This is a list of tech gadgets that aren’t necessarily essential to your trip but may allow you to work better, more securely, and more efficiently.
These are items you’d bring in addition to any computing devices or cameras you are bringing, so I’m not listing e-book readers and tablets here. In general, I try not to carry a lot of extra tech gadgets myself because the weight adds up quickly and carrying a lighter pack makes your trip a lot more enjoyable. I’ve listed them in order by what I consider to be the most useful items first:
1. External USB Hard Drive(s)
If you are taking a lot of photos or shooting videos this is pretty much an essential item. Even if you plan to store all your photos and videos on cloud storage you will still encounter situations where you don’t have a good wifi connection, or the connection is so slow it would take you hours to back up your data, and you need to free up space on your camera or laptop right away. Having a high-capacity external USB hard drive lets you park your files there temporarily. I still recommend backing up your valuable data to cloud storage as often as you can, since an external hard drives can fail or get stolen. I know of several photographers who carry two or more external hard drives, so they have a backups if one of them fails. For our upcoming trip, I purchased a 4TB Seagate Backup Plus from Costco for $120. I chose this over the Western Digital MyPassport drive mainly because the price was better and the Costco package included Seagate’s Data Recovery Service, which lets you recover data from the drive if it gets damaged. The Western Digital drives are just as good and I consider it a tossup in terms of product recommendation. External hard drives are fragile. I carry mine in a padded case and try to protect it from impact with anything in my bag.
Side Note: I recently did a test, copying photos from my computer to my Dropbox and Microsoft OneDrive cloud storage accounts and to my new Seagate Backup Plus external hard drive. I copied 1GB of photos to each. Dropbox took 42 minutes, OneDrive took 32 minutes, and my Seagate Backup Plus took 42 seconds. This was using a FIOS broadband connection which averages about 5 Mbps upload speed. This isn’t fantastic upload speed but it’s much higher than you will typically get from a wifi hotspot connection while travelling. On my D5500, 1GB is only 94 large JPG photos. If I was shooting RAW, which I normally do, these 94 photos would be 2.4GB, instead of 1GB, and in a typically busy shooting day I would have several hundred images which could easily top 10GB. That would work out to about 7 hours to transfer them to DropBox, 5.3 hours to OneDrive, and 7 minutes to my external hard drive. From these numbers, it’s pretty easy to see why an external hard drive makes sense.
2. Wireless External Antenna\Range Extender
The term “wireless range extender” is a bit confusing, because it also applies to devices such as a wireless repeaters which re-broadcast the signal from a wireless router to extend its range. What I’m talking about here is an external antenna which you attach to your laptop, which has better range and sensitivity than the laptop’s built-in antenna. This allows you to extend the wifi range of your laptop, reach more hotspots, and hopefully get better, higher speed connections. If you are going to be relying on random wifi hotspots for critical work and backups while you travel, you may want to carry one of these. There are countless brands and models available. Make sure you choose one that supports the exact OS you are using (e.g. OS X El Capitan, Windows 10, etc.) as the most common negative reviews I’ve read for these devices is lack of device driver or OS support for the product they bought. When I started looking at these devices to select one for our next trip, I began by ruling out all of those which were not dual-band (2.4GHz and 5GHz) devices and which didn’t support the 802.11ac protocol. But I found that many of those that got the best customer reviews were in the group that I excluded. It seems that the newer the technology, the less they are supported by the latest operating systems. I ended up selecting the TP-Link Wireless N300 High Gain USB Adapter (Model TL-WN822N) available for $17 from Amazon, mainly because it was cheap, supports Windows 10, and got decent reviews. It’s single band and doesn’t support 802.11ac, but I couldn’t find a dual band model that supported Windows 10 that got good reviews. If you are using Mac or Windows 8 the dual band TP-Link T4UH AC1200 T4UH model, for $33 on Amazon, supports 802,11ac and also gets decent reviews.
3. Travel Surge Protector\Multi-Outlet strip
A portable 3-4 outlet mini power strip or tap is also almost an essential item if you are travelling with several devices that need to be recharged nightly. Many of the power strips available also have surge protection and USB charging ports as an additional convenience. Ger and I travel with two laptops, two tablets or e-book readers, two smartphones, and a camera battery charger. That’s seven devices that could potentially be plugged in each day. If the country you are visiting uses a non-US electrical outlet, requiring an adapter plug, and you are carrying only one adapter (most people do), without the power strip you can only charge one device at a time. If you have a power strip, you can plug it into your single plug adapter and now you have multiple outlets that don’t require adapters. I’ve looked at just about all of the most popular travel power strips and unfortunately most of them are not rated for 220v power which you’ll find in most countries of the world outside of Latin America. See my article on Power Management While Travelling for more info on power strips and surge protectors.
4. USB Ethernet adapter and cable
If you have a thin laptop or ultrabook chances are it doesn’t have a full RJ-45 ethernet port on it (mine doesn’t). If you need to connect to a wired ethernet connection, you are out of luck unless you carry a USB ethernet adapter and ethernet cable. Ethernet adapters are usually very inexpensive and small, so there’s not much penalty to bring one with you. After looking at reviews for dozens of these adapters the two best choices I could come up with are the Anker USB3 to RJ45 Gigabit Adapter, available for $16 on Amazon, and the Plugable USB3-E1000 USB3 to RJ45 Gigabit Ethernet LAN Network Adapter which runs about $15 on Amazon. I will be taking one of these two adapters with me on our next trip, as well as a 6-8’ ethernet cable.
