Tech Tips #5 - 12+ Must-Have Extras for the Notebook Enthusiast

I must admit something - I really love notebooks. I guess you already knew that. Ideally, I haven't touched a desktop PC in close to 10 years. I've been using notebooks constantly since the days when Windows XP first went on sale, and we all know how long ago that was. But being the mobile freak/geek/enthusiast I am, and using notebooks so extensively, I have also learned that notebooks alone don't always cut it. In my last post, I highlight 10 major factors in favor of desktops over notebooks, reasons alone that may indeed impact my next hardware purchase. But let's ignore the desktop for the moment and keep the focus on notebooks.

By themselves, notebooks are indeed very capable at getting the majority of PC tasks done, putting everything one would expect into a compact chassis. You get the keyboard, trackpad, optical drive, connection ports, wireless, audio system, display and a host of other hardware to get you working.

But what happens when that hardware isn't enough? What happens when, despite it's portability, you find you're making compromises when using your notebook? Can using specially-designed notebook accessories enhance your productivity and make your notebook more capable? The quick and dirty answer is "Yes".

Below I've put together a list of over a dozen essential items I've found greatly enhance notebook usage and boost productivity. In addition, these are items enthusiasts will greatly appreciate as they bring out the maximum potential of the notebook hardware both at home and on the go.

1. Get a case for it

For a device considered portable and designed for mobile use, it seems a no-brainer that you would want to put your notebook in a case while carrying it around. Not only does it protect the notebook from damage, dents and scratches, but it gives you room to store any extra gear you may have. An over-the-shoulder messenger bag will keep both your hands free, while a backpack or roller-case will save your back if you're carrying a heavier load.

Business users in particular who already carry an attache for work files but also need to bring a notebook along will appreciate the newer notebook cases that include compartments for business files and work gear. While being extremely versatile, they also save you from carrying two separate cases - a factor for carry-ons when flying.

2. Invest in a mouse/trackball

Many users moving from desktops to notebook may not be immediately comfortable with using a track pad or track stick. Even if it meets your needs, you may find that using a mouse or trackball greatly increases your comfort and allows you to do your work better. Wireless mice in particular are extremely well suited for notebook use as they eliminate the cord allowing true mobile freedom. And while mice still need a flat surface to work on, a trackball does not, and can be used on those tightly spaced tables where you may not have room for a mouse to move around.

In my case, my notebook was so warm that the heat on the track pad became uncomfortable for my finger tips. I also did not have room for a mouse as my notebook stand is rather small. In addition, my stand is also slanted so any mouse would roll off. I've been happily using a Logitech Trackman wheel trackball for years paired with one of those sticky pads - it has grown to my hand so much I would today be seriously handicapped without it.

3. Expand your storage

Notebook hard drives only go so far, and at one point or another you will either be thinking of replacing your notebook drive for a larger one or buying an external drive. If you can do the former, that's great, but you should still invest in a second external drive. In addition to boosting your storage, an external drive lets you back up your notebook and save any important stuff lest you loose your notebook. I've been using a 750GB USB 2.0 and 320GB firewire 3.5" drive for many years, but I would today pick an eSata model for maximum throughput and quicker full-system backups.

Those 2.5" USB pocket drives? If you're mobile, these will work without an AC adapter and are more shock-resistant. They don't have the capacity of 3.5" drives though and the $/GB price is about 25% higher. Still, if you need access to lots of data on the move, 2.5" drives can't be beat.

And while we're at it, you might want to boost the RAM in your notebook as well. 2GB for netbooks and 4GB for Vista 64 notebooks is the minimum you should be working with.

