Choosing a Mobile Computing Device for Working While Travelling

The quick answer: get an ultrabook or Macbook. They are powerful, reliable, reasonably light, run just about any program you will need, are good for typing on, have good-sized screens and most nowadays have decent battery life. If you are going to be doing intricate, specialised work it's doubtful anything else will do the job without being heavy and bulky.

However, there are lots of other options and the above may not be best for your needs or budget. Nowadays you can choose from laptops, ultrabooks, Chromebooks, tablets, pen-drive pcs, convertibles or even just use your phone - after all you will probably carry it around anyway so why not use it? Most likely you will use more than one device anyway.

First you need to ask yourself a few questions:

What do I need to do on the device? What sort of work? What programs will I need to use?

What is my budget?

Where will I be using it?

How will I power it? Will I always have access to mains power?

How much weight and bulk am I willing to carry?

How and where will I access the Internet?

Is it compatible with my existing work and working style?

Let's look at a few issues relevant to using IT devices on the move.

Internet Access

It's unlikely that you'll have constant high-speed internet access so you'll need to work out how you're going to access the internet (see article). Will you be able to access wifi networks or will you need a device with mobile access? Most laptops don't have this built in but you could buy a portable router. For accessing the internet on the move a smartphone is hard to beat. However, many tablets and laptops are 4-G enabled.

Ergonomics

Keyboard

A laptop or Chromebook is going to give a much better typing experience than a smartphone or tablet. At the same time, many people are so used to typing on a small touchscreen they may not get any benefits from a full-sized keyboard. It is also possible to buy portable keyboards for phones and tablets. In addition, many smartphones and tablets can accept dictation and hand-written input. The reliability of input is still well behind a keyboard but is steadily getting better.

Screen

Bigger screens are easier to work on. However, they consume a lot more power so you need to work out which is more important: battery life or screen size. Another thing to consider is screen glare. You may have to use the device outdoors or in harsh lighting.

Holding/balancing the device

I travelled with a laptop for a while but often found myself typing up articles on a Nokia phone simply because it was easier to type on while sitting in a tent. Think about where you're going to be using the device and what will be easiest to use in that situation.

Powering the Device

Mobile devices are very low-powered compared to things like heaters and kettles. If you're travelling by motor vehicle or boat you shouldn't have too much trouble powering any device from the battery or solar panels if you have good-sized ones. For backpackers and cycle tourists there are plenty of portable charging solutions but you will struggle to charge a laptop. Most modern mobile devices should give you just about a day's work on a full charge but that means they will probably need charging every day so you should consider where that power is going to come from.

Operating System and Applications

It's all very well talking about the merits of smartphones but if you need to develop software in pro-level IDE or do professional video editing or many other specialised tasks you'll need a laptop. While smartphones and tablets are powerful they are seen mainly as consumption devices so most specialist professional programs aren't available for them. Beware of journalists telling you that tablets are fine for professional work. Unfortunately many journalists have no conception that 'professional work' means more than word processing, spreadsheets and accessing Twitter. For web design, software development, graphic design, statistics, financial analysis and many other fields a full version of Windows, Linux or OSx will generally be required. However, this may change and it may also be possible to run these operating systems virtually but I wouldn't rely on this. Windows 10 tablets should also run any software that will run on a desktop. Whether the software will be usable on a touchscreen is a different matter.

Cost

High quality ultrabooks and Macbooks are very expensive and could easily get damaged or stolen while travelling so you will probably want to consider insurance. Chromebooks, tablets and budget laptops and smartphones are much cheaper but less powerful and, in the case of laptops, usually much heavier and bulkier.

Smartphone

advantages

- light, low power requirements, can access mobile broadband directly

disadvantages

- not very powerful, usually no keyboard, not built for productivity, little specialist software

Phones with keyboards such as those made by Blackberry are generally more geared towards productivity. You can also purchase portable keyboards for most other smartphones.

