Laptops have overtaken desktop PCs as the preferred workhorse machines for most companies, regardless of the size, and it is easy to see why.
The performance, feature, and price gap between the two have shrunk considerably, so much so that other than for niche use cases that require a fixed workstation, a laptop is generally preferable to a desktop computer.
But while laptops are mobile computers, they do rely, sometimes, on accessories to boost their capabilities.
We've rounded up some of these clever extras, from an ultra-secure USB drives, through a tiny docking station, to one of the weirdest gadgets ever to land on Techradar Pro, courtesy of a Kickstarter campaign.
Satechi F3 Smart monitor stand
A simple and welcomed addition to any cluttered desk
The idea behind the F3 is a simple one: provide with a stand that simplifies and organises a desk while maintaining a clean, functional style, without an expensive price tag.
Satechi achieves it with this product which packs some interesting features on top. It has two, rather than one, preset height options thanks to a pair of sturdy aluminium legs with rubber pads.
Physically, it is a fairly big slap of plastic (550 x 231mm) available either in white or anthracite. Plastic usually infers flimsiness but there wasn’t any in sight. This is proper solid stuff. The aluminium legs slot in within seconds after the shorter, permanent ones are deployed.
There’s plenty of connectivity as well; four front facing USB 3.0 ports plus headphone/microphone ports with long cables to connect to your PC or laptop.
It doesn’t require power as the ports are essentially passive ones. The F3 took the weight of a 27-inch monitor without flinching and there are reports of customers using it with a 34-inch behemoth.
You will be able to put items weighing up to 11Kg on top. There’s enough clearance (about 30mm) underneath the actual plastic stand to slot in a keyboard.
Adding the aluminium feet adds another 50mm. A few more USB ports or a smartphone stand might have been useful together with a couple of extra height options. There’s also the fact that a more premium material like glass or aluminium might have been a better, albeit more expensive, option.
Apricorn Aegis Secure Key USB 3.0 480GB flash drive
An excellent alternative to other secure solutions on the market
Storage: 480GB | Interface: USB 3.0 | Weight: 46g
The Apricorn Aegis Secure Key cuts a familiar figure; it does look a lot like the iStorage one but has 60x more capacity while costing about five times more. Comparing it to other secure USB drives, it does come across as being a bit of a bargain if you want to store massive amounts of data although it costs around three times the cheapest 512GB USB drive.
The USB drive itself incorporates a full 10-key alphanumeric keypad with two function keys plus three status lights. It then slots into a hardened epoxy-potted rugged aluminum enclosure which makes it dust and waterproof; the device is also certified IP-58 and at 46g and 93mm long is fairly chunky, putting a bigger strain on a device’s USB port than most USB drives.
As expected, it comes with built-in hardware encryption (256-bit AES) which means that it is totally independent from the host client and OS-agnostic. No keyloggers and no BadUSB vulnerability. It can be used where no keyboards are present and doesn’t require any drivers or software. It also means that it is powered by a battery which, unfortunately, adds another potential point of failure, especially as it runs rather hot in use.
The Aegis Secure Key has also received a FIPS 140-2 level 3 accreditation from NIST, the US-based National Institute of Standards and Technology, which oversees US government IT and computer security. Setting the drive up is the hardest part of the process. There is no factory default PIN so you need to create your own PIN (at last 7 numbers up to 16) to use it.
The drive can be configured with an admin PIN and a user PIN, both of which are independent and is a particularly useful option in a corporate setup when multiple units are deployed.
The presence of an on-device keyboard makes brute-force attempts difficult and after 20 incorrect PIN entry attempts, the drive automatically deletes the encryption key, rendering the data unreadable. What’s more, it auto-locks when it is disconnected from the host PC or after a set period. Note that it may not work with a USB-hub because of higher power requirements.
