What's the perfect gadget for your travel bag?
These days many people tend to work away from their desk at least some of the time. If this sounds like you then you're probably forced to trade portability against usability whenever you buy new gadget that's for both work and play. Finding the perfect gadget on the go is no easy task.
With some interstate and international travel lined up for later in the year, I recently decided that it was time to make some tough decisions regarding my mobile computing needs. I've been considering my options for a while, as my old 13.3-inch MacBook is getting long in the tooth and also hard on the shoulder at 2.3kg plus the charger. I recently upgraded to a hand-me-down 17-inch MacBook Pro, but of course at that size it's even less travel-friendly (plus it's already rather battered, which is why it was handed down).
Thankfully the days of lugging around a cumbersome desktop replacement are long gone and we're spoilt for choice when it comes to travel-friendly gadgets. But there's no one-size-fits all mobility solution. Basically I've been paralysed by choice, trying to decide between a netbook, an ultrabook or a tablet. I've tested plenty in the last few years and they all have their strengths and weaknesses. In the end I forced myself to list my requirements and prioritise them, as you should really do before contemplating any major tech purchase. Once you've got a clear idea of why you need a gadget and which features are important to you, it's much easier to narrow down your options.
If you're primarily after a gadget for play then it's pretty hard to go past a tablet (or maybe even a large smartphone). In terms of everyday consumer features an Apple or high-end Android tablet can do pretty much everything a notebook can do, plus tablets are generally smaller, cheaper, lighter and offer longer battery lives. I already own a first-gen iPad, which is what was making my mobility choice so difficult. Every time I contemplated a cheap netbook or a powerful notebook, I kept wondering whether simply adding a wireless keyboard to my iPad would do the trick. The onscreen keyboard might be fine for bashing out a quick email, but I can't stand typing on a slab of glass for extended periods.
In the end I had to concede that a tablet-style operating wasn't going to cut it for me as a portable work device. Every time I envisioned myself stuck on the other side of the world with nothing but an iPad I kept thinking of scenarios where I'd lament the lack of a full desktop operating system and browser. Your mileage may vary, but I find my work-focused multi-tasking Standard Operating Environment works much more smoothly on Windows or Mac OS than on iOS or Android. There's also the fact that some of the content management systems I work with can only be accessed via a desktop browser.
I know tablets are better than notebooks for some tasks and I'm sure some people can easily do their entire job on an iPad. I've got an iPhone in my pocket for tasks which are well-suited to iOS, such as quickly checking my email on the run, but limiting myself to a smartphone and a tablet was going to make life harder rather than easier. I really needed something with a desktop operating system and a decent keyboard.
So that left me to choose between a MacBook or a Windows notebook. Sorry Linux fans, I've spent some time with Ubuntu and I appreciate its merits but I'm just not ready to make the leap. I could probably manage on Linux, but I don't see the need to change when I'm buying new hardware anyway which will come with Windows or Mac OS pre-installed.
My primary workhorse is a MacBook Pro but I'm not a Mac fanboy and I'm happy to jump between devices and operating systems. I actually think Windows 7 is pretty good. I'm not convinced Windows 8 will be a great option for the desktop, although I can certainly see its appeal on mobile touchscreen devices. When I think about it, a Windows 8 Surface Pro tablet is probably exactly what I'm looking for. Something that's slick and portable like a tablet but can also run traditional desktop applications and talk to a wireless keyboard. It would be the equivalent of an iPad which ran both iOS and Mac OS. But we won't see Surface Pro tablets until Christmas and I'm sure they'll be expensive to start with.
If money was no object then I would have bought myself a MacBook Air, but they start at $AU1100 and that's a lot of money to spend on something that is only going to be a travel companion and not my primary workhorse. If I bought a MacBook Air I'd still probably want to upgrade my old MacBook Pro in the next few years. A new 15-inch MacBook Pro would cost me at least $AU2000. I'm not really in a position to buy both a MacBook Air and a MacBook Pro in the next few years, but choosing between them was another paralysing decision which had caused me to put mobility shopping in the too hard basket.
