Call it information overload. Despite a massive array of must-see high-tech product launches in virtually every category from smartphones to eReaders and laptops, let's be honest. In an age where "newer," "faster" and "shinier" are less simple adjectives than cultural imperatives, it's enough to make even the most gadget-savvy business owner's head short circuit.
Thankfully for your organization though, many of today's increasingly portable, online-connected electronics make a great fit for professionals at every career level. Using them, you can empower your business by allowing staffers to access web pages, e-mails, documents, presentations, calendars and contacts from nearly anywhere. Coupled with cutting-edge advances in mobile technology, it's also possible to unchain yourself from your desk and instantly retrieve your work space on the go, letting your entire team effortlessly stay in contact and/or collaborate with distant colleagues on-demand. Still more devices offer added benefits, such as the ability to safely store and transport data in pocket-size packages, while other gizmos make sharing multimedia or conversing with customers easy. As such, today's business owner has never had a more powerful set of tools for connecting and communicating at their fingertips.
But across the board, whether they offer upsides ranging from turn-by-turn directions to support for recording your own viral video marketing spots, all come with the same drawback: These devices are only as effective as you let them be. Following are five must-have gadgets that every modern professional should own--and everything you need to know to really make the most of them:
1. Smartphones--Cell phones so powerful they can practically serve as laptop replacements, these handheld devices are today's top electronic productivity tool for mobile professionals. Wielding one, you can surf the internet; send and receive e-mails; share audio, video and photos; and add endless functionality from invoice tracking to image editing using downloadable software applications known as "apps."
Available in an array of technical configurations, feature readouts and operating systems, here's the catch--there's no one-size-fits-all solution. For example: Some users prefer handsets with physical QWERTY keyboards (e.g., RIM's BlackBerry Bold 9700), which make sending e-mails and text messages easier. Others don't mind trading a virtual keyboard for a clumsier on-screen one if it means gaining access to multimedia recording features (Apple's iPhone 3G S). Similarly, a model such as Google's Nexus One might tempt power users who need to seamlessly integrate with their favorite online services. But a Facebook- and Twitter-friendly unit like the Motorola Devour may be better-suited for personal communicators who need immediate access to social networks.
Some confusion here is inevitable: Loading and connection speeds differ between models, as do compatibility with wireless networks and enterprise e-mail solutions. Hardware components such as touchscreens and digital/video cameras are also of variable configuration and quality, with a panoply of exotic-sounding operating systems (Android, Symbian, Windows Phone Series 7, etc.) powering various units. The key here is to go hands-on with any device before purchasing, and check each carrier's cellular coverage maps to ensure you're never without decent download speeds or signal bars.
Take a good, close look at each phone's capabilities and ask yourself the following questions: Do I need the ability to multitask between programs, or is a built-in video camera for filming promo spots for easy upload to YouTube more important? Is a GPS with free turn-by-turn directions a necessity given how often I'm on the road traveling between appointments, or is the ability to edit Word, Excel and PowerPoint files more crucial? Each option comes with tradeoffs, but as with any personal assistant, it pays to choose the one that best suits your profession and personality.
2. Netbooks and Ultra-Portable PCs--While there's no replacing a desktop or all-in-one PC when it comes to pure horsepower and speed, realize. Given their versatile nature and mobility, ultra-portable PCs and netbooks (low-cost, easily transportable computers that cut prices by focusing purely on practical features) can make a perfectly worthy secondary system or set-top replacement. Thank small sizes and weights, which render it simple to stuff them in a carry-on or pack along when you visit colleagues a couple floors up. Most importantly, however, such systems offer ample power for everyday routine tasks like sending e-mail, browsing the web or word processing. In other words, they offer the option to only purchase as much PC as you really need.
There's no sense breaking the bank here, either, unless you're working on hardware-intensive projects such as video editing or desktop publishing that require high-end features like dedicated 3-D graphics cards and premium CPUs. The good news is that for eight out of every 10 routine tasks, basic system readouts for less than $400 that offer an Intel Atom processor, 2GB of RAM and 100GB hard drive should suffice. Multiple manufacturers (Acer, Dell, Lenovo and Sony) all make viable options here at prices ranging from $300 to $1000. However, in a crowded field, there are a few standouts. Consider HP's Mini 311, notable for its roomy keyboard and solid graphics performance, or Asus' Eee PC Seashell 1201N, which packs decent computing and visual muscle into an easily transportable form factor. Likewise, Toshiba's NB205 also scores with its comfortable design and respectable battery life.
When shopping for a netbook or ultra-portable PC, consider the most common tasks you'll use the system for on a daily basis, but don't underestimate the importance of ergonomics. It's one thing to type out brief notes on units with a small keyboard--but it's another, more painful, task entirely trying to bang out full-scale market research reports. Likewise, while most computers in this class can handle similar workloads, not all offer enough battery power to see you through an international flight.
In terms of tablet PCs (gesture-tracking systems that let you scribble as you would on a paper notebook) like Apple's iPad, value depends on the individual. As a rule of thumb, it's best to grab such machines only if you need a specialized solution for jotting down notes, taking down sketches, sketching illustrations or similar functions.
3. Digital Video Cameras--Ask social media mavens and they'll tell you: Video is the new coin of the online realm. Moreover, for business owners, it's also a godsend in terms of cost-effective marketing solutions. Using an array of budget digital camcorders such as Kodak's Zi8 (a favorite given its support for microphone input), Flip's Mino HD and Creative's Vado HD, anyone can become an aspiring producer. You won't get broadcast-quality results or top-caliber zoom, audio recording and image stabilization features from these gadgets, which retail for less than $200, but you still get high-definition video output that's good enough for your blog or website, and you're capable of scoring millions of hits on online video aggregators like Metacafe, Vimeo or YouTube.
Potential applications here are endless. Using these devices, you can record behind-the-scenes footage, "making of" segments, online video diaries, client testimonials, interviews with industry leaders and more. Add them to your website, and it's easy to create a steady stream of content that helps breathe personality into your brand, builds viewer empathy and keeps people coming back for more. Similarly, by using instructional videos as a platform, you can also quickly establish yourself and your business as subject matter experts in any given space. From screening webinars and tradeshow panels for widespread distribution to creating your own documentaries, options are limited only by your imagination.
4. Bluetooth Headsets--As often as your phone rings, it pays to invest in a noise-canceling Bluetooth headset that enables clear, hands-free calling. Such solutions aren't just practical, allowing you to quickly take calls without letting go of the wheel. They're also a vital safety measure, as increasingly stringent legislation aims to curb the rise of accidents caused by professionals attempting to talk, text or tweet while in the car. Aliph's Jawbone Icon is currently the gold standard here, though Blue Ant's Q1 and Plantronics' Voyager Pro make good choices as well. Just be certain you pick a comfortable unit that's suitable for use during extended conference calls, and one with solid battery life and filtering capabilities for blocking out blaring horns and other background clatter.
5. GPS Systems--While the debate still rages about stand-alone GPS navigation systems' relevance in the face of smartphones' growing propensity for featuring powerful built-in GPS devices, here's the more important take-away: Between the popularity of dashboard units from manufacturers like TomTom and Garmin; free, cell phone-ready solutions like Google Maps Navigation; and optional premium-priced mapping apps for a variety of handsets, everyone wins. Working professionals determined to be on time for their next appointment no matter which city it's in, or find a decent lunch meeting spot, now have a massive array of navigational utilities at their disposal. So whether you prefer a dedicated, windshield-mountable solution with real-time traffic updates or the convenience of simply stuffing a GPS in your pocket, beware. There's no excuse for being late for an important date again.