Gift Guide 2013: Work gadgets

Become more productive with these handy work-related gizmos

The merging world of personal technology and workplace technology is always a fascinating scene to observe, so a lot of devices here can be utilized at home, and vice versa (see our Digital Life article for home-related tech gift ideas). But for the most part, we're confident that your work life will improve with these gadgets - peruse the writeups for gift ideas for your favorite colleague!

[HAPPY HOLIDAYS: See a listing of all the products of Network World's holiday gift guide]

[ALSO: 20 of the hottest tech toys of the holidays]

Product: G-Dock ev With ThunderboltCompany: G-Technology

Price: $750 (2TB capacity)

Buy this if: You have a ton of digital video files and need speedy transfers for backup or storage purposes.

Because of its higher price tag and functionality, this expandable storage system might not be on the top of your holiday gift list. But if your recipient deals with a lot of storage issues (videos, music, photos, etc.) and is constantly complaining about the time it takes to transfer that to/from their computers, it’s worth a look. The dock connects via a high-speed Thunderbolt connection to a Macintosh system to give it an extra speed boost. The system also comes with two removable, 7200 RPM external hard drives that slide into the dock, but can also be removed and used as separate USB 3.0 devices.

In our tests (see review here), we achieved speedier transfers via the Thunderbolt-attached dock than similar transfers to our internal hard drive. Your speed will also vary depending on the computer you’re using, as well as the speed and style of your hard drives (SSD vs. moving-parts drive, for example).

Cool Yule Elf / Reviewer: Keith Shaw

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Product: Leap Motion ControllerCompany: Leap Motion

Price: $80

Buy this for: The person on your list who loves the Iron Man movies or Minority Report, and wants to witness the beginnings of the gesture-control computing market.

The future is now! At least the future as seen in science-fiction movies like “Minority Report” and “Iron Man”, where the characters can manipulate things on computers with their hands. The Leap Motion Controller does a similar thing - it lets you manipulate things on your display with your hands and fingers. The big difference between reality and the movies is that you’re still using a two-dimensional display, unlike the films that use 3D effects.

The Leap Motion Controller attaches to your Windows or Mac computer via USB - it has sensors in it that act like a Kinect sensor to detect where your hands and fingers are located above it. Using several waving motions or grabbing motions, you can manipulate things on your display - when setting it up you can practice drawing on the screen with your finger, or waving and moving stuff around. The main experience is done through Leap Motion’s Airspace app, a launching station for the many Leap Motion-enabled apps that you can download or purchase. There are already hundreds of apps, ranging in categories from games, music, education, photography, etc. The controller comes with several cool free demos that give you a feel for what gesture-control can accomplish.

It wasn’t very hard to use the controller, and it was very accurate. Some apps were more difficult to use than others, but with some practice I got the hang of it relatively quickly. I never got too frustrated to the point where I was fighting the device, so that’s an excellent start. Everyone who walked by my office when I was using the device stopped in to watch and see what was going on. From a “wow factor” perspective, the Leap Motion excels.

The issue for the company - and owners of the device - will be to see what happens next. Once users get over the novelty factor of the device, will they be intrigued / interested enough to use it on a regular basis? That is all up to the developer community - to see if they can create compelling apps that people will want to use all the time. Leap Motion insists that the controller is not meant to replace a mouse and keyboard, but rather to enhance the computing experience. In that respect, it succeeds. We’ll see how the company does in the next step - in bringing this to a mainstream audience with worthy applications.

Cool Yule Elf / Reviewer: Keith Shaw

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Product StandScanPrice: $30

Buy this if: You’re not satisfied with pictures taken with your smartphone and you want a portable light-box that lets you take better quality pictures, primarily of objects like documents, receipts, business cards, etc.

What makes the StandScan interesting is that it folds up flat, making it ideal for taking on the road. The way it works is that you unfold the back and side pieces, which attach via tiny magnets to create a light-box that’s enclosed on three sides and open at the front. An LED strip on the inside of the roof of the light-box provides illumination. And there’s a hole at the top. You put the object you want photographed on the floor of the lightbox and rest your smartphone on the roof, with the rear-facing camera pointing through the hole. Then you snap the photo. The light-box helps create clear, crisp images, compared to possible shaky, poorly-lit images if you did this on your own.

A couple of caveats: The StandScan is made of cardboard, so we can’t vouch for its durability. And it is a bit misleading to call this a scanner, because it doesn’t scan as one defines scanning in the world of printers/scanners.

Cool Yule Elf / Reviewer: Neal Weinberg

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Product: Gamerlounge Gaming Router featuring Qualcomm StreamBoostCompany: D-Link

Price: $200

Buy this for: Any gamer or family struggling with multiple device bandwidth issues or those looking for more depth to their internal network traffic data.

As more devices become connected to the Internet within your home -- especially devices that require a constant stream of data (such as gaming or streaming movies/TV) -- the need to monitor or optimize that bandwidth becomes greater. If you find yourself in that boat - with a limited bandwidth stream that always seems to be struggling when multiple devices are slowing down your video viewing or game-playing, you might get some benefit from D-Link’s Gaming Router (model DGL-5500). The 802.11ac router features the latest wireless LAN technology for internal network traffic needs, as well as Qualcomm’s StreamBoost technology, which aims to optimize your traffic to make sure that applications that need bandwidth receive it, and those that don’t need it don’t hog it.

