Gift Guide 2013: Work gadgets

Become more productive with these handy work-related gizmos

Once you’ve uploaded your documents, you can find them through a browser or the NeatCloud mobile app, and additional features let you sort, search and organize your documents. This is where the super-organized person on your list will feel at home - for the most part, I enjoyed the ease of use of scanning a bunch of documents and having them stored somewhere offsite.

Cool Yule Elf / Reviewer: Keith Shaw

----Company: NetgearProduct: R7000 Nighthawk AC 1900 Dual-Band Wi-Fi Router

Price: $200 (Amazon)

Buy this for: Anyone looking for the best possible performance (rate and/or range) in a contemporary home networking router (just about everyone, in our humble opinion).

I guess everyone knows by now that 802.11ac is here, with the promise of 1.3Gbps -- and even faster than that -- wireless LANs. As has been the case with previous advances in WLAN standards and technology, residential users are often the first to realize this performance with products that are not just speedy, but also feature-packed and attractively priced.

Case in point: the latest top-of-the-line from Netgear, the AC1900 “Nighthawk” router. This unit is in the familiar configuration of router, wired switch, and dual-band, dual-radio access point, but Netgear has changed the plastics from the unattractive (to say the least) rounded parallelepipeds of a few years ago (and still present in a few current products) to a refinement of the more angular designs of last year. In short, the Nighthawks looks distinctive and even cool, but the real story is inside.

Inside we see the inclusion of features and performance previously seen only in enterprise-class Wi-Fi products at much higher prices. For starters, this unit is 1.3Gbps (three streams, 80-MHz. channel) in .11ac mode, which operates in the 5-GHz bands only, of course, but also offers 3x3:3 450Mbps 802.11n and even a proprietary (to Broadcom) 600Mbps mode at 2.4 GHz., and, of course simultaneous dual-band operation. It has a 1-GHz dual-core processor, four Gigabit Ethernet ports, and IPv6 support, as well as a USB 3.0 port for peripheral sharing. There’s more: DLNA, automatic PC backup software (to a drive connected to said USB port), and Apple Time Machine and AirPlay support.

Things really get interesting, though, with features like upstream and downstream QoS support, a VPN for remote access, SPI and NAT firewalls, denial-of-service attack prevention, and, especially beamforming. Say all you want about nobody needing 1.3Gbps in the home (true, by the way, strictly speaking if one looks only at single-stream throughput vs. multi-user network capacity), but 802.11ac in the residence is all about reaching the upstairs bedroom via the improved range and reliability of beamforming.

Setup is easy and can be done from a smartphone or tablet if desired. WPS is included, and the Netgear Genie app provides a dashboard. Guest access is configurable, and there’s even open-source firmware available - and a lot more -- this is an astonishingly complete product offering from one of the leaders in residential Wi-Fi.

And all of this is available at a shockingly low price - $200, the same price that high-end residential 802.11n routers cost when they first appeared on the scene. This is an easy upgrade for the person on your gift list who’s looking for the best possible performance (rate and or range) in contemporary home networking. And that, I think, is just about everyone.

Cool Yule Elf / Reviewer: C.J. Mathias

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Product: CR5000 Skydog Gigabit RouterCompany: PowerCloud

Price: $150 (includes one year of Skydog service)

Buy this for: IT types who want additional data and cloud-based control of their home network router.

PowerCloud got their start offering cloud-based management for vendors of residential-class wireless routers. This idea didn’t work as well as it should have; cost-conscious OEMs never put much into the marketing of this service. But as the cloud-based management of residential-class Wi-Fi routers still holds promise especially for service providers, PowerCloud is moving on with a far more integrated offering, the Skydog CR5000 router. This is aimed, at least in part, at those service providers, but it also holds appeal for more than a few folks in the Network World audience.

Skydog is a very compact dual-band, dual-radio, 300Mbps 802.11n unit that’s easy to set up, thanks, again, to the cloud -- plug it in, go to Skydog.com to register with the Skydog service, and enter the UIC code listed on the bottom of the router and few other details. You can then click “Make It Happen” for a quick setup -- but this being a Network World writeup, I clicked “Customize”.

