The only thing that moves faster than you and your traveling peers is the rate at which new gadgets are released, updated, and desired. Buying any electronic, whether it’s a laptop or digital camera, is largely a personal decision – there is no one “best” in many cases. Just like there’s no one “best shoe” for every lady but there is one out there your mom is sure to love. It comes down to asking the right questions, knowing how your traveler gets their gadget on, and having a few suggestions to help you narrow the choices down.
I’ve got the categories of tech you’re most likely to be looking at, along with my personal favorites added in for good measure. From expensive to cheap, you’re sure to find the perfect gift for your traveling techie.
Laptops: From Small To Ultra-Small
When it comes to laptops for travelers we often think smaller is better; but really it depends on how you use it. For some background reading you can catch up with the traveler’s guide to choosing the right laptop, but when it comes to size, most travelers go with either an ultra-light netbook or a laptop in the 13-inch range.
The major difference for a traveler? Screen and keyboard space; photo editing buddies may prefer an extra 3 inches of screen to work whereas your email-only/Facebook types would probably prefer ditching 3 pounds from their backpack. (Shopping for backpacks? – I’ve got you covered there too.)
13-Inch Laptop Category
- Toshiba Portege R835-P81 (~$799) – An impressive mix of power and size in a 13.3 inch laptop; this Toshiba only weights 3.2 pounds (~1.45 kilos), has an effective 7 hours of battery life (9 hours by manufacturer specs), and comes loaded with 6 gigabytes of RAM.
- 13-Inch Macbook Pro (~$1199) – If given the choice between a Macbook Air 13.3 inch and the 13-inch Macbook Pro; I’d go with the $100-less Macbook Pro. Sure it’s a little thicker (.3 inches extra) and weighs about a kilo more, but you get much more machine with components that can be upgraded for less.
- Dell Mini 10v (~$399) – This older, heavy (1.9kg – 4.4lbs), netbook might seem an unusual choice to go at the top of this list. The Dell Mini 10v is here because it’s hardware still holds up for casual use but more interestingly, that hardware is compatible with Mac OS X. That means the Dell Mini 10v can act as a poor man’s Macbook without the added $600 investment. (Here’s how to hackintosh your netbook.)
- ASUS Eee PC 1018-P (~$410) – For all of their faults (poor instruction manuals, manic-depressive customer support), the Acer Eee line of netbooks are durable little machines. They’re not the fastest (typically the processor’s are lagging behind other brands by 15%) but they’re not meant to be overworked with photo-editing or graphic-intensive games either. One bonus is they’re particularly efficient at dissipating heat; good for laptop longevity – especially if you’ll be hanging out in the tropics or be that guy who’s always working on the beach.
You might not be the one buying a new laptop for a friend but can help spice up the one they’ve already got with these (much) less expensive accessories.
- SwissGear Computer Backpack ($59) – The backpack I’ve been using to carry my electronics for over 4 years now, the SwissGear line of backpacks are not only extremely durable, but come loaded with a large number of pockets. (Geeks love pockets.) There’s also a laptop compartment (making it easy to remove in airport security lines) and back cushioning for long walks around town.
- Encrypted USB Drives (~$70) – Added protection built-in to USB drives that tend to get lost easily. The IronKey S200 (~$69), Corsair Flash Padlock (~$49), or the Patriot BOLT (~$15) are good options to look at.
- Klear Screen Cleaning Kit (~$10) – Apple stores around the world use this solution to get your greasy fingerprints off of display models everyday. Klear works on screens or all sorts, keyboards, and mobile phones as well.
- USB Squid (~$9) – Adds 4 more USB ports to a laptop, making it easier for a traveler to charge all of their electronics at once.
eReaders: The Nook Vs. The Kindle
It wasn’t so long ago that there were some important differences between the Kindle and nook for international travelers. Since that time though things have mostly evened out – and you’ve got Amazon’s Kindle line competing with Barnes & Nobles’ nook – both taking up most of the eReader market. Things are quite even between the two – if you’ve already got a Kindle or nook and looking to upgrade best advice is to stay with the same company – otherwise these are the major selling points of both.
