What Is The Best Travel Laptop?

October 4, 2011 by  
Tech

laptop on outdoor desk

A laptop is the single most versatile piece of technology you can travel with. Despite the gains that tablets like the iPad and Nook Color have made, they don’t have the hardware flexibility or storage capacity (not to mention computing power) of a most laptops quite yet. Though that day will come (I’m guessing in about 2 years), for the moment, many of you are probably still carrying around some type of portable computer when you travel. Perhaps you’re in the process shopping around for one right now.

I’m asked “what is the best travel laptop” and it’s a topic I’ve covered from other angles before; though that specific question is much like “what will make me happy?” The answer depends a lot on you so let me be your digital therapist and together let’s find your laptop nirvana.

ruler close upGet Your Categories Straight

Your basic laptop comes in one of 3 travel flavors: netbook, PC, and Mac. There are others but this gross oversimplification is most of what you need to find a good machine to travel with.

  • Netbook – What defines this class of laptop is size. Typically less than 25 centimeters (~10 inches) across and less than a kilo in weight (~2.2 lbs). All standard netbooks run Windows or Linux; the closest laptop in size Apple has is the Macbook Air. (I can help you hack that netbook to run Mac OS X however.)
  • Laptop PC – Larger than netbook size and everything not Apple, often referred to as notebooks.
  • Macbook – Apple laptops coming in the Macbook Pro and Macbook Air varieties, running some version of the operating system OS X.

So how can we break these different types of laptops into he simplest terms without going into much detail at all?

Netbooks are cheap, small, and have long battery life but can be a pain to stare at the small screen for too long. The keyboards aren’t the most ergonomic either. Laptops have more comfortable monitors and keyboards but are typically 20-40% larger and heavier than a netbook. Part of that added weight are built-in components you might use, like a DVD player or hard drive with lots of capacity to store more travel photos. Finally, Macbooks and their operating systems are built to work together. That means increased reliability but at higher cost.

The programs that run on Windows, Mac, and Linux all vary and while some are made for all, others may not. CNET’s version tracker can tell you which applications run on different platforms. (Use the “Search” tool in the upper right and select Windows, Mac, or both.)

What Would You Really Use A Laptop For?

Many of us don’t like to admit we’re part of the Facebook, email, occasionally type some documents crowd. It’s uncool and nerds like me might try and convince you a more powerful laptop can do magic – letting you run Photoshop smooth as butter or open 15 applications at a time. That’s all fine and good but if you have never opened Photoshop in your life (and don’t plan on it) or aren’t playing graphic intensive video games on while you travel – save yourself the money.

london library

Those of you using a laptop for more than 2-3 consecutive hours a day while traveling probably want to avoid the some of the repetitive stress injury postures common with netbooks or consider getting something larger altogether. Gizmodo has rated the best notebooks of 2011 if you’re leaning in that direction. As a general rule you’re not looking for the best laptop in terms of power – you’re looking for the best laptop to meet your needs and budget.

hoover dam electrical linesCheck Multiple Sources For Realistic Battery Life

The battery life manufacturers list on their websites and manuals are theoretical maximums inflated by 50-100% in many cases. That’s not very accurate if you do things like use monitor or travel to places are aren’t constantly 21 degrees Celsius. Battery life also degrades over time an within about a year of typical use you’ve lost 10-20% of original capacity. All of that said, you should deduct 40% off any battery life stated by an manufacturer and flex some Google muscles to get comparisons from reputable tech sites like PC World.

That will help give you an accurate measure of battery life – second to weigh in importance (in my opinion) if you travel frequently. If you want a head start, PC World has a good rundown of the top 10 ultra-portable laptops.

Replacement Parts And Other Things To Consider In What Is Ultimately A Personal Decision

Macbooks are great (a 15-inch Macbook Pro is one of the two laptops I travel with) but finding replacement parts for Apple products is difficult. Aside from being hardware specific as I mentioned earlier, the fact remains than only 10-15% of people use Macs worldwide. Parts are typically more expensive so many smaller computer stores around the world don’t stock Mac components like hard drives that may go bad. (Here are 2 ways to get advance warning of hard drive failure.) That’s where PC users have an advantage and something to consider if you’ll be traveling for extended periods of time and a dead laptop could effect your business or general mood.

Along those same lines reliability is important. Research by SquareTrade has found one-third of all laptops fail within 3 years and netbooks are 20% less reliable than their bigger cousins. The full report by SquareTravel, including the top brands (available as a PDF download) can help you make the sturdiest decision. Once you have that laptop be sure to protect it from the effects of traveling.

