Working 'untethered': How to get by without wires, power cords or cables

Are you ready to be truly unwired at the office or home?

Are you ready to keep working "untethered" -- with no power, network or phone wires physically leashing you to your environs?

Although there's a lot of doodad overlap, untethered isn't necessarily the same as "mobile/on the road," as the clusters of notebook users around AC outlets in airline gate areas testifies. Untethered means that you're encumbered by no wires at all, such as power cords, phone wires, and mouse and network cables. And it means that you can keep working, even when the power fails.

Reasons to work untethered range from it being a nice day and you want to work from your back porch, to not being able to use your regular office space because of heat/AC, construction, fumigation, electrical or other problems. Even though I've got a whole-house surge protector, and a UPS plus an old Zero Surge non-MOV-based surge protector for my office, when I hear thunder, I prefer to turn off and disconnect my desktop computer, grab my notebook and cordless or cell phone, and switch to untethered mode and gear. (I leave the cable modem and wireless router on, of course.)

Even if you work in a regular office, there may still be times you want or need to untether, for example, construction or other events make it impossible to work in your regular space ... or the power simply goes out.

Over the past several months, when I want or need to work elsewhere in the house than my office, I've discovered that notebook + Wi-Fi + cordless/cell phone isn't always enough. And being prepared for untethered computing has an additional benefit: It helps you be ready to keep working in the event of computer problems that a spare keyboard, cable or display won't resolve.

Here's some advice on what to buy/do, based on my experience, plus suggestions from a few fellow technonauts.

A pound or three of portable power

By (my) definition, untethered means no power cables between your devices and wall sockets, so you need to be prepared. Without enough power, you won't work for long.

Since affordable fuel cells for notebooks have yet to arrive, that means rechargeable batteries; for smaller devices, possibly also regular batteries or fuel-cell-like objects.

Most notebook computer batteries are good for two to three hours -- maybe four or five, if you've got an extended-capacity battery.

Depending on your notebook model and vendor, you may be able to extend this with secondary bay or base batteries ... but this 1) can be expensive, 2) won't be useful if you get a different notebook, and 3) won't directly let you power or charge other devices.

Your best bet, in my opinion, will be a third-party external notebook battery, which depending on the capacity vs. how much power your computer uses, can provide an additional four to eight hours of run time (making them also useful for long flights and other out-of-office use). Combined with your notebook's own battery, this should give you a full workday's worth of juice.

If you're provisioning a bunch of users or have more than one notebook computer, third-party external batteries make even more sense, because they'll accommodate most leading brands and models.

(If you have power somewhat nearby, and more than one external battery, you might also be able to extend your run time by recharging one battery while running off the other.)

Some of the popular/well-known external batteries include APC's UPB-70 Universal Notebook Battery (70 watt-hours, MSRP $149) or their due-out-any-day UPB90 (90 watt-hours, MSRP $249); mFuel's SPD-9 Notebook Power Bank (MSRP $299.99) or SPD-11 Universal Power Bank (102 watt-hours, MSRP $399), or one of Electrovaya's Power Pads, ranging from the PowerPad 95(MSRP $199) through the PowerPad 300 (MSRP $599), or the Valence N-Charge, like their VNC130 (130 watt-hours, MSRP $299).

I've been using an APC80 and an mFuel SPD-11 over the past several months, and they both provide several more hours of runtime to my 3-year-old, 15.4-in. screen IBM ThinkPad T40.

Just make sure what you're buying supports your computer, in terms of output voltage and having the appropriate power tip.

Powering/charging accessories and mobile devices

If you're going to be using your handheld devices and accessories all day, you'll also want to be able to recharge and power them. For example, with the Bluetooth feature on (such as for a headset), the battery in my Nokia phone runs down a lot faster -- in less than half a day -- even when I'm not on calls that much.

Many newer external notebook batteries, like APC's out-soon UPB90 and UPB70, and mFuel's two models, cannot only power your notebook, but also power/charge your other handheld devices, through tip-specific adapters and/or USB charging ports.

If your external notebook battery won't do the trick, you should be able to get USP adapters that let you charge up your mobile devices from your notebook USB ports ... but this, of course, means you're using up notebook runtime.

So you may want separate portable power packs for your mobile/handheld devices, like the new disposable Medis 24-7 Power Pack, or the "charging shells" you fill up with one, two or four AA batteries, like Energizer's 2-AA Energi to Go Charger, or the 1-AA Charge2Go. (You'll want something like this for your mobile power kit anyway, especially if you can get one with a mini-USB adapter.)

Warning -- Make sure the tip really fits your mobile device, and that you can change the batteries easily. And make sure you've got some AA batteries around.

Another interesting option is the Xantrex 100W PowerSource Mobile 100 (MSRP $129), a one-pound power object that includes an inverter and has an AC outlet, as well as USB ports. It doesn't pack a lot of juice, but if you've got something low-powered that needs wall current, this is an interesting possibility.

It goes without saying that external rechargeable batteries are only good if they're charged up, so make sure you've got chargers available, and periodically check and charge.

