Office in a bag: Basic 'musts' for the digital nomad

In the past few months, the dream of the digital nomad lifestyle has really taken flight. You know when major newspapers pick up on a trend, it's reaching the mainstream -- something that Computerworld's own Mike Elgan has been predicting for some time.

Like humanity's original nomads, today's denizens of the open road must carry everything they need. In fact, if you use, say, a ten-inch netbook, it's tempting to think that maybe, just maybe, in addition to a computer, you can cram everything else that makes up a digital office into your shoulder bag or backpack.

And that's exactly what I did. I tracked down a selection of input devices, output devices and peripherals that can fit into a typical computer bag alongside a netbook or even a reasonably-sized (say, a 14.1-inch) laptop. Each device can run on its own power or use whatever it can draw from a USB port. And just in case your trusty laptop bag starts to pop its seams under the load, I also found some bags with the capacity to handle the strain.

Input devices

It is a truth universally acknowledged that mice are better than trackpads, and that's doubly true of the knuckle-crunching contraptions on today's netbooks. Enter the retractable-cord mouse, which uses a flat cord that winds up into a spring-loaded reel. For example, the $26 Targus Laptop Optical Mouse and the $15 Targus Ultra Mini Retractable Optical Mouse are USB 1.1 wheelie mice that look and work the same; the Ultra Mini i just much smaller -- only a whisker over 3 inches long.

Only slightly less widely accepted is the truth that the cord on a regular mouse can get in the way, especially when you're trying to maneuver on a coffee shop table. Consider Logitech's V320 Cordless Optical Mouse ($39) package, which uses a tiny USB transmitter on a 2.4Ghz network to communicate with the nicely designed cordless mouse. The transmitter tucks into the mouse when not in use, a process that turns the mouse's power off.

An even more energy efficient approach comes from the Logitech's $49 V550 Nano, which clips onto your notebook for easy carriage -- and which turns off whenever it's clipped on. The rechargeable Lithium Ion batteries can, Logitech claims, go for six months or more without a charge.

If your work on the road involves entering a lot of numbers, you'll miss the numeric keypad on a proper keyboard. But you don't need to miss it: The Targus Numeric Keypad ($29.95) is a USB keypad complete with NumLock and an enlarged Enter key for your data entry pleasure. And it doesn't even take up a USB port to do it: It doubles as a two-port mini-hub.

Of course, not everyone who needs to bump up their USB port count also needs a numeric keypad. That's why there are hubs aplenty to fit a road warrior's pockets. One of the most elegant offerings I've seen is the matchbox-sized LaCie Core4, from the industrial design legend Sam Hecht. This is a cheap $10 device with three empty USB ports and a built-in miniB cable. The miniB cable has become standard for many digital cameras, Razr phones, TomTom GPSes and a welter of other peripherals; having it built in is very convenient.

If your portable computer is really short of USB ports -- and you have a digital photography jones that just won't quit -- it makes sense to get one unit with multiple USB ports and a multi-format card reader. IoGear's USB 2.0 Hub & Card Reader is just such an animal. This $50 device isn't specifically designed to be portable, but it's no larger than an airport-newsstand paperback book, so it fits the bill. It also draws only 5 volts and 2.6 amps to power its six USB ports and 12-format card reader, so it needs no external power to run.

Scanning

If you're doing field research in an archive or keeping track of receipts for your expense report, there will be times when you need to whip a scanner out and digitize whatever you're looking at. Fortunately, you can. And you have a couple of routes to take: Tiny and pricey and designed for the road, or cheap, designed for the office and whaddayaknow -- it fits in a laptop bag after all.

PlanOn has been making stylus-style hand scanners for several years, and they are a wonder to behold. You lay what looks like an elongated pen at the top of the page, press a button and draw it down the page steadily, keeping an eye on the speed warning light to make sure you don't go too fast. The pen stores the scan until you can plug it via USB into your computer. The PlanOn DocuPen RC805 is $300, capable of 24-bit color scanning at up to 400dpi and comes with PaperPort document management software. Other pen-type scanners out there include the IRISPen and the InfoScan 2.

If your hand isn't all that steady, then you might want to take a look at the NeatReceipts mobile scanner. The 10.6 oz. scanner can handle anything from standard 8.5 x 11-inch documents down to those pesky cab receipts that you always lose. The $200 device is USB-powered, so you don't need to look for an extra power socket, and comes with software that will save your documents to a variety of formats.