4. The value of an external burner

About two years after I bought my current notebook the DVD burner inside became inoperable. Replacing it with a factory identical would have cost me over $160, and finding a better-featured slimline that was faster was pretty-much impossible. My decision was to leave it alone and buy an external 5.25" half-height USB DVD burner for around $100 less. My Sony DRU-820A burns discs much faster than any slimline burner at the time could do, and also burns dual-layer discs that my original drive couldn't. In the years I've had it I have burned well over 250 discs, and not once ended up with a coaster. It's difficult to say how reliable slimline burners are, but from my experience the full-size external burners will perform better and last longer.

In addition, when I purchased my netbook last year the external burner became a huge hit when it came to installing software and making recovery discs. OS installs also work best from disc, making it a requirement if you decide to change or experiment with a new operating system, or need to restore a factory image from disc.

Even with a working notebook drive, an external burner doubles your flexibility. Disc copies can be made easier with two optical drives. If you have a game that requires you to insert a disc every time you can still keep that second drive free for burning. External burners will even work well with desktops, putting the drive right where you work, instead of hunting for it under a desk.

5. Using a separate keyboard and monitor

Every desktop keyboard comes with a number pad, but very few notebooks do. This may sound crazy, but my decision to go with my current 17" notebook was the inclusion of that numpad. It's something I use frequently. When looking at the HP dv4t recently, I quickly realized how frustrating it was not having it. You may not make a big deal out of it, but once you get into spreadsheets, punch numbers in daily or enjoy flight simulators, the lack of a number pad will become very evident very quickly.

Fear not, it's quite simple to plug in a desktop keyboard into any notebook and give you back that full-size typing comfort alongside the standard 4-column numpad and isolated, inverted-T cursor keys. This is especially handy for smaller notebooks and netbooks that often have very cramped keyboards with missing keys or use a non-standard layout. While using a separate full-size keyboard is obviously something I would not recommend when mobile, it makes plenty of sense if you use your notebook at a desk for the majority of the day.

With that same argument comes the need to connect to a separate monitor. Even if you're happy with your notebooks display, connecting a second monitor allows you to expand the desktop and view more content. You have the ability to move up to a bigger screen with higher resolution, something you may dearly miss when using a smaller notebook or netbook. Depending on how you work, a second monitor can also boost your productivity by allowing you to keep open windows you might otherwise minimize, run multiple applications easier and allow you to view more information at once.

One thing to keep in mind is that notebook graphics do limit how big a monitor you can go with. If your dream is to work in 2560x1600 on that 30" S-IPS display connected to nothing but your svelte netbook, you are in for a disappointment. Check what kind of graphics ports your notebook has, along with the maximum resolution your GPU can support for dual and external display.

6. How a dedicated docking station can transform a notebook entirely

One of the great things I like about the HP dv4t is the optional docking station HP has available. This single, stylish accessory takes the place of multiple others and can turn a notebook into a full-featured desktop, all with just a single connection. This solution provides a slanted dock for better viewing of the notebook display, a tilting stand so that you can close the lid when using an external monitor, a pair of 2.1 built-in speakers for enhanced sound and includes a wireless full-size keyboard and mouse. In addition, the dock features a full set of connection ports and has a removable hot-swap 3.5" hard drive bay for adding up to 2TB of extra storage.

Forget the term "desktop replacement" - with a standard mouse and full-size keyboard, one or two 24" desktop monitors, 2TB of storage and your external burner, the compact 14" notebook is now a full-blown desktop, with capabilities that now rival a much larger notebook. For those that appreciate desktop functionality but want the ability to still grab and take what they're working on, a full docking station is the no-compromise solution.

If your notebook doesn't have a docking station option though, the least you should do is invest in a powered USB hub. Such a device will let you connect your printer, external burner, spare hard drive and sync your smartphone/mediaplayer using just a single cable. This is especially useful for netbooks as they may only have just two USB ports available for accessories.

