09 Jan The Ultimate Smart Home Office
In my final column on great holiday tech gifts for 2019, I will focus on what I believe is the ultimate productivity, entertainment and cord-cutting solution for your home office. This approach may sound a bit contradictory as some consumers may view some of these solutions in a narrow and silo-oriented manner. That said, I suspect those of you who work-at-home will like this holistic approach since most home offices are not used soley for income-generating purposes. Without further fanfare, here’s my shortlist of products that will do a marvelous job in your home.
PCs and monitors worth consideration
Let’s start with PC and monitor selections for a home office. If you’re looking for a great portable PC that is both powerful and lightweight, look no further than the recently enhanced Dell XPS 13 Touch Laptop. Featuring an industrial design that I believe outclasses even the vaunted Apple MacBook Air, the Dell XPS Laptop packs tremendous power with a 10th Generation Intel Core i7 1071U processor and a spectacular 13.3” InfinityEdge touch display with stunning 4K Ultra HD resolution. At less than 3 pounds in weight, it’s a dream to take on the road. This new version thankfully relocated the webcam to the top bezel, eliminating the “nosecam” effect that plagued previous iterations. Battery life is excellent—I’ve gotten nearly 19 hours when using productivity applications. I’m also thrilled that it includes Wi-Fi 6 wireless support for impressively fast Internet connectivity (more on this later). Best of all is the fact that you can buy a fully loaded unit with 16GB and a spacious 1TB SSD for less than $2,000.
One of the hottest areas in the monitor market segment is a new crop of 43” (and larger) ultrawide displays. I was fortunate to get a chance to put the new HP S430C (43.4”) Curved Ultrawide Monitor through its paces, and it did not disappoint. Affordably priced at only $999 (MSRP), it’s one of the few ultrawide monitors on the market that includes an integrated pop-up Microsoft Hello-compatible Webcam. It’s beautifully designed and will undoubtedly look spectacular in your home office. It supports up to 3840 X 1200 resolution with excellent brightness, and users will revel in the ability to simultaneously view multiple spreadsheets, documents and other media on a single display. The curved design of the display creates a nice immersive feel for movie content, and its 32 x 9 landscape design makes it ideal for linear video editing applications. Another cool trick up its sleeve is the ability (dubbed HP Device Bridge) to control two PC devices and copy/paste files and data between them with a single keyboard and mouse.
If a 43” display isn’t enough for you, you might consider stepping up to the LG 49WL95C-W 49” UltraWide Dual QHD IPS Curved LED Monitor. It’s a bit pricier at a $1,399 MSRP, but it supports a higher resolution of 5120 X 1440 and, unlike the HP display, includes fantastic sounding integrated 20-watt speakers with rich bass. This LG display also includes a dual controller (like the HP S430C) to help you control multiple PCs connected to one screen, with one keyboard and mouse that facilitates the dragging and dropping of files between the connected devices.
Products to keep you entertained and productive
In my experience, every home office needs a TV—many work-at-home consumers tend to watch the major 24-hour news channels or want to relax by watching a movie or sports. I’ve said this before, and I’ll say it again: TCL makes many of the best value-oriented, high-performance smart TVs on the market, and its new 8-Series is no exception. The new TCL 8-Series (available in 65” and 75” models) is the company’s first to use a mini-LED backlighting system, and it’s a big deal—particularly if you view SD channels from time to time. What I like about TCL’s technology is that it essentially imitates OLED displays (which are generally more expensive and occasionally suffer from a “burned-in” effect if the TV image remains static). The 65” model that I’ve been using for the past 45 days provided OLED-like deep black levels without compromising brightness levels. Like all TCL TVs, the 8-Series features integrated Roku functionality, making it one of the easiest TVs to set up and access just about every streaming service on the planet. Impressively priced at $1,999 (for the 65” model) and $2,999 (for the 75” model), these new TCL TVs are a terrific and cost-effective OLED alternative from LG and Sony.
Far be it for me to suggest that some work-at-home users might have a video game console connected to their in-home office TV for some downtime recreation. As I’ve mentioned in a previous Forbes column, one of the best accessories that you can buy to maximize your console gaming experience is Marseille’s new mClassic. This incredibly affordable $99 accessory is essentially a graphics processor-based dongle that upscales the video resolution of games for the most popular gaming consoles, including the Nintendo Switch, Sony PlayStation 4, Microsoft XBOX One and even “retro” consoles. The resulting video effect is truly transformative, and it allows you to get the most out of a new 4K TV. The company recently launched mCable via a successful Indiegogo campaign, and it’s a great way to keep yourself entertained when you’re not busy working on that big client presentation.
