Top 10 Laptop Essentials

At last count, there were approximately 65 billion laptop computer accessories available. Okay, so I'm exaggerating. But trust me: There are tons of products aimed at portable-computer users--including a fan that plugs into your laptop's USB port and blows air on you. (I'm not kidding: If you want to be really cool, check out Kensington's FlyFan USB fan.

Not all laptop accessories are quite so superfluous, of course. As the author of PC World's weekly Mobile Computing newsletter, I've probed, prodded, and test-driven many worthwhile portable computing products. Here are the best accessories for your notebook--five for your home or office, and five for when you travel.

For the latest laptop reviews and prices, check out PC World's Top 15 Notebook PCs.

Home and Office: Input With Ease

Why would you need an external keyboard and pointing device when both are built into your laptop? To me, that's like asking why you would need a mattress when you already have box springs.

Typing for more than, say, half an hour on a laptop, especially one with a frustratingly small keyboard, can put undue stress on your neck, shoulders, and wrists. Pretty soon, you'll feel uncomfortable and cramped. And I don't know about you, but I loathe the eraser-head-type pointers typically found on IBM ThinkPads and some other laptops. They make moving the cursor about as efficient as jogging under water. Worst of all, typing on a laptop at length could cause you to develop repetitive strain injuries.

My advice: Raise the notebook's screen and attach an external keyboard and pointing device to avoid having to reach upward to type and click. Position your laptop on a desk so that its screen is just below eye level. That way you won't have to bend your neck to view the screen. For the most comfortable viewing angle, you can raise your laptop with a stack of old phone books or a laptop stand, such as The Plasticsmith's Lapvantage Dome ($80), an adjustable-height swivel stand.

How comfortable a keyboard or pointing device is for you is highly subjective. For instance, I swear by a split keyboard from Lexmark (long since discontinued) that others who have used my computer find absolutely heinous. So it pays to shop around and try out different devices whenever possible.

Kensington, Logitech, and Microsoft offer a good selection of both wired and wireless keyboards and pointing devices. The wired Kensington Comfort Type USB Keyboard (list price: $23) is among the most comfortable and least expensive ergonomic keyboards I've tried. The keys are positioned at a slight angle, which lets you place your fingers in a more natural position when typing.

Wireless keyboards and pointing devices, which connect to your laptop via an infrared or radio connection, are increasingly popular because they reduce cable clutter. If you opt for wireless input devices, consider models that include a battery recharger, such as Kensington's Comfort Type Rechargeable Wireless Optical Desktop, which includes a wireless keyboard and mouse (list price: $118). Otherwise, it's back to the laptop's built-in keyboard and pointing device, unless you have fresh batteries with you when the ones in your wireless devices give out.

As for pointing devices, I prefer trackballs because they don't require gripping, as regular mice do. You can easily position the cursor on your computer screen by using one finger to roll the trackball. As a repetitive strain injury sufferer, I have consistently found trackballs to be the most comfortable pointing device for me to use.

The Kensington Expert Mouse USB/PS2 (list: $128) is my favorite trackball. Its flat, four-button, no-nonsense design makes it delightfully easy to move the trackball, click, and double-click. Some trackballs, such as Kensington's TurboBall ($50), are curved in shape, which I find makes them harder to manipulate.

If you're a mouse devotee, consider the Goldtouch Ergonomic Mouse ($60), which comes in white or black. The contoured shape fits my hand better than other mice I've tried, and the shape keeps me from tensing my hand as much.

For more information about external keyboards and pointing devices for laptops, see "Mobile Computing: Safer Pointing Devices." To read up about healthy computing for your home office, check out "Home Office: Work in Comfort, and Treat Your Body Right." In addition, to help with your purchase decision, check out our advice in "How to Buy Input Devices."

Home and Office: Dock It

In addition to a keyboard and pointing device, most likely you'll want to connect at least a few other peripherals to your laptop, such as a printer. But it's a hassle to unplug all those cords when you take your laptop somewhere. That's why you need a port replicator or docking station.