My travel companion won't be my primary workhorse so I don't really mind if it runs Windows. Nor does it need a lot of grunt. After some soul-searching I convinced myself that I should hold off on a MacBook Air and instead put the funds towards upgrading to a new 15-inch MacBook Pro in a year or two, which would become my new workhorse.
Once I convinced myself that I didn't need a MacBook Air as a travel companion, I was faced with the old Windows netbook/notebook conundrum. Powerful, lightweight ultrabooks are about as expensive as a MacBook Air. Standard notebooks are just as bulky as my old 13.3-inch MacBook. Meanwhile cheap netbooks are ultraportable but lack features and grunt. Finding the best solution means balancing size and price against usability and features.
I've found that once you get below a 13.3-inch display you can run into some major usability issues. Keep in mind that I spend my days typing, so for me the keyboard is the make-or-break feature of a portable productivity device. I was far from impressed with the keyboard and trackpad on the 8.9-inch HP Mini 2133, the 8.9-inch Dell Inspiron 910 and the 10-inch Kogan Agora. Even the 11.6-inch Asus Zenbook and 13.3-inch Toshiba Satellite Z830, which are expensive ultrabooks, offer a rather frustrating typing experience.
It really seems like usability is an afterthought when it comes to building these ultraportable devices. I have to confess the little 11.6-inch MacBook Air certainly offers the best keyboard and trackpad I've used at this size, but let's not get stuck in the Air versus Pro debate again.
That left me looking for a Windows netbook or notebook that wasn't horrible to type on but also wasn't so expensive that I'd regret not buying a MacBook Air instead. I set myself a rough budget of $500 to $600 and went searching for options. I was quite surprised by what I found.
All the focus on netbooks and ultrabooks has really driven down the price of ordinary notebooks. Not just clunky everyday notebooks but also 11.6-inch tweenies which are considered too big and powerful to be a netbook yet too big and slow to be an ultrabook.
At around the $500 mark you'll start to find 11.6-inch, 1366x768 notebooks running Windows 7 Home Premium 64-bit with 2GB of RAM on Intel Core2 Duo and AMD E-Series processors. They're pretty good value considering you can spend almost that much on a 10.1-inch, 1280x600 netbook running Windows 7 Starter on an Atom processor with 1GB of RAM.
After scanning a few online stores and comparing models, HP's 11.6-inch Pavilion DM1-1408AU caught my eye. At 1.45kg it's not much heavier than a netbook, but the AMD E-450 1.65GHz processor offers more grunt and it runs Windows 7 Home Premium 64-bit. This notebook also features an empty RAM slot so it's easy to upgrade from the default 2GB of RAM, an aspect which had won it favour in the Whirlpool forums. There's no optical drive, but it features HDMI and VGA video outputs along with Ethernet, three USB2 ports and a SD slot. Reviews also said it had a 5+ hour battery life and, just as important, a decent keyboard and trackpad. That's something I needed to test for myself so I found a display model at my local JB HiFi (where it was selling for a ridiculous $398, although it had been even cheaper a few weeks ago).
After using it for 20 minutes in the store I was sold on the DM1-1408AU. The keyboard is a little clackity but the keys are well-spaced so my fingers don't trip over each other. And unlike some notebooks, the keyboard doesn't flex and it doesn't fail to register keystrokes if I type quickly. The trackpad features separate left and right trackpad buttons which are less frustrating to use than most of the ultrabooks I've tested. The screen also offers less glare than the high gloss ultrabooks. I paid $30 for an extra 2GB of RAM and walked away with my new travel companion.
It really pays to do your research. I could have spent the same money on a netbook or tablet, or a lot more on an ultrabook, and still not been as happy as I am with this little HP notebook. Even competing 11.6-inch notebooks from the likes of Samsung, Acer, Asus, Toshiba and Lenovo were going to cost me well over $500.
It's no MacBook Air but I think I've found myself a bargain that will happily serve as a travel companion. I should have bought it months ago, but I was just too paralysed by the difficult choices between tablets, netbooks and ultrabooks.
What's your perfect travel companion? How did you decide it was right for you?