Most travellers these days never leave home without their cellphones. But while smart phones are a great tool for finding things and keeping in touch, they’re not great for everything. For some of us who do more involved things while we’re on the road (like publishing a travel blog, for example), the only real solution is a computer. But what kind of computer should you bring along?
There are two main choices: a laptop and a tablet. In the past couple of years I’ve travelled with both, so I thought it would be useful to compare them and share a few thoughts on their strengths and weaknesses.
So here’s my head-to-head comparison: tablet vs computer – which is better to travel with?
In recent years I’ve travelled extensively with a seven-inch Samsung Galaxy Tab 2 tablet with 8 gigs of internal memory. After years of carrying a laptop, I wanted something small enough to fit in a pocket but capable enough to do some basic computing.
The Tab 2 fit the bill pretty well. It came in larger sizes, but I chose the small one: to me, carrying a 15-inch tablet is almost as burdensome as toting a 15-inch laptop, without the convenience of a keyboard — why not just get a laptop?
And make no mistake, the keyboard is a convenience. The Tab 2’s virtual keyboard is relatively responsive, but once I ventured beyond surfing the web and started to do any serious typing, I found it a major test of patience. Like a lot of boomers, I’m not an expert at tapping on a flat screen, and typing anything more than a couple of sentences was a real chore: type 30 words, then go back and correct the dozen typos and dropped letters.
Getting ready for my Mediterranean cruise, I added a wireless Bluetooth keyboard, which helped somewhat. But after a while I found myself slogging ahead with the virtual board rather than digging it out and establishing a connection every time.
Other than that, the tablet was pretty handy. It surfed the web with ease, and the amazing selection of apps came in handy for a wide variety of things, from tuning my guitar to casting video onto a TV – there was even one that turned the tablet into a flashlight.
The monitor was bright and sharp – much sharper than my desktop computer – and it was great as a substitute Kindle: I could download novels and travel guides before I left home and read them at my leisure. It worked fine as a music player, too.
The camera was good to have, and the photos looked pretty good as long as I had a fair amount of light. However, it was a come-and-go thing. Turning it on for my first shot in Vienna, I got a message that said “camera not available”. It started working again later – after the trip was over.
While the Tab 2’s apps were good for a lot of things, however, most of them were inadequate for anything heavy-duty. And faced with the task of putting out a blog post, the Tab struggled: once I typed more than a couple of paragraphs in my WordPress template, it became impossible to edit.
As for the battery, I was disappointed that it lasted only a few hours on a full charge. In fact, it wore down even when not in use. However, it charged up in an hour or two, so that didn’t pose a big inconvenience.
My verdict: The Tab 2 is a capable device for checking e-mail, browsing the web, reading books, listening to music — the things most travellers do from day to day. However, trying to do anything more serious is pushing it, and the limited battery life is an annoyance.
I’ve travelled with a full-sized, 17-inch laptop and a tiny, nine-inch netbook, and both had their downsides. Looking for a workable compromise, I found a fairly new alternative: the HP Stream 11.6-Inch Netbook.
These compact laptops come in two sizes, 11.6 and 13.3 inches. Both feature the same modest specs: 2 gigs of RAM memory and 32 gigs of solid state memory in lieu of a hard drive, just enough to store the essential files. And both sell for around $300 (somewhat more if you’re using Canadian dollars).
The Stream computers have one major advantage, however. Most compact laptops these days are netbooks, working only when connected to the internet: that can be a problem when you’re in places where good WiFi isn’t easy to find. But the Stream series comes with a full version of Windows 8, allowing you to work with or without an internet connection.
I bought the 11.6-inch version for two reasons: it’s small and light enough to carry all day, and it has a slot for full-sized SD cards, while the larger, 13-inch model comes with a micro-SD slot. My cameras use the full-size cards. so a micro slot wasn’t going to work for me.
The Stream was offered in one colour – blue. And while it wouldn’t have been my choice, it’s actually kind of handsome (nowadays you can also get it in purple, if that’s any better). The 11.6-inch monitor is very sharp, and big enough to view a web page the way it was meant to be viewed. It’s also non-glare, which is good for working outdoors. The keyboard is full-sized, with a nice, crisp action that makes it easy to type.
In order to use this computer, however, I first had to get used to Windows 8. And it was frustrating, to say the least. Windows 8 has a “gesture” feature that allows you to switch between applications and launch utilities by swiping the touch pad or touching the edge of the screen. Bad idea: for the first few days unwanted applications kept leaping up on the screen in the middle of my work. That resulted in a lot of swearing and a few more grey hairs.
Happily, both problems were fairly easily solved. The laptop came with a Windows 8 tutorial built in, and a few minutes of study helped me to figure out how to control the pop-ups. It also helped me find what I wanted with quick keyboard commands.
More importantly, I bought a Microsoft wireless mouse, which ended all the problems with the touch pad. I chose the Bluetooth model, which uses a small dongle that plugs into one of the two USB slots. And it works amazingly well, on just about any kind of surface – a good thing when you’re using it in a lot of different places. With the mouse in operation, I found I could use the Stream almost like a desktop computer.
Since then, using the computer has been a relative breeze. I can switch between applications easily, run several tabs on Google Chrome, and get back to square one with a flick of the finger whenever I want.
And the lack of memory hasn’t been a major problem, except for one thing: if I’m switching back and forth between Chrome and other applications, the browser sometimes crashes on me. I currently have an 8-gig card inserted, which I use to ease the burden on the computer’s internal memory.
One last test: the Stream claims a battery life of up to eight hours. I put that to the test this week, and voilá: under fairly constant use, the laptop stayed alive for almost exactly eight hours before sounding a warning tone. Then it abruptly went black.
My verdict: The Stream laptop is a surprisingly powerful little computer, and well suited to the traveller who has some real work to do on the road. I’m typing this right now in a coffee shop in Delhi, Ontario on my yearly birding trip, and so far it’s been a great travel companion.
Head to head
A tablet like the Samsung Tab 2 can be a handy travel accessory as long as you’re doing the most basic functions, like picking up your e-mail and surfing the net. But if you really want full functionality on the road, a compact laptop is the way to go, and the Stream series is a good, affordable choice — once you’ve made peace with its idiosyncrasies. Now, back to birding.