briggs & Riley. You'll pay more, but their bags last for years. Waterfield Design makes a variety of stylish laptop bags, including some with airplane-seat-buckle closures. OtterBox sells ultrarugged cases for laptops and other electronics.
Some wheeled carry-on suitcases now include laptop compartments. Briggs & Riley's 20-Inch Carry-On Computer Upright ($325 list) lets you pack clothes, toiletries, reading materials, a laptop, and accessories all in one bag.
Securing Your Laptop
Stuff can happen to your laptop during travel--theft, damage, loss. Fortunately, you can do plenty to protect your portable.
The Kensington Security Slot, which is standard on laptops, enables you to physically secure the computer with a cable and lock. Kensington makes assorted laptop cable/lock sets ($30 to $70), including the MicroSaver Alarmed Lock ($45), which emits an audible alert when tampered with.
Your data is probably more valuable than your laptop. Safeguard sensitive data by storing it on an encrypted USB thumb drive instead of the laptop's hard drive. The Lexar JumpDrive Secure II USB Flash Drive ($30 to $102) comes in several storage capacities and includes software for protecting files with 256-bit AES encryption.
Some laptops offer encrypted hard drives. Dell's Latitude D630 and D830 (each $849 and up) are the first laptops to include hard drives featuring Seagate's DriveTrust technology, which promises transparent, robust, fast data encryption.
You might lose data if you drop your laptop and damage the hard drive. Laptops such as the Panasonic Toughbook Y5 ($1985) have shock-mounted drives designed to protect data should the computer take a tumble.
To help ensure that your laptop will be returned if lost, register it with StuffBak. For $6, you'll receive a sticker that announces a reward for your laptop's return and provides a toll-free phone number. For $50 a year, LoJack for Laptops will help you track, find, and recover a stolen laptop. Safeware will insure your laptop against fire, theft, damage and more.
Working in Comfort
A laptop is an ergonomic nightmare. Frequently you're typing in awkward circumstances, such as in an airport departure-lounge chair or propped up in bed. Over time, those positions can cause strain and pain. In the correct posture, your eyes are level with the top of the computer screen. Your arms are at a 90-degree angle, your wrists are straight, and your hips are higher than your knees.
Many travelers use their laptop as their desk computer, too. In your office, connect your laptop to an external monitor, keyboard, and mouse, so you can work in comfort. Use an ergonomic desk and an adjustable chair.
Match the external monitor you buy to your laptop screen. For example, if your laptop has a wide-screen LCD, buy a wide-screen external monitor. Keep in mind that you may be able to use your laptop screen and external monitor as one continuous Windows desktop, an ideal arrangement for working with multiple documents. For maximum viewing comfort, buy at least a 17-inch monitor, such as Dell's UltraSharp 1708FP ($212).
If your laptop's built-in screen is 15 inches or larger, you might forgo an external monitor in favor of a laptop stand that elevates the portable's screen to the proper height. The Xbrand XB-1002 360 height-adjustable laptop stand ($69) also includes a USB 2.0 hub. Some docking stations, such as Hewlett-Packard's Notebook Expansion Base xb3000 ($179) also elevate laptop screens. The xb3000 is designed to work with compatible HP laptops and comes with a wireless keyboard and mouse. (See "Docking Your Computer" below for more about docking stations.)
Microsoft's Ergonomic Keyboard 4000 ($35) takes some getting used to. But the USB keyboard helps position your hands properly and provides plenty of customizable hot-keys.
To use a mouse effectively, you must grip it and click its buttons frequently with your index finger--risking wrist and hand strain. Some experts believe that trackballs, such as Kensington's Expert Mouse ($82), are more ergonomic because they don't need to be gripped and are easier to click.
Docking Your Computer
Most of today's external keyboards, trackballs, mice, and other input devices connect to computers via USB. Unfortunately, some laptops have only two USB ports. What's more, having to unplug your external monitor, keyboard, mouse, printer, and other peripherals whenever you hit the road is a drag. The solution: a port replicator or docking station, also called an expansion base.
Port replicators and docking stations serve essentially the same purpose. You connect peripherals to the port replicator/docking station instead of to your laptop, and then connect your laptop to the port replicator/docking station. When you're ready to roll, you just disconnect your laptop, rather than a bunch of peripherals.
Docking stations usually offer more functionality than basic port replicators do. For example, the aforementioned HP Notebook Expansion Base xb3000 can also house an optional hard drive for storage or backup.
Check your laptop manufacturer's Web site for compatible port replicators and docking stations. Third-party models are available, too, and may be less expensive than what your laptop maker offers. For example, the Targus Universal Notebook Docking Station ($66) connects an ethernet cable, monitor, printer, speakers, and other devices.