On the first Tuesday of each month, Dave Dean from Too Many Adapters is here giving you great tips and advice on travel tech and gear. Here is his column this month.
“Should I bring a laptop, tablet or smartphone?” It’s a question I’m often asked — and for good reason. There are pros and cons to each device and, with overlapping features, picking the one that’s right can be confusing.
There are a lot of issues to think about with each device: size, weight, costs, insurance, and security. Striking the right balance between them all isn’t easy, but it is possible. As a tech guy, I carry a lot of devices (and a lot of chargers) but for those not obsessed with every new device on the market, you only need one device — you want to keep it simple on the road. Here are the pros and cons of carrying a smartphone, laptop, or tablet with you on the road, as well as product suggestions!
There are plenty of reasons to take a smartphone along on your trip — in fact, for travelers who aren’t trying to work from the road, it could be the only device they need. While rarely best at anything, smartphones are fine for many tasks that used to require separate gadgets. When you’re trying to reduce space, weight and cost, that’s a big benefit.
- They take the place of multiple devices. There’s no longer a need to pack a separate flashlight, map, calculator, music player, or alarm clock.
- It’s easy to get connected when you need to, even if you’re not using cell data. Cafés, airports, and train stations usually have Wi-Fi available, and in much of the world there’s always a McDonald’s or Starbucks nearby if you want bad burgers and coffee with your Facebook.
- There are hundreds of useful travel apps out there that work offline. Currency converters, translation tools, navigation helpers, guide books, itinerary trackers, and more can help make your travels easier.
- The biggest con is battery life — it’s rare to find a smartphone that will last more than a day of normal use. Long flights, bus rides, and days of exploring often result in a dead phone before you get to your accommodation. With everyone else in your dorm room also wanting to charge their gadgets every night, even finding a power socket isn’t always easy.
- Although phones are getting larger, a 5″ screen isn’t ideal for entertainment — books and movies aren’t so great on a small screen.
- Websites without mobile-friendly versions get annoying very quickly.
- Typing on phones is fine for updating your Facebook status or sending a quick message, but you’ll end up frustrated if you’re hoping to do much more.
If you are looking for a simple, cheap, and basic device, a phone may be for you. If you aren’t planning on using your device for work, don’t mind a small screen, or need much, a phone may be for you. For longer-form writing, you can always use Internet cafes!
I personally carry a Google Nexus 5, which is a high-end phone without the high-end price tag. Other than better battery life, I wouldn’t change anything about it. The camera takes good shots, even in low light. It’s remarkably fast, with video and the most demanding apps running flawlessly. I wanted a phone that would take three years of abuse on the road without needing an upgrade, and so far, it feels like I’ve found it. The Nexus costs $399 for the unlocked 32GB version.
Tablet computers have only been around for a few years, but ever since the iPad came out they’ve been very popular. They offer a larger screen and better battery life but are more expensive and take up a lot more room.
- While you won’t have standard calling or texts, tools like Google Voice, WhatsApp, and Skype can be good replacements if your Internet speed is fast enough. All of the apps work as well or better than on a phone, and the larger screen makes many tasks a little easier.
- Battery life is usually longer than a smartphone, especially when in flight mode or just using Wi-Fi. If your tablet does have a cellular data option, you’re in luck there, too — tablets usually have an unlocked SIM card slot. Pick up a local, data-only SIM and you’re good to go.
- Size is an issue. Even the smaller 7-8″ versions won’t really fit in your pocket unless you’re wearing a large jacket. They’re also heavier than smartphones, especially if you have a full-size tablet.
- Taking photos with tablets is, quite frankly, a horrible idea. Their size and bulk make them hard to hold steady, and that’s before the cover starts flapping around. Screens are hard to see in direct sunlight, and since it’s rare for people to use durable cases with tablets, it’s easy to damage or drown them. Plus, let’s face it, you look pretty silly doing it.
- While the screens are bigger, the apps and input are usually exactly the same as a smartphone. That means typing is still slower than using a proper keyboard, and software options for doing real work are limited. While you can use a Bluetooth keyboard to speed up your typing, that’s yet another piece of technology to buy, power, and carry around.
