Laptop vs tablet: which is better to travel with?

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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?

The tablet

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,Samsung Tab 2 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.

The laptop

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.

Keyboard HP Stream Computer 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.

The second problem was the touch pad, which proved unresponsive and difficult to work with. Just moving the cursorMicrosoft mouse to a different spot in the text was a hit-and-miss affair.

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.

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About Author

Paul Marshman is a retired journalist who spent 30 years as a writer and editor on Canadian newspapers, while travelling to the ends of the earth. Now he continues to travel while passing on his travel experiences to you.

6 Comments

  1. Hi Paul,

    Thank you for your input on the electronic device. Personally I use Samsung NoteBook 10.1 with 32 GB memory, which has a 10″ monitor and have pretty good battery life, never have battery shortage problem. Perhaps the model you use was an earlier product, battery life was not as good as new one.

    Thanks,

    J V Lam

    • Hi Joseph: Thanks for commenting. Ten inches sounds like a reasonable size for travelling, so maybe that’s a good option. I imagine newer models do have better battery life: still, that’s something travellers should should take a good look at before buying.

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