As I mentioned previously, I recently tried limiting myself to just one carry-on bag when flying. I couldn’t do it–and frankly, I don’t recommend the practice. However, the exercise prompted me to re-evaluate all the gear and related accessories I normally pack. Here are two items that will continue to make the cut. Next week: three more, plus one just-for-fun accessory.
Belkin’s Mini Surge Protector With USB Charger
Hotel-room power outlets can be difficult to reach. The outlets you want to use may already be spoken for by the TV, lamp, or bedside alarm clock. Finding an available power outlet in an airport departure gate can also be a challenge.
For these and other reasons, I pack Belkin’s Mini Surge Protector With USB Charger ($25) on every trip. The power strip offers three, three-pronged AC outlets for recharging laptops or other devices, plus two powered USB ports for iPods and such. It’s also, as its name implies, a surge protector. I love the ability to rotate the power strip’s plug by 360 degrees: If you’re trying to connect the Mini Surge Protector to an already crowded wall outlet, you can position the power strip sideways.
A few downsides are worth mentioning. The Mini Surge Protector is thick and weighs 6.6 ounces, a bit more than other portable power strips. Given its bulk, you may not be able to squeeze it behind a hotel room bed or into other tight confines, regardless of the rotating plug. But attaching the power strip to a 1-foot extension cord, like one from Cables To Go ($5)will save the day in those circumstances
Note: Kensington just announced the Portable Power Outlet (list price: $25). Like the Belkin product, it offers three AC outlets and two powered USB ports and offers surge protection. Unlike the Mini Surge Protector, the Kensington product has its own cord. I haven’t tested this product, however.
StarTech WiFi Detective
StarTech’s Wi-Fi Detective (about $54 and up online) helps you quickly discover Wi-Fi networks in the vicinity without having to start your laptop. (You can accomplish the same thing with an Apple iPhone or iPod Touch, or another Wi-Fi enabled handheld.) The device, about the size of a package of stick chewing gum, lets you view information about nearby networks on its small LCD, including each network’s signal strength and security protocol (such as WPA, WPA2, and WEP). A handy Seek button, refreshes its list of wireless networks.
Windows users can plug the Wi-Fi detective into a USB port and use it as a wireless network adapter. Just about every laptop in the past few years has built-in Wi-Fi, so this feature is mainly useful for those with older laptops.
You recharge the device via USB connection. In fact, you can repower the Wi-Fi Detective by plugging it into one of the Belkin Mini Surge Protector’s powered USB ports. My only complaints: The Wi-Fi Detective doesn’t attach to a keychain, like some of its competitors; the Targus WiFi Scanner (starting at $53 online) comes to mind. Also, its USB connector is covered by a cap that could be easy to lose. But these are minor complaints.
USB Cable and Adapter Kit
If you carry a portable GPS receiver or other USB-powered device, you’ll need its USB cable for recharging. But disconnecting USB cables from your computer to pack them is yet one more thing you have to remember before a trip. For these reasons, I invested US$13 in a generic kit of USB adapters and a retractable USB cable, the 9-Piece USB Cable & Adapter Kit from DayDeal.com. Using this kit, you can connect your USB devices to your laptop for syncing and recharging, or you can connect them to one of the Belkin’s Mini Surge Protector With USB Charger’s two USB powered ports for recharging.
The kit includes eight USB cable adapters, because not all USB connectors are identical. For example, the USB connector on your GPS device is probably different from your digital camera’s connector. The adapters and cable come in a black zippered case. I don’t pack the whole kit, however. Instead, I figure out which connectors I need and just pack them, along with the cable. One downside is that none of the USB connectors in this kit will fit an Apple iPod or iPhone.
Tom Bihn Snake Charmer
Speaking of cables, I pack all of them into a Tom Bihn Snake Charmer (US$25), a pouch with two zippered compartments designed to hold AC adapters and cables. You can easily see what’s in either compartment through zippered mesh enclosures. In one compartment I pack the Belkin Mini Surge Protector, a retractable USB cable and adapters, and a compact MacBook Air AC adapter (a larger laptop adapter might not fit). Into the other compartment I group communications-related accessories including StarTech’s Wi-Fi Detective, an Ethernet cable, the Air’s USB Ethernet adapter, and my iPhone’s USB cable (for connecting the phone to the Belkin Mini Surge Protector for recharging).
Tom Bihn Zephyr
Speaking of bags, Tom Bihn’s Zephyr (US$150) is a well-designed, messenger-style laptop bag I recommend highly. I love the pockets on the bag’s buckled flap; the unzippered pocket is easy to slip my iPhone into. The bag’s main compartment is roomy, zips open wide, and is nicely padded. And the bag’s rear side has a “roll-aboard” strap that can be slipped over the telescoping handle of a wheeled bag. If only the bag had an exterior water bottle pocket.
In some hotels, you can connect your portable media player to your room’s alarm clock or TV set and enjoy music without headphones. But you can’t always count on having that option. Even when you do, the audio quality can be so-so.
The iMainGo 2 (US$40) is a compact, cleverly designed portable speaker set unlike any I’ve seen. You unzip its case, slip your iPod, iPhone or Zune into place, connect it, flip the iMainGo 2’s switch, press Play on your portable media device, and you’ve got surprisingly good sound coming through iMainGo 2’s speakers. A plastic window lets you control your player’s buttons without having to remove it.
IMainGo 2 weighs 11.3 ounces and it’s thick, so I won’t be packing it on every trip. But it’s tempting, given iMainGo 2’s versatility. In addition to serving as speakers for your MP3 player, you can connect it to your laptop’s audio-out port to get richer sound. IMainGo 2 also has an alarm setting, enabling you to use your iPod/iPhone as an alarm clock. The device uses four AAA batteries.