Awesome Stuff: Masnick's Office In A Bag

from the how-I-work dept

Okay, I’ve been meaning to do this post for a long, long time, but I kept wanting to wait until the setup was “more complete,” but I’m finally realizing that it will likely never be complete, so I’ll just go with what we’ve got so far. Here’s the deal: I end up traveling or working from the road quite a bit, and a few years back I started focusing on perfecting my “office in a bag” setup. It’s gone through many iterations and experiments (some more successful than others), but whenever I show up at conferences and set myself up people seem to marvel at it (especially journalists), so I figured I might as well give an accounting of what it entails (and also some background on it). Here’s journalism professor Dan Gillmor seeing me at a conference last year:

At another conference, someone once asked me if I was “an information DJ.” But the basic idea is that I want to be able to work comfortably and productively from just about anywhere, and just a simple laptop tends to be horrible for that. The ergonomics are terrible. The single screen is limiting. So I’ve spent years (very, very slowly) trying to figure out the right overall solution to be productive, which includes a dual monitor situation combined with an ergonomic keyboard and stands to raise the screens to decent heights. Here’s a better picture of my current basic office in a bag, followed by more detailed descriptions of what’s in there, what else I’ve tried, and what I’d still like to get. Where possible (and it’s not always possible), I am linking to Amazon affiliate links where you can purchase these, or similar, offerings (many of the things I have are no longer available, but I’ll discuss some alternatives as well), so if you click through and buy, we’ll get a little cut of that as well (thanks!). Also, while companies do very occasionally send me free stuff, I paid for everything in this list. None of the free stuff has lived up to the stuff I researched and purchased. I’m also not professing that these solutions are “the best.” I’m not TheWirecutter. These are just what I’m using now, and it’s mostly working pretty well for me. Your mileage may vary, but I’d love to hear about what other people do.

  • The Computer: I use a Lenovo T440s with the RAM maxed out. I’m like the only person who still shows up at tech events not using a Macbook. Sorry. Legal events sometimes still have folks with Thinkpads. I’ve been a loyal Thinkpad user for many years and while the company has gone through its ups and downs, I’m still happy with the overall Thinkpad experience. The T440s also comes with an extended life battery that gives it really great overall battery life. The computer is a few years old now so I’m not even sure what the latest and greatest is in Thinkpad land, though I’ve heard good things about Thinkpad Carbon X1 as well.
  • The Second Screen: This is the one that often gets the most attention. Since I normally use two screens at home and at the office, it just randomly occurred to me one evening that I wondered if there was any kind of portable second screen on the market. A few internet searches later and I discovered the Asus MB168b+, which wasn’t even on the market yet, but had been displayed at various tech events. I got so obsessed that I literally searched every night before I went to bed to see if it went on the market for a few months. I’m almost positive I’m the first person to order one once it came out on the market. It was the first reasonably affordable portable monitor that came with 1920 x 1080 resolution (there were a few others in crappy 1366 x 768 — including the confusingly named MB168B without the plus, which probably fooled some people). I love this screen and it’s so handy. It doesn’t require its own power, as you just connect it to your laptop via USB and it draws power that way. The holding case that protects it also acts as a stand for the screen. Asus has since released an updated version, the MB169b+ which is an IPS Panel, which many people prefer, giving it a wider viewing angle (but apparently it’s also a little less bright). I’ve seen a few other attempts at portable monitors hit the market, including quite a few Kickstarter campaigns, but none have the simplicity and apparent quality of the Asus offerings, which basically look like they’re just laptop screens without the laptop and works great. (There’s a Kickstarter campaign going on right now, in fact, that honestly looks too good to be true — basically offering two similar screens for less than the price of a single ASUS MB168b+. But so much about that campaign is sketchy (and there are many comments questioning the validity of the campaign) that I’d stick with the known quantity)
  • The Keyboard: For a long time I’ve been using Goldtouch ergonomic keyboards. They don’t do anything all that complex, like other ergonomic keyboards that are all curved and funky — they just split the keyboard in half and let you fold them upwards (in an adjustable way) so that the angle of the keyboards is more natural for your hands. It’s very easy to type that way. At some point, I discovered by accident that Goldtouch also made a portable version called the Goldtouch Go, which is very flat (and has a slide out cover that protects the keys). I picked up one and I actually like the feel of typing on the Go even more than the full sized Goldtouch keyboards. Unfortunately, for reasons I don’t understand, Goldtouch “updated” the Go with the Go!2 mobile keyboard and discontinued the original Go. The one nice feature about the Go2 is that it folds in half, but it does so in a weird way that makes it too bulky. Also, to me, the keyboard on the Go2 is not nearly as nice. The original Go is awesome and it’s disappointing that it’s been discontinued. I’ve been quietly stocking up on used original Go keyboards (every so often you can find cheap ones on eBay) out of fear that the main one I use will break. You can’t have any of mine. Go find your own.
  • The Stands: To get the screens higher up than whatever surface I’m using I’ve gone through a variety of computer stands. For my computer, I’ve been using the wonderful Goldtouch Go! Notebook stand. As you’ve already figured out, this is from the same company that makes the keyboard. It’s a damn good laptop stand. Folds up to be quite small. Is super light. Adjustable heights. I really have no complaints about it. It’s solid. I’ve had it for years and it seems likely to last many more. Lots of people I know swear by the Roost stand, and if I were in the market for a new laptop stand, I might check that one out.

