Tag Archives: USB port

How to Not Sweat the Mobile Office

(This is a copy of my Loose Wire Sevice column, produced for newspapers and other print publications. Hence the lack of links.)

By Jeremy Wagstaff

I do a lot of work on the road, including setting up offices from scratch. What I’ve learnt—and the mistakes I’ve made—could fill a book, so maybe I’ll write one.

But here, for now, are some tips I’ve found useful about working on the road—especially if you’re on the road for any length of time, or setting up your stall in a new place, temporarily or permanently.

The first thing to do is to get a local SIM card asap. Roaming fees remain ruinous. More of that in a later column.

The other is to get a dongle. Nowadays, it’s really easy to get your laptop connected to something approaching a broadband Internet connection.

HSDPA is the prevailing technology for this—you don’t need to know what it stands for, because it’s already on the way out—via a SIM card inserted in a little thumb drive that slots into your USB port. More commonly known as a dongle.

Nowadays you can get these for very little, along with a prepaid account. You often have to buy the dongle, which might or might not be usable in a new country.

Either way, you’ve got connected.

If you’re setting up a whole new office then get your staff onto Google Apps.

This is a suit of online programs that is basically Microsoft Office–for free, and open to real time collaboration. (Recently Google souped it up a bit and added a tool for drawing.)

All you need is an Internet connection. (Google Apps can be used offline, but this is in the process of being changed, so it might not be working for a while.)

If you want to do it with a bit of style, install Google Apps on your own domain (cooldudes.com) so all your new staff have email addresses that end in that domain; they can also then share all their contacts etc.

The non-domain version is called Google Docs and works fine. If you’ve all got Gmail accounts then it makes sense to stick with that.

Google have done a good job with this suite, but it’s not perfect. Don’t expect all the bells and whistles you’d usually get for spreadsheets and documents. But it’s fine for most needs.

Make sure staff get into the habit of saving documents with useful, consistent names and putting them in shared folders that others can find. Maintain a policy of limited documents and constant weeding so things don’t get lost or forgotten.

Hardware-wise, get people netbooks. They should be more than enough and this allows them to take them home to work/play on there. (Ensure they’ve all got antivirus on them, and tell them you’ll punish them severely if they install rubbish on them.)

And then wow them by buying an external monitor—Samsung, Philips and others do relatively small screens for about $100.

That doubles the amount of screen they’ve got to play with and wins you grateful looks from staff who’ve either never had two screens before or have them but never expected such an enlightened boss.

A tip: check the weight of the screen, as they vary widely. Some are light enough to carry with you between assignments. If not, you can always get a small 7” Mimo Monitor which gives you that extra bit of desktop. Mimo tell me they’re coming out with a larger one this month or next.

Printers are not an easy problem to resolve, but you should be able to get a scanner, printer, fax and copy machine, all in one, for about $120. You can either thread USB cables around your office or splash out on a wireless router that has a USB slot in the back.

(Wireless routers let you connect all your computers together via WiFi.)

This should, in theory, allow you to connect said scanner/printer/fax/copier into your network meaning anyone can use it. Expect a bit of pain here.

Other things I would buy to make your new mini-office more productive: decent mouse pads—nothing worse, or less productive, than staff sliding their mice across overly reflective desktops or books.

If they’re taking their netbooks home, then buy them the mains cable that sits between the netbook’s power adapter and the wall. This means they don’t have to dive under the desk to remove the power cable, and instead can just unplug the adapter as it sits behind their netbook.

Cost of cable: about $1.

I also buy headsets for landlines. These are cheap and save your staff’s necks.

And a non-stapler clipper, which uses reusable clips, saves you pulling staples out of paper and makes every document look snazzy. Cost: $1.50.

Lastly, buy a label printer. They may be a bit pricey—well, the labels are—but they make everything look so much better, and give your office a professional shine that will make your staff work harder and not want to go home in the evening.

Good for them. Now I’m off to the hotel pool.

More Things To Stuff In Your USB Port

Another visit to the  Hong Kong electronics expo thing. It really is big. I don’t think I’ve covered a third of it and I’m exhausted. Anyway, clearly I had no idea what I was talking about when I listed some gadgets you can plug into your USB port. There’s more.

