High-Tech tools for Business

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The sign of a busy worker used to be a desk with a huge PC crowded on the sides by small gadgets and hemmed in below by snaky tangles of data and power cables. Today’s business tech is neater and simpler: A thin laptop or tablet connected to a wireless network gets the work done and leaves room on the desktop for a cup of coffee — or your feet.

High-tech business tools continue to follow the simple-is-better trend, much to the relief of entrepreneurs, executives and entry-level office grunts alike. Sure, squeezing the most sophisticated features into a cellphone, tablet or PC might make them look good on paper, but simplicity can go a long way toward keeping the workday productive.
 
For example, Apple Inc.’s newest iPad sets the standard for tablet computing, not so much because it’s so technically ahead of other tablets, but because Apple has succeeded in maintaining its simplicity. Users of older iPads will have no trouble adjusting to the new one — the same finger poking and swiping techniques prevail. However, by sharpening the resolution of the 9.7-inch display from 1,024 by 768 pixels to 2,048 by 1,536 pixels and upgrading the rear-facing camera from 0.7 to 5 megapixels, the new iPad becomes more than just a good photo- and video-shooting device — it can now be used as a business-class scanner. Documents shot with the iPad’s rear camera — and a steady hand — should come out sharp enough to share. Add an iPad-compatible stylus and you can sign documents and email them.

The 4G versions of the new iPad link with AT&T or Verizon’s 4G LTE cellular networks, which are much faster than the 3G technology built into the older iPad 2. Here again, there’s little for the user to do to get the extra speed. Once an iPad is configured for data access the first time, it’s just a matter of staying in range of a 4G-cell tower, which is much easier to do in a big city than in suburban or rural areas. Note than the new iPad, which comes with 16, 32 or 64 gigabytes (GB) of internal storage, will burn a hole in your wallet before it rests comfortably in your lap. Prices for Wi-Fi only versions range from $499 to $699 while iPads with 4G support and Wi-Fi cost from $629 to $829.
 
Among rival products, Samsung’s Galaxy Tab series of Android tablets gained admirable market share by offering a variety of sizes as well as many cellular data connectivity options. The Galaxy Tabs come with bright 7-, 7.7-, 8.9- or 10.1-inch displays, powerful dual-core processors, stereo speakers and front and rear cameras. The new Samsung Galaxy Tab 2 tablets are the company’s first in the U.S. with Android 4.0 (sometimes called Ice Cream Sandwich), the newest and most visually appealing version of Google’s Android operating system (OS) software. While there are some tweaks in the new software, veteran Android users will not be thrown by the new OS. At $400 for the 10.1-inch version and $250 for the 7.7-inch model, these Wi-Fi only Galaxy Tab 2 units are significantly cheaper than iPads, yet offer some features iPads don’t. For example, unlike iPads, which are sealed, the Galaxy Tab 2s have slots for removable microSD memory cards with data capacities up to 32GB. Unlike many moderately priced Android tablets, the Galaxy Tab 2s have full access to the hundreds of thousands of applications in Google’s online Play Store (formerly known as the Android Market). Many off-brand tablets only provide access to second-tier app stores such as GetJar.

At three-quarters of a pound and less than half an inch thick, the 7-inch Galaxy Tab 2 is closer to the size of an e-book reader, such as Amazon’s Kindle Fire, than the 9.7-inch iPad and is thus more comfortable to use in elbow-to-elbow situations like on a plane or commuter train or bus. In addition to their Wi-Fi and Bluetooth wireless adapters, the Galaxy Tab 2 tablets also include retro technology that harkens back to the days of Palm Pilots: an infrared blaster. The infrared emitter allows the Galaxy Tab 2s to be used as sophisticated remote controls for audio and video devices — a capability that can come in handy when doing presentations. The tablets can be programmed to replace multiple remotes, thus providing a single controller for a home theater setup. Included is a Smart Remote app, which helps users search for television programming.

Nestled between the cellphone and tablet segments is a new generation of huge cellphones than can be used as small tablets. The Samsung Galaxy Note ($300 with a two-year plan) has a huge, 5-inch display and operates like any other Android smartphone, but the Note also supports tablet-friendly apps that make use of its included stylus. Here again, you can sign, annotate or otherwise mark up documents and photos and email them — a nice capability for traveling workers.

Backing up important computer files is always a good idea, but many of us don’t do it because it’s a downright boring task. Here again, keeping things simple can help get things done. SugarSync lets you designate folders on your computer that automatically get synchronized to a password-protected online storage area — otherwise known as “in the cloud.” As you create and update files, those files are automatically updated online. SugarSync files are accessible from any device with a Web browser and the service works across multiple devices. In other words,  you can open a file with your tablet on the commuter train to work, update it and have the revised version waiting on your office computer when you get to your office.

SugarSync is free if you can make do with 5GB of online storage. Paid plans range from $5 a month (or $50 a year) for 30GB of storage to $40 a month (or $400 a year) for 500GB of data space. A three-user business package with 100GB of storage is $30 a month or $300 a year. SugarSync mobile apps are available for Apple, Android, BlackBerry, Symbian and Windows Mobile devices.

While Wi-Fi hotspots at coffee shops, airports, hotel lobbies and other public spaces can come in handy for quick email checks or casual Web surfing, they’re often not dependable enough for large file transfers. Wi-Fi connections at convention centers and conferences are notoriously slow due to the sheer number of users attempting to use a limited amount of bandwidth. A simple alternative is to travel with your own Wi-Fi hotspot, thus maintaining more control over your connectivity. The $99 CLEAR Spot 4G Apollo Personal Hotspot lets users securely connect up to eight devices. Logging into the device is no different than connecting to a public Wi-Fi hotspot, but of course you have control over the access password and the level of data security.
 
Unlike other CLEAR Spot devices, the Apollo has an LCD readout that monitors signal strength, the number of connected devices and the charge left on its battery. The unit can be recharged via an AC charger or by plugging it into the USB port of a desktop or laptop computer. You can adjust the strength of the Wi-Fi signal to save battery power. While business gizmos will always get smaller and faster, it’s the simple ones that maximize productivity in a busy office while hopefully minimizing the staff’s intake of aspirin 
and Maalox.