    The stand for the screen has been a much bigger challenge, unfortunately. Regular laptop stands haven’t been all that helpful, because I need either something that will allow the screen to stand almost perfectly upright (or perfectly upright) or, alternatively, present a flat surface area that I can put the case/stand that the screen comes with across that surface. My current solution is a funky cardboard laptop stand that I picked up on Kickstarter called the Pillar. It’s not a very good laptop stand, honestly, but if you turn it around backwards, and balance things just so, it can suffice as a stand for the Asus screen. It’s not ideal and this is one area where I’d love to find an alternative. For a little while I was using the AeroTray, which was another Kickstarter project, that actually looks like it could be awesome if they just spent a little more time engineering it down. But as it stands it’s WAY too bulky and way too heavy to be practical. If they made it much thinner and lighter (which seems like it should be doable), then it would be a kickass product. The guy behind it has hinted at a new version, but nothing yet. I’ve also tried the Ridge stand, which just doesn’t work for the screen, and am endlessly waiting for the Apex stand (which is stuck in Kickstarter purgatory). But if anyone has any other suggestions, let me know!

  • The Mouse: For a while I just carried around a wireless Logitech mouse, but for the past year or so have been using a Microsoft Arc Touch mouse, which no one seems to have heard of. It took a little getting used to it, but it’s great as a travel mouse. When off, it’s completely flat, and to turn it on you “fold” it and it snaps into the arc position and you suddenly have a mouse. There are a few different versions of the Arc mouse and it appears not all of them go flat. Some seem to just fold up. I’ve also seen some people talk about the the Visenta foldable arc mouse (which was also a popular Kickstarter project), but it seems to get fairly mixed reviews online, so not sure it’s any better.
  • The Hard Drive: For extra storage I have a Lenovo USB secure hard drive that has a keypad on the cover to keep all the data on the drive encrypted. Lenovo sells these in various sizes, and I believe they’re slightly more expensive than some other external USB hard drives, but I’ve had this sucker for a long time now and it’s always worked great. Also super light.
  • The Power: What good is this mobile office if there isn’t anything to power it? Here I go with a multi-pronged solution, starting with what I refer to as my “airport friendmaker,” the portable 6 outlet power strip. The one I have is made by Monster (I didn’t realize when I got it who made it, or I might have reconsidered, given that company’s reputation as a trademark bully). I don’t see that model anywhere for sale any more so apparently it’s been discontinued, but there are a number of other portable powerstrips now on the market, and it really does lead people to swarm around you at airports and conferences and wherever else an outlet can be tough to find.