There is also a read-only mode that prevents the user from tampering with data on the drive. Add in a rated data transfer rate of up to 190MBps/160MBps (read/write speeds) and a three-year warranty and you get a very solid product. As always, bear in mind that such a device – especially of this size- doesn’t remove the need to have a secure backup; drives – even those with high MTBF - do fail, get damaged or lost.
KnowRoaming Global Hotspot Service
Simplified, seamless worldwide communication
Connection capacity: 15 | Connection type: 3G | Battery life: 15 hours
There are a fair few solutions available for digitally-savvy globetrotters looking who whiz across the globe for leisure or pleasure. We might have uncovered one of the best ones yet.
From Knowroaming comes a global hotspot that uses a Novatel Wireless Mi-fi, the 6630, and can connect you up in more than 140 countries with 92 of them offering unlimited data for a flat fee of $7.99 per day (about £6.40), a price that even include free, unlimited Whatsapp.
We tried it during a recent trip to Japan where the cost of connectivity is prohibitive and international data roaming is a no-no unless you want to spend hundreds. The Mi-fi device comes in a nice pouch with a few accessories; we just took it out and used it for a few days. It is sturdy enough to withstand a few knocks.
The 6630 is about the size of a Tic-tac box and its user interface is intuitive with only three buttons and a small screen on its front. On top is the power button as well as two USB ports, one for charging up and the other to provide power to external devices.
Inside the 6630 is a 4,000mAh battery that can power the device for up to 20 hours. It is compatible with Cat4 LTE although KnowRoaming only supported 3G for now and an LTE offer is in the pipeline. In use, the service was as seamless as it could be.
Switch it on and connect to it using the provided login details. Note that you can’t change these from the device itself; that can only be done by accessing the device via a browser. Various options exist on the Mi-fi device including the ability to set a number of restrictions, the ability to view your consumption, the number of devices connected at any time and the battery life left. The 6630 supports dual-band 802.11n Wi-Fi but no 802.11ac.
Since this is primarily marketed as a business device, it comes with a number of security features including VPN pass-through, NAT firewall, security hardened web interface, Anti-CSRF (Cross-Site Request Forgery) and session timeouts. Sadly though you won’t be able to buy a consumer version of that yet. Instead, the device is only being sold to corporates for $199 (about £160) with discounts being offered for multiple purchases.
As it stands, the service is meant to be managed centrally by an administrator or IT manager with an entire backend, cloud-based infrastructure provided by KnowRoaming. Suggested improvement to the Mi-fi device would include a thinner, more pocketable model, support for 802.11ac, the inclusion of a microSD card reader and having a smartphone app to allow you to access admin essential information from your smartphone, rather than through a browser.
Find out more at Knowroaming
iStorage IS-FL-DA3-256-8 Datashur Pro
Storage for the brave
Storage: 8GB | Interface: USB3.0 | Weight: 46g
There are plenty of storage solutions on the market that promise to secure your content using good old physical PIN numbers and the Datashur Pro (£68.42 from Amazon, which is about $89, AU$116) is one of them. The difference here is that the numeric keypad is on the drive which eradicates the threat of traditional keyloggers.
This USB 3.0 drive is IP57-rated which means that it is dust protected and can be immersed in up to 1m of water. That is as long as it's housed in its rugged extruded aluminium sleeve. You can laser etch text or a logo on the device for an additional fee, with capacities ranging from 8GB to 64GB.
The drive has a rechargeable battery that allows the user to enter a PIN (between 7 and 15 digits long, and you have 10 seconds to do that) before connecting the drive to a USB port; the battery obviously gets charged when you plug it into said port.
The data transferred to the USB drive is encrypted in real-time thanks to the built-in XTS-AES 256-bit hardware encryption – which doesn't slow down your system – and adheres to MIL-STD-810F, FIPS 140-2 Level3, CESG CPA/NLNCSA and FIPS PUB 197 standards.
You don't require any additional drivers, and the drive itself is compatible with almost all operating systems under the sun – that includes Linux, Chrome and exotic affairs running on thin clients and embedded systems (e.g. Citrix).