A typical port replicator contains computer ports, such as USB and ethernet networking ports. You connect your peripherals to the port replicator, which in turn is connected to your laptop. Then, when it's time to take your laptop on the road, you just disconnect it from the port replicator, rather than having to unplug all your peripherals.

A docking station does the same thing, but it usually includes slots for expansion cards, CD/DVD drives, and other devices too. In short, a docking station is designed to turn your laptop into something akin to a full-featured desktop computer, while a port replicator simply makes it more convenient to connect peripherals to your laptop.

Generally speaking, third-party port replicators or docking stations may be less expensive than comparable devices from your laptop vendor. For example, a port replicator for Dell Latitude D-Family notebooks often costs about $200, while the Targus USB Mobile Port Replicator with Ethernet lists for $100.

The downside: It's possible to experience compatibility problems with a third-party port replicator or docking station that your computer vendor can't--or won't--solve.

For more details about port replicators and docking stations, see "Mobile Computing: Port Replicators."

Home and Office: Back It Up

I know PC backup is a boring topic. But if it's thrills you seek, wait until you wake up one morning and your computer doesn't turn on. That's real excitement.

There are lots of ways to back up your hard drive. One of the most convenient options for laptop users is a portable, external hard drive. For example, CMS Products' ABSplus drives for laptops are lightweight (7 ounces) and fully bootable. Along with the Restore CD (included with the product), you can boot from the external ABSplus drive if your laptop's internal drive fails. I'm speaking from experience: The ABSplus drive saved me when my laptop's hard drive unexpectedly bit the dust faster than a character on Six Feet Under. ABSplus comes in 20GB ($279) through 80GB ($499) versions for USB, FireWire, and PC Card slots.

Tip: When traveling, don't pack a portable external hard drive in the same bag as your laptop. If the bag is lost or stolen, you're sunk. For more backup tips, read "Mobile Computing: Backup Strategies for the Road."

Home and Office: Burn and Connect

Call me obsessive, but I believe in having more than one backup option. A DVD burner for your laptop provides not only a second backup device but also an easy way to share large files (such as digital photos) with other computers.

If your laptop didn't come with a DVD burner, don't fret. External models are available. Look for one that supports both DVD-R/RW and DVD+R/RW formats, for maximum compatibility. TDK's External Indi DVD 4X Multiformat (list price: $330) ranks among PC World's Top 10 DVD Drives.

Tip: DVD burners can also copy files onto CDs. And blank CDs are generally less expensive than blank DVDs. So if you're only backing up a few files, burn them onto a CD.

USB Hub

Many desktop computers today come with eight or more USB ports. But because laptops are physically smaller, many only offer just one or two USB ports. It's an easy problem to fix, however, with an external USB hub. A hub usually includes four or more USB ports and connects to one of your laptop's USB ports.

If you plan to travel frequently, or you're short on desk space, consider a compact USB hub. I like the Targus Ultra Mini 4-Port USB Hub ($20), which lights up in blue when the computer it's connected to is on.

Live near a RadioShack? Pick up a USB hub for as little as $15.

Tip: USB hubs work best for connecting devices that don't need much power, such as keyboards, input devices, and personal digital assistants. To work properly, power-hungry devices such as printers and scanners usually need to be connected directly to your computer's USB ports.

Tip: There are two USB versions, USB 2.0 and USB 1.1. The first is a newer, faster version of the second. If you have a laptop with USB 2.0 ports, make sure you don't buy a USB 1.1 hub. Running USB 2.0 devices, such as external hard drives, through a USB 1.1 hub will seriously slow down the device. If your notebook has USB 1.1 ports, you can still use a USB 2.0 hub, though it may cost $10 to $20 more than a USB 1.1 hub.