Non-Color Display Winner: Amazon
- Kindle Touch (~$139) – The shape of the competing nook Simple Touch is a bit too wide for my tastes and if you’re not committed to either online bookstore yet, the Kindle Touch makes a great eReader.
- Verso Clip-On eReader Light (~$20) – For any eInk (aka non-color) eReader you’ll find these invaluable on night trains, flights, and hostel dorms.
Color Display Winner (With Geek Award Bonus): nook Tablet
- Nook Tablet (~$249) – A smoother display, more digital horsepower, and quite hackable with an active community, the nook Tablet is a slick tablet eReader. To sum it up, it’s an overall better computing device than the Amazon Kindle Fire; but lacks the online music and media cloud that Amazon offers. Still, head-to-head, I give my preference to the nook Tablet – which unlike the Amazon Kindle Fire – supports the ePub format.
Digital Cameras And Accessories
Let’s take a short look at 3 categories of digital camera, starting with the point and shoot I use.
Point & Shoot
- Panasonic Lumix DMC-ZS10 (~$250) – A Leica lens with an amazing 24-384 millimeter range, this camera takes spectacular photos and decent HD video. This is the only dedicated camera I use (the other non-dedicated being an iPhone 3G.)
- Olympus PEN E-P3 (~$800) – I recently saw one of these in the hands of Jodi (aka. Legal Nomads) and was impressed with the photos I caught a glimpse of (here’s a taste from Morocco.) Jodi’s using the Panasonic f1.7 20mm lens (~$345) to snap those amazing pictures.
This is a gigantic category that I could devote multiple websites to; these are just some suggestions that might fit what you’re looking for and if they don’t – can help you get started.
- Nikon D90 Body (~$1,100) – Many travelers I’ve spoken with have or are using this as their first DSLR on the road. But while preference of the Nikon bodies vary, nearly all frequent travelers will tell you the 18-200mm Nikkor lens (~$879) is the most versatile they’re carrying.
- Canon 550D Body ($1,299) – When it comes to video the Canon’s tend to be much better at picking up audio, and this camera came highly recommended by several of you when I asked on Facebook.
The shot below from the Hagia Sophia in Istanbul, Turkey can only be gotten if you throw yourself off the top balcony (ouch) or use an xShot Extender (~$25). This monopod lets you take good photos of yourself with background and company included – perfect for the solo traveler who only has photos of their face close-up from a million places around he world. Also, like I mentioned above, you can get photos above a crowd and over physical barriers as well.
You’ll notice I haven’t jumped into video here and that’s for two reasons. The first being that I don’t do much video work and the second being that for general shooting when traveling, a digital camera or newer smart phone does a pretty good job. That said, what makes any travel video better is good sound and a wireless lapel microphone ($20-250) can be your first big improvement.
Although I’m someone who hasn’t had regular mobile phone service in over 3 years, I test, take apart, and crack a surprisingly large variety of them. (Mostly companies sending them my way for testing.) So which phones are the smartest? Well, the one you pick of course…
- iPhone 4 ($679 – no contract) – Forget about the “S” for now because as sexy as Siri is, she’s getting an upgrade in a few months. Take this with a huge grain of salt…but back in August Apple is rumored to have sent iPhone 5 specs to China for manufacturing. Apparently scrapped due to design flaws, a potentially “radical” redesign in the iPhone 5 may appear next June at Apple’s Worldwide Developer Event (WWDE).
- Samsung Galaxy S II (~$549) – Thinner but with a larger screen, this is one of the slickest mobiles I’ve come across in a long time. The screen resolution is incredible and the apps run remarkably smooth on its Android 2.3 operating system. Add a 8.1 megapixel camera and 1080 HD video and it’s a powerful phone package.
- HTC Amaze 4G (~$650 – no contract) – Lots of processing power under the hood in addition to a vibrant display.
Whichever phone you go with, if it’s got a fancy screen you ought to invest in good protection for it. The ZAGG Invisible Shields (~$20) for phones and more were once used to protect the blades of military helicopters and do a heck of a job on digital screens.