The router is about as easy to set up as today’s current wireless LAN routers - I didn’t feel like it was any easier or harder than other 802.11ac routers. The good news is that the days of trying to set up the new router via an “Easy Setup CD” are gone - this router can be initialized and configured with a wired notebook connection and the connection to your Internet (modem, gateway, etc.). D-Link does a good job of walking you through the setup as well as giving you a high-level overview of the StreamBoost features. Accessing advanced features is also done through the browser interface, so networking pros will feel right at home, while regular home users should be fine as well (just as long as they don’t start clicking a lot of buttons). In other words, the router’s user interface is neither too simplified, nor is it rocket science.

The bandwidth optimization / traffic shaping can be done via the UI by telling the router which devices connected to the network receive a higher priority. There’s no user ability to give priority to specific apps (like always telling the router to give Netflix or a video game higher priority) as I’ve seen on other routers, but the StreamBoost technology is built to address this. D-Link says that because the router knows what specific application traffic looks like, the router can assign the correct amount of bandwidth to that application without needing a specific priority. This assignment then frees up bandwidth for other applications, rather than a router that just gives a chunk of bandwidth to a specific app, whether it’s being used or not (that’s always been the downside of other traffic optimization methods).

For the most part, users won’t really notice a big difference, unless they have specific problems that they’re trying to address. In addition, this will be beneficial to people who have lower bandwidth offerings from their ISP. If you are constantly struggling with a 1Mbps upload connection, or aren’t paying for the latest/greatest speeds and feeds, then this router can help. At the moment, home users have some of the same questions regarding speeds that many companies have when it comes to bandwidth - if you’re seeing slow speed, buy more.

But if you’re a user who doesn’t have the option of buying more, then a router like this could definitely help. I would have preferred even more data offerings from the UI - it was nice to get a real-time look at data streaming on a per-device basis, but identifying specific devices was difficult - even when I tried to rename devices, the router kept thinking the device was “UNKNOWN”. In one case, the router couldn’t find a connected printer on the network for the data purposes, even though I could print to it. There’s still a market out there for a company that can provide easy-to-understand data about a home network without getting the user tied up into logs and other PhD-required data sets.

In addition to the 802.11ac router functions, the Gaming Router includes four Ethernet LAN ports, which I quickly filled up with connections to my powerline adapters, network-attached storage boxes and my ISP’s own router (in which I disabled wireless). The unit also includes a USB 3.0 port for additional external storage / media server support.

Cool Yule Elf / Reviewer: Keith Shaw

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Product: 24-port USB 2.0 HUBCompany: ThinkGeek

Price: $50

For gadget fans, the phrase “You can never be too rich or too thin” would have an equivalent phrase - “You can never have too many USB ports.” If you’re constantly plugging in and unplugging in cables in order to attach storage drives, keyboards, mice or countless other devices, getting a USB hub to attach to your computer is a necessity. Especially if you want to attach some fancier USB items, like the USB-enabled rocket launcher or any USB LED desk lamps. With computer-makers reducing the number of available USB ports on their own machines, the need for a hub is even greater than ever before.

To solve this problem for a while, we present the 24-port USB 2.0 HUB from ThinkGeek. The circular orb looks like a mini-Frisbee, or a very small UFO. Twenty two USB ports encircle the sides of the device (two ports per small area), and two USB ports sit on the top. The Hub is powered (as you’d expect), and connects to your computer via a mini-USB connection.

The only downside is that the device contains USB 2.0, so if you were looking to connect a fast USB 3.0 hard drive to the unit, you’d get the slower speeds, or have to use the faster USB 3.0 ports on the computer (maybe ThinkGeek will soon come out with a USB 3.0 version). But with 24 ports available, I’m pretty confident that you will have enough ports to last you for a few more years and let you attach many more USB devices to your system.

Cool Yule Elf / Reviewer: Keith Shaw

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Product: NeatConnect Cloud ScannerCompany: The Neat Company

Price: $500 (includes three months of NeatCloud)

Buy this for: The super-organized, Type A personality who wants to get even more organized, or the person on your list who’s sick and tired of shoeboxes full of receipts and other paperwork.

Scanning a bunch of business cards, receipts and other documents and digitizing them isn’t really anything new - there have been numerous devices that do this, ranging from large flatbed scanners (which got integrated into all-in-one printers) to small, mobile scanners that you could use without a PC connection (as it scanned to a memory card). But the NeatConnect scanner takes that information and uploads the data to the cloud. The cloud component gives users two benefits - first, it gives an automatic, offsite backup for scanned items - especially if you plan to keep the scanned paperwork (for legal purposes or if you just want/need a hardcopy). Second, cloud-based document record storage lets you access the information from other devices, including your smartphone or tablet.

The NeatConnect unit does this quite well - it’s a desktop unit (you could, in theory, take this with you, but you probably won’t) with a Wi-Fi connection (802.11b/g/n) that connects the scanner to the greater Internet (aka “the cloud”). Three different automatic feeder slots at the top of the unit let you scan 1- or 2-sided business cards, receipts and larger documents, such as 8.5- by 11-inch papers. With a NeatCloud account, users can upload their files to a secure website, and then access the information via their PC browsers or via a special app on their smartphone or tablet. The unit also comes with desktop software that offers additional features/functionality, but it isn’t required to use the NeatConnect device. The 5.3-pound unit also includes an SD card slot for saving scanned images directly to a memory card (up to 32GB capacity), and a USB port if you want to connect the scanner to a PC or Macintosh computer.

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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