I could have come up with a list of what I think are the top net, lap, and Mac books (and still may) but those tend to get dated quickly. This advice is much more consistent over time; at least until we start bringing in tablets for a serious discussion.

What laptop do you carry and recommend? Have any opinions for those who may be shopping around or looking to upgrade? Share your best laptop tips in the comments below!

[top laptop photo by mikecogh, ruler photo by Auntie P]

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  1. John Peden says:

    If you can, avoid getting a laptop with a metal case. A lot of the power supplies in countries like Thailand (where I used to live) are not regulated. I spent almost a year in the country with a laptop that had a metal speaker grille across the front. This was fine and looked nice when it was new, but as there was no earth pin on the plug for the excess charge to leak away, it would leak into my wrists where the skin was thin and your resistance is low.

    It would also give you a painful shock when (more often that I care to remember) a power surge occurred.

    You have been warned…

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  2. Jen Laceda says:

    Awesome basic guide for all of us here, Anil! My husband has a Netbook and I have a 15″ Macbook. I hate his; I LOVE mine. His netbook sucks. Sometimes when it gets “jarred” or “shaken” during a bumpy ride in a car, his netbook gets all f-ed up!

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    • Anil P. says:

      Thank you Jen! I carry both actually but rarely use the netbook, I’m too used to all of this keyboard and screen space ;)

      Are you going to get him to go Mac?

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  3. Dean says:

    I only took a netbook with me on my recent 2 month trip through Thailand and Laos, it was great for general internet use, even blogging was ok. The big problem I had was photo editing. It was just no good for it and in fact some photo software won’t install due to the small resolution. My laptop at home is great, nice and powerful with a huge 17″ screen, but this would be no good for travelling as it’s too big and too heavy. I think I will have to find something somewhere in the middle to use as my travel laptop. Any suggestions for a PC?

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  4. I’m still in the process of figuring out which notebook I want to bring for my 8-month RTW. I have a 13″ macbook that I use at home. However I prefer to have something lighter for travel. So I’m looking at 12″ netbooks or even the Toshiba Portege r835 which is a full-powered laptop at 3lbs. I would love to bring a Macbook Air, but concerned about its fragility and unwanted extra attention. AND now there are ultrabooks coming out… Decisions, decision!

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  5. louie says:

    I just bought new Acer notebook for my decades long worldwide travel
    Good choice?

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  6. Oulee says:

    I just happened to run into this page researching on what MY best options would be for a traveling laptop. I use a fairly small 14 inch Dell now at home and I don’t require extra programs to clean up my travel photos. Let’s just I’m a tad lazy in the editing process :)

    As I’m a light packer and usually stay as hostels I want to go with the smallest, lightest option as possible. Looks like the netbook will end up being the winner. What are you recommendations as I only really need this to upload pictures and stay connected to the social media sites?

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  7. This is a great piece that will be very helpful to a lot of people. I recently bought a new laptop. I was originally looking to buy a netbook because it was smaller and lighter. When I was shopping around the laptop was not very much more $$ but gave me so much more I decided on that one. So far I really like it. It was my first laptop so I’m still getting used to using it.

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    • Anil P. says:

      I’ve gotten used to a larger monitor, I figure if I’ll be staring at a screen that much I might as well give my eyes some space to move around ;) What laptop did you end up getting?

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  8. Anil: So glad to have your stamp of approval on the EEE. I must tell you thought, that the company to hire a translator that can put their English instructions in REAL English. Their instructions are either sketchy or not helpful. Kind of like my experience with the Sony reader. Great technology, but the support behind it (way the web site is set up, etc.) is totally clunky.
    I hope the EEE and I will have a long happy life together, because I’m not one to jump on the next new thing.

    Vera

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  9. I love the way you come across as open minded and really taking into account what other people may want instead of what is best for YOU. That is rare to find in techie commentary! I have a Netbook–Asus EEE, and while it has its quirks, it does everything I need it to do. And doesn’t break my back when I’m carrying it around.

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    • Anil P. says:

      Thank you very much Vera. Most people just care that a laptop works, not intimately how it works. Ultimately the happier people are with technology, the more they’ll put it to use which I’m a big support of :)

      Btw, I love the Asus EEE line, *very* reliable and efficient netbooks.

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  10. Vinny says:

    Anil,

    I love that you took the time to go over some of these details for travelers. I would imagine that you could make a quarterly or biannual post on “the best travel laptops” and include different categories: “Best Social Media Machine”, “Best Writing Machine”, “Best Remote Office Machine”, etc I think these sort of travel-centric details could really help travelers.

