Back in the day, traveling with a computer was unheard of. Size and weight are a traveler’s number one enemy, and the luxury of a portable computer was rarely worth the trouble. Not anymore!
I’m here to help you pick out a travel-worthy laptop that fits your needs. I’m not going to list specific models, they’d be out of date a few months after this article was published. Instead, I’ll cover the decision points that most affect your choice, and give some recommendations for brands and companies I’ve used in the past.
Think Small! Smaller laptops are not only more portable, but are also more durable and have a longer-lasting battery.
Step one: Decide what size laptop you need. Sizes range from eight to eighteen inches with weights from three to twenty pounds. For travel, you’re going to want something under 15 inches. 13 inches or less would be more realistic. Using a 15” laptop on an airplane or bus is possible, but not very comfortable. Anything over 15” will have a horrible battery life and weigh a ton.
Deciding what size laptop you need depends on what you’re going to use it for. Most travelers simply want a more convenient and portable way to write, make calls, do business and conduct research on the internet. If email, blogging and web surfing is all you do, a smaller machine is just fine.
Depending on the work you do while traveling, you may need something larger and more powerful. I’m a software developer. I need a faster machine with a larger screen and full-sized keyboard to work comfortably. For our upcoming overlanding trip through Central and South America I’m taking a 15” laptop. If I was doing the same trip as a backpacker I’d seriously consider downsizing to 13 or 14 inches.
In the past few years netbooks have become the most common type of computer used by travelers. They are underpowered and too small for more intensive tasks like software development, design, illustration or video editing. However, they are perfect for surfing, emailing, writing or watching movies when you’re bored.
I’ve traveled with a 10 inch Acer Aspire One and couldn’t have been happier. They’ve made some improvements to the line over the past year, shrinking the size and weight while increasing the battery life. The Asus Eee PC is also highly recommended, they have a wider variety of sizes and configurations. Asus has been in the netbook game longer than anyone, releasing the first mass-produced netbook in 2007.
Netbooks range in size from seven to twelve inches and weigh around 3 pounds. Battery life varies from six to twelve hours, which is excellent compared to most laptops over 13 inches. With the screen dimmed I can type away on my tiny Acer for at least nine hours.
The down side, especially with the 7 to 10 inch models, is the size of the keyboard and touch pad. The keyboard can feel cramped and the tiny touch pad may necessitate bringing a wireless mouse. I highly recommend you get a feel for the laptop in a store before finding a cheaper deal online.
Aside from netbooks, a traveler’s best option is a laptop between 13 and 15 inches. There are a lot more choices for customization here, so I’ll do my best to demystify the important options.
For anyone who plans on using a laptop for work, a higher resolution screen is my most recommended upgrade. More resolution means more pixels which means you can fit more stuff on the screen. This will make life easier if you need to use professional software packages for work. Also consider upgrading to an anti-glare (matte) screen finish if you plan on using your laptop outdoors.
Processor terminology used to be relatively clear. A bigger number equals more speed. Not so much anymore. Intel and AMD have been refreshing their product lines twice a year and adding numbers and letters that make little sense. Luckily, it doesn’t matter much anymore. Processor speeds are ridiculous and even if you pick the low end, you will be fine. Unless you are rendering video or 3D models, a CPU will never be the weakest link.
I usually step up once or twice on CPU speed, you can find the most cost effective option when you look at the price comparisons. The first upgrade costs $40, two steps up costs $70 and the third is $300. Upgrading your CPU won’t affect your perception of its performance the day you buy it, but it will probably help two or three years down the road.
Two points worth mentioning here. First, unless you are a traveling professional gamer, don’t spend extra for a better graphics card, it will do one thing: drain your battery.
And second, if you want better graphics, look for laptops with both integrated and discrete graphic chips. This means the laptop has two graphics processors, one that is low powered (integrated or on-board, usually Intel) and one that is high powered (discrete, typically NVIDIA or ATI). The laptop cuts power to the discrete graphics chip when it isn’t needed (in windows, surfing the web or writing) and powers it up when you need it (while watching a movie or playing games). Your battery will thank you.
The best performance upgrade for a laptop is, without a doubt, a solid state hard drive (SSD). Unfortunately, they are expensive and have smaller storage capacities. My 15” laptop has two hard drives, a small SSD with Windows and my programs installed on it, and a second larger and cheaper drive for storing files.
If you can’t afford an SSD at least make sure you get a faster 7200 RPM hard drive instead of the standard 5400 RPM. Upgrading your laptop’s hard drive is the best way to get a performance gain you will actually notice. Everything will seem to work faster.
You probably don’t need more than 4 gigs. Upgrading to more is cheap, but you probably won’t notice a difference. Also, if you have a 32 bit operating system, it can’t use more than 4 gigs anyway.
Don’t take the manufacturer’s word for it! If a company says “up to 7 hours” assume they mean “up to 7 hours if you don’t actually use your laptop”. Read online reviews to get accurate estimates. Keep in mind that any extras like a faster processor, graphics or extra hard drive will reduce battery life.
Make sure you check out the size and weight of the power adapter! It may not be included in the weight spec of the machine, and it may be the size (and weight) of a brick. This is a major reason for choosing a smaller, less-powerful machine.
I’ve used at least a dozen laptops the past five years, most courtesy of my employer. I own three laptops, two I would consider travel-worthy. My 15lb monster Asus G72 with a 50 minute battery life can hardly make it out the door.
As I mentioned above, I have a second generation Acer Aspire One. My go-to machine for short trips that won’t involve any work aside from writing. I also have a 15” Macbook Pro that will be accompanying me on a year-long road trip through South and Central America.
As far as brands, I can highly recommend Asus and Acer for netbooks, and Asus, Sager, Lenovo and Apple for laptops. I’ve bought a couple machines from XOTICPC the past two years and can’t say enough great things about their customer service, configuration options and prices. Lenovo (formerly sold as IBM) is also recommended. While I don’t own a Lenovo, I’ve use them at work enough to know they’re solid, but a bit on the pricey side.
I’ve had my 15” MacBook for almost a year and am very impressed so far. It's the first Mac I've ever owned, and while I wouldn't consider myself a Mac convert, I am definitely a fan. In terms of build quality and design it is hard to find anything that compares to the new uni-body MacBook Pros. The track pad, power adapter design, battery life and overall size and weight are incredibly well suited for travel. Of course, you will pay for good design. A similarly spec’d machine from a PC brand costs hundreds less. The cheaper 13” version also seems to be very common among travelers.