Untethered network access

Of course, you've already got a wireless Access Point -- probably, built into the router that connects to your broadband modem -- and a Wi-Fi-enabled notebook computer (or a Wi-Fi adapter for your notebook). (If you don't, it's easy and cheap to add a Wi-Fi AP or buy a new Wi-Fi router.)

But will your Wi-Fi signal reach far enough?

If not, start cheap and simple. I'm not talking about a Pringles-can-grade solution. Try getting a better antenna for your Wi-Fi router. Radio Shack sells these, and so do vendors like Belkin and Hawkings. Chris De Herrera, who runs TabletPCTalk.com, reports that the antenna he bought from Radio Shack "has given me like another 200 feet, out to my front or backyard."

If that doesn't work, Hawkings and other vendors sell a variety of signal extenders, repeaters and other products. You might also try putting a bigger/better antenna on your notebook (which may involve an external Wi-Fi adapter, as well).

What about power for your broadband and Wi-Fi?

Hopefully, if you're at the office or home, although you're working untethered, you've still got power, for your broadband modem, router and Wi-Fi access point (or wireless router). If not, the UPS they're connected to should be able to power them for a while, especially if you're not trying to also keep a desktop computer and a monitor running.

It's also worth exploring whether there's another Wi-Fi signal in the vicinity that you can make use of -- with permission in advance, of course.

Broadband/wireless alternatives

If you can't get a Wi-Fi signal -- or there's no wired broadband to Wi-Fi to -- you may still have options. There's cell phone company broadband, but you'll need the right accounts, devices and cables, of course. Worst case, you might be able to finesse a dial-up plain old telephone service (POTS) connection over a cordless phone or regular cell phone.

Tech journalist Ernest Lilley, for example, regularly uses his Sprint BlackBerry's "phone as modem" function as a wireless broadband link for his notebook computer: "It's $39.99 a month for unlimited data service, and it's often hard to believe it's not a cable or DSL connection." He also uses Sprint's data service to provision a home office with several users, who can share a connection through Linksys' Wireless-G Router for Sprint Mobile Broadband.

Phones without cords

If you're already a VoIP user, e.g., Skype, and you've got Internet access, or you're cell phone-oriented, problem solved.

But if you still have and use a POTS landline, how do you untether?

How do you use your POTS landline without any tethering? Go cordless, of course. At short distances, a Bluetooth headset will let you talk, although probably not dial. Plantronics and others make Bluetooth desk phone headsets. (I can't recommend one yet, I'm still trying them out.)

A regular cordless phone will give you more distance -- some tens of yards, depending on the product and on what's in the way. One good-looking option (which I haven't tried yet) is CT12 2.4 GHz Cordless Headset Telephone (MSRP $139.95),which will reach up to 150 feet away, according to Plantronics.

If you simply want to answer and talk, but not dial from the headset -- and are willing to drop over $300 -- Plantronics' CS55H BIN DECT headset will let you roam up to 300 feet away.

Another simpler option, depending on your cell phone call plan costs, may be to forward your landline to your cell phone. You'll need Call Forwarding service on your landline, and know how to do it. For a few bucks a month more, consider also getting Remote Call Forwarding, which will let you initiate call forwarding from your cell phone ... and will work even if your landline is dead.

Accessing your data, software and systems

Do you have all the data you need on your notebooks?

If it's on other computers or a NAS device, make sure you can access them through your wireless connection.

If you've got time to plan ahead, consider copying all essential data (security permitting) onto a flash drive, CD/DVD (if you've got an optical drive for your notebook) or pocket hard drive.

If you've got Internet access, an online data backup service will ensure you can get files you care about ... although probably not as conveniently as a local copy will be, if you want to get to a bunch of files.

If your other computers are up, you may want to access them -- securely, especially since you're going over a wireless connection. Make sure you've got all your software and settings. "We use remote data clients, such as those from Microsoft and Apple, as well as VNC server/clients to 'share screens' among sessions on various computers running around the lab," says Tom Henderson, who runs ExtremeLabs.com and is a principal operating systems reviewer for Network World.

Ergonomics and sundries

Just because you're untethered doesn't mean you should be unnecessarily uncomfortable.

An external keyboard, particularly one you're used to, can make a big difference. So can a mouse (or whatever pointing device you use). Even a travel mouse is often better than the one on your laptop.

Make sure that if you need any adapters, like PS/2-USB, you've got them in your kit. (They're cheap and small.)

If you're using an external keyboard, you can also consider a laptop stand to position the display better. APC, Targus and others make notebook stands; while most are simply plastic repositioners, some have features like USB hubs or cooling fans. Some include mousing areas.

You'll probably also want a USB hub, to accommodate keyboard, mouse, and two or four other USB doohickeys.

Don't neglect safety, advises ExtremeLabs' Henderson. "Keep liquids away from your computer gear and cables. Have a waterproof pouch handle to keep all gear in so you don't lose pieces. And don't forget sunblock if you're working outside."

Lastly, don't forget to stake out the most comfortable chair and location, and if you're outside, wear a hat.

With any luck, you'll never want to go back to your office, except to file paperwork.

Daniel Dern (dern@pair.com) is a freelance technology and business writer. His Web site is www.dern.com.

Copyright © 2007 IDG Communications, Inc.

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