How to turn your car into the ultimate mobile office

Now that you’re used to working outside the corporate office, it’s time to stretch the boundaries beyond the kitchen table or guest bedroom to the ultimate mobile office. It might lack four walls and a water cooler, but your car offers a killer corner-office view of the world and can let you work just about anywhere.

Salespeople, insurance adjusters, utility workers, and many others have long understood the benefits of working out of a car. In a very real sense, their office is wherever it needs to be, whether that’s a client’s conference room, a construction site, or even roadside at a fender bender. But there’s a gotcha: to be an effective mobile base of operations, the car requires a technological transformation with the right equipment.

For the past 30 years, I have embraced the concept of the hybrid office, working in my office, at home, and at the offices of clients and collaborators. More and more, that includes my 9-year-old Audi A4 AllRoad. In fact, rather than fly to nearby cities for collaborations, meetings, and presentations, I often drive. On a recent hectic two-day Boston trip, rather than flying (and dealing with the inevitable late or canceled flight) from New York, I hopped into my car and drove. Sure, it takes longer than flying, but it just about evens out when you factor in the cab rides to and from the airport, the time killed in the security line, and the interminable waiting.

During the drive, I stopped a couple times to check my email, catch up on the goings-on at work, and update my pitch with the latest numbers. To the outside world, I never left my office. That’s because I didn’t.

Workspace on wheels

It’s time to think of the car as a cubicle on wheels. It can feel cramped inside, but the front seats are comfortable, the backseat is an excellent couch, and the car offers ultimate privacy compared to the middle seat on an airplane.

Over the years, I have come to appreciate five key elements that have turned my car into my office:

  • power to run my devices
  • a good internet connection so I’m always online
  • the ability to make and take calls
  • access to all my data, whether it’s local or online
  • a desk to work on

Put it all together and I can work wherever the road takes me, whether that’s a turnpike rest area, a downtown parking lot, or the beach at sunset.

An important word of warning about the devices and tips that follow: Most of the car office’s elements are meant to be used while the car is safely parked. Forget about multitasking while driving, because being distracted likely won’t end well. Whatever it is — fixing that billing problem in accounting or going over the next quarter’s projections — can wait. The risks of damage, injury, or worse are just too high.

What follows is a compendium of my experience, the products I use every day that turn my car into a four-wheeled office, and tips on what works and what doesn’t. Go ahead, buckle up and get to work. Just don’t forget your driver’s license.

Mobile power play

The biggest difference between the typical office and your car comes down to power — or the lack of it. While some newer vehicles have AC outlets and USB power ports, I needed to retrofit my car to run all my equipment from its three cigarette lighter outlets.

mobile office 01 baseus 160w car charger Brian Nadel/IDG

The Baseus 160W Car Charger uses Qualcomm’s QuickCharge 5 technology for fast charging. (Click any image in this story to enlarge it.)

To start, my favorite way to charge my phone and hotspot is with the $50 Baseus 160W Car Charger. It plugs into the dashboard’s lighter outlet and uses Qualcomm’s QuickCharge 5 technology to reduce charging times for devices that can handle its higher energy densities, like my Samsung Galaxy S20 5G phone.

The Baseus charger’s three USB power outlets can charge it all, including 100 watts from its primary USB-C port (for my tablet) and 30 watts each for a second USB-C port (for my mobile hotspot) and a traditional USB Type A port (for my data drive). The key is that its power conversion chip uses shielded gate trench technology to avoid overheating, even when everything is plugged in.

When I need more power, such as to juice up my laptop, I turn to Tripp Lite’s PV200CUSB PowerVerter. It ups the AC output to 200 watts, fits in my car’s cupholder, and is powered by the DC outlet in the car’s nearby ashtray. In addition to a pair of USB-A power ports, the PowerVerter’s inverter can turn the car’s 12-volt direct current into 110-volt electricity available from a pair of AC outlets.

mobile office 02 tripp lite pv200cusb powerverter Tripp Lite

The 200-watt Tripp Lite PowerVerter can charge larger items like laptops.