The thing this year seems to be to mix n match a USB dongle. One USB drive, for example, also sports Wi-Fi. Another is also a Bluetooth dongle. Then there are the whacky things that just make the most of being a) powered by the computer and/or b) connected to the computer.

Shenzhen-based 6dragon Technology Co. Ltd (“Quality, Value and Service are not the only words we use, but these are also what we stand for”*), for example offers the following:

Massage

  • A USB vacuum (which, as the blurb puts it, ‘Can the dust of the valid clearance calculator keyboard’);
  • Several different USB-powered oxygen bars (‘Delicate style to be integrated with autos: Moreover, it is suitable to the office as well as home environment. And your taste lies here.’ Indeed);
  • The folk at 6Dragon (“If you are looking for someone to stand behind you for the long term, you will not go wrong with 6dragon!”*) also showed me a USB-radio, that looks like a dongle, but I can’t find it on their website. I see engadget were there some time ago but it was new to me.

Anyway, now you’re beginning to get an idea of what you could use your USB drive for. Go for it. Be the envy of your office-mates.

* Authentic quotes from website.

Get Even More From Your USB

I’ve written before about the uses of USB keydrives (here’s the latest list of programs that will run off them). But the USB port can be used for more.

Since taking root in an office I’ve found the Dell desktop has a pretty generous six USB ports. None of them used for anything official so I’ve colonised some of them with:

  • A Logitech cordless mouse — much nicer than the PS2 mouse the office provides. It’s the same mouse I use at home, so my hand is used to it, and it’s easy enough to throw in my bag along with the USB dongle. No installation software really needed.
  • A charger for my Palm. One of those retractable USB charger/sync cables, which also takes up next to no space in the bag, but means my Palm (or cellphone, or Treo) won’t run out of juice during the day.
  • An external hard drive. Just buy an extra cable and you don’t even need to bring the cable along with you. (Companies don’t always like this kind of thing, so check with your sysadmin first, or just keep really, really quiet about it).

Of course, it needn’t stop there. There are mug warmers, desktop lamps and fans that will run off a USB port (designed for laptops and travelers), so if you find your office is scrimping on the water heaters, lighting or air-conditioning, just bring your own.

This week’s column – Flash Drives Aren’t Flash

This week’s Loose Wire column is about Flash drives:

 I LEFT YOU last week in the capable hands of Ethel Girdle, the fictitious octogenarian who took her accusations of built-in obsolescence to the technology giants. One of her beefs was about so-called flash drives–small devices that store data, for example as memory cards for MP3 players, digital cameras or personal-digital assistants, or as ultra-portable drives which can plug directly into your computer’s USB port. These little things have taken off in a big way. Nowadays it’s hard to find a gadget that doesn’t use them–even your cellphone uses the same technology–or a keychain that doesn’t have a thumb drive dangling off it. But Ethel (OK, it’s really me) found that two out of five memory cards in my possession have given up the ghost within a year or so of buying them. So what gives? Are flash drives the future or, if you’ll excuse the phrase, just a flash in the pan?

Full text at the Far Eastern Economic Review (subscription required, trial available) or at WSJ.com (subscription required). Old columns at feer.com here.

Warm Your Coffee With USB

Not a lot of interesting stuff to report today so I thought I would offer you this (not particularly new, but still cutting-edge) gadget for USB port: a coffee warmer. AkibaLive reports the Sunbeam USB-bus powered coffee warmer will “keep your coffee warm at a temperature of around 40 degrees Celsius for 120 minutes. The device can fit any size coffee cup, comes with a power on/off switch and is made of high quality insulation material so you won’t get burned. Oh, and it doesn’t need a driver.

If you’re really serious about the issue of warming your coffee, here’s the company webpage showing a chart comparing the temperature of your coffee with or without a USB-bus powered coffee warmer. The warmer comes in blue, white or yellow, along with a warning — Don’t touch the metal heat area — and a whacky catchphrase: “Warm your coffee or tea in a cool way!”