    On a side note, do you still feel as if the operating systems are important to the cloud-centric we live in today? This XKDC comic comes to mind: http://xkcd.com/934/

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    • Anil P. says:

      Thanks for the suggestion Vinny, I’ll work on a way to organize such posts.

      As for operating systems they’re definitely not as a important factor as they once were. Many people now will purchase a Mac vs. a PC simply to run Photoshop – a single application since pretty much everything else overlaps. I’m guessing that in a few years time most of our apps will be online so it really won’t matter. Seems like we’re going back to some version of dumb terminals.

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  11. Whoops, typo. “I must tell you THOUGH….that the company NEEDS to hire….

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    • Anil P. says:

      No problem ;) The site/translation does put many people off. How expensive could it be for a good translation? A little investment might go a longer way for the little tough netbook.

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  12. flipnomad says:

    great tips again… im travelling with an emachine netbook… surprisingly rugged, survived a couple of drops already (with the neoprene sleeves… lightweight and helps me do the blogging… im not raving about the small screen though, i hope the ultrabooks become more afforadable next year :-)

    but honestly, if im not blogging, i would probably not carry a laptop/netbook but maybe just a tablet…

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    • Anil P. says:

      I think that tablets will eventually do just that for most people, especially travelers. In about 2 years they’ll be affordable and powerful enough; might make that ultrabook decision tough next year even ;)

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      • Daniel says:

        Heys, stumbled upon your site and it caught my attention.

        I usually would take my 13″ Macbook everywhere, but recently bought an iPad 2 and on my latest trip i took it instead. It’s light, very easy to transport and not noticeable inside the backpack (which is good..) It lacked a few things, but it will probably be my company from now on. Tablets are really the way to go, as it was said before, most things can be found online, the processor can take 90% of the work needed by most users and the lightweight and battery durability outweighs (for me at least) the things it lacks.

        keep up the great site :)

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        • Anil P. says:

          Thanks Daniel. I think it’s what’s coming and the real switch will be when people start ditching their laptops at home. Wonder if your Macbook is in trouble?? ;)

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          • Daniel says:

            Hey,

            well, no, the laptop still has it’s place…and being a Software Engineer, if i start working on the go, i would still need to take the laptop, but in most any other cases i think that it’s the tablet for traveling and the laptop for the rest.

            By the way, i noticed you’re supposed to be in Portugal this month (my home country by the way) so, besides Porto visit Coimbra (big student party from the 27th for a week), Lisbon (of course) and around Lisbon visit Sintra (and do not miss Quinta da Regaleira, well worth the 5€ entrance fee). Drop me a line if you plan on coming to Lisbon and maybe i can buy u a drink!

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          • Anil P. says:

            Thanks for the Portugal tips Daniel, I should have my tickets and plans more or less in place within 48 hours (I’m always late ;) I’ll be sure to let you know if I make it to Lisbon, it would be great to meet up!

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  13. I’d say go for the netbook all the time, but after using mine for about a year, the keyboard needed to be replaced and Asus discontinued my model and I couldn’t find one anywhere! The computer worked fine but I was forced to trash it. If you can get about a year or two use out of a netbook, it’s well worth the investment and you can get a pretty decent one for $2-250 which in my book is basically disposable, that and the convenience of its size and weight makes it the no brainer for travel. Hardcore gamers don’t travel anyways; save the extra ghz for your Alienware at your mom’s place. Go netbook!

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    • Anil P. says:

      LOL @ “hardcore gamers don’t travel anyways”

      Wondering if you went back to Asus or switched brands?

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      • :) I ended up buying a 14 inch Samsung laptop just because at my home base here in Miami, I needed something more comfortable to work on. But I’m planning a big trip (probably to Paraguay) in a couple weeks and I popped into Best Buy to see what they had and I saw an Asus netbook for $169! at that price, it’s almost dumb not to just pick one up. We’ll see though…

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        • Anil P. says:

          The economics of electronics is great isn’t it? More technology for cheaper – though on the other end the updates are nearly impossible to keep up with ;) $169 is a great price though…

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  14. Meggie says:

    I’ve traveled with both a netbook and my 13-inch Macbook. I’m partial to the Macbook, but if I’m not planning on using a computer much, I opt for the netbook simply because it is lighter. I never thought that Macbook replacement parts might be difficult to find abroad, so I’ll do a thorough check of my computer before I hop on a plane in the future. Thanks for sharing!

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    • Anil P. says:

      I’ve noticed it’s been difficult in many places I’ve traveled to get access to parts I might need; part of the reason I travel with two laptops. Though, like you, I’m partial to my Macbook even if it is heavier :)

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