For those looking to do more with their device, especially watch a lot of movies, a tablet is a lot easier on the eyes. When it comes to tablets, I recommend the Google Nexus 7. It’s small and light, reliable, and surprisingly powerful. At $229 or $269 (depending on storage space) for the Wi-Fi versions, it’s also great value. I’ve been using mine for around a year now, and am very happy with it. If you absolutely must have an Apple device, opt for the iPad Mini. It’s more convenient to carry around than its bigger brother.
It wasn’t so long ago that if you wanted to get online when you traveled, your only choice was to carry a laptop or find a dusty Internet café. Those days are long gone now, of course — so are there still reasons to pack a laptop at all?
- The biggest advantage of a laptop is versatility. There’s software to do pretty much anything a traveler could need, and websites always work best on a computer. Storage space is rarely an issue, and it’s easy to backup photos from a separate camera (or phone, for that matter).
- Laptops are much more powerful than any tablet or phone, and combined with the larger screen and proper keyboard, getting things done will be faster and easier. That’s more time enjoying happy hour, less time in front of a screen.
- Hybrid tablet/laptops are becoming more common, which, if you buy a good one, provides the best of both worlds without carrying separate devices.
- If you work from the road, a laptop of some sort is the most sensible choice. Anything else will end up costing you far more in time and frustration than you ever save in weight and cost.
- Weight. While laptops are getting lighter all the time, you’re still not going to be slipping it in your pocket as you head out the door. Add in the weight of the charger, and you’ll definitely be looking for excuses to leave it in your dorm or hotel room when you can.
- Price. The price tag can be substantial — depending on what you need, expect to pay anything from $500 to $2000 or more. Carrying a gadget that valuable guarantees extra worry about theft or damage, and travel insurance typically either won’t cover the full cost or will require an extra premium to do so.
- They’re fragile. The last thing you want to do is drop your computer.
- They are expensive to insurance and replace.
- They have a lot of power — power you won’t use. Laptops are great for travelers running an online business, but your everyday traveler rarely needs all the hard drive space, computing power, and apps.
If you’re running an online business, a laptop is a must. If your budget runs to $1000-$1500, it’s hard to go past the Macbook Air. Slim, lightweight, with good battery life and flash storage for extra speed and durability, Macbooks also come with good warranty service if you’re traveling to places that have official Apple stores that can do repairs in-store. Check if there are any refurbished models available before you buy.
Other recommendations include the Asus Transformer T100 for basic needs, or the Toshiba Kirabook or Dell XPS 12 for most other requirements. There are, of course, plenty of other choices too: I’ve put together a guide to buying a travel laptop if you need more details.
What should you use?
For most casual travelers, a smartphone is the best choice. It replaces a dozen or more other gadgets, fits into a pocket, and, with a bit of patience, can be used for most online tasks. If it has an unlocked SIM slot, getting mobile data is relatively cheap and easy — and given how many places offer free or cheap Wi-Fi, you could choose to just use that instead. Best of all, perfectly usable phones start at under $200.
If you prefer a tablet, by all means take one with you instead. The better battery life and larger screen may make up for the other disadvantages, and if you buy a model with cell data, it’s easy to get online almost anywhere. You’ll be looking at $250-$600+, depending on what you buy.
Unless you work online, there’s little need for a laptop on your next trip. While they provide ultimate power and flexibility, the size, weight, and cost of most laptops mean they aren’t worth the trade-off.
Another thing to remember is that most travel insurance companies only cover up to $500 USD. If your device costs more than that (and it probably does), you’ll need to buy a supplemental policy.
In the end, I would say that a smartphone or a tablet is the right device for a traveler who isn’t running a blog or business from the road. Laptops are heavy, expensive, and unneeded.
Dave runs Too Many Adapters, a site devoted to technology for travelers. A geek as long as he can remember, he worked in IT for 15 years. Now based out of a backpack long term, Dave writes about travel and tech from anywhere with half-decent Internet and a great view. You can also find him talking about the life of a long-term traveller at What’s Dave Doing?