Peripherals for computers are constantly changing. Look through our 20 add-on ideas to see what catches your eye or for something that will make life easier
One of the best things about PCs is that they can be easily upgraded with lots of useful and interesting add-ons and peripherals.
If you have owned a PC for any length of time the chances are that you already have a fair collection of gadgets poking out of your computer’s various access panels and hanging off its every last connection port. Surely, nothing else is required?
That may be the case but sometimes all that’s needed is a little inspiration. Your current router may be doing a reliable job, for example, but are you aware of the clever tricks that the latest models can work to increase transfer speeds?
In this article we’ll explore some of the latest add-ons that can improve the experience of owning a PC – we have got something for everyone.
1. Faster wireless networking
When routers are readily available for £30, why pay significantly more? Most wireless routers transmit at a radio frequency of 2.4GHz but the latest dual-band models can extend their signals into the 5GHz part of the spectrum.
Why does this matter? Well, at 2.4GHz there is a lot of interference, not least from other routers. But the 5GHz band doesn’t (yet) experience the same level of interference and as a result signals can be stronger and more reliable.
Some of the latest models, such as D-Link’s £100 DIR 825/B Xtreme, can even transmit on both frequencies simultaneously, using the 5GHz band for intensive tasks such as movie streaming.
2. Quicker start-up and storage
Unlike conventional hard disks, solid-state disks (or SSDs) have no moving parts and are faster and more reliable. They’re not cheap, but SSDs are becoming ever more affordable, making the addition of an external SSD drive a great upgrade option.
Ideally, an SSD should be installed inside the PC and used as the Windows installation drive, to make the startup time and everyday operation faster. However, if you want to experience SSD speeds without opening up your computer – and your PC has a USB3 port built in – then a model such as Iomega’s £150 64GB SSD is an easy option.
3. Powerline networking
Using home mains-power wiring for PC networking (known as powerline or Homeplug networking) isn’t a new idea, but the Devolo Dlan 200AV USB Extender is a clever variation.
While other powerline devices share an internet connection through a mains socket, the USB Extender shares connected devices via USB. So a single printer or USB hard disk can be accessed by any PC in the home.
Alternatively, at £19 the TP-Link TL-PA211 Homeplug adapter is a cheap and affective way to add home networking to a mains plug socket.
4. Gesture-enabled touchpads
Apple’s various touchscreen devices popularised gesture-based input (where fingertip movements are translated into mouse-like actions) but the same kind of control is available for PC users, with gadgets such as the Wacom Bamboo Pen and Touch (£75).
Designed for left- or right-handed use, the tablet works with PCs and Macs, and supports numerous gestures including pinching to zoom or turning finger and thumb to rotate. The tablet looks good and has four special keys at the bottom for performing common tasks.
5. Easier laptop connectivity
Some PCs, especially laptops and netbooks, suffer from a lack of ports for connecting devices – but this is easily fixed with a port extender. The Toshiba Dynadock V10, for instance, costs around £61, has four USB2 ports, an Ethernet socket and both DVI and VGA outputs. It also has headphone and microphone connections. It is compatible with Windows XP, Vista and 7.
6. Pump up laptop audio
Improving the audio quality of a computer doesn’t require an internal sound card. The Creative Soundblaster X-Fi HD connects using USB, so is ideal for laptop users who don’t want to open their computer up.
It has excellent sound quality and is easy to set up as Windows will recognise it as a standard audio device. It includes software recording and cleaning audio files and costs around £76.
7. Watch TV on your PC
These days you can watch some live TV broadcasts using the likes of BBC iPlayer, but buying a TV tuner card will give you a proper Freeview-on-PC experience. Prices start at around £25 for smaller, simple devices like the Hauppauge Win-TV-Nova-T, which connects via USB.
8. Cooler, faster computing
Some laptops can get rather warm if they are used for prolonged periods. As well as being uncomfortable if used on the lap, it could even lead to damage – without good ventilation, sensitive components inside the laptop may overheat and malfunction.
However, a simple gadget such as the Kensington Smartfit Easy Riser can help: it’s an open-backed, tilting stand that can elevate a laptop up by up to 50°. It’s suitable for most laptop sizes and, when used with an external keyboard, improves comfort and provides protection against overheating and costs £18.
9. High-definition video calls
Webcams have moved on so if you are still staring into a minuscule black eye that serves up grainy, postage-stamp-sized video consider upgrading to a modern model, such as the Facevsion Touchcam N1.
This will work with Skype to allow video calls to be made at up to 720p resolution. At around £70 it might seem expensive but its ability to make high-definition Skype calls positions it above cheaper webcams.
Another option is the Microsoft Lifecam HD-5000, which is available for around £27.
10. Connect to any wireless network
Many people already have wireless networks set up at home, of course. But if you like the idea of upgrading a dual-band router (like the D-Link DIR 825/B Xtreme mentioned previously in Idea number 1), then the wireless adapters used to connect to the network may also need updating.
The Linksys AE1000 is an 802.11n dual-band adapter (so supports both 2.4GHz and 5GHz frequencies, and all Wifi standards) that plugs into any standard USB port and includes and extension cable to it can be positioned for better reception. It costs £35.