7. Why you don't need to be an audiophile to look like one

Back in the day, I knew more about audio then those who could legally drink and drive. You could ask me anything - frequency response, dynamic range, signal-to-noise ratio, sampling frequency. I knew the specs for every new device in my head before the stores even had it on the shelf. I was a hard-core audiophile with my daily weapons being a Technics turntable, parametric equalizer and, courtesy of some kind friends in Japan, a portable SCMS-free DAT recorder. Sure, I had good speakers and headphones too, but that was to bring the best out of my source material on the equipment I had.

Today's notebooks (well even netbooks) can cram together everything I had in my hifi rack back then. I in fact use Cool Edit Pro regularly for digital mastering/remastering and A/D D/A conversion. The fact that I can do all this on an 8.9" netbook and take it around with me is simply awesome. When I examined the HP dv4t notebook I was adamantly disappointed by the sound quality coming from the speakers. For many years now, I've been used to listening to much better sound from a much older notebook. It's a shame that sound quality has taken a back seat in notebook component priority, even on $3000+ premium notebooks, but it's not something that needs to be sacrificed, hence a good pair of speakers and/or headphones.

Saving my neighbors from a 9-speaker 1400-watt onslaught, that latter choice for me went with a pair of Sony XB700 headphones I purchased earlier this year. They are literally cans on the side of your head strapped together with a wide band, making for an appearance reminiscent of an aircraft ground-controller. But funky appearances aside, the sound quality they provide is uncompromised, and turn any notebook music/movie session into something you truly have to experience to believe. The same home-quality hifi sound can now be had on the go, any time, anywhere, and with netbooks perfectly capable of pushing 720p HD video, you have a personal movie-watching experience better than you find in any modern cinema. Of course, Sony also has comparable, smaller headphones, if you want to avoid people looking at you like "you can't hear a damn thing". Dare to wear your cans in public!

8. Juice, juice and more juice

The very first thing I buy for my notebooks/netbooks is a second battery. AC adapters are great to take along, but they're no help to you when your battery dies while you're sitting on that isolated stretch of beach half a mile away from civilization. Swapping in a second, charged battery always saves the day for me and has never let me down. If the notebook model offers a high-capacity battery, then I order it with two of those.

Is having an AC adapter with you wrong though? Not necessarily. Keeping a second one in my bag doesn't take up much room or weight, and it's not uncommon to keep your original adapter at home or work and avoid bumping your head every week. But a smarter option when buying that second AC adapter is one that doubles as an auto/air adapter for when you are on the road or in-flight. Even with two batteries, you could be sitting in the departure lounge for over an hour, the flight could be delayed or you spend another hour out of the airport in a cab. Now how handy will it be when you can plug your notebook into that cab's 12v and keep on working after the flight? Save yourself from being one of those poor souls sitting on the floor next to an outlet.

And speaking of outlets, you should invest in a UPS. Not for the notebook, no, but for the external burner, external hard drive, router, DSL modem, printer, or whatever else you happen to be using when the power goes out. Unless you're on dial-up, internet connection goes down when the power goes down - I found that out the hard way. But with a UPS, you can save your high-speed connection, keep on burning your DVD, finish that backup job, still receive your faxes and get that last page out of your printer. Remember also, you don't know for how long the power may be out. But even in the worst case, with the help of a UPS you can finish up your work temporarily and shut down safely.

9. Maximizing your wireless potential

If you haven't already gotten one by now, you should really have a wireless router. Not only does it take advantage of your notebook's wireless capability, but it will let you share your high-speed connection with your other computers in the house. In addition, a router can also act as a hardware firewall, protecting your computers from internet attacks and concealing the IP address for each connected PC. And since most routers come built-in with a multi-port switch, you can also connect network-attached storage, and share that with your connected PC's and Macs. Finally, if you have a pocket PC (or two) lying around, a wireless router can breath new life into something you can carry around in your hand instead of your heavier notebook.

Again, the wireless radio is probably the most-used feature in portable devices today, thanks in part to increasing internet usage and plenty of coverage. That's why it becomes even more important for notebook users to take advantage of what's available, especially when away from home and going mobile. Wifi hotspots can be found in virtually every establishment with a table, and where there isn't, 3G coverage will serve you instead. What are the best ways to take advantage of both? Let me recommend two useful tools.

