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How To Stay Connected Through The Holidays

While a little down time is nice this time of year, here are some network connectivity tips if work beckons or you need an online diversion from the relatives.

It's been a busy year for those of us in IT, so the holidays are a welcome break from the usual hectic pace of work. Yet, for many, it's not possible or desirable to completely unplug for a week or two. Whether it's to handle a fire drill back in the data center or just to take an online break from relatives that provide another reminder of you why you only see them once a year, here are some tips, handy products, and useful services to keep you connected.

Laptop or tablet

This is a no-brainer. Despite their utility, smartphones aren't optimal for everything, particularly if your needs involve multitasking, swiping between full-screen apps, or a lot of typing. But schlepping your corporate-issue laptop for a few nights at a relative's house is a nonstarter. Here's where a tablet -- or my personal favorite, a Chromebook -- comes in handy.

Despite some bad press, mainly by those that have never given them a fair test, Chromebooks are excellent PC alternatives, particularly for those who have moved most of their workflow, data and applications to the cloud, or those already invested in using the Google ecosystem.

Because Chromebooks inherit your Google profile, all your bookmarks, extensions and Chrome apps are instantly available; and by instantly, I mean within 10 seconds. With only a small SSD and lightweight OS, Chromebooks boot in a fraction of the time of an iPad or Windows notebook. And at under $300, they're cheaper than most tablets.

Bluetooth keyboard

If you decide to travel sans PC, a lightweight Bluetooth keyboard is a must. I'm partial to Logitech's, which has models that double as an iPad cover or a full-sized solar-powered unit that can be switched between three paired devices using some function keys. For the ultimate in portability, go with a folding keyboard like the Perixx Periboard-805 that's smaller than a paperback book and weighs only 5 ounces. It's a terrific smartphone companion when you need to crank out some text.

Wireless tethering plan

Chances are your PC, Chromebook, or tablet (unless you had the foresight and money to spring for one with integrated LTE) doesn't have a cellular modem, meaning you'll need a way to get online. You don't really trust Aunt Millie to have a functioning Wi-Fi connection, do you? But things are often no better if your home base is a motel, where the norm seems to be gouging guests $10 or more per night for an oversubscribed 1 Mbps DSL circuit.

These days, a better option is making your phone an Internet gateway. Most wireless plans now allow sharing the phone's data link with other devices. Both iOS and Android have easily configured tethering options using either Wi-Fi (in which the phone becomes a hotspot) or Bluetooth. Depending on your carrier and location, you can expect at least 8 Mbps download speeds in areas with LTE, which now blankets most of the country. In fact, I've gotten as high as 40 Mbps on Verizon in rural areas where I'm not competing with many other customers for bandwidth.

But you're not out of luck if you have an older phone or plan without tethering. Wireless hotspot appliances like the Verizon Jetpack, AT&T Unite, or Netgear Zing (for Sprint networks) are portable Wi-Fi hotspots, letting any Wi-Fi device connect to a 3G or LTE data network.

Personal VPN

By now, any organization with a functioning IT department has installed a VPN gateway for remote access to internal applications and data. Chances are you don't need it for email, since Outlook Web App provides an SSL-secured gateway for Exchange, the de facto standard for enterprise email backends. Still, you probably don't want to be using the corporate VPN for Amazon shopping, Facebook browsing, or Netflix streaming. But if you do find a decent public hotspot, you also don't want to use it without a VPN, at least not if you care about data security.

And if you or your users are unconvinced of the need for a secure VPN, please watch a few videos to see how easy it is to set up a wireless man-in-the-middle attack, intercept all traffic from unsuspecting users and even redirect and strip traffic to SSL addresses (part two here). You will realize a VPN is a necessity. There are many good commercial services, but VPNs are notoriously tricky to configure so one of my favorites is VyprVPN, which uses a dedicated app (available on all major platforms) to handle all the messy details. It doesn't throttle your bandwidth and automatically attaches to the closest (network-wise) gateway.

Bluetooth speakers or speakerphone

The holidays are a time for sharing, and that doesn't just mean homemade cookies and eggnog, but also video chats and media streams. Whether it's letting the entire family take part in a Skype call to distant relatives or just listening to your holiday Spotify playlist while opening the presents, you need a way to get high quality sound in and out of your smartphone. There are a plethora of excellent portable bluetooth speakers from high-end models like the Bose Soundlink or Jawbone Jambox to more portable options like the Ultimate Ears Mini Boom or JBL Flip.

Most also embed a microphone making them a decent speakerphone, but if you're more interested in great phone quality than window rattling volume consider the P710 mobile speakerphone from Logitech's business lineup. Besides Bluetooth, you can connect via USB or NFC and it includes dedicated call answer and end buttons, hardware signal processing to improve call quality and noise cancellation and equalizer settings for voice and music. Unlike the smaller Bluetooth speakers the P710 isn't cordless, using a USB port for power, but it's very compact at about 5 inches square and just under 10 ounces.

Fun time: Media streaming

When it comes time to watch some holiday movies, there's no simpler, smaller (about the size of a thumb drive) or cheaper (at $35) portable media player than the Google Chromecast, which turns any TV into a remote display. WIth apps for Android, Mac iOS, and Windows Chrome browsers, Chromecast can receive content from Netflix, Pandora, YouTube, Hulu Plus, Google Play Movies, or any Chrome browser tab.

If you have more room in your bag or are more tied to the Apple ecosystem, make it an Apple TV instead. The only complicating factor with either is that you'll need to connect them via a Wi-Fi, an option that may not exist in your in-law's living room. Tethering to your phone saves the day, but just make sure you have a high enough cap on your data plan since even a medium quality Netflix stream can use up to 0.7 GB per hour.

By adding a few goodies to your tech travel bag, being on the road for the holidays doesn't mean forgoing all your favorite online activities. May you have a happy, productive and connected new year! Kurt Marko is an InformationWeek and Network Computing contributor and IT industry veteran, pursuing his passion for communications after a varied career that has spanned virtually the entire high-tech food chain from chips to systems. Upon graduating from Stanford University ... View Full Bio

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