The return of Trenton Small Business Week on Monday, October 18, means a week of workshops and seminars aimed at entrepreneurs and businesspeople in need of a tune-up. One of the central events of the week is “Wireless Gadgets and Trends 2010: What’s Hot Right Now for Business” on Wednesday, October 20, at 8 a.m. at Thomas Edison State College, 101 West State Street, presented by Douglas Dixon in connection with the Princeton Regional Chamber of Commerce’s monthly Business Before Business breakfast. Cost: $40. Call 609-924-1776.
Dixon, a technology consultant and frequent contributor to U.S. 1, will explain how increasingly mobile high-tech communications devices are changing the way the world works.Here he offers some of the highlights of his talk.
It’s been another fun and exciting year for electronic gadgets, heightened with breathless coverage in the media of new products like the Apple iPad, and titanic battles like the Apple iPhone versus Google Android.
While you many not share the deep lust of the early adopters for these kinds of devices, they really have proved quite useful — especially for keeping in touch when we’re so often on the go.
Smartphones. My core device is the smartphone, which allows me to say in touch even when I spend a full day in New York or off-site with a client, without having to lug around a laptop. I can check E-mail, view and edit office documents, access Web information, and enjoy music and Internet videos, plus do lots more with downloadable apps.
And beyond computer functions, smartphones can help out in whole new ways, so I can bring up maps and directions to find local businesses (including street views of the building facade), or just speak a phrase into Android phones in order to do fast searches for obscure crossword puzzle clues.
While smartphones do have a limited screen size, the new Apple iPhone 4 stepped up its 3.5-inch screen with a higher-definition “retina” display for crisper text and graphics. It also adds dual cameras for FaceTime video conferencing, and you can even edit HD video with the iMovie app. The iPhone 4 comes with 16GB of storage for $199 or 32GB for $299.
Meanwhile, the Google Android operating system for mobile phones is growing fast, on new phones like the HTC Droid Incredible and Motorola Droid X with a larger screen (both around $199 from Verizon Wireless). The variety of Android phones from different manufacturers provides a wider array of options and features than the iPhone, including slide-out keyboard, FM radio, additional removable storage, and replaceable batteries.
Without the phone. Smartphones also seem to have cooled the excitement for netbooks, which were so hot as recently as last holiday season, when you could find them stacked as impulse items in the checkout lanes.
The idea was that a light and inexpensive computer would be your portable web client, to help you stay connected wherever you go. But cheap computers are also sluggish and limited, especially in a world of HD videos over the Internet. Plus there is still a lot of hassle with maintaining even a small computer, including the constant nags to keep software upgraded and virus definitions updated.
But if you’re using your smartphone as a netbook replacement, you may not even need the phone call part, as long as you can use WiFi networking to go online. Apple has had great success with the iPod touch, now the most popular iPod — sort of an iPhone without the phone part. It recently was updated with the retina display and dual cameras, but still with more limited processing, camera resolution, and position tracking. It’s available with 8GB for $229, 32GB for $299; 64GB for $399.
The iPod touch also is a great dedicated audio/video player. I use iTunes on my PC to download free audio podcasts so they’re ready for long trips, including wonderful presentations from sources including Princeton, Cornell, Wharton, Warwick, and, of course, “A Prairie Home Companion.”
Apple has built an impressive electronic retail market with more than 250,000 apps available in the App Store, joining the iTunes Store for music and video and the newer iBooks store.
Tablets. The small screen on a smartphone is still a pain when you’re doing extensive work, trying to read a document, or even browse through a website. So instead of a netbook, how about a tablet, like the Apple iPad, or Android tablets like the Dell Streak? You get all the stability of the Apple iPhone/iPod or Android ecosystem on a bigger screen (9.7 inches on the iPad), and without the pain of supporting a standard computer.
Of course, smartphone apps do not provide the flexibility of full PC software, and upgraded versions of the small-screen apps are required to take advantage of user interactions on the larger screen. But if you accept the limitations compared to full-up PC applications, you still can do quite well. For example, the Apple iWork suite of productivity apps ($9.99 each) includes the Pages word processor, Numbers spreadsheet, and Keynote for presentations, yet is not particularly helpful with exporting and sharing and printing your documents outside the Apple world.
The iPad with Wi-Fi connectivity is available with 16, 32, and 64GB for $499, $599, and $699, respectively. For an extra $130 you can add back in cellular wireless services, not for phone calls, but for wireless data service to access the Internet from anywhere.
Mobile wireless hotspots. The whole point of these portable devices is their always-on connectivity, which requires cellular when you’re not at a Wi-Fi hotspot. But you also don’t want to be playing multiple separate cellular service plans for each of your devices — smartphone and iPad and laptop and netbook.
Instead of enabling the built-in wireless for your tablet or a laptop, you can instead share one service plan with a stand-alone device like the Verizon Wireless MiFi Mobile Hotspot that turns the cellular service into a Wi-Fi hotspot for up to five devices ($99). I bring along the MiFi for my talks, since it lets me demo multiple portable devices online at the same time.
Even better, some smartphones now also offer Wi-Fi “tethering,” to share your existing cellular phone service as a 3G mobile wireless hotspot, so you can take your laptop or iPod touch online with one cellular connection. This is supported in the latest Android 2.2 release, including on the Droid Incredible.
Apple FaceTime. Another innovation in smartphones is video calling, with the Apple FaceTime app for the iPhone 4 and now the iPod touch (although these currently do not interoperate with other devices or computers). With the front-facing camera, you can talk with a friend and see yourself at the same time.
