The wireless road warrior’s essential guide

You can leave your cables at home and still be able to charge your phone, get online, print and more.

wireless traffic stream speeding down the street.

Over the past several years, wireless technology has improved so much that slowly, trip by trip, I’ve come to rely on it more and more to get my job done on the road. It’s convenient, and it lets me leave behind the jumble of cables I used to need.

I spend about 20% of my work life on the road, and I’ve learned a few tricks. In fact, nowadays I can charge my phone, print documents, get online, project a slideshow and collaborate with a shared online connection without a cable in sight. Here are some tips so you can cut the cord as well.

Charging up

My greatest anxiety when I travel on business is that my gear will go dead before the working day is done. But lately, new charging opportunities have been cropping up, such as USB power plugs at airports and on planes, hotel rooms and even street kiosks.

More and more, though, we’re getting completely wireless options.

And I do like doing things wirelessly. At work, I have a Qi wireless charging stand on my desk. It works by sending a wireless magnetic field up through the back of my phone, inducing an electrical current to flow inside the device and charge its battery. The best part is that there’s nothing to adjust or turn on. Just place the phone on the charging plate, face up, and power automatically flows into its batteries.

But, you might ask, what does that have to do with charging on the road? Well, when I travel, I’ve noticed that there are now public Qi charging places available, from hotel lobbies and business centers to airport lounges and coffee shops. Qi maker Aircharge has nearly 5,000 free public Qi charging stations at places such as McDonald’s, Marriott and Ibis hotels, and the offices of Facebook, Google, Deloitte, PwC and Cisco. And it’s easy to hunt down those charging stations with the Aircharge locator app.

Qi technology works directly with many recent Samsung phones, the LG G4 and eighth-generation iPhones. (See a list here.) Older phones can use a Qi-compatible case or an adapter.

You can also deploy Qi charging in your car.

If, like me, you spend a lot of time working out of your car, keeping your phone charged and accessible can be a challenge — it seems as if charging phones always end up on the floor of the car somehow — and rooting around for a wired charger can be a hassle. I recently chucked my plug-in USB charging cable and installed a Qi charger instead. Now, just like at work, I can start charging effortlessly when I get into the car, simply by placing my phone on the charging surface.

Audi offers a branded, $67 Qi device for the console compartment between the front seats of my 2014 Allroad, but I opted for a generic one that cost a lot less. While the directions that follow are specific to my car, they are can serve as general guidelines for just about any car.

Here’s what’s entailed:

qi car a Brian Nadel/IDG

1. Choose a location for the charger that will be easy to access, and make note of the distance between that spot and the nearest cigarette lighter adapter. In my car, the adapter is right in the console, so a very short cable was needed. Do a test positioning of the charging gear, making sure there will be room for the phone to sit on top. Also, when you buy the charger, make sure the charging surface is tacky so that the phone won’t slip off as you drive.

qi car b Brian Nadel/IDG

2. Set up the USB cable to power the charger from the cigarette lighter.

qi car c Brian Nadel/IDG

3. Once everything looks good, secure the charger in place with the included adhesive strip, screws or — my choice for this sort of thing — Velcro tape.

qi car d Brian Nadel/IDG

4. Plug the USB cable into the cigarette lighter adapter, hide the cable and remove the plastic that covers the Qi charger’s sticky area.

qi car e Brian Nadel/IDG

5. Start the car, put the phone on top of the Qi charger and confirm that it’s charging.

Mine worked on the first try, but if your phone isn’t charging, try moving it around on the surface; some devices are sensitive to position.

Now, whenever I get in the car, the first thing I do is put my phone onto the Qi charging pad. Then I can drive off, and even use battery-sucking turn-by-turn directions on the phone, knowing my phone won’t be dead when I arrive.

Getting online

We’ve all been getting online wirelessly while on the go for quite some time, using the cellular data connection on our phones or tablets. But there are other ways to wirelessly get online, and many are free. In addition to getting online by using the Wi-Fi in hotel lobbies and libraries, you can in most major cities (including New York City, San Francisco, Seoul and many others) use free municipal Wi-Fi networks. As with any publicly shared network, you’ll need to protect your system with a couple of security tricks, but more on that later.

