Like many executives, Joseph Muscari spends a considerable amount of time on the road — the CFO of Alcoa Inc. made nine trips to China alone last year.
And in true road-warrior fashion, he does not travel light when it comes to electronics. Standard components of his arsenal include a Lenovo ThinkPad X40, a BlackBerry 7230, and a Motorola RAZR GPS cell phone. Muscari also takes along a lesser-known device, a fairly low-tech sheet of black plastic called the Privacy Filter. The 3M-designed screen, which attaches to the display of Muscari's notebook computer, prevents bystanders from stealing a glimpse of whatever he may be working on. Like many companies, Alcoa goes to great lengths to keep digital data secure, yet, as Muscari notes, "Something as simple as somebody looking over your shoulder could cause a problem."
Muscari has touted the virtues of the Privacy Filter to Alcoa's CEO and finance staffers. It's simple, reliable, and solves a very real problem. Those became our guiding principles as we assembled this look at new technologies that help executives stay productive no matter where they may be. Cool has its place, but when you've been on the road so long that you no longer remember what time zone you're in, what you value most is reliability.
So the technology editors at CFO have zeroed in on well-designed products that more than carry their own weight. Some are cutting-edge, others are mainstream or should be. Wide availability, ease of use, value, and effectiveness were our top criteria. Most of these products are wireless, and some don't even require power cords. All of them can help make business travel vastly more bearable and even — dare we say it? — fun. Or substantially less painful, which is the business-travel equivalent.
Do-It-All Devices for the No-Time-Off Set
Now that Research in Motion has seemingly put its legal troubles behind it, the company can get back to making innovative PDAs. Its latest, the BlackBerry 8700c, is a great example of how far the multifunction "smart phone" has come. This nifty device, sold at Cingular Wireless stores for around $299 (plus the obligatory two-year activation fee), lets you talk, check E-mail, browse the Web, check your calendar and address book, and plenty more. The 35-key, backlit, QWERTY keyboard is reasonably big, and the 2.5-inch screen is bright, clear, and adjusts to ambient lighting. It seems tailored to the hard-working finance executive: Excel files can now be displayed as spreadsheets, and there is a notable dearth of preloaded games.
The Samsung SCH-i730 also exhibits some real design smarts. For starters, the keyboard slides out from the bottom of the phone, reducing the carrying size of the unit. It's also lightning fast and ships with Windows Mobile 2003 (second edition). Hence, the Samsung smart phone runs Pocket versions of Word and Excel. In addition, the Samsung phone comes equipped with a cavalcade of communication tools, including Wi-Fi and EV-DO cellular data (from Verizon Wireless). All this connectivity comes at a price, however. The i730 costs $450 (with a two-year service contract from Verizon).
More thrifty types may prefer the Palm Treo 650, which is priced at $249 if you sign on for a two-year service contract with a wireless carrier. We've always liked Treos, particularly the Palm OS, and this one is no different. The CDMA phone comes with a decent keyboard and a much-improved screen. The swappable battery is another plus. And while the Palm doesn't come with integrated Wi-Fi capabilities, it does feature infrared and Bluetooth ports. Oddly lacking is a standard headphone jack or the inclusion of an adapter — you have to shell out $5 to $10 for one, a low-rent move for a device that retails for $600 without a service contract.
RIM BlackBerry 8700c
Price: Around $299 (with Cingular 2-year plan)
What you get: 16 MB installed RAM, 64 MB flash memory, RIM OS, Bluetooth, quad-band support, 4.7 ounces
Price: $450 (with Verizon 2-year plan)
What you get: 64 MB installed RAM, 128 MB flash memory, Microsoft Windows for Mobile Pocket PC (2003 Second Edition), Bluetooth, IrDA, Wi-Fi, EV-DO, 6.5 ounces
Palm Treo 650
Price: $249 (with 2-year plan); $600 retail
What you get: 23 MB flash memory, Palm OS 5.4, Bluetooth, IrDA, MP3 player, dual-band or quad-band option, Avvenu remote-access software, 6.3 ounces
The Planet's Smallest Juice Machine
Cell-phone makers love to pile on new features, but all that souping up comes at a cost: battery life. A big color screen, camera, and streaming video will have you plugging in the recharger more often than you call ahead for take-out.
Advances in power storage may eventually lessen the problem, but until then, we'll continue to carry a Turbo Charge TC1012 from Voxred International. About the size of a tube of Chap-Stick, this gadget holds an AA battery and provides enough juice to keep a cell phone running for about 2 hours (40 hours when in standby mode). The blue light tells you it's charging. We like blue lights.
Turbo Charge TC1012
What you get: Carrying case, battery, and 8 adapters
Lighten the Trip (Fantastic!) Without Breaking the Bank
There was a time when our insistence that laptop buyers keep the price below $2,500 earned us a lot of guff from techies. But as the price/performance curves rolls on, we find ourselves lowering the bar yet again. In winnowing the choices down to three machines priced below $2,000 (depending on options), we faced many tough choices. The Fujitsu LifeBook T4020D ($1,999) didn't make the cut, but it's a fine computer for those looking for a laptop that doubles as a tablet PC. Likewise, Lenovo's new Thinkpad X60s is a topnotch ultraportable, but it tops $2,400, and that hard fact clashes with our innate frugality.