Sunbeam are actually way ahead of the pack on cool post-tech uses of the computer. I already have their USB-powered fan — “This nifty UB Fan is dvisable either to cool you on the way, in a stuffy meeting, or to protect your Notebook as an external cooler” — but am saving up to buy their desktop PC CD-drive replacement cigarette lighter which comes with the obligatory warning (“Please don’t touch the Cigarette Lighter after heated!”) and will, like all good cigarette lighters, also recharge handphones. To be honest, I’m still trying to work out when I would use this product, but that won’t stop me getting it.

Palm Cradle Or Orthotic Pregnancy Band?

Palm, or palmOne to be precise, have just come out with the new Mini Cradle, “perfect for holiday gift-giving”. So what’s different about the Mini Cradle and your normal cradle?

It has, according to the press release, “a unique, modern design complete with built-in lighting and a silver metallic base. The illumination provides users with positive confirmation that all cables are connected and the handheld is properly attached.” It sell for $50, and should be in shops in the next few days.

It recharges and synchronizes data through the USB port of a PC or Mac. It is compatible with any palmOne handheld with the Universal Connector, or specifically: the Tungsten C, Tungsten T series, Tungsten W, Zire 71, i705, m500 series and m130 handhelds. And no, it’s not to be confused with the Prenatal Mini Cradle, which is a single orthotic band for abdominal support and easing of back pain during pregnancy, and therefore completely different:

Column: USB and the CIA

Loose Wire — How to Steal CIA Secrets: It’s as easy as USB; Universal Serial Bus drives are getting small enough to hide in coffee mugs, and you can attach them to most computers and all sorts of other gadgets

 
By Jeremy Wagstaff
from the 5 June 2003 of edition of the Far Eastern Economic Review , (c) 2003, Dow Jones & Company, Inc.
I got some flak last time I was rude about how implausible technology is in Hollywood movies, even supposedly authentic fare such as Minority Report, The Bourne Identity and Mary Poppins. One comment was “grab a beer and chill out, dude, it’s only a movie,” though that doesn’t count because it was from my mother.

But I can’t help venting my spleen, if that’s what you do with spleen, after watching The Recruit with Al Pacino and Colin Farrell. It’s a thriller revolving around a recruit (no, really) to the Central Intelligence Agency trying to smuggle a top secret program out of CIA headquarters at Langley. There are some neat gadgets in there, such as biodegradable bugs and a program that hijacks nearby television screens. But the premise is that it’s well nigh impossible to steal data from the CIA since none of its computers have floppy drives, printers or (presumably, if we’re going to get finicky) infrared ports or Bluetooth dongles. In short, how do you transfer data if you can’t download it? I wanted to shout out suggestions but my friends, alerted by previous visits to the cinema, had gagged me beforehand.

Anyway, not a bad idea and not a bad movie. Except (skip the rest of this paragraph if you intend to watch the movie) someone succeeds in downloading the top secret program by plugging a USB drive into a USB socket on a CIA computer (USB is a commonly used port that allows users to connect gadgets to their computer). She then hides the said drive — about the size of a lighter — in her aluminium coffee mug. I mean, duh! I can’t believe they have USB sockets in Langley and that the X-ray machine confuses a gadget for coffee dregs. Tsk.

Anyway, it made me realize that Hollywood really, really needs my help in making their scripts believable. So here are some ideas for future movies, all involving existing USB gadgets:

— Our hero penetrates high-security installation, wanders nonchalantly up to floppy-less computer, and accesses USB port (inexplicably left on computer despite it being responsible for massive security breach as revealed in The Recruit). Uncoils USB cable from watch strap, plugs into USB port, downloads data into USB watch from German company LAKS (between $40 and $95 from www.laks.com).

— Our hero wanders nonchalantly up to floppy-less computer, plugs USB drive into USB port (amazingly still there despite aforementioned movie and pioneering column from tech writer), and accesses own e-mail via newly released PocoMail PE ($40 from www.pocomailpe.com). Okay, this doesn’t sound that wild, but it’s a great plot twist if you’re using someone else’s computer and they don’t have an e-mail program you need, or, in the case of our hero, you don’t want to leave any trace of yourself (say at an Internet cafe or a public library).