Up to three “Zones” (VLANs), each isolated from the other, can be configured. A wide variety of e-mail alerts (such as a pending firmware upgrade) can be configured. The system’s Dashboard provides a wide array of functionality, including reporting, Internet speed testing, traffic (QoS) prioritization on a per-user basis (along with policy definition and usage monitoring), device fingerprinting, Web access history, content filtering, a broad range of e-mail alerts, SPI and NAT, and management, even of multiple systems, from mobile devices. This is a remarkable feature set for a home router, reflective of both enterprise-class WLAN systems and a distinct emphasis on the needs of service providers.

We noticed a couple of small UI glitches -- it’s still early over at Skydog, but there’s great promise here. IT types will feel right at home when they find this one under the tree.

Cool Yule Elf / Reviewer: C.J. Mathias

----Company: AppleProduct: AirPort 802.11ac Time Capsule Model ME182LL/A (2013 version)

Price: $300 (for 2 B); $400 (for 3TB)

Buy this for: Every Mac user who needs wireless and backup from the same device.

Let’s start with the basics here -- every Mac user should be taking advantage of Time Machine, and 802.11ac is definitely going to replace 802.11n over the next five years in most venues, even in the home. While it’s possible to buy a wide variety of 802.11ac access points and routers, and to use a similarly wide variety of network-attached storage (NAS) and USB drives for Time Machine, Apple’s Time Capsule has always been the vehicle of choice here, for a number of reasons. First, the style is attractive (sorry, but we are talking about the style company, Apple, here). The integration of function -- storage and wireless -- in a single box is nothing if not convenient. And, finally, Apple has always made it easy to integrate, manage and use the Time Capsule line with the Mac. I wonder when it will extend this to the iPad and iPhone?

Oh, wait, isn’t that what iCloud is all about? Well, maybe someday, but iCloud isn’t yet the general-purpose journaled backup that Time Machine is. And you may not fully trust cloud (iCloud or otherwise) security, integrity, or availability for your backups yet. Besides, go price out a 3TB USB or NAS drive, as well as an 802.11ac access point, and you’ll find that the Time Capsule reviewed here is, in fact, a bargain. 

The latest Time Capsule is indeed stylish, but let’s talk tech. The beamforming in 802.11ac will likely extend range, even if you’re not yet ready to upgrade all of your client devices to the potential 1.3Gbps of 802.11ac. This product is dual-band, of course, with three antennas for each band -- such likely enabled or at least eased by the new mini-tower vertical form factor that also features a smaller footprint. Management (very easy) is integrated into OS X, as before, and an iOS management app is also available. Printer and hard-drive sharing and isolated guest access are likewise still available. It’s also a router if you need such. Apple doesn’t like to talk about technology much, and doesn’t offer the range of function or configurability that many other vendors do, but these are part of the charm for Apple users. It just works.

All in all: here’s an easy way to ease into 802.11ac while maintaining the vital backup function of Time Machine, and a great gift for the Mac users on your list.

Cool Yule Elf / Reviewer: C.J. Mathias

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Product: UGT-MH330GNA 3-Port USB 3.0 Hub with Gigabit EthernetCompany: Vantec

Price: $45 (Amazon)

Buy this for: Someone who needs to connect multiple USB 3.0 devices to their newer computers.

Speaking, I’m sure, for many of you, I hope USB 3.0 lasts us a good long time, because I’ve spent a small fortune over the years buying and upgrading USB hubs. These handy little devices are irreplaceable -- whether the USB ports you need are hard to get to (like on the back of an iMac), or you need a powered hub to recharge handset, tablets, and more. Or you just need more ports -- USB hubs are indispensable, not to put too fine a point on it.

But another interesting need has appeared of late: many mobile devices now have USB ports, but no Ethernet jack. OK, I’m a wireless guy, and I shouldn’t be saying this, but there are times when Gigabit Ethernet is preferable to Wi-Fi. It’s a lot faster, so for bulk file transfer, backups, and similar activities, plugging in still makes sense.

So wouldn’t it be nice to have a powered 5-Gbps USB 3.0 hub and full-duplex gigabit Ethernet port all in one small, handy device? You bet it would. And you can surprise that special geek on your holiday list with this Vantec product, which does exactly that. It’s very small, comes with the required power adapter (which is just about as big), and includes the required Gig-E drivers on CD (or you can download these from the Web site). As you might guess, installation is like that for any other similar device, and operation is simple and transparent. I loaded the necessary drivers on my MacBook Air, and voila, Ethernet (even though my Air is USB 2.0 only). And the Ethernet is powered by USB, so you only need to plug in the included wall wart if you need more power for attached USB devices.