Tablet

In-between a phone and laptop but have most of the disadvantages with few advantages

advantages

- bigger screen than phone, lighter than laptop

disadvantages

- heavier than phone, most don’t have mobile broadband, no keyboard, not much more powerful than a phone

Android devices are generally cheaper, can be very light and use little power but are not very powerful for business tasks. However, there is a huge range of apps which may be enough for your needs. You can also use dictation and stylus rather than keyboard.

Windows 8 and 10 tablets however will run most of the same programs that a laptop or desktop will run, though using them may present problems on a smallish touchscreen. Make sure it’s Windows 8 or 10 not RT as this is won't run all Windows programs.

Convertible (hybrid laptop/tablet)

For the nomad these offer few advantages over tablets or laptops. You’ll be carrying the entire thing around with you so what will you gain? On the other hand there is nothing really to lose either so if you see a good deal why not? In some situations it may be more convenient to use a tablet than a laptop and vice versa.

Laptop

advantages

- powerful, big screens, keyboard and mouse/trackpad are much more suitable for productivity

disadvantages

- heavy, bulky, generally lower battery life and higher power requirements, most don't have mobile broadband receivers

Chromebook

Cheap and light but some require constant internet access so may not be ideal for travellers. However, many have a built in hard-drive for offline use. The range of programs you can use will be more limited than other laptops. If you don’t want to use the google chrome OS you may be able to use linux (if it has a hard drive).

Macbooks

Expensive but high quality and very powerful with good battery life. Thin and light considering the power and capabilities. You can run windows on them as well as OSx.

Windows tablets and ultrabooks

Some as cheap as chromebooks, some more expensive than Macbooks. Wide range of devices at different price points, weight and power. Very powerful with a wide range of software. If you don’t like Windows you can run Linux or both.

Mini PC

It is possible to obtain pocket-sized pcs that will run full Windows or Linux. Some aren’t much bigger than a USB stick. You will however need a screen and input device. Some devices allow you to use a tablet or phone for display and input.

Raspberry Pi

These are small computers sold without a case, screen or input device and designed for educational use. Using a Raspberry Pi it is possible to make a cheap, lightweight, portable computer.

However, it is only really a solution for technical people. And a raspberry pi is much less powerful than a decent chromebook let alone a full laptop. Using an SD card for the operating system is also not ideal for reliability. Adding a screen and keyboard will raise the power requirements and bulk of the device. At the same time there is a lot of potential. The Raspberry Pi Zero is really tiny but has the power of a full computer.

E-reader

As well as being useful for reading documents some e-readers have basic web browsers. It would be nice to see simple text editors in these devices. At present most can take notes in documents but not create standalone files. They are useful for reading documents and books while consuming less power than other devices.

Calculator

Some high-end calculators are surprisingly powerful - with a price to match - and can handle things like spreadsheets, basic word processing and programming. They aren't as powerful as a good smartphone, but, because some were designed in the 1980s, they tend to have very low power requirements and can often use AA batteries. I can get hundreds of hours use out of my Casio fx-9860GII from 4xAAA batteries, and find it better for spreadsheets and most other mathematical tasks than a smartphone. However, don't expect to access Facebook. Most calculators have no internet access, which obviously limits their usefulness but can actually help to get things done - you are not constantly distracted.

Conclusion

We live in the age of mobile computing. There is a huge range of portable computing devices to the point where it can overwhelm. Despite this, when you get right down to doing some serious work you might be disappointed at how limited and fiddly to use many of the devices actually are. Battery life is always an issue and you’ll be lucky to find a device that gets you comfortably through a full day’s use, despite what the specs may say. The glossy screens that seem to be obligatory on modern devices can also be a problem if you have to work outdoors or in other bright conditions. Touchscreens and trackpads are generally slower and less accurate than a mouse and keyboard and can become frustrating when you have a lot of work to do in a hurry. It's most likely you will need more than one device to make up for the defficiencies.

At the same time, things are improving quickly. There are loads of options and new ones appear every year. It's becoming possible to be as productive on the move as in an office. This has dangers - how do you claim a space free from the omnipresent pressure of work? But it also opens up tremendous opportunities - why be tied to one place seeing the same people everyday when you could see the world and still be earning.