— Our hero has made off with the data on a USB drive. But he’s caught by the bad guys. Being avid readers of this column, they know what to look for and quickly locate the USB drive. But our hero’s drive is a bit different: Made by Singapore’s Trek 2000 International (www.thumbdrive.com), his ThumbDrive Touch has a silver pad that requires the user’s thumbprint before data can be accessed. Unfortunately for our hero, but great for a plot twist, the baddies simply cut off his thumb and plonk it on the biometric pad.

— Armed with a $100 MP306 USB drive from Azio Technologies (www. azio-tech.com/azi0-root/products/MP 306.asp), our hero fails to access the CIA computer because his nemesis has installed a SecuriKey Computer Protection System, Personal Edition ($130 from Griffin Technologies at http://securikey.com/personal/). This looks just like a USB drive but in fact works like a key: If it’s not plugged into the computer, then the computer locks up. Confounded, our hero sucks his remaining thumb and admires the silver metal mini-briefcase that the SecuriKey dongle comes in. Resigned, our hero reaches for his Azio USB drive, dons earphones, kicks back and listens to MP3 music files stored on the drive. Fiddling with the built-in equalizer for improved playback quality, he hears footsteps and quickly switches the USB drive to recorder mode to eavesdrop on two CIA officers passing by, griping about their canteen lunch.

Okay, so not all these plots will win prizes. But one thing I’m willing to bet my DVD collection on: USB drives will replace floppy drives, those flat disks of old, as PC manufacturers add USB ports to new models and remove external disk drives. Prices will drop further, meaning gadgets smaller than lighters will carry gigabytes of data for peanuts. Already you can buy a 1 gigabyte model for $300: Expect to pay half that in a year or less. They will be so cheap people will give them away: Visitors to a recent launch in Britain of Microsoft’s Windows Server 2003 were given freebie press bags with 32-megabyte USB drives inside.

In future, folk will carry around all their programs and data aboard one dongle and run it from any computer they come across, effectively personalizing the computer for however long they’re sitting at it, but without leaving any trace. Wait for the futuristic movie where everyone’s life is stored on a USB drive and every computer in the world is for public consumption. Interested? Call my agent.

Column: backing up

 Loose Wire — Just To Be on The Safe Side

By Jeremy Wagstaff
from the 30 May 2002 edition of the Far Eastern Economic Review, (c) 2003, Dow Jones & Company, Inc.

A few weeks ago I wrote about how to back up your files in the case of disaster, theft, stupidity or a combination of all three. But as several readers pointed out, nearly all the methods I suggested have flaws: Backing up to another drive is no good if you don’t take the drive with you — assuming your computer is eaten by Godzilla or your mother sells it in a garage sale while you’re at the mall — or if the drive remains connected and gets eaten by the same virus that destroyed your original data.

 
On-line drives, where you upload all your documents to a Web site, are fine but a bit slow, and you can never be 100% certain the on-line-drive company won’t go bust, or that someone won’t hack into your data and learn all your darkest secrets. Backing up to a CD-ROM is cheap, but they have a habit of corrupting data without telling you.
 
When my laptop was stolen a year ago, I was fairly sure I hadn’t lost much data until I found my back-up to CD-ROM was a melange of zeroes and ones. Not my idea of a safe back-up.
 
My answer to all these gripes is: All true, but maybe we’re addressing the wrong problem. Unless you’re a real data dude, chances are your most important data — ignoring all those thousands of company letters, ageing CVs, letters to old flames and what-have-you that are clogging your hard drive — could be limited to about 100 megabytes. (Doesn’t sound like much? Remember that 10 years ago that was a big hard drive for most people.)
 
What I suggest is this: Work out what your most important documents are and save them to one easy-to-remember folder. Weed it out ruthlessly. Don’t worry about contacts and calendars and stuff like that if you have a Palm or Pocket PC, since they’re already duplicated on PC and hand-held devices (and if they aren’t, you should be ashamed of it, at your age). If all this weeded data comes to more than 100 megabytes, you can always compress it into a zip file, which works particularly well with bloated document formats like Microsoft Word. For this try WinZip from www.winzip.com, or the more complete PowerDesk from Ontrack International at www.ontrack.com that I mentioned a few weeks ago.
 