I researched a good number of similar products, and the Vantec represents the best combination of functionality and value. By the way, the “front” of the unit sports just three USB ports, while the upstream USB port, power port, and Ethernet port are all on the back. Neat desktop, here I come.

Seriously, though -- nice product, great value. Get one for yourself while you’re at it.

Cool Yule Elf / Reviewer: C.J. Mathias

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Product: Envy 5530 e-All-in-One Series printerCompany: HP

Price: $30

Buy this for: Someone who needs to print from anywhere.

Every year, printers get better and cheaper. This $130 printer is clearly one or two or maybe three steps up from entry-level printers on the market. Comparing it to other printers I’ve tested in past years, it’s sturdier, easier to feed paper into (thus avoiding the dreaded paper jams), and produces top quality results, whether printing or scanning.

Setup was simple -- we were printing within minutes. We also set up the wireless connection and printed from our iPhone -- you need to set your phone to Wi-Fi, then we opened an image, hit “Share” and pointed the smartphone to the HP Envy. There’s also an option to print remotely, but it requires a data plan, so we were unable to test this feature. Other things we liked -- only two cartridges, instead of one for each color. And a control panel that’s informative and intuitive. All in all, this all in one does it all at an excellent price.

Cool Yule Elf / Reviewer: Neal Weinberg

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Product: JOT SmartpenCompany: Equil

Price: $150

Buy this for: A student or co-worker who takes a lot of handwritten notes and wants to digitize them into their mobile device without needing special paper.

The JOT Smartpen from Equil takes the smartpen concept seen in devices like the Livescribe pen and eliminates the need to buy special paper. The pen communicates with a small receiver that you place above your notebook, piece of paper or even a cocktail napkin. The receiver has a Bluetooth connection to your Mac, iPhone or iPad (at the moment this only works with iOS devices and the Mac). Any notes you take with the pen are recorded on the phone via one of two apps - Equilnote (for note-taking) or Equilsketch (a drawing/sketch app).

Notes that you create (exported in Photoshop or PDF format) can then be uploaded from your phone/tablet to a Dropbox account or email address, or you can share them via Facebook or Twitter.

The system comes with a charging cradle (the receiver and pen can be recharged via an included USB cable), which gives you about 8 hours of usage before it needs a recharge. charging cradle also can be used as a carrying case, so you can throw the pen quickly into a laptop bag or purse for quick portability, so you can always be ready for when inspiration strikes (although making sure you’re connected to the phone/tablet via Bluetooth can take a bit of time).

For the student or note-taker who prefers to store everything they write on paper, the JOT pen is a very nice tool to have, letting you digitize everything you write without needing to buy or print out special paper.

Cool Yule Elf / Reviewer: Keith Shaw

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Product: EX7220 wireless WXGA 3LCD projectorCompany: EPSON

Price: $650

Buy this for: Anyone looking for a wireless business projector with the latest video connections that can also use it for personal use scenarios.

The EX7220 projector is billed as a business and education monitor, and there are a ton of interesting and cool features on it (for example, HDMI connectivity, wireless connection to stream content from iPad, Android devices, iPhones, etc.). But we decided to test it out by bringing it to a barn for a Halloween party.

A friend wanted to project some scary movies inside a barn for a party they were throwing at a local farm. I unboxed the unit for the first time on-site, and with zero knowledge and a “Who needs instructions?” attitude, was able to set up the EX7220 in a matter of minutes. Once we connected to our computer, the projector took over from there. It displayed a brilliant image (it has a 3,000 lumen brightness and native resolution of 1,280 by 800 (WXGA) pixels), bright enough to easily see the movie “28 Days Later” from 25 feet away, and with perfect clarity. We setup a few more movies to stream via VLC, and left the projector alone to do its thing.

The unit never overheated and the image didn’t fade out after several hours of constant use. It became the hit of the party, and is highly recommended for both personal uses as well as any of your business or educational needs.

Cool Yule Elf / Reviewer: Dan Hunt

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