Back to work and school essentials 2016

These days, going to school, uni or holding down most jobs requires fairly intensive use of technology. Even if it’s possible to get by on the basics, there are a range of devices that can improve productivity, not to mention just make getting through the day easier.

Our favourite gadgets range from noise-cancelling earbuds to tablet styluses, and fast USB drives to smartwatches. A comfortable yet tough bag designed specifically to carry a range of gear is also a must have.

Windows vs Apple debate aside, the core way for most to get things done is with a laptop. Going a full day on battery is possible, and ideal, since it lets you leave the charger at home. Look for 12 hour + ratings and assume less. Shutting off Wi-Fi and dimming the display can help eke out extra hours.

For lighter loads, a tablet with a keyboard can replace a laptop — or look for crossover devices such as the Microsoft Surface.

Depending on your job or study, high-end hardware might not actually be needed. For Internet access, word processing and other basic applications, it’s possible to get away with lower-end models. Not only does this save money, you often get better battery life.

Don’t forget about apps either — a smartphone or tablet can be so much more thanks to a huge array of free and paid apps. Apple products are generally well supported by schools and universities, but in a weird contrast, the web browser of choice is often Internet Explorer.

In the past, many businesses preferred to supply computers, but bringing and using your own device (BYOD) is a growing trend. The disadvantage is in needing to buy the gear, but it also gives a lot more flexibility to use it as desired outside of work.

One of the most important considerations is getting through an entire day without running out of power. Sure, it can be possible to find a wall socket, but power banks give a lot more flexibility.

For smartphones, 3,500mAh is about the minimum, while tablets need a 5,000mAh or better model that supports 2.1A fast charging. For laptops, 20,000mAh models are typical, but they can also charge via USB.

The tricky part is making sure it has the right changeable tips to suit your specific model.

Students should always check discounts before purchases, especially with software. For example, some universities in Australia offer free Microsoft Office licences to students, or even discounted tablets. Also consider salary sacrifice, which can be used to purchase and save tax on portable electronic devices used for a job.

When eying what juicy new bit of tech to buy, consider how it will make your job or study easier. If it’s not getting used most days, or saving significant time, there is probably a better option.

But don’t forget about downtime either — getting to relax and unwind with an eBook or movie on the commute home is just as important.

Audio Technica ATH-ANC40BT

Audio Technica ANC40BTThere are plenty of big bulky over-the-ear style noise-cancelling headphones, but they are far from discrete, let alone very portable.

The ATH-ANC40BTs are in-ear models that promise to reduce background noise by 90%. They are Bluetooth as well, and can connect to (and shift between) two devices at once and operate as a hands-free.

The headphones fit comfortably in ear (and come with multiple cup sizes), though the round-the-neck control side is a little bulky. Audio quality from the 13.5mm drivers is excellent, with a rich sound with plenty of bass.

The difference in passive noise cancellation is noticeable compared to over-the-ear style units, but when switched to active, the world becomes a much quieter place. Repetitive droning background noise is all but eliminated, and other sounds pleasantly reduced.

Battery life is a decent eight hours (or 24 when just noise cancelling), and they come with a 3.5mm cable just in case you run out of juice.

Verdict: Versatile noise-cancelling earphones that can really help concentration.

Price: $199
From: Audio Technica

Rating: 4 stars out of 5

Comsol 20,000 mAh Power Bank

NP200Smaller USB-only power banks are essential to making it through a busy day away from a desk. But if you want to boost the battery life of a laptop, a monster like the 20,000mAh Comsol is needed.

While it has a 2.1A USB connector, it can also output 19V (or 12/16v) for a laptop. It comes with a range of tips to suit different models, and manages up to 3 amps. While the Comsol worked perfectly on most laptops we tested, it can’t run the latest from Dell.

To put the capacity in perspective, it can recharge a smartphone about 10 times over. Depending on the laptop, it should more than double the run time, while a tablet can be brought back two or three times.

The Comsol power bank charges from a 19V PSU in about four hours (though also works on some laptop supplies), which is much faster than USB, but not as convenient for travel.