    The other power items are a 20,000 mAh powerbank from Anker along with a much smaller 6,000 mAh powerbank from Anker with a built in micro-USB charging cable. I’ve owned a bunch of portable batteries, and these two have been some of the best. I have no idea why, but it appears Anker has discontinued both (for shame!) as I can’t find them anywhere. The 20,000 one is super sleek and light for the amount of power, and I use it to power the laptop, allowing the laptop to last without plugging into a wall outlet for an insanely long time. The smaller one is about the size of my phone and I just use it to charge the phone. Anker currently has another 20,000 mAh powerbank that looks similar to the one I have… but it looks like it cannot charge laptops. That’s a shame. It also looks like they don’t offer the same small powerbank any more either. Again, I have no idea why. Before I had the 6,000 mAh model, I had a similar one that was (I think?) 4,000 mAh and it was perfect for carrying in my pocket to keep my phone charged. I will admit to recently salivating over this Maxoak 50,000 mAh powerbank that has really good reviews, but that one might be a little too big.

  • The Connectivity: None of this stuff is useful without internet access. Obviously more and more places now have WiFi availability, but if that’s not around, I either tether to my phone’s T-Mobile dataplan or I use my Karma Go MiFi device. The Karma is a nice little device, in that it’s pay as you go, rather than most such devices that require a monthly plan. I don’t use it enough to pay monthly, but having it around for backup is great, even if the per bandwidth fees feel a little high. But even that doesn’t matter so much, because part of the unique setup of the Karma is that if you have yours on, others can log in and use it, getting 100MB free for their use… and every time they do that, you get a 100MB credit as well. I use it a lot in airports, on trains, in cafes and at conferences — so people frequently log onto it, giving me free data. It runs off of the Sprint network too, so it’s nice to have for areas where T-Mobile’s coverage is weak (too many places), I can just turn on the Karma and see if Sprint has coverage instead.
  • The Sound: Earbuds just don’t cut it, really, though I do always carry around a pair (lately: Symphonized wooden earbuds, which are inexpensive and pretty amazing by my standards). But I always carry around a larger portable headset as well for longer use and better overall quality. I used to always use Logitech’s portable folding headsets, but they discontinued them years ago, and so now I use a Plantronics folding headset that folds up pretty small, and seems to both be of pretty good quality and fairly resilient for travel.

    I also carry around a pair of Samson Go Mics (not shown in the picture because I forgot to take them out of my bag), which are tiny and offer pretty good recording ability for their size and price (though, it does take a little practice to figure out where to place them and how to use them to get good sound. Those are useful if I want to record a podcast on the go.

