Bigger is better when it comes to paychecks, contracts and football players, but it doesn’t work that way when it comes to high-tech business tools. As technology progresses, devices — and their price tags — shrink even as they become more sophisticated. Whether you’re a single entrepreneur or a small business with dreams of becoming a big one, many new gadgets can improve the efficiency of your business without pushing your bottom line into the red.
As your business grows, so does your archive of computer data. Unfortunately, as your computer’s hard disk fills up, the computer will run slower since it has to work harder to find space for each new bit of data you create. You could open your computers and install extra hard disks, but not everyone has the stomach for internal computer upgrades. A simple solution is network-attached storage (NAS) — an external hard disk that connects to your office network instead of being attached directly to a computer. Once a NAS device is connected, it can be accessed by all of your office computers as if it were an extra internal hard disk. Or you can set it up so that only some computers have access. They’re easy to install: you can put them anywhere as long as there’s a network socket nearby. And they have another key feature: they can also back up all of your computers.
The BlackArmor NAS 220 Server from Seagate (www.seagate.com ) provides up to 4 terabytes (TB) of shared storage for up to 20 PCs. The unit (2TB version $450; 4TB, $700) comes with SafetyDrill+, a utility that automatically backs up all networked PCs. If a PC’s hard disk crashes, you can swap the bad one for a new one and use SafetyDrill+ to restore the data.
There are also many affordable devices that can help you when you’re traveling. For example, if you’re taking an Apple iPod digital music player or an iPhone cell phone on your next business trip, why not put it to work? The $50 Clickfree Transformer for iPod/iPhone from Storage Appliance Corp. (www.clickfree.com ) lets you use the unused data storage space in iPods and iPhones units to back up your laptop. The backup software is built into the device, which has a USB plug on one end and an iPod/iPhone connector on the other. The backup process starts automatically as soon as the Transformer is connected. The unit can also be used to transfer music from your device to a Windows or Macintosh computer.
It pays to keep up with e-mail when you’re on the road, but it’s sometimes hard to find Internet access at an affordable price. Some hotels and convention centers charge $15 or more a day for Internet connectivity. While there are many free or low-cost Wi-Fi hot spots at coffee shops, public libraries and other locations, they’re not secure and many are not available in the wee hours of the night when you’re putting those last-minute touches on that big presentation.
The new Broadband2Go wireless adapter from Virgin Mobile (www.virginmobileusa.com ) lets you connect to the Internet as long as you’re within range of its cellular data network, which it leases from Sprint. What’s different about the Broadband2Go is that it lets you pay for Internet access only when you need it — there’s no monthly subscription. The $150 device, the same size and shape as a flash memory drive, works on any computer with a USB port. For a short business trip, you could buy $10 of Internet access, which is good for 100 megabytes of data (about five hours of Web surfing, or up to 10,000 e-mail messages without attachments) over 10 days. A $60 option provides for a gigabyte of data and 30 days of access. At 600 to 1,400 megabits per second (Mbps) for downloads and 350 to 500 Mbps for uploads, Broadband2Go offers speeds similar to low-end home broadband connections.
For short messages and quick e-mail checks, a good smartphone with a QWERTY keypad can be invaluable. Some smartphone users like the single-piece design used by many of Research in Motion’s Blackberry devices, while others like the touch-screen keyboards on devices like iPhones. Still others prefer phones that offer both: a touch-screen and a real keypad.
The Xenon from LG, available from AT&T Wireless (www.wireless.att.com ), provides a 2.8-inch touch-screen and a four-line QWERTY keypad with relatively large keys. The unit ($100 after rebates with a two-year service agreement) also has a two-megapixel digital camera that can also record videos, support for stereo Bluetooth wireless headsets and speakers, and a GPS receiver for use with navigation and mapping applications. The unit vibrates slightly when you press an icon or button on the touch-screen, thus confirming that your fingertip input has been received. Sliding the bottom half of the unit to the left reveals the keyboard, which includes special keys for one-touch access to e-mail and text messaging, as well as a “.com” key for quickly ending an e-mail address. The phone also supports voice dialing and has a music and video player as well as a microSD slot for removable memory cards. The quad-band GSM phone is compatible with AT&T’s 3G high-speed data network.
Charging your devices
Many small gadgets like cell phones, wireless headsets and digital music players come with USB cables, which let you charge them from the 5-volt power provided by a computer’s USB port. Belkin offers a tiny car power adapter with a single USB port on its end, thus allowing you to charge any device for which you have a USB cable as you drive. The Micro Auto Charger ($15 alone; $20 with an iPod/iPhone cable) from Belkin (www.belkin.com ) sits flush with your car’s dashboard when inserted in a cigarette-lighter socket and provides a power output of 5 volts and 1 amp. A larger option is Belkin’s Dual Auto Charger, which comes with a 5-volt/1-amp port and a 5-volt/0.5-amp port as well as an iPod/iPhone cable.
A slim digital camera can be an asset at a trade show or conference, allowing you to record details, like the look of a new product, which can be hard to describe with words. Today’s shirt-pocket size cameras can produce quality images worthy of reproduction in a company magazine or Web site. The $250 Casio Exilim EX-S12 (www.casio.com ) is just over half an inch thick, but the 12.1-megapixel camera has a 3X optical zoom lens, a 2.7-inch color display and offers face recognition as well as a “makeup” function which smoothes out skin tones and softens facial shadows. It also includes a tracking autofocus mode that remembers the subjects the camera focuses on. The camera also has a Dynamic Photo mode that allows you to perform sophisticated photo editing from within the camera — no computer is needed. You can separate a subject from a background and paste the subject into a different photo.
You do this by taking a series of images of a moving subject in front of a static background — like a person walking across a stage. The computer processes the image, separates the moving subject and makes the series of still images of the moving subject available for pasting into other images. You could capture a speaker as he walks across a stage and then paste him into a presentation and have him seem to walk across the bottom of a spreadsheet or a bar chart.
So what’s next? Cell phone watches with video cameras? They’re already on the market. Just wait until the price is right.