Verdict: The ultimate way to make it through a long day away from the charger.

Price: $149
From: Officeworks

Rating: 4 stars out of 5

Microsoft Sculpt Mouse

Microsoft Sculpt ComfortSome people are trackpad wizzes, while others need a mouse for fine control. There are countless portable mice available, but the Sculpt manages to roll everything into one excellent yet affordable package.

It uses Bluetooth, so no dongle or spare USB port is needed. While there is a smaller Sculpt Portable, the 111mm-long and 68.5mm-wide Sculpt Comfort sits better in the hand.

The mouse is geared towards Windows users, with a touch and gesture-sensitive button/panel under the thumb that has a range of programmable functionality (and haptic feedback) such as swapping between apps. That said, it will work with OS X and Android, but not iOS.

The mouse also has a tilt scroll wheel, which gives both horizontal and vertical scrolling. The Microsoft BlueTrack technology is excellent, and the mouse works accurately on just about any surface — bar some glass.

The Sculpt uses two AA batteries (included), which last about 10 months.

Verdict: Best for Windows users, but even so, a lot of mouse for the money.

Price: $35
From: Microsoft

Rating: 4 stars out of 5

Logitech K380

K380_BlueTablet cases that double as a keyboard are all well and good, but don’t tend to make extended typing very enjoyable. The K380 aims to be a much more productive unit, while also being able to connect to a range of devices.

It uses Bluetooth 3.0 and can connect to Windows, Mac, Chrome OS, Android and iOS. So from smartphones, to tablets or just as a mobile laptop keyboard, the K380 is the go-to. You can pair to and switch between up to three different devices as well.

The Logitech keyboard is full size, but fairly small at 124mm x 297mm, but unless you have very large hands, it’s solid and easy to type on.

It does weigh in at 423 grams, which is great for typing, but perhaps a little too much in a bag. It comes with two AAA batteries, which will last about two years, provided you switch the keyboard off between uses.

Logitech also has the slightly larger K480, which includes a built-in tablet stand.

Verdict: A little more bland than some, but you can buy it outright.

Price: $69.95
From: Logitech

Rating: 4 stars out of 5

Samsung Flash DUO

Samsung DUODespite us living in a world of cheap or free cloud storage, bandwidth contrast means portable USB drives are still very important for larger files.

The Samsung model is a little pricier than the el-cheapo models available, but for good reason.

For a start, it’s got an all metal (aside from the cap) body for extra durability. It’s also fast, and on the 64GB model, using USB 3.0, we managed 121MB/s reads and 93MB/s write speeds.

The DUO part of the name comes from the fact the stick also has a USB Type-C port. Not overly common just yet, the new connector is the way of the future and is showing up on all the latest laptops, smartphones and tablets.

If you don’t want the extra functionality, the drive also has a sibling, the BAR, which is just a standard design, with the same performance. Both are backed by a five-year warranty.

The DUO costs $28 for the 32GB, $57 for 64GB and $97 for 128GB.

Verdict: A premium USB drive that is well worth the extra cost.

Price: $57
From: Samsung

Rating: 4 stars out of 5

Western Digital My Passport Wireless

WD My PassportBe it for work, school or uni, having a backup is critical. Depending on your project, large storage space is often needed and the cloud doesn’t always cut it.

USB 3.0 gives fast transfers, but it’s not always convenient and can slow sharing and collaboration.

The WD My Passport makes life simple with an inbuilt battery and Wi-Fi that can connect to eight devices at once.

It’s 802.11n, not AC, but has a 2T2R antenna for up to 300Mbps connection speeds. The maximum real-world wireless speeds we saw were similar to the USB connection, around 100Mbps reading and writing.

Not only can the drive be set to back up all your devices, it can pull photos off a Wi-Fi-equipped camera, or access them via the inbuilt SD card reader. The drive can also be used to stream media, and has an excellent iOS and Android app for management.

Under heavier use, battery life is as low as five hours, but it can be charged from USB.

Verdict: A versatile and powerful data backup and sharing system.