The PowerVerter worked well at charging my notebook while running an inkjet printer. On the downside, it takes up my cup holder and has a fan that can be a little loud. If 200 watts isn’t enough, Tripp Lite’s boxy PV375 PowerVerter can pump out 375 watts.

To keep from draining the car’s battery, each of these items requires that the car is running to extract power. That’s where my Anker 521 Portable Power Station comes in. No bigger than a lunchbox and weighing 8 pounds, it’s a lot to lug around, but it can run my office gear for a full day of work — no need to keep my car running.

The Power Station has a 256 watt-hour LiFePO4 next-gen battery inside that’s comparable to the capacity of 20 iPhone 12 batteries, and it provides two 110-volt AC outlets (to supply up to 200 watts), a USB-C port (for up to 60 watts), two USB-A plugs (18 watts max), and a car cigarette lighter connector (120 watts max).

mobile office 03 anker 521 portable power station Anker

The Anker 521 Portable Power Station keeps gadgets going when the car isn’t running.

I really like the Power Station’s light for night work, and its small screen shows the battery level and what’s connected. My trick is to keep it plugged into the car’s cigarette lighter outlet in the back seat. That way, it’s always charged and ready. I’ve used it to run my entire mobile office and to power a laptop, a mobile hotspot, and a small projector for an outdoor party. I can recharge it in about four hours with the included AC adapter; there’s also a cigarette lighter plug, but it takes longer. At $250, the 521 Power Station is good power insurance; there’s also a $580 package that includes a solar panel for off-gridders.

I start to feel withdrawal symptoms if my phone isn’t charged and within reach. The $35 Acefast Fast Wireless Charger Car Mount Holder Auto-Aligning D1 15W is good for both. It works with phones with up to a 7.2-inch screen, and the built-in Qi inductive charging system is powered by the car’s cigarette lighter outlet.

Capable of moving up to 15 watts of power, the electricity flows to the phone’s battery through a pair of inductive coils. In other words, there’s no fumbling with plugging a USB cable into the phone. Happily, all I do is place the phone in the holder, and an internal motor closes its arms around my phone.

mobile office 04 acefast wireless charger mount d1 15w Brian Nadel/IDG

 This Acefast mount holds a phone securely while charging it wirelessly.

It automatically aligns the Qi power transfer coils for peak efficiency. When I need the phone, I press the Quick Release button and the arms pop open. It worked well attached to the car’s dashboard, windshield, or climate control vent.

Mobile pro tip: Think about bringing along a jump starter with AC and USB outlets, like the $150 Michelin ML0728. It’s heavier than the Anker 521 Power Station but adds a Bluetooth speaker and a tire inflator, and it can help start the car — and your office — with a dead battery on a cold morning.

Internet everywhere

Having 24/7 access to the internet is not a luxury, but a business requirement. I use several approaches so that I have the peace of mind of always being able to connect.

To start, I keep a Netgear Nighthawk M5 mobile hotspot in the car’s center console. Also known as the MR5200, the M5 can connect anywhere there’s an LTE or 5G network available to fill the car with 2.4- and 5GHz Wi-Fi data transmissions. At 4.1 x 4.1 x 0.9 inches, the M5 is a little bulky due to its 5,040-milliamp hour battery pack.

mobile office 05 netgear nighthawk m5 hotspot Brian Nadel/IDG

Netgear’s Nighthawk M5 mobile hotspot provides Wi-Fi wherever you go.

Its screen shows the time, data transferred, and a helpful battery gauge. Over the course of a two-day trip through New England, it supplied between 23Mbps and 85Mbps throughput using the T-Mobile network, with the battery lasting for 19 hours and 30 minutes of on and off use. This was plenty for my work, and I loved being able to play an online game between Zoom conferences. An unlocked M5 costs $800, but if you don’t need the 5G bandwidth, the LTE-based MR1100 is $430.