  • The Bag: This one is brand new. It’s the new Minaal Daily, that was a Kickstarter project that just arrived a month ago and I’m loving it. It’s definitely pricey for a bag, but it feels like it will outlast me, and it seems great and can carry all of the above without complaint. Also, those guys ran the best run Kickstarter project I’ve ever seen. For many years before this I used a Wenger Swiss Gear Maxxum backpack, which I picked up somewhat randomly after seeing it on clearance at an Office Depot that was shutting down. That bag was really solid. Took it all over the world and used it daily without it ever seeming to show any sign of wear or tear until just recently (after more than 5 years of daily use). That bag is huge, which is both a benefit and a curse. It can carry everything easily, but it also juts out to an abnormal distance, which gets people pissed off all too often when you bump into them (especially on trains). It also almost got me tossed off a bus in Berlin because I didn’t realize the back of it was blocking the door from closing and was so engrossed in conversation with a friend that I didn’t hear the busdriver screaming at me until she had to walk down the aisle and yank me away from the door. Also, it’s perhaps not the most professional look.
  • The Paper Notebook: Call me crazy, but for basic notetaking in meetings, I still prefer a paper notebook. For many years I just used one of an ever growing stack of free notebooks handed out at conferences, which generally did the trick. However, just a few weeks ago I got a Rocketbook in the mail after backing their Kickstarter (amazingly, they promised August delivery, but got them all shipped by May). We had mentioned this one in a previous Awesome Stuff post. It has two kinda neat features: 1. You can use your smartphone to get a digital image of each page and automatically dump it into a variety of internet services. 2. When you finish filling up the notebook (if you use the included Frixxion erasable ink pen) you can just put the notebook in the microwave and the ink disappears and you’ve got yourself a new notebook. I haven’t done the microwave thing just yet, and I probably would have appreciated a slightly more professional look to the notebook, but so far it’s pretty neat. This one isn’t in the picture above mainly because I just forgot to take it out of the bag.
  • Other Odds and Ends: A few other odds and ends including some USB chargers/cables. Over the years I’ve discovered that different chargers and cables can have a pretty major difference on the speed of charging, so I’ve narrowed them down to using chargers that are pretty fast. I also keep a fresh set of AAA batteries for the arc mouse — just in case. I used to carry a power inverter for turning a car charger into a regular plug for my laptop, but I had that thing for over a decade and used it once, so I finally took it out of a side pocket when I recently switch backpacks and didn’t move it to the new bag. A really long time ago I also had a tiny portable thermal printer, but I never used it and I probably have it buried in a box somewhere. That was back in the days before smartphones too, when having something on paper seemed slightly more useful.
  • Still missing: Not all that much honestly. This overall setup is pretty damn good for me. I’m still looking for a better lightweight and workable stand for the Asus monitor (and, honestly, a much thinner and lighter Aerotray would probably be awesome for that purpose). I mentioned above that I’m irrationally potentially interested in that 50,000 mAh battery, but I’m not convinced the added weight is worth it. I’ve toyed with the idea of getting a Zolt laptop charger to replace the stock charter that came with the Thinkpad. It would allow me to ditch a USB charger as well, and may be a little smaller than the Thinkpad charger (but maybe not — it’s not entirely clear). The Zolt got a lot of buzz when it was first announced but now that it’s shipping the reviews have been kind of mixed, so I’m less interested in getting one. It doesn’t seem to really fill a huge need right now. I’ve also thought about picking up a Zoom H4n recorder, which some people tell me is the digital recorder to get for recording podcasts on the go — but the Samson mics seem to do the trick for now, and it’s a bit pricey for something that I don’t know how often I’d really use.

    The other dream solution that I’d love to find but that probably doesn’t exist, is a portable standing desk solution that would fit in the bag as well. As some folks know, I’m a standing desk enthusiast, so when I’m on the road it would be nice to be able to continue to work standing up. There are some portable standing desks, but I’ve found that most of them (not surprisingly, honestly) are too small to handle the full setup with the laptop and the portable monitor. And, yes, I recognize that I’m a very outlier use case, so it’s not surprising. Similarly, nearly every portable standing desk I’ve tried has been way too wobbly, and almost none of them really fit in a backpack, even if some claim to. The most impressive portable standing desk, without question, has been the Ninja Standing Desk, but that requires its own separate bag, and it weighs a hefty 5lbs. Also, it looks like the company may have stopped making them. Either way, when on the road, I either deal with sitting or I figure out makeshift solutions, including bookshelves, boxes or high kitchen counters.

That’s it for the bag. A few Frequently Asked Questions (feel free to add more in the comments):

  • Isn’t that all kinda heavy? I try to be careful about the weight, honestly, so most of those individual items are pretty light overall. But when you put them all into a bag it does add up. I find it totally manageable (a good backpack helps), but some may find it excessive. The laptop, the battery and the screen are all probably the “heaviest” items, though individually they’re all pretty light. Most people are surprised at how light both the screen and the 20,000 mAh battery are when they hold them individually. But, together, they definitely can add up. So if I’m pretty sure I won’t need something (most frequently: the battery), I may leave it out of the bag at times.
  • How long does that take to setup and take down? Surprisingly little time. Yes, it’s obviously longer than just flipping open your laptop, but a full setup takes well under 5 minutes, and I think it would be less if I had a more stable stand for the screen. Taking it all down and getting it back into the bag is pretty quick as well. Probably about 3 minutes or less.
  • All of that really fits into one bag? (I get that one a lot). Yup. Pretty easily too, though it takes some work to figure out the right configuration in the bag (and I had to relearn that with the new Minaal bag — and I’m still not sure I’ve perfected it, but it does fit just fine, with a fair bit of room to spare).
  • WTF? Are you crazy? Quite possibly. But this is something that has just sort of grown up naturally over time (some of the stuff listed above is fairly old), and once it got going, it turned out to be really quite useful.
  • How is going through airport security? No different than for most people, I think. I’ve never had an issue with anything with the one exception of when I went through airport security in Taipei just recently, and they were confused by the portable screen (which, dammit, is made by a Taiwanese company!) and made me take it out and send it through for a secondary screening. But that’s only happened once.
  • Why not just use a tablet for the second screen? This seems to get asked fairly often. Before I got the Asus, I did, briefly, use a 10 inch tablet as a second screen, but it wasn’t nearly as nice. It’s much smaller (and heavier), with resolution that wasn’t as good — and, more importantly, it was just a lot slower. The dedicated screen device works great for what I need it to do.