Roaming on wifi may be something completely free already for folks with a wireless phone. My T-Mobile account gives me free wifi access at many places while my home DSL account also provides wifi access on AT&T's network. Therein lies the problem though - multiple network operators competing to get different locations. Ideally what you want is access to any wifi network wherever you find it with a single account. Your best way of doing that is signing up with a 3rd party hotspot provider that has agreements with multiple carriers. A friend of mine recently tried out Boingo Wireless service. At just $9.95/month, it offers you unlimited (no caps) usage at thousands of locations. Just download the Boingo software onto your notebook or netbook, create an account and begin using the service. Anywhere your notebook picks up a wifi signal, the Boingo software will identify if it's a Boingo hotspot, and prompt you to log in.

The flexibility of getting fast internet on the go at so many convenient locations is the immediate attraction of Boingo, and at less than $10 anybody can afford it. Coffee shops, bookstores, malls, libraries, hotels, restaurants, airports, convention centers... wherever you go it makes sense to take advantage of it. Since it's unlimited, you don't need to be afraid of those big windows updates either, and can stream/download larger files with confidence, without being hit with those overage charges the big guys like to murder users every month.

For folks that may need internet access outside Boingo hotspots, 3G is a compelling alternative as it is just as fast and has better coverage. But 3G is something that is also tied to a particular device, be it a smartphone or one of those USB sticks. You may not be able to tether your device to your notebook for 3G access, or find it a nuisance to carry around a USB modem with your netbook/notebook. In the worst case, you may even damage your equipment with the USB device hanging out (yes, accidents happen), requiring an expensive repair.

Another friend of mine (seems I have so many lately), recently dumped his USB modem and replaced it with a Verizon MiFi. The MiFi is a small, battery-powered credit-card sized device that turns a 3G signal into wifi, essentially creating a personal hotspot around you. Once you configure your netbook/notebook/smartphone and enter the access key, getting online is as simple as pressing one button on the wifi.

This convenience factor is simply immense, as is the flexibility of letting up to 5 devices share the hotspot at one time, giving your multiple devices simultaneous access, or allow you to invite a friend. This is great when you are in a vehicle with folks and each needs to get online, or you travel with a netbook/smartphone, have a notebook at home, and want a device that lets you get online with any of them on the road quickly. Indeed, if you change devices frequently, the MiFi is the broadband access device for you.

10. Getting the most out of Windows Home Server

Many folks may have already heard of Windows Home Server and are somewhat aware of it's features. What many don't know though is that WHS can help you out big-time when you are away from home with a notebook. Automatic backups at home are great, but it's what WHS can do remotely that truly bring out the best of that little box in the living room, and your notebook on the go.

Got gobs of media that can't fit on your 8GB iPhone? Sure, you can fit 500GB on a netbook, or take along a spare 2.5" drive. You may even have 1TB available on your notebook. But do you really want to carry all your media with you all the time on every device? What if you need your hard drive space for applications/games or your movie collection is so big it won't even fit on a single drive? WHS remote streaming is the answer! With remote streaming WHS can feed your media to your device over any wifi or broadband connection no matter where you are. Enjoy your music collection over your iPhone via 3G, while your device has free room for all those cool apps. Similarly, you can enjoy your mountain of movies on your netbook, and still take advantage of that limited-capacity SSD to boot your system in a pinch. And it's as easy as hitting up a website on your browser.

Need to access work files and data you have at home with your notebook on the go? Remote access not only gives you this, but lets you control your desktop much the same as if you were sitting at home. Connect with your HTPC and stream your favorite TV shows that you've recorder earlier and watch them at your schedule, without a notebook TV tuner. Tap into applications you use that require quad-core processing and work remotely. And instead of saving important files on your notebook and risk it being stolen, save your files to your home PC.

