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.)

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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.

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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]