The list goes on, though: smartphones, tablets, printers, scanners, CCTV cameras, basically any device with a USB or USB OTG port. Bear in mind that if the host device is compromised, then your data and your drive won't be secure.
Just remember that while this is a secure device, you should still have backups because if you forget your PIN, the stick will delete the encryption key after 10 failed attempts.
All the drives come with a three-year warranty although the very nature of the product means that aftersales service might be tricky. If your drive failed with data on it, do you take the risk and send it back or just dump it?
Perhaps the only reservation we have, other than the price, has to do with the design: the length of this device – about 78mm – means that it's more likely that you could damage your laptop USB port if there's an unfortunate knock on the stick.
As for performance, it reached 126MBps in read and 43MBps in write speeds respectively on CrystalDiskMark benchmark, roughly in line with what iStorage suggested.
Kingston Ironkey D300
For those looking for affordable peace of mind
Storage: 8GB | Interface: USB 3.0 | Weight: 51g
Plug in the Kingston Ironkey D300 (IKD300/8GB) in your computer and the first thing you will notice is that the drive shows up as a CD Drive with a 14.4MB capacity. Surely some mistake! Well, you actually need to initialise the drive before using it for the first on any computer.
Note that Kingston strongly advises not to use the drive via a USB hub. Launching the application will request that you create a password (between eight and 16 characters) and will go on to format the drive.
You will confusingly end up with two “drives”, one with the initialisation software and the other one being the actual empty drive. Insert it in another computer (Linux, Mac or Windows) and you will be prompted to enter the right password.
Otherwise, as for other similar solutions on the market, enter the password wrong 10 times in a row and your content will be erased. As for the drive itself, it is an 8GB model with a zinc casing – which also doubles as a heatsink as the D300 heats up a fair bit under use - and tamper-evident epoxy seal for physical security.
With its cap on, it is waterproof (up to 4ft) and dustproof and at 51g, feels solid. More importantly though, the more compelling protection happens inside the device itself. It is a FIPS 140-2 Level 3 certified device with 256-bit AES hardware encryption.
There is a hardware cryptographic module inside the device itself which means that the encryption and decryption is done on the drive rather than on the host PC, with digitally signed firmware which makes the D300 immune to the notorious BadUSB exploit.
The D300, which comes with a five-year warranty, also offers a read-only option which allows any user, once authenticated, to open and view content on the drive but not change, update or erase the content.
There’s also a managed version of the drive which, as its name implies, allows the drive to be deployed en masse across an organisation but requires Ironkey EMS by Datalocker which allows for the drives to be centrally managed. This allows for drive-specific policies and allows administrators to disable lost or stolen drives remotely and more.
The drives are available in capacities ranging from 4GB to 128GB. The rated transfer rates of the drive vary between 80MBps to 250MBps (read) and 12MBps to 85MBps (write) depending on the capacity. Rule of thumb is the lower the capacity, the slower it will be.
The 8GB model performed better than expected with CrystalDiskMark benchmark results hitting 237.6MBps and 58.69MBps on Read and Write respectively.
Satechi Slim Aluminum Type-C Multi-Port Adapter
Versatility in your pocket
Ports: : 2xUSB-A, 1xHDMI, 1xUSB-C
The trend for thinner, lighter and more aesthetically pleasing laptop designs gave us the Apple Macbook, a stunningly beautiful device with only one connector, a lonely USB Type-C port.
There's a plethora of accessories - adapters and docking stations - on the market to solve that problem though, especially as more and more laptops are following Apple's lead and cutting the number of connectors to a minimum.
The Satechi Slim Aluminum Type-C Multi-Port Adapter is one of them. Available in four Apple-friendly colours, this device quadruples the amount of ports of the aforementioned MacBook.
