So you want to work but also be mobile. You need internet access and all the usual elements of modern business technology. Let’s assume you already have a smartphone. If you haven’t got one, stop reading now and get one. Android or Apple, it doesn’t matter. They all do pretty much the same, now that Apple is done copying all the good Android features. If you are not fixated on Apple, get a mid-scale Android device that can use SD cards to expand the storage.
So this top 5 list is not going to include a smartphone. These technologies are what you need to take your office mobile, in a vehicle like a motorhome, van or boat. Or even how to take it off-grid.
There’s at least one technology that is a given – especially if you have a vehicle. That’s a battery. Again this is not going to make it to the list. A motorhome without a battery is a broken motorhome. Of course, if you are contemplating an off-grid application, you will need batteries and some means of charging them, more on that later. The list assumes you have 12V dc power available.
1: A pure sine inverter
Unfortunately, you cannot easily run everything you need from 12Vdc. Before anyone starts pointing out that you can, note the word easily. I could also have added cheaply. Yes, you can find 12Vdc versions of almost anything including printers/scanners. But, due to smaller market size, the manufacturers are justified in charging extra for them and the choice of available devices is more restricted. If you have mains AC power available, you will have a much wider range of lower cost options. An inverter takes in DC and converts it to AC. Input voltages are usually 12 or 24V to suit most vehicle systems. Output voltages are usually 110V/60Hz or 220V/50Hz.
There are two basic types of inverter, modified sine and pure sine. A modified sine inverter output is actually closer to a square wave, but they do run more efficiently than pure sine. And they are cheaper. It works with most equipment, but not all. At best, it causes power supplies to run hot and emit a buzzing sound. On some laptops (Dell especially), the additional harmonics can upset touchpad, forcing you to use a mouse. At worst it can cause power supplies to fail. So, despite a small hit in efficiency and the additional cost, I would recommend a pure sine inverter. It will work with anything, provided it can supply enough power for everything you want to run. I chose this 1600W unit from Sterling.
2: A battery monitor
You will rapidly find that you care deeply about the state of your batteries. You will become a little bit obsessive about how much power (ie current) you are using, and a battery monitor will help feed that obsession. If you have a narrowboat and you tend to live and work at the opposite end of the boat from the engine and batteries, consider one that can have a remote display. The most modern ones, like this Victron BMV-700, have bluetooth and a smartphone app for remote monitoring.
When you are connected to the national grid, you never worry about this. When you work off grid, leaving a couple of extra lights on or watching just one more movie could mean not having enough juice to finish a piece of work in the morning. This obsession will also make you an expert on the power consumption of everything you own. FYI you can get 12Vdc LED lights now, and LED TV’s make a difference as well.
3: 4G LTE Mobile Wireless Router and a good antenna
I discussed the in’s and out’s of this in a previous post – Cut the cable now – wireless has won
4: The right laptop
And by right laptop, I really mean one that is reliable and does not use too much power. There’s that obsession again. Most normal laptops are OK, but I find that they can take an age to charge. So whilst the power supply may be relatively low power, you have to leave it connected for longer. And then when they are fully charged, don’t expect more than 2 hours working out of them. If the laptop has the word “Gaming” in its name, then it will be almost useless for mobile applications. They have been optimised for performance not for power. Some gaming laptops shipped with 300W power supplies and I wouldn’t expect more than an hour of use on their internal batteries.
This is where some of my friends will think hell has really frozen over. I am going to recommend an Apple product. Having tried many different laptops and had problems with reliability or trackpad issues or power consumption issues, I have come to the conclusion that the best laptop for mobile use is an Apple MacBook. Mine is a MacBook Pro. It has a good screen, it’s lightweight, it has a metal body and long battery life when not connected to power. I managed over 6 hours of nearly continuous use. When it does need connecting, it charges quickly and has a relatively small 60w power supply.
5: A cheap printer
Yes, you can do a lot of things without needing hard copy. But not everything. Even the cheapest printers are multifunction devices combing printer and scanner. I picked a Canon for under £30. It’s not a fast business-class device, but at that price (less than the cost of the ink it uses), you can treat it as a consumable. As an added advantage, Bing Maps lets you print small sections of OS maps. So you can save on the cost of maps (paper or online) when you want to go exploring.
I have a further suggestion. I wouldn’t class this as a top 5 technology yet, but solar panels are worth considering. They could help soothe the power obsession by topping up your batteries on the days when you don’t want to run the engine. I have spoken to quite a few boaters who have them, and they all said they wouldn’t be without them. And they all looked less power stressed than the rest of us.