- 01 September, 2005 09:03
So you've got your notebook computer and you're ready to take on the world. Problem is, whether you're on the road, in the office, at school or at home; tricky situations can and do arise where the extra functionality of notebook accessories can downright save the day.
There are that many weird and wonderful types of notebook accessories out there from GPS devices and webcams to portable printers and wireless network finders. This guide will give you a clearer picture of what is out there. We will run through no less than 15 key accessory categories that will make your notebook experience a lot fuller.
Of course, most desktop computer accessories will also work on your notebook but for specifically mobile orientated accessories, there are companies to keep in mind from the outset. Certain manufacturers, notably Kensington, Targus and Belkin and American Power Conversion, all specialise in this area so they are great places to begin your search.
Power adaptersPower adapters
The power adapter is one notebook attachment that can easily bring your productivity to a grinding halt -- that is, when you don't have one and your battery life is gone.
Not only can power adapters be lost or left behind, but power outlet compatibility issues can arise when you're travelling overseas.
If you've lost your power supply or need one compatible with an overseas power outlet, your first option is to contact your notebook vendor and buy an official replacement.
For compatibility, you could also buy a small international/universal socket adapter (available quite cheaply from electronic stores like Dick Smith or Jaycar). These normally support Europe and the Middle East's two round pins, the USA, Canada, Japan and Taiwan's two parallel pins, the UK, Singapore, Hong Kong and Africa's three square pins and Australia and New Zealand's two angled pins.
You could even opt for a new cord/plug section for your power pack that's suitable for the country you're in. Just be sure that it will work with your power pack - you might need a two-pronged connector or even a three pronged type.
IMPORTANT: Be aware that Australia uses different electricity ratings compared with much of the rest of the world. Plugging a device designed for Europe, Japan or the USA into an Australian socket can cause that device to short and may even cause injury.
An electrical device/power cable that's designed for Australian standards may work in some overseas countries but is likely to not behave properly and if the appropriate precautions aren't taken, accidents and injury can occur.
Some notebook power supplies (AC adapters) can auto-switch between voltages but make sure you check your adapter (or check with your vendor) to be sure. You may also wish to invest in a surge protector accessory to further protect your investment.
Then there's the situation of losing your power pack or leaving it behind. It is best that you buy a new one from your notebook vendor. We don't recommend that you use a power supply from another notebook even if the ratings match and it can actually connect to your notebook, as this may void your warranty.
If you're really in a tight spot and you've checked your warranty, you could investigate third party power adapters that are designed for specific notebook models. These are usually cheaper to buy than an official replacement but it's always worth comparing the costs.
If you have more than one notebook, you might even want to consider a universal power adapter that's designed to work with most notebook brands by using swappable attachments.
Another way to ensure you're always powered up on the road is to buy a universal car power adapter. These connect to the cigarette lighter in your car or boat's centre console and are usually voltage adjustable and in some cases, compatible with certain airline passenger seats.
Additional sites to begin your search for notebook power solutions include: www.mobilepower.com.au, www.battery-charger.com.au, www.batterymall.com.au, www.expansys.com.au, www.ht.com.au and www.anyware.com.au.
Battery accessoriesBattery accessories
Power adapters are one thing, but it certainly doesn't hurt to have a charged spare battery with you when travelling.
The problem is, spare batteries from the vendor itself usually aren't cheap, especially if they're of the higher capacity 8-12 cell Li-Ion variety. Thankfully, you should be able to buy a third party battery designed for your specific notebook brand and model. These are often cheaper than the official alternative, but make sure you check if it affects your notebook's warranty. Also make sure you check the warranty on the new battery itself: try and get at least a one-year warranty on it rather than six months.
If you are a regular traveler and want to charge multiple backup batteries simultaneously, you might consider a notebook battery charger. These can be useful because you can use them to charge one or two extra batteries whilst charging the main battery using the notebook. You'll have to search the Web to see if there's a battery charger for your brand/model, but Sony and Toshiba notebooks in particular, are well catered for.
Finally, you could also opt for a universal battery pack: either using Li-Ion (Lithium Ion) or the older style Ni-MH (Nickel Metal Hydride). These can be incredibly handy and, as with universal power adapters, are able to work with most notebook brands by using swappable attachments.
Removable storageRemovable storage
There are numerous ways to add better data backup capabilities to your notebook but most are external methods so you'll have even more to carry with you.
However, it's worth noting that if your notebook has a modular (swappable) drive bay, you can buy a new drive (such as a DVD burner) or even a modular second hard disk from your vendor. This is a preferable option as everything stays neatly inside the notebook.
External CD/DVD drives and hard disks: A great way to meet removable and transportable storage needs. They can connect to your PC via PC Card, USB (1.1 or the faster 2.0), FireWire or they might even be a MicroDrive hard disk. You might want to opt for an actual PC Card hard disk, such as those made by Toshiba.
