Essential accessories: Clutter busters and travel-bag basics

Our increasingly wireless lives are still dependent on physical connections. And that means cables--lots of cables. As the editor who does most of Macworld's accessory coverage, my office is overrun with cables, connectors, and chargers. Few warrant a full review or an article of their own, but that doesn't mean they should go unnoticed. Whether you're looking for worthy candidates for your travel bag or you just want to clean up your desk, here are some of the best accessories I've come across recently for connecting, charging, and more.

Compact cable kits

Short cables are lightweight, take up less space in a bag, and are less likely to tangle. Thankfully, it's no longer necessary to hunt down short versions of essential cables on your own, as a number of companies sell handy kits.

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Micro, mini, 30: I previously covered Griffin Technology's $25 USB Mini Cable Kit, which offers three short (3.5-inch) USB cables in one package. Incase's $25 USB Mini Cable Kit contains 4-inch versions--the length includes the connectors--of the same three cables: USB-to-30-pin (dock connector) for iPads and pre-2012 iPhones and iPods; USB-to-Micro-USB; and USB-to-Mini-USB. The actual cable sections are thinner than those of Griffin's, making Incase's cables more flexible and even lighter. The kit also comes with a convenient nylon carrying pouch. You can choose either the standard kit, which consists of black, white, and gray cables (for 30-pin, Micro-USB, and Mini-USB, respectively), or the brighter fluorescent kit with easy-to-spot green, blue, and orange versions.

Aviiq options: Another alternative is to choose one of Aviiq's assorted $30 cable kits, which each include a pair of the company's Ready Clip USB Mini Cables. Each Ready Clip cable is roughly 5.5 inches long, with a wide, flat body and a built-in clip for attaching the cable to a pocket or pouch in your bag. The Ready Clips are a bit bulkier and considerably stiffer than even the Griffin offerings, but they also feel sturdier, and the built-in clip is handy. Aviiq sells six different two-cable kits, each with a different combination of USB-to-30-pin (dock connector), USB-to-Micro-USB, and USB-to-Mini-USB cables.

Yet another interesting option that I haven't yet had a chance to test is Aviiq's new $30 Quick Change Universal Dock Adapter. This model is similar in size and design to the Ready Clip cables, but it combines all three connectors in a single cable with a standard USB plug on one end and 30-pin, Micro-USB, and Mini-USB plugs at the other. You just rotate the end of the cable to expose the desired connector.

Display and video adapters

In the computing world, few things are worse than standing nervously at a podium preparing to give a presentation and then realizing you don't have the right adapter for your laptop. Recent MacBooks use a Mini DisplayPort connection for video output, but few schools, businesses, and conference centers have Mini DisplayPort cables on hand.

That makes a Mini DisplayPort adapter--or two!--an essential accessory for most travel bags. To be sure you'll be able to connect, it's best to have not only a VGA version (since that's still the most-common projector connection, in my experience) but also a DVI adapter, just in case. You may even want to carry an HDMI adapter to connect your laptop to newer projectors or to a flat-panel TV.

The usefulness of these adapters isn't limited to laptops, either: Many of us have a Mac mini or some other Mac we want to connect to a TV or projector.

Monoprice=lower price: Apple sells a $29 Mini DisplayPort to DVI Adapter and a $19 Mini DVI to VGA Adapter (the HDMI version is currently MIA), but as with many things cable-related, Monoprice.com offers alternatives that work just as well for a fraction of the cost. For $7, you can get Monoprice's Mini DisplayPort/Thunderbolt to DVI Adapter, which, in addition to working with every display I've tested it on, also uses a DVI-I connector rather than the DVI-D connector of the Apple-branded adapter. Many DVI cables you'll encounter out in the world are DVI-I, which has four extra pins. The Monoprice adapter can accommodate those pins, while the Apple adapter can't.

Monoprice also sells a $13 Mini DisplayPort/Thunderbolt to VGA Adapter and a $7 Mini DisplayPort/Thunderbolt to HDMI Adapter with Audio Support for connecting to displays, projectors, and TVs that use VGA and HDMI connections, respectively. Perhaps my favorite, however, is the $14 Mini DisplayPort/Thunderbolt to HDMI, DVI & DisplayPort Adapter, which, though a bit bulkier than Monoprice's single-purpose adapters, lets you connect to HDMI, DVI, and full-size DisplayPort displays.

If you have a dual-link-DVI display, you might consider Monoprice's $69 Mini DisplayPort/Thunderbolt + USB to Dual-Link DVI Adapter, which is $30 less than Apple's version. However, I haven't tested that one.

Power strips and blocks

Chances are, you have more than one device that charges through a USB cable. Instead of clogging your wall outlets with bulky USB chargers, you can add a compact charging station that offers both standard outlets and USB-power ports.

Wall power: Targus's $30 Plug-N-Power Charging Station with USB Charging Ports plugs into a standard two-outlet wall plate, covering it completely, and has three AC outlets and two USB-charging ports. The USB ports each supply 2.1 amperes of power for charging iPads, and the unit offers 540 joules of surge protection. If your wall outlet has a center-screw plate, you can attach the Plug-N-Power with a screw for a more-secure installation.

One drawback to the Plug-N-Power is that a bright-green LED bar lights up across the top whenever the unit is receiving power; the light draws attention to the charging station, which is already somewhat bulky. Also, the Plug-N-Power isn't designed for use with the ground-fault circuit interrupter (GFCI) outlets you'll often find in bathrooms and kitchens.

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