The Traveler’s Guide To Choosing The Right Laptop
June 15, 2010 by Anil Polat
Choosing the right travel laptop is a process of knowing your options, narrowing down what you’re really looking for, and understanding what features are costing you money. A traveler’s laptop is an important companion – it can be your phone, travel planner, and office all in one – so no wonder it’s one gadget you can’t travel without.
There is no perfect or best laptop – they vary based on your needs and how you travel. It’s like trying to narrow down the “best car” or “best backpack”. Selecting a laptop is a personal decision that’s made much easier when you know have a formula to follow, and hopefully after reading this guide you’ll have one.
Netbooks are all the rage, especially among travelers. A netbook is a class of laptops that are ultra-small (screens roughly 25cm/10 inches or less) and weigh around 1kg (~2-3lbs). On top of that they also tend to be much less expensive than classic laptops usually running around $250-400. You can see why netbooks are popular with travelers – they also run specially designed processors that run cooler and give longer battery life as a result.
So What’s The Catch?
Netbooks do have some drawbacks however, despite their obvious advantages. For starters they’ve got smaller screens and keyboards so if you’re a bit fat fingered or will be working long hours on extended trips they might not be ideal. Also netbooks don’t usually come with optical (CD or DVD) drives and get sluggish when running processor-intensive applications like Photoshop.
- Processors are a bit slower and hard drives are limited to 160-250GB.
- Upgrading the processor or memory (RAM) in a netbook can cost 15-20% more than conventional laptops parts.
- Netbooks already average 3-5 hours on a single charge but here are 8 more ways to extend battery even more.
The most popular operating system running on netbooks is Windows (XP and 7) followed by several distributions of Linux. While Apple doesn’t have a netbook in their lineup, you can still run Mac OS X on the Dell Mini series netbooks (here’s how).
Windows Vs. Mac…and Linux?
What’s better, what’s the difference, and what the heck is Linux are the most common questions when it comes to these 3 operating systems (OS). Basically (in grandiose oversimplification) – Mac OS X is specifically designed to work on Apple hardware whereas Windows 7 isn’t as picky. You have to pay for both and, well, Linux is free and runs on just about anything.
When searching for the right travel operating system for your laptop you need to know what to focus on; here are the basics:
- Windows (specifically Windows 7) – Since everyone except Apple sells laptops bundled with Windows (which isn’t picky about hardware), Windows-based laptops are usually much cheaper than equivalent Macs. Windows 7, the latest version, is pretty smooth resolving the disaster that was Vista.
- Mac OS X – Being made to run on specific hardware resolves a lot of the issues and crashing Windows machines are known for. On the down side Macs are also more expensive (anywhere from 30% on up). On the plus side you can run Windows part-time on any Mac using virtual machines.
- You can save money on Macbooks by buying refurbished from Apple’s website and save even more by using free alternative software for digital nomads.
- Some software runs only on Windows or only on Mac. Typically if it works on Mac it works on Linux. Many of your existing Windows programs from CD or DVD won’t install on Mac but you can try using WineBottler to run downloaded .exe files.
Most people also think that Macs don’t get viruses which isn’t quite true. Attacks are on the rise as Apple increases it’s market share (about 10-15% right now) and while there aren’t any attacks on the OS itself, there are plenty of vulnerable applications. That said, currently threats are far and few between.
Wait, What Is Linux Again?
Linux is the name of a group of operating systems better known as distributions or “distros”. Almost all of them are open source and free and will run on just about any laptop you can think of. Dell even now lets you order laptops running the Ubuntu distribution of Linux so you don’t have to pay for Windows, saving you $50-100.
- Linux does take some getting used to but you can get your feet wet by playing with portable Linux on a USB stick or using the ever handy virtual machine on your existing Windows or Mac computer.
- Learn how to pick the Linux distro for you.
Most of the software you’re likely to use on the road like Skype, Firefox, Tweetdeck, and Microsoft Office will work on all 3 operating systems. For casual computing budget travelers, it really boils down to price. Linux is free but not as intuitive, Windows is familiar but can be wonky at times, and Macs are efficient but come with a hefty price tag.
Hardware – What’s Important And How Much Does It Cost?
Aside from the things you can see (screen, keyboard, pretty exterior color), there are 4 major components of any new laptop traveler’s need to understand and evaluate.
- Processor – This is the main computing chip and is measured in Gigahertz (Ghz). The faster the processor the faster applications run. Still, if you’re just browsing the web and typing a document every now and they you aren’t likely to notice the difference between a 1.8Ghz and 2.1Ghz machine. Unless you’re doing a lot of graphic design, photo editing, or gaming, save your money and get the default option.
- Memory (RAM) – The more memory you have the more programs you can run at once. Don’t skimp or go overboard either – 2 or 4GB of RAM is enough for most people and RAM is a relatively inexpensive upgrade.
- Hard Drive – It’s where all of your data is stored. Space is cheap and useful for travelers who take a lot of digital photos. Hard drive space is inexpensive and yon can squeeze out more space by compressing files and using services like PicasaWeb (thanks Akila!) Much like picking the right backpack, you’ll fill up a hard drive no matter how big or little – shoot for the middle ground (currently 160-250GB).
- Battery Life – When picking out a laptop battery (if you have the option) make sure you also evaluate the weight too. Longer battery life can correspond to heavier so be careful. Netbooks (~4 hours) and the latest Macbooks Pros (~7 hours) are a good blend of the two.
Going Location Independent?
When your laptop doubles as your office it’s a good idea to consider, budget, and make space in your bags for a backup laptop in case of a hard drive crash or one becomes disabled. Netbooks make great backup devices both in terms of size and cost but the hardware is only the beginning.
- Save your data off-site by using these free online backup tools and clone your system to get up and running again quickly.
- Don’t bother with extended warranties – most of which you can’t use when traveling long-term anyway. A manufacturer’s warranty of a year or so is usually enough to cover defects. (If you purchase an Apple, any of their stores worldwide will honor the warranty, just call your local Apple customer service first.)
- Get advanced waring of impending hard drive failures using free software.
- Protect client data with Truecrypt hidden folders.
- Perform your own basic computer repairs with a Victorinox Cybertool, one of 9 expensive travel gadgets worth buying.
It’s a bit more cumbersome to find parts for Macs in some parts of the world and opening up Macbook Pros is a little more work than many Dell, HP, or ASUS notebooks – another good reason to have a backup if it takes some time to have parts shipped out to you.
Ready To Make The Leap?
By now you’ve hopefully gotten a better idea of your options, the costs, and all of the ways you can get what you want in a single laptop. Once you do decide on “the one” be sure to get down with locking down your laptop (Part 1, Part 2, and Part 3), adding these 8 un-sexy accessories, and learn how to become a traveling digital ninja.