Connections, Coils, And Cables: Going MacGyver
It’s the little, simple items in our backpacks that go unnoticed but work so hard to make our techie lives easier on the road.
- Organize Your Cables – Keep those cables organized so they’re easy to manage using either Applecores (~$7) or UT Cord Wraps (~$7).
- V-MODA Vibe Earbuds (~$35) – I’ve been using V-MODA to listen to my music, movies, and podcasts for several years now. They eliminate outside noise extremely well and provide exceptional audio quality.
- Duct Tape (~$5) – Combined with dirty socks can help reduce mosquito bites, along with countless other uses.
- All In One Charger (~$3) – A permanent resident in any frequent international traveler’s bag as is this Belkin mini-surge protector (~$12), turning one outlet into 3 plus 2 USB ports.
- Alfa USB Wireless Antenna (~$40) – Geek out and extend your laptop’s wireless range by 3-5 times.
- Stereo Audio Cable (~$1) – Anyone who spends a decent amount of time in rental cars will appreciate being able to plug their iPod or mobile phone in to listen to their own tunes.
- Garmin Forerunner 405 Water Resistant Running GPS (~$175) – Wherever I am in the world I run, and I run a lot. These GPS come in handy for athletic, hiking, and calculating travelers who might want to keep up with how many calories they burned sightseeing.
- Flip-It Plugless USB Charger (~$16) – That outlet isn’t really full; a great find on Legal Nomads’ resources page as is the JuiceBar Pocket Solar Charger (~$50).
Travel eBooks That Come In Paper Too: Recommended Travel-Nerd Reads
Of course the best gadget in the universe sits between your ears – and enthusiastic minds deserves some good hacking too. These are books (all come in handy digital Kindle, nook, etc. formats) that are a bit travel and a bit geek; some of my favorite recent reads you may enjoy as well.
- Incognito: The Secret Lives Of Brains By David Eagleman (~$15: Kindle/nook/Paperback) – One cubic centimeter of your brain has more neurons than our galaxy has stars. Find out what your brain is actually doing when you’re starring off into space on a long layover.
- The Hidden Europe: What Eastern Europeans Can Teach Us By Francis Tapon (~$10: Kindle/nook/Paperback) – One of the best history, culture, travel books, period, I’ve read in a long time. Here’s my full review.
- The Dervish House By Ian McDonald (~$10: Kindle/nook/Paperback)- Leap forward to the year 2027’s Istanbul in this science-fiction story that is based in much of today’s fact.
- Long Way Round By Charlie Boorman & Ewan McGregor (~$13: Kindle/nook/Paperback) – In many ways this journal by Charley Boorman and Ewan McGregor led to the journey I’m on now, it’s still one of my favorite all-time books and one of these motorcycle best.
- The Post-American World: Release 2.0 By Fareed Zakaria (~$15: Kindle/nook/Paperback) – An insightful look into the “rise of the rest” and how world powers are shifting; what that means for economics, people, tourism, and more.
- From Eternity To Here By Sean Carroll (~$14: Kindle/nook/Paperback) – Why does time time flow in one direction? Scientists don’t know exactly but the possibilities may explain where our universes (yes, more than one) came from.
- The Survivors Club By Ben Sherwood (~$10: Kindle/nook/Paperback) – A book I’ve referenced in several posts that looks at how to survive plane crashes and what you can learn from super-survivors.
Finally, I’d like to show you over to my eBooks page with more of my recommended reads (and two written by me.)
Accept What You Buy Will Get Old Fast But Keep Receipts In Case It’s Too Fast
Keep in mind that there never is a “best” gadget – it’s more like a “best for the moment and best for you” gadget. Technology gets updated quickly but it doesn’t mean that a previous model isn’t the perfect deal and if you do happen to buy a large ticket item, keep the receipt as occasionally new versions get released a bit sooner than any of us anticipated.
Have any questions or gadget recommendations? Add you additions to the comments below!