I think that’s basically it. If folks have more questions (or suggestions on how to make my office in a bag even better…) jump in on the comments.

Filed Under: ,

Rate this comment as insightful
Rate this comment as funny
You have rated this comment as insightful
You have rated this comment as funny
Flag this comment as abusive/trolling/spam
You have flagged this comment
The first word has already been claimed
The last word has already been claimed
Insightful Lightbulb icon Funny Laughing icon Abusive/trolling/spam Flag icon Insightful badge Lightbulb icon Funny badge Laughing icon Comments icon

Comments on “Awesome Stuff: Masnick's Office In A Bag”

Subscribe: RSS Leave a comment
Anonymous Coward says:

is a portable standing desk solution that would fit in the bag as well.

My thought on that would to be start with a backpack frame, made with telescoping or folding legs, and in built folding shelves, with the laptop,screen and keyboard attached. Basically erect it as a lean against the wall shelving unit. A clip over cover with pockets can carry the small stuff. Try your local hacker space and see if anybody there would be prepared to help you with this. This way the standing desk is the bag, rather than fitting in a bag.

Mike Masnick (profile) says:

Re: Re:

My thought on that would to be start with a backpack frame, made with telescoping or folding legs, and in built folding shelves, with the laptop,screen and keyboard attached. Basically erect it as a lean against the wall shelving unit. A clip over cover with pockets can carry the small stuff. Try your local hacker space and see if anybody there would be prepared to help you with this. This way the standing desk is the bag, rather than fitting in a bag.

This is a really good idea! I like it.

Anonymous Coward says:

Thinkpad X1 Carbon

My company set me up with the X1 Carbon about a year ago – since I work remote and travel a significant amount.

I love it far more than the T420 I had before, but there are some compromises…

Make sure you get a large enough SSD – mine started with 128gb, and that ended up being too small for my software development needs. Replacing it wasn’t difficult, but you have to take the whole bottom panel off.

If you need an optical drive, you’ll be using an external one.

I got the 1920×1080 display (non-touch), and while it is great to have the higher resolution, it can be very hard to see at full res if you have poor eyesight. When I’m not traveling, the laptop is connected to the pro-dock and two large 24″ displays, so it’s not a big deal. You can of course always scale the display depending on your choice of OS.

If you need to connect to VGA projectors often, you’ll need a mini-displayport -> vga adapter.

If you need to connect to ethernet often, you’ll have to carry around the included ethernet “dongle” as there’s no RJ45 jack on the laptop itself.

Otherwise, the thing is very thin and light, and has decent battery life. With my model, I can usually get most of a workday out of a single charge – as long as I’m not doing anything heavy duty and let it go to sleep or hibernate while I’m in and out of meetings, etc.

Anonymous Coward says:

crappy 1366 x 768

Dunno what OS you’re using, but on a *nix-based system, official resolution constraints ain’t all the much of a thang.

I use the following script to scale my ASUS netbook’s (10″) display:

# “scale” 1536×900 of display into 1024×600 screen resolution
# NOTE: run xrandr without args to identify output target device(s) when
# exploring to identify display device(s)

xrandr –output LVDS1 –mode 1024×600 –panning 1536×900 –scale 1.5×1.5

Mike Masnick (profile) says:

Re: Stand

Consider something like this for your unsatisfactory stand. Weighs about 2.5 lbs, and fits nicely in my backpack (though I mostly use it for sitting or standing on — especially when I need to get over a crowd for photos).