USB thumb drives/flash keys: The rise in popularity of USB thumb drives also known as USB flash keys has pretty much put the final nail in the coffin for the 3.5in floppy disk. This is especially true now that many notebooks can boot from a USB thumb drive if needed. USB thumb drives are available in capacities up to 2GB or more and can also carry user profile information and be used for security and data encryption.
Media card readers: Many notebooks now feature built-in media card readers that are perfect for a variety of uses, such as getting images from your camera into your notebook. Multiple formats are often supported, including Secure Digital (SD), MemoryStick, MultiMediaCard, xD Picture Card, CompactFlash, Smart Media and MicroDrive.
Other: Jaz, Zip, Rev or tape drives that connect via USB, FireWire, parallel port or PC Card still remain options.
Keyboards and miceKeyboards and mice
It's no secret that built-in keyboards on most notebook computers are undersized and can be uncomfortable to use for an extended amount of time. In addition, most notebooks don't feature dedicated number pad keys that can be vital to those working in finance or data entry. The solution comes in the form of external USB or PS/2 keyboards and number pads that are quite portable, and in some cases can even fold up.
Similarly, many users who are new to using notebooks can get frustrated using built-in cursor/mouse control methods. Mini USB mice are the answer here and as with keyboards, they are sometimes available as wireless models using either Wi-Fi or Bluetooth.
Docks and standsDocks and stands
Most brand-name notebook vendors offer docks/port replicators and notebook stands that are specially designed for their models and use a connection underneath the notebook. However, there are also third party products available that may use USB, PC Cards or even FireWire to connect to your notebook.
Docks, port replicators and stands can be used for a variety of purposes. You might like to leave them at your work/study desk where they stay connected to external keyboards, mice, monitors speakers, DVD drives etc. When you're off the road and sitting back down at your desk, you simply connect your notebook into the dock/port replicator or notebook stand and you're ready to continue work in a flash.
Another great benefit delivered by these devices - particularly the ones designed for travelers - is that they can add new port functionality to your notebook that you normally don't have built-in, or simply add more of the ports you do have.
Notebook stands are far more interesting. Dell and HP in particular offer some really classy multimedia and business stands that not only increase the functionality of your computing experience but can also ergonomically elevate your notebook above the desk, almost turning it into a desktop computer. That said, there are some great (and not-so-great quality) third party stands out there - just search the Web, you'll be surprised.
Finally, an emerging type of notebook stand is the lap desk. Lap desks are like little stable tables for your notebook allowing you to have the machine on your lap without it burning your legs or sliding off. Some even have side areas for external mice and DVD drives to sit when plugged in.
Cooling accessoriesCooling accessories
Many cooling accessories for notebooks actually take the form of a basic notebook stand, some with extra ports (see above). Others are more of an underside pad. The focus here is underneath your notebook because this is where heat can become an issue.
Cooling accessories invariably seek to raise the notebook for greater airflow and many go as far as including fans powered by your notebook's USB port.
Speaking of fans, you could go for a plastic USB fan that might cool both the notebook and yourself! However, if staying relatively quiet is equally as important as staying cool, then fan-less coolers, some of which use heat pipe designs may be more of interest.
Cooling accessories aren't all snake oil. They can indeed protect your investment if you live in a hot area or use a heat-prone desktop replacement machine. They can also help prolong your notebook's battery life by reducing the use of its own internal cooling fans (although this might be canceled out if you're powering a six fan cooler over USB!)
Security devicesSecurity devices
Notebook vendors have long switched onto the fact that security is of vital importance to notebook users - whether it's the potentially sensitive data stored inside or the physical security of the notebook itself.
Vendors today employ a whole range of solutions for data security. Almost every notebook these days can be password protected at the BIOS, power-on and operating system-level and business notebooks from Lenovo, HP, Fujitsu and others even feature built-in security chips for on-the-fly encryption.
Other notebook security mechanisms include smartcards (as seen on some Acer and HP notebooks) and biometric protection: from finger print readers to facial recognition. Of course, if your notebook doesn't have such functionality then you can surely add it through a plethora of devices that may use PC Cards, USB, FireWire or even serial ports to connect to your notebook.
USB thumb drives can also be useful for security. Not only can they literally function as keys, but special versions can also encrypt data and even store roaming user profile settings.
Additionally, there are products such as an anti-theft PC Card that feature a built in motion sensor to encrypt any data and shut down your notebook if someone picks it up without entering in the password in a given amount of time.
Prevention of course, is better than the cure so it's important to consider making sure your notebook is physically secure in the first place. You'd be hard pressed these days to find a notebook without a Kensington security slot so there's no excuse! A wide range of locking mechanisms on metal cables are available that lock into the slot with a key and can be secured in a variety of ways. Some screw into a desk (great for schools and the like), others are portable and retractable with combination locks (useful for travelers) while others come with tamper alarms.