There are plenty of options at our lower price point, but three models stand out. The HP Compaq nc6320 weighs just north of six pounds yet is eminently totable. The large box boasts a 15-inch SXGA+ screen and integrated wireless capabilities such as Verizon's mobile broadbandlike access to the Net (for a $79.99 monthly fee). Granted, the battery life on the nc6320 could be better, and the too-distant touchpad is suitable only for concert pianists and chimpanzees. (We'd like to see that ad campaign.) But the nc6320 is a true desktop replacement that's brimming with road-friendly features like a built-in finger sensor for biometric logins. Omit some of the bells and whistles and the price for a decently configured system drops to a mere $1,449.
The Dell Latitude D410 is actually two computers. The 3.9-pound unit features an optional media base that, once connected, turns this ultraportable into a full-featured (and full-figured) computer, complete with DVD burner. That add-on increases the price by nearly $300, brings the total weight to well over 5 pounds, and adds potentially unwelcome bulk. Leave the media base behind and the Latitude's small footprint, 12.1-inch screen, and four-hour battery life make it ideal for stuck-in-transit, stuck-in-coach computing. And unlike some other ham-fisted reviewers, we love the keyboard.
The Sony VAIO VGN-SZ160P, at 3.7 pounds, is the lightest of our three favorites. Unlike the Latitude, the Sony boasts an integrated optical drive and Intel Core Duo chip. Intel's latest helps boost performance while reducing battery consumption — a neat feat.
Not surprisingly, the 13.3-inch WXGA screen is about the best we've seen, bright and razor sharp. We particularly liked the memory stick reader and the built-in camera for video conferencing. Less appealing are the relatively steep price ($2,299, although a stripped-down version can be had for $1,799), slow boot time, and a power-management program that forces you to restart the computer after changing settings. Still, the SZ160P offers an impressive blend of power and portability.
HP Compaq nc6320
What you get: 1.83 GHz, 60 GB hard drive, 1 GB RAM, 15-inch SXGA+ WVA display, double-layer DVD burner, 802.11 a/b/g, integrated Bluetooth, 6.06 pounds
Dell Latitude D410
Price: $1,942 (including media base)
What you get: 1.73 GHz, 60 GB hard drive, 512 MB RAM, 12.1-inch XGA display, DVD burner, 802.11b/g WLAN miniPCI card, 3.9 pounds (with battery, undocked)
Sony VAIO VGN-SZ160P
What you get: 1.83 GHz, 1 GB RAM, 13.3-inch WXGA display, DVD burner, integrated Bluetooth and camera, 3.7 pounds
A would-be corporate spy could do worse than simply cock an eye toward a fellow traveler on a plane or train. Our own daily journey from Connecticut to New York has acquainted us with the details of several planned acquisitions and two potential class-action lawsuits, and we aren't even trying.
3M, the company that brought you Post-it Notes, has come out with a product that puts an end to all that visual eavesdropping. Called the Privacy Filter, the black-tinted plastic rectangle slides over the display of a notebook computer and attaches via adhesive tabs.
Once the Privacy Filter is in place, the only person who can actually read the screen is the person sitting directly in front of it. It's not totally low-tech — 3M says "patented microlouver technology" is at work. We wish that was augmented by a better way of attaching the device than the stick-on plastic tabs, which don't stick and don't stay on. Once we found one in our Waldorf salad. But our data was safe, which prevented real indigestion.
3M Privacy Filter
Price: $85 and up
What you get: Filter, attachment tabs
A Pint-sized PC That Punches above Its Weight
Even if your notebook computer never leaves your side, odds are good you have a home computer as well. After all, your spouse and kids need Web access, and all those viruses, Trojan horses, and spyware need a place to call home. If that malware has brought the time/space continuum to a standstill at your house, there's good news. PCs are real cheap right now. In fact, you can purchase a fairly robust home computer for $500 or less. The Dell Dimension E310, Sony VAIO VGC-RB38G, and eMachines T6528 all fit that bill.
Our pick, though, is the HP Pavilion Slimline S7420n. This diminutive desktop is one third the size of other budget PCs, but still packs plenty of wallop. Match it with a small monitor and use it in the kitchen, or choose a big monitor and quality speakers and make it the hub of an impressive home office. The Pavilion comes equipped with a 1.7 GHz Pentium M processor, a capacious 250 GB hard drive, a full gigabyte of memory, and a double-layer DVD burner. There are lots of ports for connecting pretty much anything you may have in your home technology arsenal, and it also sports a nine-in-one media reader on the front of the machine. Most budget PCs don't. And all this can be had for less than $700.