Price: $300
From: Western Digital

Rating: 4 stars out of 5

Adonit Jot Dash

ADJDC_aTaking digital notes can be a great way to improve organisation and save time. Passive styluses make it possible to write and draw directly onto a touchscreen, but the results aren’t always very accurate.

The Jot Dash improves accuracy by using a very fine 1.9mm tip fed a slight electrical charge that mimics a finger on the screen. It also works on laptop trackpads.

The Jot Dash feels just like a normal pen and gives a much better result than a plain stylus. The battery lasts 14 hours, and is charged via a funky magnetic USB clip. The trade-off is that the Dash is not connected to your device in any way, so no extra functionality such as pressure sensitivity or palm rejection.

The good part is that it works with any touch-sensitive device without any extra setup.

For those who want extra functionality, Jot also have the Script and Touch, which actually link to the device in use.

Verdict: A simplified active stylus for improved digital note taking.

Price: $89
From: Adonit

Rating: 3.5 stars out of 5


E1759FWU-backThere are some tasks, such as research, that are made a whole lot easier with a second screen. The 15.6-inch AOC E1659Fwu is the portable answer, running completely off USB.

The biggest downside to the screen is the low 1366 x 768 resolution — though there is a more expensive 1080p coming soon.

Using the display is easy — install the Display Link software and plug it in. Image quality from the TN is average, with a vibrant, bright feel and reasonable viewing angles. The response time is 8ms, and we had no issues with ghosting or lag over the USB connection.

The screen does use significant power, though, and will reduce battery life by a few hours.

The display has a fold-out stand for both portrait and landscape mode. The whole unit measures in at 233mm x 372mm x 23mm and weighs 1.2kg — about the same as an Ultrabook. It comes with a protective sleeve, and is easily slipped into a laptop bag.

Verdict: Affordable and portable enough to be worth adding to your gear.

Price: $149
From: AOC

Rating: 3.5 stars out of 5

Apple iPad Air

Apple iPad-AirDespite the versatility and choice of Android, the iPad is still the go-to choice for best compatibility across
the Australian education system.

Web-based logins, systems and assessments are tested to work with them and there is generally a larger range of apps available. Some unis and courses even hand them out to students for free.

The choice then comes down to the iPad Air, vs the Air 2. Both are quite pricey, but opting for the older model can save a few hundred dollars if you shop around online.

While both are the same size, with a 264ppi, 2048 x 1536, 9.7-inch screen, the 2 is a little thinner, and has an updated processor. Of course, if you want to run particularly demanding apps (think 3D modelling), then the newer model is the best bet.

When it comes to options, cellular data is probably overkill — Wi-Fi is easy to come by, or it can be tethered to a smartphone.

Verdict: The best choice for compatibility and productivity.

Price: From $549
From: Apple

Rating: 3.5 stars out of 5

Livescribe 3 Smartpen

Livescribe 3 SmartpenDespite the growing use of laptops and tablets at school and work, still nothing is quite as easy as jotting down notes with a pen.

Livescribe have been slowly merging the physical and digital worlds and the latest Smartpen does it better than any other (so far).

The chunky but comfortable device writes like a premium pen (and the ink cartridge is changeable), but scans every letter or drawing as you go with an inbuilt camera. It’s very easy to use — just take notes as normal and the Smartpen saves a local copy, as well as beaming them across to a connected Android or iOS smartphone or tablet.

Using your device’s microphone, it can also record audio Pencasts, such as lectures, and lets you play back from the exact time you made specific notes.

There is a catch to the Smartpen, though — it only works with special dotted paper from Livescribe (about $10 for an 80 page A4 notebook) though you can also print your own at home.

Verdict: Expensive, but still easily the best way to digitise and access your written notes.

Price: $250
From: Livescribe

Rating: 3.5 stars out of 5

LG Watch Urbane

LG_WATCH_URBANE4Smartwatches are a bit of a “love them or hate them” affair, but undeniably are useful productivity and organisational tools. A reminder buzz on the wrist is less intrusive than pulling out a phone, and a subtle glance at the wrist isn’t an interruption.