The closest thing to a consolidated website that shows all these free networks is Wikipedia’s “Municipal wireless network” entry, which lists dozens of them. The one I use the most is LinkNYC, which lists more than 1,200 9.5-foot-tall kiosks that not only provide gigabit internet access but also free phone calls and a pair of USB power outlets. The city plans to deploy 7,500 kiosks throughout the five boroughs.

linknyc kiosk Brian Nadel/IDG

Free municipal Wi-Fi networks such as this LinkNYC kiosk provide an easy way to get online wirelessly, as well as being charging options.

As you might imagine, they are in heavy demand in a city that never lets its notebooks sleep. I generally get about a 150Mbps connection — plenty for sending and receiving email and even taking part in the occasional videoconference.

Free public Wi-Fi is becoming the closest thing to a new digital right as exists today, but you do have to take steps to remain secure, especially if you’re carrying proprietary or sensitive information, such as customer lists or new designs.

To start, make sure that your system is not set to automatically connect to these sorts of networks. I do this by making sure that the “Connect to Open Hotspots” option (Settings > Network & Internet > Wi-Fi > Additional settings) on my Windows 10 laptop is unchecked so that I am not inadvertently getting online and leaving my system open to phishing attempts.

If the municipal network lets you encrypt your session and use WPA passcodes, great. That’s not always the case. LinkNYC, for example, currently allows that only for Apple iOS.

But by far the best protection is to use a virtual private network that encodes all data that passes through the network. Most business travelers can use their company-provided VPN, but if you don’t have one, you can get a subscription to a mobile VPN or use the Opera browser’s free VPN for PCs and Macs.

To securely get online with Opera (with a security assist from the SurfEasy VPN, which is free via Opera only), start by opening the browser.

  1. After opening the Opera browser, hold down the Shift and Control keys and type N.
  2. This initiates a new private session, and a VPN icon appears next to the address bar.
  3. Click on it and then on Enable.
  4. Between a second and a minute later, depending on traffic, the VPN will create an encrypted secure session.
  5. When you’re online via the VPN, the icon turns blue.

For Androids, iPhones or iPads, you’ll need to get Opera’s free VPN app and initiate a session first, then go to Opera. Either way, it’s free and lets you choose where the encrypted data emerges onto the open web, a big advantage for international travelers.

Using your phone as a hotspot

A notebook or tablet equipped with a mobile data card makes it as easy to get online wirelessly as with your smartphone, but if you lack that convenient tool, an easy alternative is to use your phone as a mobile hotspot that your other devices can tap for internet service.

Here’s how to do it with an Android phone:

  1. Swipe up or down to bring up the apps.
  2. Open the Settings section and tap Connections.
  3. Scroll down and tap Mobile Hotspot and Tethering.
  4. Choose whether you want your devices to connect via Wi-Fi, Bluetooth or USB tethering.
  5. After confirming Wi-Fi sharing, enter the network’s name and password; it connects using WPA2 encryption.

If you tap on the burger menu in the upper right, you can configure the connection — change the network name and password, pick and choose which devices can use the network and bump any of those off the network after five to 60 minutes. There are even directions for getting online at the bottom.

I quickly learned that using my phone as a hotspot chews up battery life and therefore works best when there’s an AC outlet nearby. My Note 8’s battery life expectancy declined from over 10:00 hours to 7:20 as soon as I set it up as a hotspot with a couple of devices connected.

And here’s how to set up a mobile hotspot an iPhone or an iPad with a cellular data plan:

  1. Start at Settings and Mobile Data.
  2. Tap Personal Hotspot.
  3. To activate the hotspot, tap the slider.

Showing your screen

Business people on the road often want to connect a tablet, phone or notebook to a large display or projector so that everyone in the room can see what’s on their screen. Being able to do it wirelessly greatly simplifies the process.

While there are many protocols you can use to do it, including the industry standard Miracast, Apple’s Airplay and Barco ClickShare, Google’s Chromecast receiver is my favorite because it is small, inexpensive and able to deliver HD (with the $35 base Chromecast device) or 4K streams (with the $70 Chromecast Ultra).