The drawbacks? The shrunken footprint comes with a shrunken software bundle. And despite how it may be displayed or pictured online, the unit must be laid flat, not positioned as a tower (otherwise the DVD player goes all wonky). The slim design also offers a slim-to-none chance to do any post-purchase upgrades, but who cares? At these prices, it's easier to just buy a new one.
HP Pavilion Slimline S7420n
Price: $679 (with rebate)
What you get (without monitor): 1.7 GHz processor, 250 GB hard drive, 1 GB RAM, DVD dual layer +/-R/RW
Roam Wasn't Built in a Day
These days, remote Internet access is commonplace. Work, we are told in TV commercials, is now conducted at sidewalk cafés, as you enjoy frothy French coffee, clever conversation, and maybe a string quartet.
In reality, it often means trudging down to the rumpus room to check your E-mail. It's cold down there, and once you saw a spider the size of a dessert plate.
There is a happy medium between that sidewalk café and your woefully underfurnished rumpus room. With a wireless router, you can access the Web from any spot in your house. There's a huge range of home routers on the market, from the pricey-but-swift Netgear WPNT834 RangeMax 240 ($179.85) to the solid Belkin 54g Wireless Cable/DSL Gateway Router ($39.95). Our choice is the Linksys WKPC54G. It's a good value: not overly crammed with cutting-edge features but not overly pricey either.
It's an all-in-one kit that includes both a router and a Wireless-G adapter that plugs into your notebook's PC card slot. You simply supply a broadband Internet connection (DSL or cable). Granted, some routers are so complex to set up that they should be contraindicated for anyone with high blood pressure. Linksys's WKPC54G comes with a self-setup button intended to simplify things. (If only that extended to online help. The "Easy Answers" section on the Linksys Website runs a full 26 pages. The "Hard Answers" section is just 2 pages, but requires a Ph.D. in physics and a working knowledge of mass spectrometry.)
What you get: Router, adapter, setup software, cables
You Can Hitch a Lot of Data to This Thumb Drive
Whether you call them thumb drives, keychain drives, jump drives, flash drives, or pen drives, these little wonders show just how far storage technology has come. Measuring about 3 inches by 1 inch (or roughly the size of a thumb), these handy memory sticks hold anywhere from 32 megabytes to 10 gigabytes of data. If you find yourself in possession of a large stock of 3.5-inch floppies or Zip disks, now might be a good time to unload them.
Thumb drives plug into a computer's USB port and provide an ideal way to move or back up files. Several vendors sell the mini-marvels, including SanDisk, Lexar, and Memorex. Our favorite is Kingston's DataTraveler Elite. Available in a range of sizes up to 4GB ($35 to $250), it comes with a nifty software program called MyTraveler that enables you to move files directly on or off the drive without having to click on "My Computer" to locate the thumb-drive icon. It also offers excellent security via an encryption function.
Kingston DataTraveler Elite
Price: $35 to $250
What you get: Drive, MyTraveler software
Portable Media Players
All work and no play makes Jack a great employee — until he shows up at the office wearing a tutu and a stovepipe hat. The truth is, learning how to handle work-related stress is vital for the emotional health of any worker, and few things pile on the stress like business travel. Long hours in cramped seats, screaming infants, bad food — and that's before you even get to the airport. In-transit diversions are required, and as with everything else associated with air travel today, plan on supplying your own.
The Apple iPod is now almost as de rigueur as a cell phone. The fifth-generation 30-gigabyte version ($299) can hold 7,500 songs, not to mention audio books, photos, and video. We even know one executive who used his iPod to give a PowerPoint presentation when his laptop died. Of course, you can do some of these things with the less expensive iPod Shuffle or iPod Nano, but the Shuffle lacks muscle (no screen and few user controls) and the Nano needs coddling (read: it breaks a lot and is so small it's easy to lose). For zoning out on a long flight, we'll stick with the original.
Likewise, the Panasonic DVD-LS91 comes in handy for any executive facing a 20-hour trek to, say, Taipei. The bright nine-inch display, one of the best we've seen on a portable DVD player, tilts and slides forward, and the audio is excellent. In addition, the controls are logically laid out, nixing the need for a remote, and dual headphone jacks enable you to share the experience, assuming you and your companion can agree on what to watch.
Two caveats: small print tends to blur on screen (bad for subtitles), and you're not likely to get 6 hours of play from one charge, as claimed. Four hours seems the limit — unless you lower the display's brightness level considerably. Still, the Panasonic player is a great value at $299. What's more, the LS91 can be plugged in to a TV set. Executives tired of shelling out $16.99 for in-room movies will undoubtedly see the value in that.
Price: $299 to $399
What you get: 2.5-inch color display, 30GB and 60GB versions, rechargeable battery lasting 14 to 20 hours depending on model and usage, earbuds, cables, dock adapter, case, and iTunes software CD. Supports video and photo viewing.
What you get: Car charger, AC adapter, rechargeable battery (4-to-6-hour run time), A/V cords for play on an external monitor, remote control. Supports MP3, JPEG, DVD +R, DVD +RW, DVD -R, DVD -RW, DVD-RAM, and other formats.
John Goff is technology editor of CFO.