There's a pass-through USB Type-C as well as two USB Type-A ports and an HDMI connector capable of supporting 4K video content, albeit at 30Hz - we'd certainly have preferred a DisplayPort.
Physically, the device is about 105mm long and comes with a 150mm USB Type-C cable. The enclosure is made entirely of aluminium which has a propensity to get scratched and marked when flung around too often.Compared to other products on the market, having a cable is preferable to avoid accidental damage to your laptop's port.
Note that each USB port on the Slim Type-C hub can provide 5V/1A (or 5W) and that Satechi advises that the maximum power load on the hub shouldn't exceed 10W, which excludes using it for heavy duty activities (e.g. charging two tablets).
The product comes with a one-year warranty.
PackedPixels portable laptop monitor
Augment your reality
A few vendors (Acer, Lenovo) have tried to deliver laptops with dual displays but these proved to be niche products with high prices and they were commercial failures.
Enter PackedPixels (£149 each, about $194, AU$252), a deceptively straightforward product from Dovetail Technology that brings multiple displays to laptops with one big caveat.
Your laptop will need to be equipped with a DisplayPort or Thunderbolt 1 or 2 ports. Newer Thunderbolt 3 ports won't work even with an adaptor, and obviously older ones like HDMI, DVI or VGA are out of the picture.
Note that you can use a USB 3.0 to DisplayPort converter according to the manufacturer. That is what you will have to do on non-Apple laptops.
If you have a DP or a TB1/2 port (Dell XPS 13 first generation, MacBook Pro etc) then using the bundled universal adaptor, you will be able to connect either one or two displays, each of them 9.7-inch in size and with a resolution of 2048 x 1536 pixels.
That's a 4:3 aspect ratio, something that works well in cramped spaces and is actually the same screen as the iPad Retina Display.
The designers made the right decision to hide the connecting ports (DisplayPort and USB) where the stand is supposed to slot.
Bear in mind that using two extra screens will eat up your battery faster, although, as Dovetail technologies suggests, you might also use a mobile phone adapter or an emergency power bank (like the Aukey 30Ah) to help out.
Given the connector, you won't need any additional driver installation for any operating system. The screens are automatically adjustable and can be used in portrait or landscape mode.
Sandberg 20,000mAh Laptop Powerbank
Capable, powerful battery charger
Battery capacity: 20Ah | Number of ports: 3
Sandberg's Powerbank is neither the cheapest or the most powerful around. However, it does come with a couple of features that make it a rather enticing option.
It outputs to a number of voltages (12V, 16V, 19V and 20V), automatically choosing the right one depending on the device connected to it.
There are also two USB ports and these are obviously hardwired to output 5V on both. There are also 12 different charge tips but none would fit my Dell XPS 13, and they won't be useful for USB Type-C models like the Dell XPS 13 2016 edition.
There are a couple of things that differentiate this from most of its rivals on the market: it uses a brushed, premium, aluminium finish, with bright blue LED status lights that clearly indicate the amount of juice left or how close the battery is to being charged.
Speaking of charging, Sandberg decided to equip the Powerbank with a dedicated input port which allows the device to be charged in record time thanks to a 36W (18V/2A) power supply unit.
In comparison, the Aukey 30Ah we reviewed recently could only be charged using a 12W USB port which makes charging a lengthy process, often an overnight affair. It also means that you don't rely on your laptop or mobile charger to get the battery replenished.
Sandberg has equipped the Powerbank with an automatic 'switch on and switch off' mechanism to save power. It can deliver up to a total of 85W meaning that it can accommodate a massive 70W on its laptop/DC Out port. Note that the device comes with an industry-leading five-year warranty.
Primera Trio all-in-one mobile colour printer
A mobile all-in-one printer for all terrains
Printer type: : All-in-one | Connectivity: : mUSB | Number of cartridges: 2
This printer is not for everyone. It is slow, expensive to buy and to maintain, and it is not even wireless! But then not all printers can list on their spec sheet that they're the world's lightest all-in-one printer, one that can not only print (obviously) but also scan and copy.
