Cool Yule Tools for Work

Make the drudgery of the office go by a lot faster with some cool work gadgets this holiday season

Gift guide collage work article
Steve Sauer

Editor's Note: For the past 16 years, Network World has presented our picks of the geekiest, techiest or just plain coolest gadgets for holiday gift giving purposes. We’ve witnessed the birth of the smartphone, the dominance of the tablet and the shrinking size of the television (at least the depth, the width and height keep getting better). We’ve seen robots, big and small, and every conceivable charger, phone case, travel widget, computer, printer and USB doohickey imaginable.

So here we are in 2015 – halfway through the second decade of the new millennium (does anyone use that term anymore?). We live in a world of instant news and social recommendations via Twitter, Facebook, YouTube, Instagram, Snapchat and countless other communication platforms. Most of your holiday shopping will be done online – whether it’s Amazon and other mega-shopping sites, or just the online site of your favorite retailer, depending on whether they’re offering free shipping or not. Black Friday and Cyber Monday are national holidays. There’s so much stuff out there and so many ways to buy that stuff that it’s no wonder people freak out at the holidays.

Can we help you sort through the madness? Hell, no – that would be a full-time job here at the Cool Yule Tools Headquarters, and we’re really busy fending off pushy PR people who insist that their iPhone 6S case is absolutely the perfect gift guide item (and in one case, it was, since it also could charge our phone).

But what we can do is offer up our humble list of products and technologies that may impress someone on your holiday gift list. Some of the stuff is ultra-techie and ultra-geeky, some of the stuff you may look at and say, “What kind of gift is that?” Quite simply, it’s stuff we’ve tried out this year, stuff we’ve liked, or stuff that we think can help you (or someone you know) live a better life in this crazy, tech-obsessed culture.

This article highlights our picks for gift items meant for "WORK" - stuff that will help you become more productive when you travel, or when you're sitting behind those cubicle walls at your desk.

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Choetech CHOE 51W, 4-port Smart Multi USB Quick Car Charger

$19.99 (Amazon Prime)

If you do any kind of traveling with kids who take lots of devices with them in the car, you’re going to LOVE LOVE LOVE this adapter. It has four USB ports! Four! If you have a car that has only one car charging port (luckily, our mini-van has two), this adapter greatly expands your charging options for smartphones, tablets and other devices you may end up needing on your next road trip (for example, the Seagate Wireless hard drive).

If you own one of these devices (Samsung Galaxy S6, S6 Edge, HTC M9, Nexus 6, HTC Butterfly 2, HTC One M8, Moto X, Galaxy Note 4/Note Edge, Sony Xperia series), the Qualcomm Quick Charge technology can recharge them a whole lot quicker than a normal adapter.

It’s one of those stocking stuffer items that your recipient might not appreciate immediately, but I guarantee they’ll be using this long after the novelty tie fades away. If you ever get to a point where you need more than four USB ports, you could always look for a vehicle that has two charging ports, get a second one of these and then have eight USB ports. If you need more than eight, well, then we need to have a talk about what you’re doing in your car.

-- Writeup by Keith Shaw

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Lenovo LaVie Z notebook

Starts at $1,400

Apple gets the reputation for having the really, really thin and light notebooks with its MacBook Air line, but there are also some thin-and-lights on the Windows PC side of the ball as well. Such is the case with the LaVie Z line from Lenovo - starting at 1.87 pounds and measuring 0.7-inches thick (thin?), this notebook is so lightweight that you’ll likely have a bigger problem trying to remember whether it’s in your bag during your travels or commute.

The lightweight design doesn’t seem to sacrifice in areas such as performance or battery life - Lenovo claims battery life lasts up to 9 hours (with multiple power-saving options available to extend the life if you need extra juice), and it comes with the fifth-generation of Intel Core processors (the unit we tried had an Intel Core i7). For users who are really, really into thin-and-light, they’ll be stunned at how little this system weighs.

The thin design does sacrifice a few things - there’s no optical drive slot and no port for an Ethernet cable - you’ll have to get a docking station or external device for those features. You only get two USB 3.0 ports as well - so adding things like additional storage, a keyboard or external mouse might also mean some shuffling or hub purchases (one colleague mentioned I should just move to Bluetooth for keyboards and mice, but pffft - I’m a traditionalist there). There’s also an HDMI-out port if you want to see things on a screen that’s larger than the 13.3-inch display.

The one big downside for me on this model is the keyboard - perhaps as a way to get the device lighter and thinner, it seems like the keys are less durable and functional compared with keyboards I’ve used on other notebooks. In addition, for some reason Lenovo went with a smaller backspace/delete key (the one next to the +/= side on the second row). Instead of a double-wide backspace key, you get instead two smaller ones - one labeled “FWD Space” and another labeled “Back Space”. As a touch typist, this was extremely annoying, as my fingers usually hit the left side of the Backspace key when I’m typing, so every time I tried it on the LaVie, I hit the FWD Space key. I’m not even sure why you need a FWD Space key on this system, when you already have a Spacebar and a four-way arrow key that includes a right arrow key (someone enlighten me on how this key is different).

If the keyboard backspace thing doesn’t annoy you that much, then this can be a very cool notebook worth looking at.

-- Writeup by Keith Shaw

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Ventev Chargesync tangle-free charging cable

$29.99 (Lightning adapter tested)

This cable is an update from one of my favorite accessory companies, Ventev. The latest ChargeSync cables now include an aluminum alloy cable option, making it even less likely to get tangled when you wrap it up, or get frayed if you bend the cable too much.