The LG Watch Urbane is one of the better implementations of Android Wear and looks enough like a traditional watch to blend in.

The Urbane uses a gorgeous 1.3-inch P-OLED screen, which is bright and vibrant. It uses a Snapdragon 400 CPU with 512MB of RAM and 4GB of eMMC storage. The battery easily makes it through a day of heavy use, and it has an inbuilt heart rate monitor and can work as a fitness tracker.

The bands are interchangeable with other watches and is water resistant.

One cool feature of the Urbane is that it can connect to a Wi-Fi network and remotely receive notifications from your smartphone — even if you left it at home.

Verdict: Design tastes vary, but the Urbane is a solid middle ground smartwatch.

Price: $350
From: LG

Rating: 3.5 stars out of 5

HyperMaxx WF Pro

Hypermaxx Mini ProjectorFrom presentations, to a second screen or even just relaxing with a movie, a mini projector is very useful.

The HyperMaxx beams out a massive 300 lumens — enough for a 100-inch screen just by flicking out the lights (or 200-inch in total darkness), or a TV-sized one in a brighter room. The projector has a built-in battery too, and can run for about 90 minutes, or longer using a laptop universal power bank.

It measures in at just 180mm x 110mm x 28mm and weighs 520 grams, making it very portable. The HyperMaxx has a native resolution of 1280 x 800, a 2,000:1 contrast ratio and a 20,000-hour LED bulb life.

Media can be fed in via HDMI, VGA, AV or played directly from a USB or microSD card. You can also mirror a device’s screen via Wi-Fi, or stream media from a DLNA server.

Picture quality is pretty good for such a small unit, and the inbuilt 3W speaker is loud, if somewhat tinny.

Verdict: High-quality portable projection worth the cost.

Price: $1,195
From: Mini Projector

Rating: 3.5 stars out of 5

STM Drifter Energy

STM-Drifter-2015-Navy-Front-Angle-HiResA tough yet roomy bag to transport and protect your laptop, tablets and other gadgets is very important. The STM boffins have taken one of their most popular bags and added a charging station that can juice up USB devices.

Sure, you could use a separate power bank, but the STM system is tucked out of the way, and has smart functionality such as overheat protection.

The bag itself has a large main storage area of 18L, as well as a padded slip that can hold a 15.6-inch laptop. There are also smaller secondary slots for tablets, smartphones and other devices.

Up top, you get a see-through mesh bag (good for chargers) and a myriad of other pockets, storage areas and loops to keep everything organised and in place.

Importantly, the bag is extremely comfortable, even when loaded up, with foam pads and adjustable straps. It also has rain cover, and a rear strap to hold the bag in place on existing wheeled luggage.

Verdict: An amazing gadget-ready bag, but the Energy option is overpriced.

Price: $299
From: STM

Rating: 3.5 stars out of 5

Seagate Personal Cloud 2-Bay

Personal_Cloud_2-Bay-Right-3L-V2-hi-resThere are NAS boxes with more features, or better apps, or that are cheaper — but the Seagate Personal Cloud is a great-looking, bang for buck option without going overkill.

It’s available in both a 2 Bay model (from $500), or a 1 Bay version (from $250), with capacities starting at 3TB, up to 8TB. We tested the dual drive model, which allows RAID for performance or extra redundancy.

The Seagate uses a Marvell ARMADA 370 CPU, 512MB of RAM, has Gigabit Ethernet, USB 2.0 on the back and USB 3.0 on the side. Transfer speeds are plenty for day to day use (up to 103 MB/s read, 76 MB/s write) and the system is super easy to get up and running.

It has the usual NAS functionality — streaming media, auto PC/mobile backups, cloud storage syncing, remote access and a range of extra apps, such as Plex.

The Seagate smartphone app is well put together, and available on Android, iOS and Windows Phone.

Verdict: A simple but effective consumer NAS with strong media streaming functionality.

Price: $500
From: Seagate

Rating: 4 stars out of 5