Hitting the road? Leave your laptop at home

Here's how to work on the go without all the extra hardware.

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Travel light(ly)

Wouldn’t it be nice to work – while traveling z- without carrying so much stuff? I dream about darting through security in my socks, wheeling one spinner case right onto the plane with just a smartphone in my pocket. I also worry that I will I fail at my job when I arrive.

My laptop, though, is not only one more thing to pull out of my bag in the airport security line, it’s a security liability. I’m still traumatized by an incident where my expensive laptop was stolen from a locked hotel room. The laptop is gone. More worrisome is the fate of my data.

My smartphone is a powerful alternative. If I add a few tools to it, it can do almost everything my laptop can. And it fits in a pocket. Many of these tools are free. And the few that cost money, are worth it if they help me travel lighter and safer.

I won’t be able to build 3D models or VR games with a smartphone. But I can certainly get reports written (and edited), do presentations when I arrive, capture meeting minutes, and much more.

Here’s how.

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Paul Heltzel

A better keyboard for your phone

What if, instead of carrying a laptop and all its necessaries, you slipped your phone in a pocket and a small keyboard in the bag with your clothes? Wireless Bluetooth keyboards offer your fingers a little speed and freedom when writing notes or long emails. And they are cheap and stash easily.

The Apple Magic Keyboard ($99) is an obvious choice if you are a Mac user. In fact, you probably already have one. It charges with your phone’s lightning cable. But, unless you are planning to go full-nomad, you won’t need to charge it. Its battery stays juiced for up to a month.

A less expensive model, the Logitech K380 (around $29 online), lets you turn your Android phone into an almost laptop – and makes it clear to co-workers that you aren’t just playing Wordament on that phone. The keyboard connects to up to three devices (phone, tablet and computer, for example). Switch between devices with the press of a button.

If you need an Apple specific keyboard, the Logitech Keys-to-Go model is more expensive at $70.

Some wireless keyboards offer a slot to prop up your phone while you type, which is handy. But even if yours doesn’t, you can find an inexpensive stand (less than $10) at Amazon.

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Yes, you can undo

If you have tried to do real work on your phone, you’ve probably bumped into one of the most glaring omissions of screen input: There is no obvious way to “Undo” mistakes. If you rely on the keyboard shortcuts Ctrl-Z (Windows) or Cmd-Z (Mac) when working on a computer, this frustration is probably what spurs you to dig out your computer. But there are ways around this irritant.

The iPhone does offer an Undo function. It just isn’t immediately obvious. If you make a mistake, shake the phone (hard, like you’re angry with the Fates). A context menu will appear on the screen. Just tap “Undo.” Shake the phone again and you’ll see an option to tap “Redo.” This works with all sorts of mistakes, not just typos.

On the onscreen keyboard of either iPhone or Android, you can use the backspace key of course (read on for a tip on better ways to navigate the smartphone screen with a cursor). If you’re using the Microsoft Word, Google Docs or notetaking apps like Google Keep, Word, or Evernote, you’ll find Undo and Redo on the toolbar.

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Paul Heltzel

More text wrangling

If you believe that writing anything longer than a text on a smartphone is too annoying, you may need to bone up on more text-editing tricks. There are lots of them.

For example, on both Android and iOS, you can do one long press to select a word instead of double-tapping. It has the same effect and is simple and quick.

On iPhones, you’re probably aware of the Magnifier that pops up if you long press a word. It looks like a magnifying glass and allows you to move the cursor to make changes. Now, meet its lesser-known brethren, the hidden trackpad. The next time you need to make a text change, press and hold the keyboard. Wait a moment and the keyboard turns into a trackpad. Just move your finger across the screen to place the cursor. I actually prefer this method quite a bit to the Magnifier but it requires an iPhone with 3D touch (6S, 6S Plus, 7, 7 Plus, 8, 8 Plus, or X.)

Tip: You can find more Android text editing tricks from ComputerWorld here.

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Paul Heltzel

Project your project

Your next meeting could be an opportunity to show off not only your presentation skills but also your smartphone savvy. A mobile device can capably project your big ideas on any handy big screen – if you know how to do it and show up with the right tools.

There are a number of adapters sold on manufacturers' sites or by retailers that will let you plug your smartphone into an HDMI port. Samsung sells a USB-C to HDMI adapter and Apple sells the Lightning Digital AV Adapter for around $50. These will connect to an HDMI port on a conference room TV or projector. Samsung also markets the DeX, which can also connect to a desktop and full-sized keyboard – we'll look at that a bit later.

If you prefer to go wireless, though, consider Google’s handy – and inexpensive – Chromecast ($30, shown). This HDMI dongle lets you display whatever’s on your phone’s Chrome browser on whatever screen you plug the Chromecast into. Neat. Google suggests it as a way to watch YouTube videos on a big screen, but you can also use it to present directly from Google Slides, Docs or Sheets. In addition to Android devices, it works with iPhone and iPad as well.