11. Multi-slot memory card readers
While digital camera manufacturers have largely settled on the SD card storage format, many people end up with a collection of different and incompatible memory cards. That’s why a memory card reader can be a useful investment.
The Lexar USB 24-in-1 Multi Card Reader (around £16), can accept and read 24 different types of memory card including more irritating types, such as Sony’s proprietary Memory Stick range. The adapter connects to a computer using USB and can then be placed on a desk for easy access.
12. Surround yourself with sound
Now PCs are used for catch-up TV and watching films, a cheap pair of tinny speakers may no longer satisfy your aural experience. Fortunately, there is no shortage of high-quality replacements.
The Teufel Concept E 100 Control 5.1, for example, is a six-speaker surround-sound system that costs £219. This set’s subwoofer – the big, low noise-maker – doubles as an amplifier, so no separate amp is required, and it comes with all the cables required to surround yourself with audio.
13. Type in comfort
Pause to look at your hands while typing and it should be obvious that the classic ‘straight’ keyboard design doesn’t necessarily lend itself to comfort: your mitts must bend at the wrist in order to get the right tapping angle.
Ergonomic keyboards are shaped to avoid this artificial slanting and, as a result, many people find them more comfortable to type on than traditional keyboards. A good example is Microsoft’s £50 Natural Ergonomic Keyboard 4000.
14. Easier online conversations
We have already covered how it is now possible to enjoy online video calls in high definition – but don’t forget the audio. Cheap headphones and microphones can ruin the experience of online chat, so consider a decent dedicated headset such as the Sennheiser PC 26.
It attaches via USB and has an inline volume control and mute switch, so it’s easy to control the audio as you chat. It usually costs £50, but we’ve seen it as cheap £22 online.
15. Use your laptop for longer
Some laptops can suffer from poor battery life. A good solution to this problem is to buy an ‘extended’ battery – basically a battery that contains more power cells, providing more juice.
Prices are highly variable and depend on the laptop make and model and particular battery, but you can expect to pay around £100 for a 12-cell laptop battery that would provide double the life of typical six-cell incumbents.
16. Turn old negatives into digital photos
We get lots of correspondence from readers who have collections of old slides and negatives and want to create digital copies. There are a fair few options when it comes to transparency scanners but we would ward you off buying the cheapest equipment: in our experience, results from the lowest-cost models tend to be poor.
For great results consider a model such as the Epson Perfection V330 A4 flatbed scanner. This is designed for scanning both slides and negatives. It’s also works like any other scanner, so can deal with photos and documents. It costs around £88.
17. See more of the Windows Desktop
The Computeractive office is a sea of multiple-monitor PC setups. As well as making us look more important it means we have more space to work, as the Windows Desktop can be easily extended across two or more displays. Often all that’s required is a second screen, as many modern computers have graphics cards able to output to at least two displays (see our online workshop).
With decent 20in monitors costing around £90 these days, it is an effective and affordable way to improve a computer.
18. Turn record and cassette collections into digital recordings
Turning old cassette tapes and vinyl records into digital recordings can be achieved easily using a couple of clever adapters. The Ion ITR03 (around £33), is a tape-to-MP3 converter that plugs into the USB port on a computer.
It comes with conversion software to turn audio from cassette tapes to MP3 files that can be played on a PC. It even includes an auto-reverse feature for continuous recording.
Similarly, the Ion Easy Play LP (£43), can convert vinyl recordings to MP3 files. Once again, it connects via USB and comes with the necessary software.
19. Simpler gadget-charging
Charging a range of gadgets can create clutter and hog mains-power sockets. The Idapt i3 (around £20), can charge up to three devices at once. Included in the box are adapters for both mini- and micro-USB sockets, along with the same for iPods and iPhones and popular Nokia, Samsung and Sony Ericsson phones. The iDapt 3 also has a USB socket on the side for charging larger devices like the iPad.
A more expensive alternative is the £70 Powermat. This uses inductive charging to charge compatible devices wirelessly. Special adapters mean that a variety of smartphones, tablets and other gadgets can be charged using the device.
20. More accurate gaming
If you thought mice were merely for moving pointers and clicking at menus, then think again – modern games support mice with bumper collections of buttons.
At around £60 the Logitech G700 is expensive but also one of the best gaming mice available. It has standard left and right buttons, three more clickers on the top, a scroll wheel and four controls on the side. These buttons can be customised using the supplied software.
Another button can control the sensitivity of the mouse, which is great for being extra-accurate when using a sniper-rifle in a shooting game.
Just for fun
We’ve provided some ideas that offer real benefits in day-to-day use but not all add-ons have a serious purpose.
The USB Yoda Talking Desk Projector (25), for example, reacts to motion to utter various phrases associated with the Jedi master. Alternatively, string some pretty USB fairy lights around your office desk (£10), or keep your tea or coffee hot for longer with a USB-powered cup warmer (£11).
With a little more effort
The add-ons featured in this article are intended to be simple to install and set up. Indeed, in many cases they just need to be plugged into a USB socket.
However, sometimes opening up a computer will be necessary. If you want to add USB3 connectivity to your PC, for example, then the only option will be to open up the PC’s case and an expansion card inside.
Fortunately, most internal upgrades are straightforward. For a comprehensive guide to 10 upgrades anyone can make, from adding more memory to replacing a hard disk, click here.
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