But while it’s fun to see faces as you talk, it’s not so riveting that you need it for all your calls. Instead, what Apple has cleverly done with FaceTime is to build two cameras into the iPhone and new iPod touch, one over the screen to shoot your face, and another front-facing camera so you can show something much more interesting — what’s going on around you while you chat. So now you can share faces and places, the whole experience.
Webcams. Of course, you also can make free Internet phone and video calls from your computer by hooking up a webcam. Webcams let you share as a group, keep in touch with the kids when you’re on the road, or check in with the grandparents.
Even better, webcams have moved up to high-def resolution to provide a great picture for show-and-tell conversations. For example, the new Logitech HD webcam line starts at $49, with built-in mics for HD calls and recording. The high-end Logitech HD Pro Webcam C910 at $99 adds 10-megapixel photos, Carl Zeiss glass optics, wide-angle lens, autofocus, dual mics, and full HD 1080p video recording. These work with Skype and other common calling software.
Pocket camcorders. For shooting and sharing videos beyond short camera phone clips, I’m a big fan of the Flip Video pocket camcorders (now part of Cisco). They’re easy to carry, in a pocket or a bag, so I can shoot vacation shots on the beach that we would otherwise miss because it’s too much trouble to always lug along a larger camera.
Pocket camcorders are small and unobtrusive, so you can capture informal shots at events without disturbing the people around you. We’ve shot from the seats at weddings and events, handheld and with a monopod, and even hung the camera on the end of the pew to catch performances with a flexible Joby Gorillapod mini tripod.
Today’s pocket camcorders shoot HD and have a built-in, flip-out USB connector to easily transfer clips to a computer, and built-in software to edit and share — to enjoy on the computer, online, or on DVD.
The new Flip are always ready to shoot (under four seconds from power on), since there are no options or modes that you can mess up. There are no options for photos or close-up or low-res or removable storage, which are available in competing products.
The Flip MinoHD models are particularly compact (6/10 inch thin, 4 ounces), and the slightly larger UltraHD line (4.5 ounces) offer removable batteries. These each are available in two versions, to shoot one or two hours, starting at $149. The new models now also have built-in image stabilization, helpful with small hand-held devices.
While Flip has focused on keeping the devices simple, you can add new capabilities with new accessories, including a Bower Wide Angle Lens for wide angle views, Ikelite Underwater Housing for shooting in the wet, and external and wireless microphones for better sound.
Portable power. As you accumulate more of these portable devices, you’ll need to be careful to keep them charged up on the road. Most devices now charge through USB, connected to a computer or through a USB wall charger. Just be warned that while USB is a standard connector, it’s not a standard power source — more sophisticated devices like the Apple iPad or Flip Video camcorders require more power and a more “intelligent” interface. So make sure you carry the right chargers, and look for USB chargers that are explicitly rated for your devices, with fast charge capability — for example, the Kensington line of USB chargers, with a wall adapter, car charger, and a bigger 4-port charger for simultaneous charging, with some explicitly rated for the iPod touch and iPhone.
Portable sound. Another important accessory for your portable devices is a set of earphones or a headset so you can listen to your music or calls. Bluetooth headsets for mobile phones have gotten very sophisticated, with features like noise reduction for loud city streets, and the ability to simultaneously pair to two devices so you can switch between listening to a music player and picking up a phone call.
Bluetooth headsets also have focused more on ease of use, especially for people like me who typically only wear the headset when on a call. The Jawbone ICON Bluetooth headset (around $75) has a separate on/off switch, makes voice announcements instead of requiring decoding blinking lights, and uses a standard mini-USB port for charging.
Even better, Bluetooth headsets now can download apps to personalize new features. The ICON offers updates for A2DP streaming audio playback, a choice of six announcement voices, and voice commands.
For a more traditional approach to using your cell phone at home or in the office, check out the Native Union Retro mobile handset. It’s a classic ‘50s style telephone design, complete with a curly cord, but that plugs in to your mobile phone. Handsets are available for $29; $59 with a weighted base.
Portable storage. One final way to avoid bringing along your laptop on trips is to bring your important files on a USB flash drive. These continue to be the handy answer for storing, sharing, and backing up your files on the go.
With 8 GB drives available at retail for around $20, and 32 GB around $70, you can carry everything you need, and even have dedicated drives for different purposes. I often carry a public drive for swapping files with others, and a personal drive that has other reference material.
There are lots of options for different kinds of drives. These include ridiculously tiny devices like the LaCie MosKeyto Low Profile USB Drive, which extends only 6mm out of your laptop It is designed so that you don’t accidentally break it with extended use (4GB for $17, 8GB for $27).
For serious business and data protection, since small drives are easily misplaced, get a drive with built-in encryption. The Imation Defender F200 Biometric Flash Drive is FIPS 140-2, Level 3 validated, with a rugged metal enclosure, hardware AES 256-bit encryption, and two-factor authentication with password and a fingerprint sensor for up to 10 users.
For longer trips, you can carry USB-portable hard drives like the Western Digital My Passport line. These drives are thin and pocket sized and powered via USB (no extra wires required). They are available with 500GB or even 1TB of storage for around $100, so again I typically carry multiple drives with my laptop — a project drive to share archived work data, and a personal drive that stays in my hotel as a local backup, and is also big enough to offload vacation photos and videos.