If you can't do without a flatbed scanner, then one like the $90 CanoScan LiDE 200 could work as a portable device. It's relatively light (3.6 lbs.), inexpensive and powered entirely by USB -- why not slap it in a bag and take it along? It scans fast even at resolutions up to 4800dpi, and makes PDFs at the press of a button. At 9.9 x 14.4 x 1.6 inches, it's no bigger than a standard widescreen laptop, so it fits in the side pocket of a laptop bag quite tidily. And in field tests, it worked quickly and quietly in the reading room of a library without disturbing (too many of) the patrons.

Output

An office isn't an office without a printer. So an office in a bag needs to have some way of creating hard copy. Once again, the options are to go very small and light or to go a bit larger and heavier. The decider between the two isn't price, as with scanners, but the kind of printing you want to do.

PlanOn PrintStiks are so cool it's almost ridiculous. The PrintStik ps900 is smaller than a five-dollar Subway sandwich, weighs a couple of pounds, and prints on a roll of thermal paper that's tucked away inside the device. It costs $200 ($300 for a Bluetooth-enabled version), and its only consumables are thermal paper rolls, which cost $25 for a three-roll pack. Each roll is capable of printing about 30 letter-sized pages, or somewhat more if you print partial pages.

If you like your printouts sharper than something that uses the same technology as a cash register receipts, give the HP Officejet H470 a whirl. At around five pounds with a Lithium-Ion battery pack, it's bulkier and more than three times as big as the PrintStik. Its output won't win any prizes next to a desk-based inkjet, but it's certainly going to look better and last longer than thermal roll prints (which, like receipts from WalMart, will turn black if you leave them in the car dashboard on a summer's day).

Anything small enough to slip into a carry-on is going to cost more and compromise somewhere, but at around $249 for 1200 dpi color printing, the price of the H470 isn't too painful. And it can handle volume print jobs on the road using battery power and optional Bluetooth connectivity, which is nothing to sneer at.

Portable storage

No traditional office can hope to exist without file space and plenty of duplicates, and no office in a bag can survive without, say, half a terabyte of external storage. Trust me on this one. For one thing, you'll want an adequate backup of your notebook and any desktops you may still have at home base. And when you're on the road, you'll want loads of music and videos to keep you entertained.

The two obvious portable storage options are Western Digital's My Passport Essential line and Seagate's FreeAgent Go drives. Both are designed to be portable, with small form factors and USB-powered operation.

FreeAgent Go drives list from 160GB for $90 up to 640GB for $180. My Passport Essential leaps from $90 for 250GB up to 750GB for $200.

In both cases, financially as well as philosophically, higher capacity drives make more sense. No matter how much you think is too much, by the time you've archived your e-mail, documents and hours of raw video footage from your vacations, you're going to run out eventually.

One bag to hold them all

Of course, carrying all this in a single bag means the bag has to have some strength and capacity. There are a whole slew of laptop bags, messenger bags and backpacks out there to fit your color and style taste -- and your need for gadgets.

In my quest for chiropractic alignment while hauling an office-ful of equipment, I've found a design that works quite well for me. It also makes airline security lines a little less wearing. The Targus Zip-Thru Air Traveler line is designed to fit notebooks from 15 to 17 inches by providing a padded pocket that zips down so it can be scanned by airport security without taking it out of the bag.

The $100 Zip-Thru Air Traveler provides enough capacity to fit a full-sized scanner as well as a full-sized laptop, and it's a remarkably comfy load for such an ordinary-looking case. It features a strap that fits crosswise around the bag's central pocket, which distributes the weight in such a way that it's easy on the shoulder, and there's a little elastic in Targus' shoulder straps that cushions the impact of gravity on your shoulder. All in all, it's a winning combination.

Laptop bags aren't everyone's style. Some people prefer a funkier look to their totes, and for that, a messenger bag fits the bill better. Tom Bihn's Ego line tackles this nicely, and its Super Ego messenger bag ($150) has the kind of monster capacity that makes for an ideal office-in-a-bag, um, bag. It's big, roomy and offbeat -- if that's your style, it's a good match.

Backpacks are another style that works for lugging your workplace around town, especially if you want to distribute all that weight between both shoulders. Skooba Designs has this field covered nicely with its Skooba Shuttle Laptop Backpack, which accommodates notebooks up to 17 inches. At press time, this line was heavily discounted from its $140 list price and available in black/blue and olive/red color combos.

Matt Lake has been covering portable technology for two decades, and qualifies "portable" as "anything I can carry in a bag." He's currently lugging a messenger bag large enough to carry a Newfoundland dog.

This story, "Office in a bag: Basic 'musts' for the digital nomad" was originally published by Computerworld.

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