The Primera Trio uses only a normal microUSB cable to charge and to connect to the host computer, and unlike most of the competition, it is truly portable (as in it has a battery inside) and boasts a smaller footprint than most laptops.
Outside of this nifty gadget, you'll be hard pressed to find a compact device that you can take with you to print important documents that need immediate signatures (or at least draft copy). The scanning capability is not a big deal – you can always take pictures instead – although with the Trio, you will be able to do copies fairly easily.
Startech mDP to HDMI adaptor
Great for 4K
Quite a lot of Ultrabooks (and even a fair few graphics cards) now come with Mini DisplayPort connection as standard in lieu of the traditional D-Sub or HDMI ports; which can prove to be a pain if you're planning to deliver a presentation at a client's office and they only have a HDMI projector.
In theory, Mini DisplayPort – which is popular with Apple - has enough bandwidth to drive 4K monitors at 60Hz (HDMI can only do it at 30Hz) which results in a smoother end-user experience. However, today's product doesn't achieve this (it does reach 4K at 30Hz though).
What it does is merely converting the Mini DisplayPort to a HDMI port, all for just over £23 (about $35, AU$45), more specifically from DP m1.2 to HDMI 1.4 without the need for drivers or external power source.
Unlike other passive video adaptors, this one offers active signal conversion which means that it doesn't require a multi-mode DisplayPort source signal (like AMD's Eyefinity) which greatly expands its compatibility option. In addition, mDP supports 5.1 Surround Sound out of the box and is compatible with most Intel Thunderbolt devices. You will still need to have a HDMI cable at the other end though.
Lindy KVM cable
A nifty accessory for Windows and Android users
From a distance, it looks like a standard USB cable with a microUSB connector on one end and a bigger-than-average one on the other.
But look closer and you will see that it is a mirroring and KM (keyboard and mouse) sharing accessory. The KMC6105 allows you to view and interact with your Android device regardless of the brand and platform (i.e. tablet, Chromecast, smartphone) as well as sharing your keyboard and mouse.
Perhaps more importantly, it charges your Android device while in use, something that the previous generation model did not offer. Unlike that one, it allows you to use your smartphone as an additional screen. It also offers copy/cut and paste as well as drag and drop across the platform.
You will need to install a small executable file that is located on the device itself. Otherwise it will only behave like a standard (expensive) cable. You will need to enable Developer Options in newer smartphones by clicking seven times on the "build number" menu.
Subsequently, you will need to allow USB debugging which is how the KMC6105 works its magic. The installation process will also download the device's driver where necessary. Note that the device carries a standard two-year warranty and is USB 2.0 only.
The Android OS Mirroring and KM sharing cable is on sale at Lindy for £24.96.
Startech USB Stereo Audio Adapter
Add an SPDIF digital output to your laptop
Audio has historically never been a forte for laptops and that hasn't changed for Ultrabooks especially for those at the lower end of the spectrum (one might even say that it became worse).
Which is why something like an external sound card comes in quite handy. USB devices in general usually carry a performance penalty mostly because they use the host's processing power.
They also have a small impact on the battery life. However, given how powerful the recent crop of Intel-based processors has been, that shouldn't be an issue.
The ICUSBAUDIOMH External USB Card lets you add an S/PDIF digital audio output or a standard 3.5mm analog audio connection to your system through USB and essentially adds a 5.1 sound card.
The device, which is about the size of a lighter, has two 3.5-inch jacks for headphone and microphone (some Ultrabooks like the Lenovo Yoga 2 Pro only have one port).
Startech's external card comes at the end of a rather long USB cable, uses a Via VT1630A chipset and is capable of sampling audio at up to 96kHz.
Available in black or white, it does support Sony's PlayStation 3 gaming console and comes with a two-year warranty.
This USB Stereo Audio Adapter External Sound Card is available for sale at Startech.