Windows Home Server has capabilities that bring out the most from your notebook, at home, and especially while on the go. But the best part is you can download the WHS OS from Microsoft yourself and try it for free for 120 days. It's system requirements are so lean that even an old P3 or P4 desktop can be used to host your server. Don't have an old box lying around? New systems can be had for less than $300. It's definitely worth a try, and may just turn your notebook or netbook into the most powerful mobile tool you've ever owned.

11. Don't be a victim of the tech-unfriendly hotel room

Folks who travel regularly know the drill - every hotel room begins to look the same after a while. There's most likely a bed in there somewhere, a bathroom, mini-bar, TV and a small desk with a chair. OK, I give in - some rooms also have the 4-person jacuzzi, leather lounge set, grand piano, fireplace, 72" plasma and complimentary bottle of Moet Chandon on the balcony with the beluga caviar waiting when you arrive as well, but I'll refrain from disclosing any more about my "preferred guest" status!

That small desk with a chair, while a necessity for many, has more often than not been the bane of travelers. Every decent hotel will offer Ethernet in the room or wireless throughout the hotel, but using it is not always the easiest. How can you get the most out of the hotel's offering? Carrying just a few basic accessories will save your bacon.

First and foremost, you'll need your AC adapter if you're staying for the night and traveling for more than one day - you want to have your notebook (and spare battery) charged and ready for the morning. Adapters today are multi-voltage so you shouldn't have a problem, but a travel surge-suppressor is recommended just in case something dirty happens with the hotel's power - the last thing you need is your expensive equipment zapped, as replacing it could cost you a lot of cash. You might also want to invest in a small power strip, since hotel outlets are never placed where you need them, and having only one outlet free won't charge any extra gear you may also have.

A retractable USB/Cat5 cable set is another addition I would throw in the bag, especially if you intend to use in-room Ethernet or need to charge your smartphone via USB. You may already have this if you tether your smartphone as a modem often. You can also use your smartphone as a wifi finder, saving you from turning on the notebook every time you need to check for a signal.

If the hotel's internet is somewhat unreliable, you can bring along a MiFi device and use 3G, or if there's a suitable place nearby, use Boingo wifi. Having options is always a good thing, and being prepared will save you from putting a stop to your productivity, or especially with important clients, an embarrassment.

12. The cloud is your best friend

While this is not really an accessory, cloud-based services can in many ways replace devices you might have in the past needed to bring with you. Google and Yahoo in particular offer many online services that you can access on the move and sync information across multiple devices. Your bookmarks, email, contacts, schedule, tasks, documents, photos, voicemail and other valuable items can be safely kept in the cloud and accessed remotely by your notebook or netbook. There are many smartphone apps emerging as well that take advantage of cloud-based services for when you don't want to bring a notebook or netbook along. Document sharing is another area where cloud-based storage makes sense. The next version of MS Office promises browser-accessible versions of Word, Excel, etc. in lieu of installing the programs from disc - important when considering the limited storage capacities of smaller SSD drives. Finally, if you don't have a home server, you can use cloud-based storage services to keep your music, videos and photos, or post them to a popular social networking site for sharing.


Notebooks are great at what they do, but like me, you may have experienced at one time or another the limitations they pose. But with the right accessories and a little thinking, you can get a huge amount of potential out of your notebook purchase alongside boosting your productivity. This can be especially significant when mobile, as these are often the times when the ability to adapt to circumstances means the difference between a successful day with your notebook vs. a very bad one.


  1. 13. Max out the RAM on your netbook. Makes a big difference in performance on XP.

  2. Also, bring with you always an emergency USB or DVD boot drive so that when your OS runs insane, you can still manage to rescue those valuable files trapped in your notebook hard drive. :D

  3. Great tip on WHS... That should help me in my move from netbook + notebook to netbook + desktop.