Anything that we’re talking about in terms of pounds is too heavy. Needs to be ounces. That folding stool is already bigger and heavier than the Aerotray which is already too big and too heavy. I’m looking for something that’s tiny and well less than a pound.

Cliff says:


You’ll struggle to find one, but these mean you can be the guy who can actually print anywhere. Slow, noisy, mono, but who cares? It’s battery powered and supports bluetooth for //blackberry// otherwise you can print A4 by USB. And it contains a 20 page print roll all in a teensy package.

I can’t think why it’s not more popular, it’s a great device and will turn heads for sure.

Similarly (which is a rebrand of the same from many generic suppliers, so you can get from £40-odd) is a portable A4 scanner, about an inch square prism where the printer is maybe 1″x2″ prism. Between them you almost have a battery powered 20 page (inc paper) photocopier smaller than your lunch, but you need to go via a laptop, alas.

Mike Masnick (profile) says:

Re: Printer!

You’ll struggle to find one, but these mean you can be the guy who can actually print anywhere. Slow, noisy, mono, but who cares? It’s battery powered and supports bluetooth for //blackberry// otherwise you can print A4 by USB. And it contains a 20 page print roll all in a teensy package.

As I mentioned in the post, I used to carry a different, but also tiny thermal printer. But I never used it. The one I had is so old I can’t even find pictures of it on the internet. So, not really that interested in getting another.

As for a scanner, honestly, these days just using a smartphone camera to take a photo is good enough.

Aaron T (profile) says:

Quick Asus monitor question

Hey Mike,

I’ve been looking at the Asus as well as AOC USB monitors and my use case is a little unique- I need to be able to use it outside. Not direct sunlight, but definitely in areas where I can’t control the lighting.

Any experience using the Asus outdoors? I notice the latest AOC is brighter which I’m leaning towards because of that.

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Re: Re: Quick Asus monitor question

The same trick can be applied to laptops if outdoor use is required. Also, during spring and autumn, I need a shade at one end of my computer desk to deal with late afternoon sun, because the sun shines straight through the window at the side of my monitors. The rest of the year, because the sun is above the top of the window, or below the hill out back there is no problem.

Mike Masnick (profile) says:

Re: Quick Asus monitor question

Any experience using the Asus outdoors? I notice the latest AOC is brighter which I’m leaning towards because of that.

I have used it outdoors a few times, but it’s like most laptop screens, honestly, and not a great outdoor experience. The hood suggestion in that other comment may be a really good idea if you need to use it outdoors frequently.

Ben (profile) says:

This'll seem quaint in 5 years...

There always seems to be some new company making a multi-screened laptop, but I’ve never seen one in-the-flesh.
I’m really looking forward to infinite-display vr , especially as head tracking improves and as its combined with eye tracking to eliminate mice (just as the touchpoint is not as good as a mouse but largely suffices).

Mike Masnick (profile) says:

Re: This'll seem quaint in 5 years...

There always seems to be some new company making a multi-screened laptop, but I’ve never seen one in-the-flesh.

Slidenjoy is one of the Kickstarter projects I was thinking about that I mentioned above. Look at its campaign page, though and it’s all backers complaining about what they fear is vaporwear.

Mike Masnick (profile) says:

Re: Minaal Daily

Can you give us an update on the Minaal Daily? Do you still like it? Was it a worthwhile purchase?

Yes! I still use it… daily. And I still think it’s great. I can think of a few improvements they could make (more "quick access" pockets or space would be my main one), but overall, I still love the bag and recommend it to people. It depends on what you need it for, but for me it’s great and fits my needs perfectly and just has a really nice feel. And, even though it’s now got a year’s worth of use, it honestly looks brand new. Zero signs of wear and tear.

Add Your Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

Have a Techdirt Account? Sign in now. Want one? Register here

Comment Options:

Make this the or (get credits or sign in to see balance) what's this?

What's this?

Techdirt community members with Techdirt Credits can spotlight a comment as either the "First Word" or "Last Word" on a particular comment thread. Credits can be purchased at the Techdirt Insider Shop »

Follow Techdirt

Techdirt Daily Newsletter

Techdirt Deals
Techdirt Insider Discord
The latest chatter on the Techdirt Insider Discord channel...