The world of travel tech is going through a phase of rapid change. As little as five years ago, it was an easy choice. If you a had a big budget and the need to work on the road – you (or your company) bought an ultrabook and expected to pay $3000 or up.
Now it’s very different: netbook or laptop, tablet or iPad, phone or tablet. These days a smartphone can do as much as many cheap laptops. It’s all a bit confusing, so let’s take it one step at a time.
Ubiquitous WIFI now means that you don’t even need a phone to make calls, and generally stay in contact. Free WIFI is available everywhere from airports to cafes, hotels to long-haul buses, beaches and city centers.
There is no one right answer as to what travel tech you should take with you. It all comes down to what you want to use the tech for, where and how long you are travelling, what your budget is, and of course, what you already own. It can all get very confusing – so in this article I’m going to survey your options.
Tablets for Travelers
Although a generic term, most people mean a 7″ (or maybe 10″) tablet running the Android operating system. This year Windows tablets running a variation of Windows 8 called Windows RT are starting to make an impact on the market. If you think of them like a phone, but larger, without necessarily a mobile number, you won’t be far off. You don’t run programs, you download apps.
Tablets come in both WIFI only and cellular (3G/4G) versions. The cellular version is generally about $100 more expensive than the WIFI version. The cellular version can substitute for a smart phone.
- Cheap, prices vary but start from about $100.
- Touch interface works really well for many people, it’s intuitive, and makes using maps easy, even when standing in the street.
- Can usually be expanded by plugging in an SD card or an external USB drive.
- Easy to connect to computers and cameras to back up and transfer files including photos.
- With a solid drive can make these more robust than a laptop with a spinning hard drive.
- Reasonable battery life: 8 hours is typical.
- Apps (software) are often very cheap (under $6) or free.
- Light, lighter than a netbook.
- Can be underpowered, particularly the cheapest models.
- Cheap plastic construction on some may not stand up to travel.
- Typing on a screen is not for many people. You may need to factor in the additional cost and weight of an external keyboard if you want to do a lot of it.
- Heavier than a phone.
Probably the best all round option for those who are traveling and want to stay in touch. Good size, good price, and it will allow you to watch movies, read books, chat with friends, and share your holiday snaps on Facebook as you take them. What’s not to like?
Netbooks: Does Anyone Use Them Anymore?
Not sexy anymore these have been around for several years. These are small laptops, normally with a 10″ or at largest 12″ screen and running Windows 7 or Vista. Weighing in from around 5lbs (2.2kg) they are not quite light enough to carry around all day, but getting close.
- Cheap, priced from $200, significantly cheaper than some tablets.
- 12″ screen, looks big compared to a 7″ one!
- Proper keyboard, which again feel roomier compared to smaller tablet versions.
- Runs familiar old Windows and will probably run your existing software without having to buy it again, or buy a different version.
- Has enough USB ports to easily upload photos, charge phones and eReaders all at the same time.
- A bit heavy to carry around all day.
- Not cool to pull out of your bag to check Tripadvisor when deciding on a restaurant for lunch.
- Can be pitifully slow to start up, thanks to Windows.
Wanna-be digital nomads who can’t yet afford the latest and greatest (see below), these work just fine. Good for freelance writers and anyone who appreciates a decent keyboard but doesn’t need a high-powered machine. Still the best option for typing in bed.
iPads : Must Have For Tourists?
You’ve probably heard of them! The iPad mini (7.9″) was released as direct response by Apple to the success of the Android tablets. “Traditional” iPads are larger and are not a good size to be carrying around in a day bag. Plus you look like an idiot when using them as a camera. The iPad mini – is definitely an alternative to the android tablets. It’s not however, perfect. iPad run an operating system called iOS – which is NOT the same as that run on Mac computers and laptops. You can’t assume that you can use the same programs on each.
- If you already use Macs then the integration with iCloud and iTunes makes it easy to add an iPad to your tech line up, with only a slight learning curve.
- Excellent quality metal case, feels more robust than plastic tablets.
- Good battery life 10+ hours for the iPad mini.