On the Road: Take It With You

If you plan to leave the house frequently with your laptop, consider a wheeled bag. Depending on how heavy your notebook is, carrying a portable computer in a shoulder-strap bag or backpack can be hard on your body. Also, make sure the bag has plenty of compartments for all your accessories.

A terrific place to shop online for bags is EBags. You can browse by price, brand, material (such as leather), and more. Plus, EBags has a 30-day satisfaction-guaranteed return policy.

I'm particularly fond of the Travelon 14-inch Carry-On with View Thru Panels ($110 at EBags). While it's not technically a laptop bag, it can accommodate most portable computers (except perhaps the big, 17-inch screen giants). Best of all, it rolls easily down airplane aisles, fits under most coach seats for easy access, and has plenty of compartments, including one for a water bottle.

For reviews of laptop bags, go to "Mobile Computing: Hands-On Guide to Notebook Bags."

USB Thumb Drive

Small USB drives are flash memory cards that connect to your computer through its USB port. The devices are usually not much bigger than a key and can store 128MB, 256MB, and more of data. And because they're instantly recognized by Windows XP computers, you don't have to install drivers to use them. All of this makes them essential for quick, easy, on-the-go backup or file exchange.

One standout in particular is Forward Solutions' Migo. In addition to serving as a 256MB file storage device, the Migo ($200) can also store your Outlook e-mail and personal computer settings (such as desktop wallpaper and Internet Explorer favorites). Plug it into another computer, log in, and it's as if you're using your own PC. That's particularly handy for anyone who works on one computer at home and another at the office.

Airplane Power Adapter

Increasingly, airlines are offering power outlets for laptops in coach, business, and first-class cabins. The ports require special adapters, however, and one adapter doesn't necessarily fit all laptops. Airline power adapters usually cost $100 or more, so they're not cheap. Still, if you plan to work often during long flights, an airline power adapter is money well spent.

My favorite is IGo's Juice ($120), a combination AC and automobile notebook power adapter, which can be outfitted with power cables to charge your PDA, cell phone, and laptop from either an airplane or automobile.

For detailed information about the ins and outs of power ports in the sky, see "Mobile Computing: Power Outlets on Airplanes."

On the Road: Go Wireless, Get Insured

You're not really a road warrior until you've surfed the Net at a Wi-Fi hot spot, such as Starbucks, an airport lounge, or a hotel conference room. Many of the latest laptops include built-in chips that make such wireless connectivity possible. If yours doesn't have that capability, you can easily add it with a Wi-Fi card that fits into a laptop's PC Card slot.

The least expensive cards (about $40 and up) are based on the older though still widely used 802.11b wireless network standard. Unless you're planning to connect regularly to high-speed wireless networks (which use the newer, faster, more expensive 802.11a- and 802.11g-based products), an 802.11b card will suit your purposes just fine--and costs less. A Linksys PC Card adapter for 802.11b networks, for instance, costs around $44, compared with the Linksys PC Card dual-band adapter for 802.11a and 802.11g, which starts at around $74.

Laptop Insurance

If you plan to use your laptop primarily in one location, you probably don't need to insure it. But those who travel often with computer in tow should consider protecting their investment.

Why? Because the manufacturer's warranty usually doesn't cover much beyond replacement parts and labor for problems that resulted from typical use. An extended warranty may protect your laptop against breakage but not fire or theft. Your homeowner or renter policy may protect your notebook against fire and theft--but not breakage. So to get the most complete protection, consider insuring your laptop.

Though I'm not a customer, I've heard good things about Safeware. The company specializes in computer insurance, and its policies are underwritten by American Bankers Insurance of Florida, which has an A (excellent) rating. Rates vary depending on where you are and how much insurance you're seeking. One example: California residents who travel primarily in the United States and Canada and want to insure their laptop for $3000 would pay $189 per year.

For the scoop on computer insurance, check out "Mobile Computing: Insuring Your Notebook."

Finally, for more tips on what to pack in your laptop bag, see "Mobile Computing: Notebook Bag Buyers' Guide."

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