There’s another way to bathe a car in Wi-Fi by making use of the car’s On-Board Diagnostics (OBD) port. The OBD technology is on every car made since 1996. It’s generally used for viewing automotive data by repair technicians, but the magic here is that its 12-volt line can power Spectrum Tracking’s Smart OBD hotspot.  

Only about the size of a mint tin, it slides into the car’s OBD port. The hardest part can be finding the port. For my car, it’s under the dashboard near the driver’s left thigh. To find its location, try your vehicle’s manual or going to CarMD.com for the location.

mobile office 06 spectrum tracking smart obd hotspot Brian Nadel/IDG

Spectrum Tracking’s Smart OBD hotspot uses the car’s OBD port (in this case located under the dashboard).

Once in place, it took about 30 seconds for it to fire up. The Smart OBD hotspot tapped into the AT&T mobile network in the woods of western Connecticut with 18.9Mbps broadcast over the 2.4 and 5GHz Wi-Fi bands. That’s plenty for many of my online needs, but the throughput rose to 36Mbps in suburban New York City, more than enough to run transactions with the company’s servers, grab a bunch of emails, or run a video meeting.

The device also tracks the car’s position using GPS and relays diagnostic information — like the car’s speed, coolant temperature, and battery voltage — to its app. It costs $77 but requires a mobile data account that might add $10 a month.

Finally, there’s the old standby of using a mobile phone or tablet as a hotspot. My Samsung Tab S8+ 5G reliably connected to AT&T’s network to provide as much as 117Mbps of throughput on my Boston trip. Happily, that’s close to what my stationary office has. It makes the car feel like home.

Mobile pro tip: Using a reputable VPN service can help protect your data while on the road. I use NordVPN. With connection points in nearly 60 countries and 16 US cities from coast to coast, it costs about $83 per year for a two-year Standard plan — a small price to pay.

Talk, talk, talk

To make sure I get the strongest mobile signal possible for phone calls, I’ve added the weBoost Drive Reach to my car mobile office. A phone signal booster is conceptually similar to a Wi-Fi extender, except that it extends a mobile network’s reach. The Drive Reach takes a 4G or 5G mobile phone signal, amplifies it, and rebroadcasts a fresh cellular signal.

mobile office 07 weboost drivereach booster weBoost

The weBoost Drive Reach boosts the signal from a mobile network.

It was surprisingly easy to set up. I attached the magnetic antenna to the car’s roof, stashed the interior antenna behind the car seat, and connected the antenna cables to the booster. After powering it up with the car’s cigarette lighter outlet, the Drive Reach was online showing a green LED light.

Outside Hartford, Connecticut, the booster rewarded me with reliable phone service, an extra bar of signal strength, and a 19% improvement in data speed, from 109Mbps to 135Mbps. On the downside, the booster runs hot and needs to be in the open or stashed under the car seat. It costs $500 and doesn’t require a service contract.

While working by the side of the road, I often use the car’s Bluetooth speakerphone to chat up clients. This doesn’t work so well when it’s noisy outside. For these times, I pop my Belkin Soundform Immerse Noise Cancelling Earbuds into my ears. They fit snugly and sound great. To take a call, I just tap either earbud twice.

mobile office 08 belkin soundform immerse earbuds Brian Nadel/IDG

Belkin’s Soundform Immerse earbuds counteract background hubbub using active noise cancellation technology.

The key to the Immerse’s state-of-the art active noise cancellation (ANC) system is the use of two of the three microphones on each bud to create a sound wave that counteracts the outdoor noise. There’s a switch on top of each bud to turn the ANC on with a quick press. The Immerse ear buds sell for $180.

Mobile pro tip: I’ve found that the easiest way to drive and call safely is to connect my phone to my car’s Bluetooth system and use the car’s phone interface, which can be controlled with buttons on the steering wheel.  

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