Here are ten cool ways to add useful new features and functionality--plus security and convenience--to your laptop without your even having to crack the case. (Note: Prices quoted are usually list.)
Get Connected, Wi-Fi or Not
Wi-Fi is super convenient, but hotspots can be hard to come by, and many proprietors charge a pretty penny to use them. One easy way to enhance your connectivity options is to add a 3G Wireless WAN (WWAN) data device to your laptop. The three big carriers (Verizon, AT&T Wireless, and Sprint Nextel) all offer such devices, available in several formats: PC Card, ExpressCard, or USB. The best place to get one of these devices is at your wireless telecom company. If you commit to a service plan at the same time, their prices range from free, for AT&T's USBConnect 881 (it's free after rebates, anyway), to about $150, for Verizon's USB727 Modem (above). Performance doesn’t vary much from carrier to carrier or from device to device, so buy the one that has the best coverage in the area where you typically work or travel.
Watch Live TV From Anywhere
Don't be a slave to the endlessly looping CNN feed on the solitary TV in the airport departure lounge. Instead, get whatever TV programming you want by tuning in to your cable box at home via a Sling Media Slingbox. The Slingbox attaches to both your cable box and your home broadband connection, and intercepts whatever's coming through the cable box and "slings" it to your computer, wherever you might be. Controls integrated into the custom Slingbox application you install on your laptop let you change channels on your cable box back home. Plug in a TiVo or a DVD player, and you can watch video from those sources as well (physically changing DVDs, however, is beyond the powers of the humble Slingbox). The bright red, $230 Slingbox Pro is the top of the line; its component connections let you hook up even a Blu-ray box (though the device downconverts high-def footage).
Never Run Out of Juice
The AC adapter that came with your laptop is probably a fairly one-dimensional device. It can charge only one thing (your notebook), and it can obtain power from only one place (a wall outlet). A couple of new products let you ditch your boring old brick in favor of something more flexible. For starters, check out Kensington’s Wall/Auto/Air Notebook Power Adapter with USB Power Port ($140), which comes with adapters that let you charge from outlet power, from your car's 12V adapter, or from airplane power ports; several included adapter tips work with most major laptops out of the box, and you can buy additional tip packages for other devices at prices between $15 and $20. As a bonus, a USB port lets you charge a phone or MP3 player directly from the brick.
Tap Into the Sun
When all of the oil, gas, and coal finally run out, at least we'll still have the sun to power our gear. You can get started with solar-charging hardware today: Gadgets such as the Solio can juice your iPod. And other products are trickling onto the market that make charging larger devices (like laptops) a possibility. One example is Voltaic's Generator laptop bag. Covering its side is a solar panel that generates, at maximum production, about 17 watts--enough to charge the bag's built-in battery, which in turn charges your laptop battery. Voltaic hopes to have it ready later this year, for $599.
Find Your Way Back Home
Don’t have an iPhone 3G or a snazzy navigation device mounted on your dash? You can still obtain GPS on the go by turning your laptop into a navigation tool. If your system has Bluetooth, check out the CoPilot Live 11 for Laptops ($249) from ALK Technologies. The CoPilot Live needs no hardware installation; instead, a small GPS receiver sits on your dashboard and relays GPS info via Bluetooth to your notebook. The package has maps for all of North America--7 million miles of road and 6 million points of interest--ready to load onto your laptop. As you drive, your vehicle's GPS position is plotted continuously on the maps. Oh, you don't have Bluetooth? A USB option is available for the same price.
Say Hi With Live Video
Many notebook PCs ship with integrated Webcams, but if your laptop doesn't have one built in, you can't upgrade it to include one. Solution: Add an external Webcam that clips to the top of your LCD. Logitech's QuickCam Pro for Notebooks ($100) is incredibly small, with a 2-megapixel sensor and an integrated microphone. It captures 30-frames-per-second video and comes with a desktop stand so you can keep the Webcam safely docked when it's not going mobile with you.
Say Hi With Live Video, Take 2
Creative's Live Cam Optia AF ($100) offers similar features, but is mounted on a unique 270-degree swivel attachment so you can pivot the lens to point at yourself or at whoever is sitting across the room.
Pentax's PocketJet 3 Plus ($449) delivers 300-dots-per-inch resolution while weighing just over a pound with its internal battery in place. The PocketJet 3 Plus's thermal printing technology may not generate the highest-quality printouts, but you won't have to carry ink or toner around with you. (You will have to pack some thermal paper, however.) The PocketJet is designed to work with USB, and a Bluetooth version is available for $529.
Carry Your Laptop in Style
Legions of laptop bags are available, but most of them are approximately as stylish as a burlap sack with handles. Ogio's Boss messenger bag (about $140), however, lets you carry your notebook and all your accessories in impeccable style. The bag is equally good for commuters and for frequent travelers. A well-padded compartment keeps your laptop safely separated from other items in your bag; other padded and specially lined compartments provide niches for your MP3 player and media like CDs and DVDs. Various zipped compartments offer storage room for files and folders, and inside pockets give you lots of room for stowing PDAs, power cords, mice, and anything else you might need on your travels.
Lock Down Your Gear
Kensington's ComboSaver Combination Portable Notebook Lock ($25) is an excellent compromise between security and portability. You can take it anywhere without feeling as though you have a bowling ball in your bag. The lock's cable coils up to a compact few inches but can stretch to 6 feet when needed. Instead of an easily lost key, the device has a four-barrel combination lock, which is easier to manage when attached to the security port on the side or rear of your laptop. When you head out from the coffee shop, coil the cable and stow the lock in the included travel pouch. Total weight: 0.5 pound. (See more on notebook security devices.)