2013 Last Minute Holiday Buyer’s Guide – Part 4

Computers

There are a couple things to consider here especially if you’re buying a new PC, regardless of type, to get. Most desktop PC’s come with the keyboards and mice that you will need, especially if you buy a Windows PC. I have yet to purchase a Windows desktop that didn’t. Many of them also come with basic speakers. Keep this in mind when purchasing a Windows desktop. The OEM you choose to purchase from may provide you with the basics to get the job done, without having to either reuse older peripherals or having to buy new ones.

My recommendations for a laptop computer are pretty easy. There are basically three things you need to get the most out of your laptop, regardless of OEM – a set of desktop speakers, a docking station and of course, a bag.

When it comes to speakers, I really like Creative Inspire T6300 – Speaker system – For PC – 5.1-channel – 57 Watt (total) from Creative Labs. The speakers support Dolby 5.1 Surround, and at $80, it’s an easy and very affordable way to get some very good sound. They are easily placeable, though they aren’t wireless. They have a nice, included subwoofer that provides enough base to create a decent enough bottom.

It’s also hard to go wrong, especially on a laptop – regardless of how much THAT cost – at this price point. You’re getting a lot for the money in this entry level speaker system. I especially like the desktop volume control that it includes. It makes it easy to dial back the sound in case things get too loud, which is very possible considering what you might pay for them.

I also like Tiger Direct when it comes to shopping. They have decent prices, usually have what you’re looking for in stock, and ship just about anywhere you want or need. I’ve been buying from them for a while and have yet to have a bad experience.

Dell spoiled me with their C-Dock from their Latitude C Series laptops. I had about 4 of those over the years from different companies I have worked for; and I also bought one or two for myself. Their larger docking station with two PCI slots was a particular favorite. I used it to house a SoundBlaster sound card and a WinTVGo card. It allowed me to watch cable TV when connected to the docking station, which was pretty cool.

Today, there aren’t too many docking stations available, and honestly, I don’t know why. When it comes to MacBooks, however, Apple doesn’t provide any kind of docking station solution for any of its notebooks. As far as Apple laptops are concerned, I find this very frustrating, as they’re expensive enough and elegant enough to warrant such an accessory. The biggest problem I have with my MacBook is all the cables coming off all of its ports. Not only does it look bad, but it’s a pain in the butt to attach, detach and reattach every time I want to use it with my Thunderbolt monitor, wired LAN connection, external keyboard or other USB peripherals. My Mac has me plugging and chugging cables in and out of it at least twice a day, every weekday, at least. A docking station would at least allow me to plug the cables in once and then attach the notebook to the docking station.

For a Mac, there is no native solution; and until Jony Ive decides to wake up, slip out of the spaghetti on his desk and design one, there won’t be. Thankfully, a couple companies have made a couple solutions that might work.

Targus makes a universal USB dock that will cost you about $170 USD. That plugs into a USB 2.0 or (preferably) USB 3.0 port on your notebook, using just 1 port; but pushes audio, video and other supported, connected peripherals through the dock. This solution should work for ANY PC – Mac or Windows – but you’ll likely experience resource issues when it comes to audio and/or video performance, so be ready for those.

For non-Retina MacBooks, Henge Docks makes a decent solution. You end up standing your MacBook on its left side, in a plastic docking station where it plugs directly into ALL ports with the extension cords that come provided with it. It’s not a bad solution, but at roughly $70 USD, it’s a bit pricey for a molded piece of plastic. However, this is the best “native” solution that I’ve been able to find for non-retina MacBooks, MacBook Pro’s, etc.

If you have a Retina MacBook Pro, docking solutions are a bit more complicated. Yes, you can always use the universal Targus solution, but I just don’t like the video drivers this thing installs; and while it does have an HDMI port, it doesn’t have a Thunderbolt port, so there’s no way to use a Thunderbolt monitor with it. You’ll have to go directly into your MacBook Pro.

Beginning in Q1 2014, however, the HengeDock Horizontal Dock will be available for about $250 USD. The dock is for Retina MacBook Pro’s only, but will allow you to dock the machine and not have to plug and chug any cables. It will also work with Thunderbolt peripherals. This is the solution to get if you have a Retina MacBook Pro. It solves a number of issues with the vertical docks as well as provides you with the same benefits of a native docking solution. The device comes with its own power cable. This solution includes a way for it to connect to the Mag Connector 2 power connector. You won’t need to buy an extra power supply. It also provides a way to slide connections in and out of the MBP so that you can use all your connections through the dock. It’s also horizontal so that if you want to use your laptop screen as an additional display, you can. The original Henge Dock was just a plastic form with some cables (excluding power) that you slid into the dock and then put your MacBook in the dock. To remove it, you steadied the dock and then pulled the notebook out. The Horizontal Dock is much more elegant, and it has some electronics to it, hence the larger price point.