After trying one of these, you’ll never, ever, ever go back to an inferior charging cable. Get one of these for everyone that you buy a smart device for – they’ll use these longer than they use the device, in most cases.

Seriously, $30 for a charging cable might seem extravagant, but if you travel a lot and have experienced the degradation of lower-quality cables (or have gotten those tangled a lot), you’ll appreciate the extra money spent.

-- Writeup by Keith Shaw

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Brother HL-L2300D compact laser printer


The last time I set up and used a personal laser printer was in the mid-1990s, long before inkjet printers and the colorful options they offer came into my life. Sure, I still use laser printers today, but they’re the giant ones in the office with all sorts of other options, like scanning, copying and faxing (yes, faxing!). For my personal printing needs, it’s been the multi-function color inkjet model for the last 20 or so years.

But you do sacrifice something when going from laser to inkjet, especially for wordy documents like contracts, letters, etc. There’s still something nice about having a crisp, clear document that only a laser printer can offer. The lower price model offered here by Brother (only $120) gives consumers the ability to own a laser printer of their own again.

The two biggest features of this other than the price are the speed of the printer – Brother says the print speed can go up to 27 pages per minute – and the ability to print two-sided documents automatically and easily. This feature helps save paper and time, especially if you’re doing something fancy like printing up a brochure.

The printer comes with a paper tray that holds up to 250 sheets of paper, and can do both legal and letter-sized paper. A manual tray at the top can handle things like envelopes and labels.

There is one downside to the printer – the only connectivity option is USB, and it doesn’t come with its own cable – you have to provide one yourself. After years of seeing printers with both Ethernet and Wi-Fi options, it was a bit disconcerting to have to position the printer close enough to my computer to connect it. This printer would likely live on a desk or nearby, unlike networked printers that can be far away from your computer.

A compact laser printer might not be at the top of your holiday gift-giving list, but if you have someone who prints a lot of documents, the price is good enough for a printer that can give them the joy of laser once again.

-- Writeup by Keith Shaw

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Plantronics Explorer 500 Bluetooth headset


The growth of in-vehicle Bluetooth speaker systems has lowered the need for drivers to invest in a separate Bluetooth headset, but if you’re one of those drivers who don’t have such a system in their car yet (either by choice or that you’re driving an older car), here’s a headset option you’ll appreciate.

The Explorer 500 is a very tiny Bluetooth headset, which should appeal to users who don’t like a big, bulky microphone or device hanging on (or in) their ear. It’s extremely lightweight, and you can attach to your ear simply with the included ear piece, or attach a plastic ear-loop that goes over the ear for more stability.

Tech features include dual-microphone noise reduction (which Plantronics says is enhanced by HD voice when used with wideband-enabled phones and service), and voice activation that connects directly to either Siri or Google Now. A fully charged unit offers up to 7 hours of talk time, and it also includes a “DeepSleep” mode that shuts off the headset if the headset gets out of range with the phone (like when you leave it in the car but forget to turn it off).

Keeping on the simplicity theme, there’s no bulky power charger – instead you get a flexible charging strap that can connect to a USB port – when you’re not using the strap you can take advantage of two magnets in it to create a loop that can hold the headset.

For activities beyond just talking on the phone, the headset supports A2DP for music and podcast streaming, although you have to listen in one ear (non-stereo), and in-device audio alerts let you know how much battery life is left and whether you’re connected to a phone.

-- Writeup by Keith Shaw

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NETGEAR Around Town 4G LTE Mobile Internet hot spot

$199.99 (Amazon Prime price), plus data costs (from $24.99 per GB up to $74.99 for 5GB).

If you’ve ever used a portable Wi-Fi hotspot that also has wireless WAN capabilities (3G, 4G, etc.), you’ll be familiar with the Around Town device. It’s a small device, about the size of a flattened, rectangular hockey puck, that provides cellular data access via an internal Wi-Fi connection. This lets you share that 4G connection with multiple devices, good for hotel rooms on family trips or collaborating with clients (instead of paying for multiple Wi-Fi connections at a hotel, for example).

Unlike other devices, the Around Town doesn’t require a monthly data service cost. You initially get 1GB of data with the purchase, and then when you use that up you can pay for additional data – you basically pay for what you use. With monthly data plans, any unused data gets lost month to month (unless you pay for a data carryover plan), and if you go over – then get ready for data overage charges.

That’s all gone with the Around Town, making this a nice option for an employee who travels only occasionally, or for groups of workers who might need network access for a quick overnight trip (an IT staffer can pass this out and then give it to a different worker the next week).

The costs for the data plans seem a bit high (even at the high end, $15 per GB is costly), especially when you consider that doing lots online these days can gobble up data very fast (forget about streaming Netflix via this thing).

-- Writeup by Keith Shaw

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Lytro Illum light field digital camera


A few years ago, Lytro amazed us with its initial offering, a camera that could let users change the focus of their images in post-production, guaranteeing that the photos in question would always be good.

The Illum camera is the next step in that evolution – instead of going after mass consumers, the Illum camera is clearly aimed at professional photographers and semi-professionals – the digital camera “pro-sumer” audience. This is a serious camera with a TON of different features aimed at providing users with the ability to create awesome images. If you’re a camera user who likes taking photos with the auto-focus button, step away – there’s a bit of a learning curve with this device.

The camera is able to capture light from every angle with its sensors and Snapdragon 800 processor. With an 8x optical zoom lens and 30-250mm equivalent focal length, the camera gives great flexibility in capturing the depth of a photo in new ways – users can choose to focus on details on the foreground and background with greater accuracy than with a traditional digital camera.

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