Extreme mobility: Tools and tips for smartphone-only travel

You can enjoy the liberation of traveling without a laptop -- if you have the right equipment and plan ahead.

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Working with Office files

Office Suite Pro app
OfficeSuite Pro lets you edit word processing files, spreadsheets and presentations on an Android phone. Click to view larger image.

Like most business travelers, when I hit the road I still have to do everything that I did back at the office, including writing and editing, working with spreadsheets and preparing presentations. There is no Microsoft Office suite for Android, but OfficeSuite Pro 5 (OSP) from Mobile Systems is the next best thing.

With OSP, I can create, view and edit Word, Excel and PowerPoint files in the latest file formats. It costs $10 and there's a 30-day free trial, so you can try it out before committing to the app.

Working with OSP goes surprisingly smoothly but can get tedious at times because my phone's 4.4-in. screen is tiny compared to my laptop's 12.5-in. display. The key is to use it in landscape mode as often as possible. It shows roughly eight lines of text from a Word document at a time.

A thin bar along the bottom of the screen contains basic formatting options, including font, color, justification and bullets, although it lacks the intricate formatting options that Office provides. Actually, I hardly miss them, preferring to keep documents simple.

While waiting out an ice storm at a departure gate on a recent trip, I used OSP to put the finishing touches on a presentation. The plane eventually did get off the ground, and in the air (with the phone in airplane mode, of course) I added my speaking notes. Later, I called up a spreadsheet with my company's income and expenses for the year to get it ready for tax time.

There are several alternative apps for Android phones, such as Polaris Office and Documents to Go, that provide similar capabilities, while the Pages, Numbers and Keynote trio do roughly the same for the iPhone. And Windows Phone device owners can use Microsoft's Office Mobile suite.

Another option is Google Docs, which stores the files online and requires that you have a Google account. Google Docs is available as a native Android app that you can install on your phone; for other platforms, you need to use your phone's browser to access and work with your files. Working online is a seductive idea, but I've found that the response is often too slow to satisfy my need for instant gratification when I travel.

Typing

I have a confession to make: I am functionally illiterate with the typical smartphone's onscreen keyboard, barely able to type my own name. Even for those who are proficient at onscreen typing, though, trying to get actual work done using a tiny onscreen keyboard is an exercise in frustration.

Using a lightweight Bluetooth keyboard that's designed for mobility is a big help here. While there are dozens of mobile Bluetooth keyboards available, the best have keys big enough for adult human fingers, fold up to about the size of a paperback book and weigh roughly half a pound.

I've found out the hard way that not all Bluetooth keyboards work with all smartphones. That's because some current devices support the Serial Port Profile (SPP) Bluetooth profile, while others support the Human Interface Device (HID) profile. The LG Nitro HD phone I used, for instance, will connect with keyboards that use SPP but not those that use HID.

A good option is to get a Bluetooth keyboard that supports both the HID and SPP protocols, such as the $100 Freedom Pro Keyboard from Freedom Input USA. There's a small switch on the keyboard's left side to choose between HID and SPP.

Freedom Pro foldable keyboard

The Freedom Pro keyboard folds up for travel and works with smartphones that support either HID or SPP Bluetooth.

Click to view larger image.

The Freedom Pro keyboard can connect with smartphones running on the Android (up to Version 3.0), iOS, BlackBerry, Windows Mobile and Symbian operating systems, but it requires platform-specific drivers. Setting up the keyboard to work with my Android phone took me about three minutes.

The keyboard weighs 9 oz. and provides 75 keys, as close to a full selection of keys as you're likely to find on a portable keyboard. Some of the keys get shortchanged on size, and because the keyboard folds in the middle, its space bar is split into two smallish keys, which I find annoying. Still, these are typical tradeoffs for a mobile keyboard.

The Freedom Pro keyboard includes a pop-out easel stand that securely holds the phone horizontally or vertically. I comfortably typed long emails, proposals, invoices and more -- all without ever using the phone's on-screen keyboard.

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