5. Camera Mounted Shotgun Microphone
If you plan to shoot video with your camera (DSLR or Mirrorless usually), you should consider getting a directional or shotgun microphone which mounts on the hot-shoe attachment of your camera. This device will improve the quality of your audio significantly. There are numerous examples on Youtube which compare the sound quality of the various microphones available. If you watch several of these videos you will come away with at least one definite conclusion… onboard DSLR microphones sound crappy compared to even the worst external microphone. I’m just getting into shooting video for the next trip and I’m not as fanatical about AV quality as some people, so I didn’t go with a higher end mic like the Rode VideoMic Pro, which costs about $230 street price. My first mic purchase was the Rode VideoMicro which sells for $59 at BestBuy.com. I chose it for the low price but also because it is much smaller than the other more expensive Rode microphones. I’ve tested it and I’ll tell you that even this little microphone improves the sound quality on my D5500 videos tremendously. All the microphones from Rode are good, as are most of the Sennheiser mics.
6. Battery Bank
Now we are starting to get into the realm of gadgets that are less necessary and more convenient. A battery bank is just an external battery, usually with higher capacity than the batteries in your portable devices, that can be used to either power them for additional minutes\hours or recharge them when you have no AC power available (such as riding on a bus). Usually these are used to recharge low power devices like cell phones and tablets, but lately I’m seeing larger capacity power banks that are intended to power laptops. In fact, Dell offers the Dell Power Companion for less than $100 which can be used to power or recharge the Dell Inspiron 13 laptop which I recently purchased. Of course I chose my particular laptop for its lighter weight, and adding an additional battery which brings the weight up to the level of a heavier laptop kinda defeats the purpose of the original purchase, so I haven’t been tempted to bring one of these along. I may buy one for use when I’m not traveling with a weight limit, but not for international travel. Despite my reservations, I’ve read comments from a number of travelers who say they can’t live without a battery bank, particularly those that go into a panic whenever their cell phones die. Alternatively, some of the wireless travel routers which I’ll talk about next section have limited battery bank capabilities which may fit your needs, particularly if you want to have the router functionality.
7. Wireless Travel Router
If you happen to be staying at a hotel or rented apartment that only has a single wired ethernet connection available, a wireless travel router will allow you to have multiple wireless connections so you can use all your wireless devices. Even if you have the hardware and cables with you to allow wired access from your devices, the hotel may only allow one device to be connected at a time (i.e. you are allocated a single IP address), which may be a problem for you. Also, a consideration is that smart phones and tablets are intended for wireless internet access and have no built-in ethernet ports. Many of the smaller ultrabook-style laptops also come without a standard ethernet port. Connecting these devices to wired ethernet requires either a special adapter, or in the case of my iPad, a couple adapters and a powered USB hub. Faced with buying a bunch of adapters and other devices to allow wired connections, a wireless router may be the simplest alternative. I’m putting this in the category of devices which are occasionally useful, because it seems like the more common scenario nowadays is to find only wifi connections available wherever you travel. But, if you are renting a place on AirBnB and you discover that it has only wired internet, you might want to have one of these devices with you. The portable travel models are very small and lightweight, most weighing in at 4.5-6oz, and inexpensive, with many in the $20-40 price range. I’m taking the HooToo TripMate HT-TM01 model ($27 on Amazon), with us on our next outing, mainly because it’s so small and lightweight we may as well cover all our bases. An additional feature of this device is that it also has a 6000mAh battery which can be used as a power bank to charge our iPhones and iPads. Their literature claims it will charge both our iPhone 5s smartphones from a single charge. The battery bank feature is also available on wireless travel routers by several other manufacturers as well.
8. Bluetooth Speaker
There are many people who would consider this a must have item and put it first on their list of useful travel gadgets…I’m sure our musician daughter would be one of those. But I’m not a person who listens to music on my iPhone or iPod constantly, so I’m putting it in the occasionally-useful category as well. However, if you are shooting video, you may want to move this to the necessary category. We’ve decided to bring a BT speaker on this trip mainly because we will be shooting video for the first time and it’s difficult to evaluate audio quality using the built-in speaker on my laptop. But we still want to carry very little extra weight, so I evaluated a lot of very lightweight BT speakers and ended up choosing the JBL Clip 2 which weighs in at about 6.5 oz.
9. BlueTooth Trackers
These are small tracking transmitters that you can attach or put into your gear to allow you to track it if you misplace it or it gets stolen. The trackers come with apps that you can load on your smartphone or tablet which allow you to locate them if you are still within range of the Bluetooth signal they are putting out, as well as tell them to send an audible alarm to help you locate them. Beyond that, some of the trackers offer other features such as pinpointing the last place where a signal was received (so you can backtrack and maybe get back into the device’s realtime transmit range), and an electronic fence feature that alerts you if you have moved more than a certain distance from you item, useful if you are in the habit of leaving without your bag. I am pretty bad at misplacing items so this sounded like a great product to have, but after reading the reviews of most of the tracking products, I’m not sure now whether the performance and reliability of these devices is worth the bother. The most common complaints are tracking range is too short or not working at all (particularly when the device is inside a bag), audible alarm not loud enough, battery life too short, and general reliability issues. The best reviews I found were for the Tile Tracker and, if I were to choose a tracker, that’s the one I’d probably go for at this time. They cost about $70 for a set of 4 trackers on Amazon. One downside of the Tile product is that the batteries are not replaceable or rechargeable and they only last a year (or less, according to some reviewers) and then you have to get a new one. Tile offers new replacements for $12 each.
That completes my list of useful gadgets so far. I’ll update this list and add more gadgets as I discover them.