Now for the neat bit. A couple of years ago a Singaporean company called Trek 2000 International (www.thumbdrive.com) started selling mini-drives about the size of your little finger, which they called ThumbDrives (don’t ask; probably they all have small thumbs down there at Loyang Industrial Estate). These sleek little gadgets look like a small lighter and slot into your USB port. After installing some software, depending on what kind of operating system you’re using, you have a new drive.
 
When they first appeared they were pricey but now with competition from elsewhere they’re pretty reasonable: I picked up a 128-megabyte M-Drive from Taiwan’s Star King Technologies for about $80. And Britain’s Targus does a more expensive 64-megabyte model, which retails for $120 and looks more like a magic marker.
 
All models, however, are well designed and fit easily onto a key ring. Which is exactly where I suggest you put it once you’ve backed up all your important data. Now you have a copy of all your most important stuff with you at all times — as long as you don’t lose your keys or get amnesia.
 
There are other options: If you have a gadget that hooks up to your PC, such as a camera, MP3 player, Pocket PC or Palm, chances are you can store data on the flash card that comes with it. Hook the gadget up to your PC and you should be able to read the contents of the flash card as a separate drive. In most cases you can now put anything you like on it.
 
In the future this will be how most of us store all our stuff: M-Drive promise a 2-gigabyte version in the near future, and while it may not be that cheap, knowing that a back-up of everything you hold dear is locked into a little finger in your pocket may be worth the expense.

Column: Christmas stuff

Loose Wire — Have a Bidet Christmas

 
By Jeremy Wagstaff, from the 27 December 2001 edition of the Far Eastern Economic Review, (c) 2001, Dow Jones & Company, Inc.
For most of us, this Christmas is going to be what I would call (remember where you heard it first) a “bidet Christmas.” In a nutshellthis means we’re not looking to buy a whole new bathroom, but we’d like to buy something to remind ourselves we’re still consumers and there are still things out there we don’t need but we’ll buy anyway. Hence the bidet.

I’d like to point you in the direction of some items, which might charitably be called gizmo add-ons. You might not be expecting to get the latest gadget in your stocking this year, but you can at least make your existing gadget more functional.

First, your cellphone. The biggest drawback to these things is battery life. True, the batteries on most cellphones last a lot longer than they used to, and charge more quickly, but it’s still a pain to find you’ve run out of juice and are nowhere near an outlet. Help is at hand. Try these:

The Instant Power Charger (www.electric-fuel.com) draws energy from a disposable cartridge the size of a matchbox that in turn draws its power from oxygen in the air. Plug it into a cellphone (or personal digital assistant) and you can start using it straightaway: The battery will be recharged in a couple of hours. The cartridge lasts for three charges.

Consider chargers using normal batteries — you can usually find these at specialist electronic stores or cellphone shops. They’re keyring-size adaptors that fit into the charger socket of your phone and attach to a standard nine-volt battery.

Tired of carrying around an adaptor on business trips? From computer peripheral shops you can buy a cable that plugs into your personal computer’s USB port, which will also do the job of recharging your cellphone (or PDA), albeit it at a somewhat slower rate.

Be careful in all these cases to get the right cable for your cellphone or PDA, since one size doesn’t fit all. And try to buy a reputable brand, since in some cases you could damage your gadget.

Now, that’s the practical stuff out of the way. I love my PDA but I’m mighty bored with carrying the same PDA case all the time. I’d recommend trying out alternative cases. I’ve taken the liberty of road-testing a number on your behalf, my only rule of thumb is the case shouldn’t cost more than the PDA:

Britain’s Scribble (www.scribble.co.uk) also put out an interesting range of cases, including a black plastic Palm case with interchangeable panels, from black to sharp blue. Scribble also make a simple synthetic rubber case with added protection front and back, as do Marware (www.marware.com).

The more rugged adventurer might want to consider GrinderGear, who prefer to call their PDA cases Sport Utility Bags, or SUBs for short. These are padded, dripping with zips, tassels and tags, and come with hooks so you can strut along a ridge with your PDA bouncing off your hip.

Have a good Christmas and New Year-with or without the bidet.