On Android devices, you can also mirror your phone’s display – including apps, even those that don’t natively support Chromecast. First, get the Google Home app. Open it, and at the top, tap the Menu icon (the three horizontal lines) and choose “Cast Screen/audio.”

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Paul Heltzel

Take notes

If you are bold enough to hit the road without a laptop or an external keyboard, know this: The Google Keep, Microsoft OneNote and Evernote apps are all free downloads and can input digital, searchable text without a keyboard. iOS users have another good option in Apple Notes.

These apps, to varying degrees, let you use a finger or stylus to write directly on the screen. OneNote, for example, supports handwriting on iOS and Android tablets but not iPhones.

And, let’s be honest, drawing on a small phone screen can quickly cause your hand to cramp.  

If you prefer paper, you can have your pen and digitize it, too, using the camera feature of any of these three apps. This sounded like the best of both worlds to me. But unfortunately, Google Keep, OneNote and Evernote were hit or miss at deciphering my handwritten scrawl (mostly miss).

And then I found a solution: The standalone Scannable app from Evernote on iOS. I wrote up several agendas and to-do lists on paper. I was thrilled to discover that Scannable was remarkably accurate at turning my handwriting into searchable text. In fact, for the way I work, writing notes on paper and using Scannable was the least costly and most accurate way to leave my laptop at home and come away with digital notes from a meeting. It’s a cool, free tool. The only downside is that it’s a standalone app from Evernote, so you’ll have to download it separately.

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Docking with Samsung DeX

The Samsung DeX offers an unusual approach to abandoning your laptop. It’s a stand-alone device designed to let you use your Samsung Galaxy S9, S8 or Note8 as if it were a computer. Connect the DeX to a monitor, keyboard and mouse, set your phone in the DeX stand (it also charges your phone) and work from your phone on the big screen. This is great if you’re traveling to a location that has a workstation. You can connect your phone to it much as you would have connected your laptop.

The latest version of the dock allows the face of the Galaxy S9, with the phone laid horizontally, to work like a trackpad – so you won’t need a mouse either.

The dock includes two USB 2.0 ports, one USB Type-C power in port, a wired ethernet, and HDMI port.

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Stay juiced up

If you’re depending exclusively on your phone or tablet for your next trip, you’ll definitely want to pack some extra battery power to keep working on the road.

If you don’t already have a portable battery, it’s time to get one. There are a few things to consider: Size, speed of charging (fast-charging output capability can juice your devices in the time it takes you to grab lunch with a colleague), and the number of charges you can get out of the battery. Keep in mind that most manufacturers overstate the number of times you can charge a device and underestimate the energy consumption of the devices.

You can power an Android or iPhone with a credit-card-sized charger like the TravelCard that fits in a wallet, costs about $30, and includes a cable for iPhone or Android, depending on the version you buy. But, if your phone is all you’ve got, you might want something beefier.

PC World recently updated its best power banks of 2018 and chose the DBPower Q100 Portable Energy Storage Battery as the top pick for road warriors. The device is bulky, but this thing can go off the grid if that’s where you’re heading. It includes an AC port and can charge a large Android or iPhone multiple times (or a MacBook). The battery itself charges up in less than four hours.

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Take minutes

A new app called Otter aims to meld A.I. and machine transcription. It captures audio from your conversations or meetings and uploads it to the cloud where it transcribes it using natural language processing. First, you must train it to recognize your voice by reading some sample text it provides. But once you’ve done that, just set your phone – iOS or Android – to record the conversation in a meeting. Instead of scribbling notes, you are free to participate. It can even identify multiple speakers.

After the app was introduced at this year’s Mobile World Congress, it raised some privacy concerns, in part because its term of services didn’t explicitly rule out selling customer data. The company, however, says it has no ad model in mind. It plans to sell a premium version of the service – à la Evernote.

There are other machine-driven transcription services – including Trint and Temi – though they’re designed more for interviews and dictation, rather than for use in meetings. They also charge by the minute.

All of these services upload your transcription to a web interface where you can listen to the audio and can clean up the text as you listen to the words being spoken.

Note: Several factors will make your recording – and transcription – better: a quiet room, close placement of the device doing the recording, and lack of ambient noise and crosstalk.   

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Paul Heltzel

Grab mobile productivity apps

One of the simplest ways to lighten your load on a business trip is to put some time into organizing your phone before you leave. A little prep work will prevent you from leaving essential data behind with your laptop.

Before you’re on the road, at the mercy of cell connections and Wi-Fi, install and update all the apps you’ll need to store files, capture documents, and take notes.

Download and install Evernote, OneDrive, Dropbox and G Suite (plus Drive), depending on your preferences. And then just make sure the docs you need are uploaded to the cloud. The Microsoft Office apps are available to download for free, including on iOS, as long as you have a Microsoft ID.

Also, apps like Tripit – where you can forward confirmation emails from airlines and hotels to easily create an itinerary – also reduce the need to bring a laptop to track your travel details and locate boarding passes. The pro version of Tripit will even keep an eye on your flights and traffic, and it will alert you when it’s the best time to go to the airport.