By the way, if you have multiple devices plugged into your TV and hate having to change video inputs, consider getting media device hub like Caavo Control Center. It’s the best $50 you’ll ever spend to easily change multiple entertainment devices (including PCs, laptops, video game consoles and streaming devices). Its superbly designed universal remote control functionality has one of the best voice recognition implementations I’ve ever used, making it a breeze to discover content across multiple streaming services. It’s one of the best inexpensive accessories, and it’s worth consideration the moment you set up a new home entertainment system.
Cord-cutters rejoice: new products from Amazon and Dish Networks
Amazon has been a major player in the streamer media device category since it launched the original Fire TV Stick in 2014. Its new FireTV Cube, which features the inclusion of a processor upgrade and Dolby Vision audio, has quickly found its way into my heart as one of the best streaming players released in 2019. The Cube design is attractive and sharp, and will look unobtrusive next to the TV in your home office. With broad third-party streaming content support from the likes of Netflix, Prime Video, Disney +, Apple TV and HBO (among numerous others), it is indeed noticeably faster than the original Cube. Furthermore, it supports high-end AV formats like Dolby Vision and Dolby Atmos. Thankfully, it now natively supports YouTube via a discrete channel in the app, as Google and Amazon resolved a multi-year feud that prevented Amazon from accessing the world’s largest streaming service as an app on Amazon’s streaming devices. The new Cube supports 4K HDR and even has integrated Alexa functionality, allowing you to display lyrics to your favorite song or even tell you who’s on-screen during a movie. It’s affordably priced at $120 and ranks as one of the best premium streaming devices on the market.
Want to watch your local TV channels free of charge without a cable or satellite subscription? The Amazon Fire TV Recast (priced at $230 for the dual tuner version) and the just-announced AirTV 2 from Dish Networks are super ways to watch local TV channels free of charge in HD quality and stream that content to other TVs in your home. Both products access this content via an inexpensive HD antenna that you attach to a nearby window. Video quality looks fabulous due to both products’ use of a video transcoder, a technology ingredient that compresses and decompresses video for optimal quality, regardless of your Wi-Fi connection speed. In fact, AirTV 2 ($100 MSRP) utilizes innovative transcoder technology from Pixelworks, which is especially beneficial if you stream your local TV content outside of your home to other devices while you’re traveling (and works even if you’re utilizing a cellular connection or a sub-optimal Wi-Fi connection). Amazon’s Recast, which includes 500GB of storage for 75 hours of DVR storage, does require the use of a Fire TV or Echo Show on the same wireless network to watch your local TV content. AirTV 2, on the other hand, is optimized to use with the Sling TV video service and works with numerous steaming devices (including Roku). That said, you’ll have to buy an external USB storage device (at least 32GB) if you want to enable DVR functionality. Both Amazon Recast and AirTV 2 have extremely intuitive (and familiar) linear interfaces and guides that takes the guesswork out of what Over-The-Air channels to watch.
Your experience with all of these cord-cutting solutions will be dramatically enhanced if you upgrade your legacy 802.11ac (or older) router with a new one that features WiFi 6 (802.11ax), the newest wireless standard that promises dramatically faster (almost wired-class, up to 6Gbps) connection speeds with very little latency. I’m convinced that 2020 will be the year of WiFi 6-based routers and I encourage all home users to begin upgrading their routers. Most mobile devices, including nearly every new portable announced over the past few months, offer integrated WiFi 6 support. I’ve been using Netgear’s new Orbi Whole Home Tri-Brand Mesh WiFi 6 System for the past 30 days, and my experience has been nothing short of amazing. Orbi’s new product isn’t inexpensive at $699 MSRP, but it does include a satellite that extends wireless coverage sufficient for a 5,000 square foot home. I know all the chatter over the past year has been about 5G, but the rollout will take time. In the meantime, WiFi 6 is here, and if you have a properly equipped client device with 802.11ax (and the chances are that you do if you’re purchasing a new laptop or smartphone this holiday season), you can take advantage of this new wireless capability right now.
Finally, Jabra’s Speak 710 is a great mobile speakerphone for your home office or when you travel. Lightweight, compact (less than 11 ounces) and Bluetooth-based, the Speak 710 (which has a $314 MSRP) provides immersive sound for calls and music utilizing an omnidirectional microphone and HD voice capability. It works with all the major online voice call services, including Skype for Business, GoToMeeting, WebEx, Chromebox and Adobe Connect. Battery life is excellent at 15 hours, which is ideal for travel. I’ve also used it with groups as large as six people.
Some closing thoughts
With CES only a couple of weeks away, I expect to see another cavalcade of smart home solutions and products, many of which will be suitable for home office applications. In the run-up to CES, my first column of the year will focus on the top technology trends that I expect to see showcased at this enormous technology show. Some of the trends will be obvious, while others may surprise you. Keep an eye out for that column after the first of the year.