- Good camera and video
- Expensive compared to other tablets.
- Larger tablets are expensive and maybe too big to carry around on a daily basis for a traveler.
- Requires unique sized cables so you can’t share cables with your camera say.
- Requires unique sized SIMS (cellular version) which may be more expensive, harder to get, if you are buying a new SIM for a new country.
Well the Apple tribe will need no convincing. For the rest of us, there are cheaper tablets out there with better connectivity. Worth having a look at though to see if you like the user interface, just remember the limitations.
Smartphones Overseas: Smart Or Dumb?
The difference between a smart phone and their tablet equivalent e.g. iPhone v. iPad; Galaxy phone v. tablet, is basically the size of the screen. The main difference is often not the hardware, but the contract that you have with your mobile provider. In return for a heavily discounted, or free, phone, you are tied to them for a several years. The problem comes when you travel overseas and discover that either the phone won’t work abroad (many US phones are incompatible because they use the CDMA protocol and not the more widely used GSM system).
If you are stuck with expensive international charges, particularly for data, you have some options. Many people will turn off the phone’s data connectivity and only use WIFI. Even for calls you can use services such as Skype to avoid your telco’s charges. All of which you can do on a tablet or iPad.
Another alternative is to buy a cheap, not smart, unlocked GSM phone (easier outside of the US), and then buy SIM cards for each country you pass through. This will give you very cheap calling and reasonable data. Combine this with a tablet for the “smart” features and you will have the best of both worlds in terms.
- You probably already own it and are familiar with its functions.
- Small and easy to fit into a pocket.
- Cost – if you are travelling internationally using a phone, and particularly data on a smart phone can see your bills blow out.
- Many US cellphones are locked to the network that you bought them from. This means you are locked into expensive international roaming charges.
- Expensive compared to an equivalent tablet.
- Almost impossible to type on for any length of time.
If you are traveling in your home country, it’s a no-brainer. But if you are travelling abroad, unless the boss is footing the bill, worth thinking carefully about. Disable the “smart” functions to avoid sky-high data-roaming rates and combine with a tablet.
Hybrid Tablets/Laptops – Are They The Future?
The launch of Windows 8 – a very “tablet-like” operating system, has seen a number of touch screen laptops, some with detachable keyboards. Examples include HP Touchscreen and Microsoft Surface. There are two distinct configurations, the cheaper end including the Surface RT use a cut-down operating system Windows RT and are priced around $500. The more expensive hybrids run Windows 8 and retail for $1000 plus
Typical Examples: HP Envy, Microsoft Surface Pro.
- Combines a “real” laptop with a touch screen, but you can still detach the tablet and user separately.
- If running Win8 you can run all your regular programs on it.
- Expensive for what they are, these are still very new to the market and you are still paying for the R&D.
- Heavier than a netbook , for about the same size, weigh in around 1.5lbs (0.6kg)
- Windows 8 is different enough from earlier Windows to count as learning a new operating system.
Ultrabooks For The Digital Nomad
Still expensive, these have dropped in price dramatically over the last five years. The Macbook Air can now be had from around $1000, while tidy Acer Ultrabook comes in under $2000. More expensive machines feature aluminium bodies, which when combined with solid-state drives,really mean you can probably drop it from a height, and still get it to work (do NOT try that at home!).
- Powerful, and will run the Windows or MacOS, and the software, you are familiar with.
- Robust with light-weight metal construction and solid-state drives (which also give fast start-ups).
- Battery life of up to 8 hours, the more you pay the better the battery life should be.
- Size, you can’t really open one up in the middle of the street to check when you are lost.
- Weight, obviously they weigh more too – though coming in at between 1.4kg to 1.8kg – that’s still impressive compared to a traditional laptop.
Most “digital nomads” will probably want one of these, those that can’t afford them will probably stick with a netbook. If you are creating information rather than consuming it, then these still win hands down for functionality, at the cost of portability.
So that’s summary of what is available for those looking at taking technology along with them for the next trip. In my next article I will talk about just how you should decide which device is right for you.