Holiday gadgets: It's a fine line between work and play

Jetting off for a fortnight in the sun but still need to stay in touch with the office? In a Tools of the Trade summer special, Stephen Pritchard reviews state-of-the-art devices that let us keep an eye on our emails and up to date with our data
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The Independent Online

Survey after survey suggests that Britons work the longest hours in Europe, and that long-hours culture even extends to the holidays.

Survey after survey suggests that Britons work the longest hours in Europe, and that long-hours culture even extends to the holidays.

Few managers or professionals can afford to ignore the office completely during their summer breaks. Fortunately, the latest generation of communications gadgets makes that a lot easier than it was in the past. And for those who are lucky enough to control their schedules, technology opens up the possibility of taking a longer break, and staying in touch with the office remotely. Here, we have rounded up the gadgets that make it possible.

Unless you need to work with large documents, one of the most convenient ways to stay in touch on the move is a smart phone. These devices can pick up email and surf the web, as well as run a diary and make phone calls.

The best smart phone on the market is Sony Ericsson's P900. This has just been updated as the P910, which, with 64mb, has double the memory of the original. Sony Ericsson has also added a qwerty keyboard to go alongside the handwriting recognition of the P900. The other significant change is a screen with 262,000 colours, making the phone a better bet for working with digital images or graphic-rich documents. The P910 costs around £500 without a contract, and between £200 and £250 with.

A more compact and cheaper alternative is the hugely popular BlackBerry (beloved of merchant bankers and top executives). The latest model, the 7230, keeps to the over-sized pager design of earlier models, and has a colour screen and a thumb-style qwerty keyboard.

BlackBerry claims a three-day battery life, based on sending emails and making phone calls, but its real selling point is the way it can pick up emails from personal and work-based accounts simply. Delete an email on the BlackBerry and it is deleted on the office mail server; send a reply and a copy will be filed back at base. The BlackBerry is small, unobtrusive and portable. It costs between £99 and £200 depending on the contract, from O 2, T-Mobile and Vodafone.

Travellers who need more screen "real estate" than a smart phone or PDA can provide have two options: a tablet PC or a laptop. Tablet PCs have not been an overwhelming success in sales terms, but manufacturers are still producing new models that address some of the shortcomings of earlier versions.

Motion Computing's M1400 tablet is designed for those who need to work as much outdoors as in the office. Motion has taken its standard M1400 tablet - a "slate" design built around a 12.1in (31cm), touch-screen display - and added a technology called View Anywhere.

Motion claims that the screen cuts reflections to a tenth of those on a normal flat screen, and improves contrast 225 per cent. The M1400 already has a 160-degree viewing angle, which makes it possible to read data on the screen no matter where you are sitting. The new screen also reduces power consumption, an important consideration if you do want to go online from the beach. The M1400 with View Anywhere costs £1,450, plus VAT.

An alternative that will appeal to the frequent traveller is a ruggedised laptop. Panasonic has come to dominate the market for these devices, with its Toughbook range. These have additional features, such as shock absorption and keyboards proofed against dirt and moisture.

Toughbooks have, though, been both heavy and expensive. Panasonic has responded with a Toughbook Light, a semi-ruggedised design. The CF-W2 weighs 1.29kg and comes with a combination drive that reads DVDs and can read and write CDs. The Toughbook has a relatively low-powered processor, an Intel Centrino clocked at 900MHz, but has a 40Gb hard drive, 256Mb of memory and WiFi wireless connectivity.

It also has shock absorbers for the screen and hard drive, and a splash-proof keyboard and track pad, making it as resistant to the rigours of a building site as to a spilled sundowner. The CF-W2 costs £1,650 plus VAT.

Two devices offer an alternative for those who don't want to take a complete laptop or PDA away with them, but instead plan to stay in touch using a cyber café or hotel internet terminal.

The VTEC Flash Pen doubles as a ball-point pen and memory device, with 32Mb costing £24.38 (including VAT). The advantages over a standard USB "memory key" are two-fold: a built-in, Outlook-compatible email client called Vmail, and data encryption backed with password protection. Connect the Flash Pen to any PC connected to the internet and it can access your Outlook-based email, but lose the drive and others should not be able to read your messages.

Rather more expensive is the Xkey from Disgo. This USB drive comes in either 256Mb or 512Mb capacities, and includes a full Microsoft Exchange software client, as well as a database for storing mail and a synchronisation engine for making sure that information on both the drive and the company mail server is up to date.

The Xkey works best with computers that are online, but because it has its own mail storage database it can also work on an unconnected PC. When you connect the Xkey to a PC, links to the internet are encrypted; the device itself is password protected so any stored data is safe from prying eyes. At £200 for the 256Mb drive and £300 for the 512Mb model, the Xkey drives are not cheap, but they are much cheaper than any laptop.

Finally, travellers will want a strong and rugged way to carry all their gadgets with them. A black laptop bag or briefcase will look out of place at the beach or beside the swimming pool, but fortunately, there are alternatives.

The Computer Luggage Company makes a range of backpacks and messenger-style bags with air-pocket protection for computer equipment. The AirBags also have pouches for essential travel accessories such as an iPod, and ports for headphones. The bags, which launch next week, start at around £40 - money well spent to protect expensive gadgets.

Contacts: Sony Ericsson P910,; AirBags,; Disgo Xkey,; Panasonic CF-W2,; Motion Computing M1400,; Flash Pen,; BlackBerry 7230,