Networking accessoriesNetworking accessories
If you've read through this guide from the start, you should be beginning to notice a trend: if your notebook doesn't have it, you can add it yourself. Whether your notebook setup forces you to use USB, FireWire, PC Card, serial port or any other form of connectivity, there is usually always a way!
However, before you explore third party options - don't forget that the simplest route is to always check with the vendor and see if you can get wireless networking or Gigabit Ethernet - whatever it might be, added internally. This is usually the case.
PC Cards are traditionally the most common way to add networking functionality to your notebook, whether you are adding an Ethernet port or modem to an older notebook or wanting to add the latest wireless networking standard. However, due to the size of Ethernet ports, USB keys are increasingly taking over the role of adding Bluetooth, wireless networking, and infra red forms of networking to a notebook.
The advantage of USB keys is that you can also use them with your PC if ever required.
It's also worth mentioning that there are a variety of external modem and Ethernet connection surge protectors on the market that are designed for travelers with notebooks.
Port cablesPort cables
This guide has already mentioned that you can add extra ports to your notebooks via a dock or stand but sometimes you don't really need to go all out.
This is where cables that add only select ports to your notebook can come in handy.
For instance, "Y cables" are like double-adapters in that they allow you to connect two devices into the one port. The best example of this is using a Y cable to connect a PS/2 mouse and keyboard into a sole PS/2 port.
Here are a two examples of solutions to connectivity problems:
Your notebook doesn't have a serial cable and you only have your old serial model, mouse or PDA cradle until you can afford a USB version.
Solution: buy a cheap USB-to-serial adapter/converter cable.
Using the VGA-out port of your notebook to add a second display (complimenting your notebook's built in screen) is straight forward enough but some multimedia producers may need three displays.
Solution: buy a USB attachment that adds a second VGA-out port. These cost around $100.
Other types of adapters include headphone splitters (for two mini jack stereo out ports), USB-to-PS/2 adapters, USB-to-IDE hard disk adapters and more.
The accessories available for USB allow for infinite input/output possibilities.
Carry bagsCarry bags
If you're buying your first notebook computer, you may be pleased to hear that it's quite common (but not a given) for vendors to include a carry bag with your machine. These bags are usually made of leather and are very executive-styled but some others may well be simple in design and made of nylon or some other material.
As good as these bags can be you might want to investigate purchasing a more traveler friendly notebook bag. Such high-end bags can incorporate features like a design specifically intended for easy access including a front pocket, wheels, water proof pockets, more comfortable or multiple carrying methods (straps and handles), room for a change of clothes or external additions such as keyboards and mice and varying warranties (the best of which guarantee a bag's workmanship for life).
External speakersExternal speakers
If you're a multimedia content creator, gamer or just enjoy your music and DVDs when on the road, portable external speakers might be on your shopping list.
Some portable speakers intended for use with notebook computers still use batteries but most are now powered by USB.
The latest models are increasingly getting thinner and lighter and brands to consider include Creative, Kensington and Sony amongst many others.
Data projectorsData projectors
Data projectors are a must have for the boardroom, unless you are happy struggling to wow the meeting by running through that presentation you spent hours on using your 14in notebook monitor. Accordingly, many workplaces now have data projectors that staff can share for pitches, presentations and meetings.
If you're in the market for one, there's a lot of information to take in and that can be found in the Projectors Buying Guide.
However, note that projector prices in Australia continue to fall with some new low-end models being released at around the $1500 mark.
A data projector will usually connect to the VGA-out (monitor out) port of your notebook and you may need to check your notebook's manual for details on how to enable the projector display. On some machines this is as simple as pressing the Fn (function) and F5 keys at the same time.
Display accessoriesDisplay accessories
Your notebook's display is one of its most obvious and prone components. Accordingly there are a variety of lightweight accessories that can clip on to reduce glare, guard from damage or magnify (for the vision impaired).
One product that deserves special mention is 3M's privacy film for notebook computers. The film allows you to see the display like normal when sitting in front of the notebook, but it darkens (not just blurs or distorts) the display when viewed from an angle. This is a perfect accessory to work on sensitive information while you're on a plane, for instance.
Cleaning accessoriesCleaning accessories
Even though new notebooks have smudge-proof or mark resistant casing and others feature lids that can be polished to remove scratches, you're still going to want to clean your investment to keep it looking new.
You shouldn't just use any cleaning product on your notebook. Alcohol-based products in particular can cause discoloration on some notebook chassis' and potentially damage displays.
That's where notebook cleaning and polishing kits -- sometimes purpose made for certain models -- can come in handy to remove dust, marks and in some cases, scratches.
Depending on the kit, you're likely to be able to perform both dry and wet cleaning and receive items like cleaning wipes, microfibre chamois, keyboard brushes and special cleaning solutions.
At a pinch -- a new dry chamois and a low-powered dust buster may still do the trick. Just be careful, turn off the notebook first (and possibly remove the battery) and be particularly cautious around any fan intakes, ports and the fragile display.