Lastly, you’re going to need something to carry your new notebook in. This should be something that offers both comfort and protection. There are two schools of thought – brief case or backpack. After carrying a notebook and all the other gear I need to be able to use it effectively, I have found that a single strapped brief case puts too much strain on my back and shoulder.

My gear bag usually has the notebook and power supply, other cables, a tablet and other work related items, as well as a thermos of coffee and lunch. At its heaviest it’s been 30lbs. At its lightest, it’s been 20lbs. Having that much on one shoulder has caused some back and neck issues. I know I have at least one pinched nerve…

A backpack works better for me. At least that way, the weight is more evenly distributed on my back when its double strapped on both shoulders. There are a NUMBER of options for both briefcases and backpacks. You have to figure out how much you want to spend, while still providing yourself with enough protection. Plan on spending around $100 to $150 for either form factor, depending on how sturdy and how much protection you may need.

If you go with a briefcase, you need to get one that has enough room to hold your notebook, its power supply and some other key gear like cables, a travelling mouse and perhaps a tablet. You should also have enough room to store some paperwork. Make sure that the strap has enough padding, is adjustable and that the corners are reinforced. You’re going to want to make certain that you don’t damage your notebook when travelling.

If you go with a backpack, you’ll want to find one with the same level of protection as the briefcase I described, but one that also unzips, folds flat and is TSA approved. Having something like that won’t only be more comfortable when travelling, it will make it easier to get through airport security.

Smartphones

There are many things that you could get to complement your smartphone – cases, docks, power cables, headsets, etc. However, based on the way that cellphone laws are changing country wide, there’s one thing that you really need to get yourself more than ANYTHING else on the market today – a hands free kit.

Hands free kits allow you to use your smartphone with minimal distractions while driving. They are becoming more and more important, as many states have passed legislation preventing the use of your device while driving. Using an HFK will allow you to use many of its functions, without actually handling the device and taking your eyes off the road.

If your phone doesn’t have a specific car kit or hands free kit, you can go a couple of different ways – standard Bluetooth headset, dedicated universal HFK or Bluetooth equipped car stereo. A dedicated car kit will likely include a native way to secure and power the device while driving. It may also have a dedicated driving app to help you stay focused on the road. This may be something like the Nexus One’s Car Dock, or some other OEM approved, powered, docking solution.

If you don’t go that route, a Bluetooth enabled car radio like my Kenwood KDC-BT945U is also a beautiful choice. This gives you the ability to play music via USB connection, as well as call and talk hands free. With Bluetooth audio, using navigation apps can either pause or voice over music or calls without you missing a beat. They’ll also both keep you from getting a very expensive ticket. Many states have hands free laws taking effect on 2014-01-01.

Conclusion

There are literally hundreds upon thousands of different case, speakers, keyboards and peripherals that you can purchase and find for your tablet, PC and smartphone. I haven’t even begun to scratch the surface here. The biggest thing you need to know and understand about accessories is that their value is unfortunately, throw-away. Meaning that they have little to no resale value in and of themselves, but may help you land a decent price for the device they support if you try to sell it on eBay, Craig’s List or other resale site.

Once you purchase a specific accessory and it really works for you, you’ll likely wonder how you were ever able to use the device without it. In the case of a car kit, keyboard or other specialized gizmo, this will likely be the case. Unless the accessory is generic enough to be used with more than one device – like a wireless keyboard that you could use with your PC AND your tablet or a Bluetooth enabled car stereo – then be happy that it provides value while you have it. Many accessories are designed and engineered to last and be used only as long as you have your device.

This is the biggest issue with most technology purchases. They’re great, but you will likely want or need some kind of accessory in order to get the best use of the device while you have it. Be aware of their cost. Be aware of their shelf life, and then purchase what you need, or feel will grow with you as you go from device to device. However, do yourself a favor and don’t get upset if your latest toy doesn’t work with it or work well with it. Sometimes, they just weren’t meant to…

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