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


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


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


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


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


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.

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