On the road: new technology for keeping up with work

Five weeks away from home and the office on a European trip this summer proved a testing time technology-wise – in every sense.

Apart from the trauma of leaving behind my fast broadband connection and quad-core PC, there was the challenge of getting the most out of limited gear as I worked across different countries, all the while communicating with colleagues back in the US.

In spite of carrying international plug converters and a power strip, keeping all my phones, iPods and laptops charged up was a constant battle.

My Dexim P-Flip Power Play dock for my iPod Touch served both as a useful stand and as an extra battery to recharge the device, but I should also have taken along something like the Mophie Juice Pack Air – the world’s thinnest rechargeable external battery, which doubles the iPhone 4’s battery life.

Mophie has yet to develop something similar for my battery-devouring HTC Evo 4G smartphone, but has just launched the Powerstation charging device, aimed at the iPad, the iPhone and at HTC Touch phones. Described as the ideal travel companion, the Powerstation will work for any device that draws its power from a USB port.

The battery also charges itself up via USB, with six LED indicators lighting up one by one to show how fully charged it is. There is a stand-by switch to prevent drainage when it is not in use, along with an in-built short-circuit and overcharge facility, plus temperature protection. With 3,600 milliampere per hour, this device also contains far more power than my Dexim dock, with its 2,000mAh. Mophie claims it also charges up to four times faster than traditional USB batteries, with their speed of 2 amps.

One of the HTC Evo’s best road features is its ability to turn its 3G or 4G connection into a Wi-Fi hot spot. This has allowed me to maintain my laptop’s internet connection while travelling on buses, trains, ferries and cars, and gives iPhone-like connectivity to my iPod Touch. The hotspot feature is part of the latest version of Google’s Android software (2.2), making it available on more phones.

I tried to do as much of my work as possible in the “cloud” while travelling, to avoid spreading it across different devices and memory sticks. This included using Gmail and the Android application GDocs, which allowed me to work on documents and sync them with Google Docs.

GDocs may soon be superseded by Google’s own version of Google Docs for Android phones. The forthcoming service will also allow real-time collaboration between documents and spreadsheets.

I lacked a scanner on my travels, but my phone came to the rescue again when I had to e-mail signed forms. The Document Scanner app from Pwn With Your Phone allowed me to use my phone’s camera to take pictures of documents, crop and rotate them, and then attach them to an e-mail as a PDF, or upload them as a PDF to Google Docs. While not as clear as a regular scanner, the quality was as good as was required.

The camera was also useful for capturing business cards. Evernote acts like a second brain, clipping web pages and storing all kinds of information, whether e-mailed or uploaded by users. Using this app, I took a picture of each business card and shared it with the service. Its optical character-recognition then made the business cards searchable as contacts within its database. Spreading contacts across different services is not ideal, though, and with Evernote’s export features lacking in this area, a portable business-card scanner would have been better.

I have been testing Plustek’s MobileOffice S800 scanner, which is only 10cm long and weighs 70g. It accepted every size of business card I threw at it, and scanned them clearly in greyscale, at 600 dots per inch. The accompanying Cardiris software automatically converted the image to text. I could improve accuracy by changing the orientation of

the image and specifying the location of the card by country. It struggled with business names represented as logos, and I had to type in many of those. The software appears to be three years old and still refers to exporting its information to Outlook Express, now replaced by Windows Live Mail. Exporting did work to the vCard format, and I could then import the cards en masse into Gmail’s contacts, so everything was together.

This is the sort of task you might want to take on at the end of a business trip, though – or, as I did, by paying your 12-year-old son 10 cents a card to do it for you. You could also pay someone else – CloudContacts and Shoeboxed are web-based services that all scan business cards and receipts sent in.

Finally, disaster nearly struck on the last day of my trip when I got a call at the airport to say I had left my notebook, with all my interview notes, at a friend’s house. Luckily, all these interviews were written down in a special notebook provided by Livescribe for my Echo digital pen. Back in the US, I docked the pen with my PC and it uploaded the stored interviews as PDF-style documents of my shorthand pages, which had been captured by the camera in the pen’s nib. Even better, clicking on a word started the audio of the conversation at that point, captured by the pen’s microphone.

In the past, I would have been mortified at losing a notebook, but thought nothing of losing a pen. With today’s technology, the digital pen is now mightier than the written word.

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