A few of the places that I visit for work have Chromecast receivers connected to their projectors. But because this is still rare, I carry the disc-like Chromecast device with me when I hit the road.

Chromecast works with Androids, iPhones, iPads, Windows PCs and Macs. While you can cast anything from the Chrome browser or one of its compatible apps, I prefer to mirror what’s on my Note 8’s screen. Here’s how to do it (the iPhone/iPad setup is similar):

  1. Plug the Chromecast receiver into the projector or display’s HDMI port and power it up with USB power, either from the display or an AC adapter.
  2. Get, install and open the Google Home app.
  3. Make sure that the computer you’re using for casting and the Chromecast are on the same Wi-Fi network; it’s shown in the lower left corner of the projected screen.
  4. With Chromecast plugged in and connected to the network, it should display a Chromecast number and a connection PIN.
  5. Go to the Menu in the upper left and click on Cast screen/audio and then click on the Cast screen/audio box.
  6. Click on the Chromecast number that matches the one on the screen and then enter the PIN.
  7. In a second, if all goes well, what’s on your screen is being sent to the Chromecast and on to the projector or display.  

Of course, when you plan to share a PowerPoint presentation, you’ll want to email it to yourself beforehand so that you can readily open it on your phone or tablet. I use the free Office Mobile version of PowerPoint, which lets me also pick up files from my OneDrive online account.

For a quick start, tap PowerPoint’s show icon on top, which looks like a rolldown screen with a triangle in it. At this point, the show is running full-screen with your notes (if you have any) below. Tap the right side to advance the slides or the left to go back.

In addition to marking up the image with the pen tool, you can highlight anything on-screen with PowerPoint’s laser pointer. It’s a little tricky to set up, though.

  1. Tap the Formatting icon up top (the letter A and a pen).
  2. Tap Home and then Slide Show.
  3. Tap the From Beginning line.
  4. The slide show’s opening image is on-screen
  5. If you hold your finger down on the screen, a fake red laser spot shows up on the screen that can be moved around to highlight an area.

Printing everywhere

Printing can seem so 20th century, but there’s no substitute when you want to leave behind your slideshow, the key spreadsheet from your presentation or a summary of the meeting. There are several ways to put these things on paper without touching a cable.

For phones, tablets and notebooks that have a near-field communications (NFC) chip, it couldn’t be easier. My office has two NFC-capable printers ready for visitors to use. Unfortunately, the software isn’t universal, so you’ll need to load a printer-specific app.

I’ll show you using the HP ePrint app, but the ones for Epson, Samsung and other NFC-ready printers are similar. Here’s how it works on my Note 8.

print b Brian Nadel/IDG

1. Download, install and open the ePrint app.
2. Find the NFC logo on the printer; it’s on the top left of this HP 452 Color LaserJet. 
3. Pick the type of file: photo, file or web.

print c2 Brian Nadel/IDG

4. Select the item to be printed.

print e Brian Nadel/IDG

5. Tap Preview to see it full-screen.

print f Brian Nadel/IDG

6. Tap Print at the bottom of phone screen.

print g Brian Nadel/IDG

7. Hold the phone over the printer’s NFC logo, and the process starts.

Apple’s preferred wireless printing technique is AirPrint, but you need to have access to the Wi-Fi network the printer lives on.

AirPrint works with a wide variety of printers, iPads, iPhones and Macbooks. For most items, such as images and web pages, tap the share icon (rectangle with arrow pointed up). Then, tap Print. For Word documents, however, tap the File icon and then AirPrint.

  1. When the preview comes up, tap Select Printer.
  2. From the available printers, pick one.
  3. At this point, it should show a faithful preview based on the printer’s abilities.
  4. Tap Print.
  5. The page should start coming out in a moment.
airprint a Brian Nadel/IDG

Access AirPrint through AirDrop.

No more cables

The wires we use to connect devices are messy and complicated. When things can be done wirelessly, even on the road, you’ll find that you’re spending a lot less time in uncomfortable positions under desks and a lot more time having valuable conversations with your business contacts.

Copyright © 2018 IDG Communications, Inc.

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