The Best Travel Laptop Computer? Depends How You Roll.

6 Mar
2012
Posted in: Travel Tech
By    7 Comments

**This post is out-of-date! Click to The Best Travel Laptop, Tablet, and Convertible, Holiday 2013 Edition.**

For a while, I’ve been a cheerleader of the netbook as a travel computer. I like them because they’re small and relatively cheap and can be encrypted to protect your data and identity. Some people vote for a tablet like the iPad as their travel device of choice, but I think iPads are too attractive to thieves and not secure enough. They also lack keyboards, so you either have to carry an external one or smudge up the screen to be productive. This is a dealbreaker for business travelers and for us travel writers. Laptop makers are now pushing Ultrabooks, but are they better for travel than a netbook? Well that depends. How do you travel?

Vagabonding on a Budget, Minimalist Adventure

Netbooks are the Pony Express of travel. Tiny but powerful. Feature-rich but minimalist. Reliable yet replaceable. Good netbook computers have webcams for Skyping while on the road, decent hard drives to hold all your files, and enough battery life to play a series of movies on a long flight. Most are around $300, but you can usually find a deal and may be able to score one for closer to $200 (check your local electronics store for last year’s model).

Business Travel on an Expense Account, Trust-Fund Travels

Ultrabooks pack normal laptop features into a small, sexy package. They’re thin and light and portable. But they’re more expensive. Anything the netbook can do, the Ultrabook can do better (usually). Battery life for netbooks and Ultrabooks is usually about the same and good ones get close to the 8-hour mark. Ultrabooks just do it at a much higher cost. The Acer Aspire S3 will cost you about twice as much as a netbook. A Samsung Series 9 will cost you 4x more. I want one (an ASUS Zenbook), but I’m not about to spend a grand on another computer.

Long Distance Jet-Setters, Business Travel into Developing Countries

Need more battery life? Not sure when you’ll find another outlet? Try one of these: the Lenovo ThinkPad T420 has a 30-hour battery, the HP EliteBook 8460p claims 32 hours! Boy, that’s tempting. We’ve been starved for power a lot lately.

So how do you travel? Do you need the amazing battery-life of the latest camel-like laptops from Lenovo and HP? Or do you have cash to burn on an Ultrabook? Or maybe you just need something with a bit more battery life and portability and don’t want to spend too much to get it.

Best Overall: Acer Aspire S3

The Acer S3 laptop combines all the coolness of an Ultrabook while still keeping costs down to (just?) 2-3x the cost of a netbook. Sure, it has 1/3 the battery life of the battery tanks above, but you can actually carry it in your bag without throwing out your back. Buy one!

Working without power and wishing we had a pair of those 30-hour tanks.

Working without power and wishing we had a pair of those 30-hour tanks.

Us? My computer is Ultrabook-ish but from before Intel copyrighted the term. I bought it because it had great battery life and wasn’t too expensive. It’s a few years old, but I still get about 5-6 hours of battery life. There’s a crack in the corner I’m hoping doesn’t spread. Lisa’s laptop died in Las Vegas and now she’s using the cheapest laptop we could find at a brick-and-mortar store (we don’t have a shipping address) with decent battery life (6-7 hours) and a 15-inch screen. With her photography, she wasn’t keen to go as tiny as a netbook. It’s portable enough for car travel but is probably a bit bulky for airline travel.

What do you think? Is the iPad worth another look? Or are you able to do everything you need on your phone? Let us know what you think in the comments.

Full disclosure: buy a computer through one of the links above and Amazon kicks us back a few bucks.

  • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=640758093 Stewart Campbell

    Having three mobile computing devices (well, 4 if you count my iphone), feel like I’ve got a dog in the hunt.  I have an “ultrabook-like” Dell E4200 laptop – my iCrossing-issued box – it’s a 12.1 inch screen laptop, solid state hard drive, 4 gigs of RAM, and with the external Sprint 4G card, it’s a no-compromises solution in a small package.  Problem is battery life – the standard battery lasts all of 2 hours – I begged IT for an “XL” battery for it and that lasts 6 hours, but increases the weight by 50%.

    I also have for personal use a 14.1 inch Dell D-series laptop, about 3 years old.  Big. Heavy. Fast, extremely long (nearly 8 hours) batterly life.  But did I say Big. Heavy. before?  Yeah.  Only good for travel if you’re not flying, otherwise fughedaboudit.

    And, I have an iPad – now, my iPad does not have the 3G, so that limits its mobile capabilities but as long as I”m in WiFi range, I’m good to go.  I’ve gotten very good and fast at typing on the touchscreen, which is good for general email work, but that’s about it. I’d never think of doing documents on this ever.

    Given the three devices – I think if you truly need a travel box, then the smallest/lightest laptop that gives you acceptable battery life is the play. Many netbooks fit that category.

    • http://drivinginertia.com/ Paul David Olson

      The battery life of the Dell E-Series is embarrassing! I’ve had two of them at two different companies and both were not great and suffered frequent blue-screen-of-death meltdowns.
      Maybe the XPS will catch on with corporate customers — that computer looks sweet. It’s just expensive. 

      Glad you like the netbook idea — they’ve got all the features travelers need. And glad to hear my suspicions confirmed with the iPad. 

  • http://twitter.com/SmithErinC Erin C Smith

    Really appreciate your run down- this was a great place to start. After a few discussions with people on the tech team in my office I’ve decided to go with the Acer- cheaper, no real user complaints that i can see (unlike the Asus- keyboard problems) and still a reasonable display and battery life! Great post!

    • http://drivinginertia.com/ Paul David Olson

      The Acer is sweet. I played with one at a store and almost tried to slip it in my jacket. 

  • Aquamaria28

    any particular netbook brand/model you can recommend?

    • http://drivinginertia.com/ Paul David Olson

      I’ve had good luck with Acer computers. This one is worth a look: http://www.amazon.com/gp/product/B005J2E2US/ref=as_li_ss_tl?ie=UTF8&tag=driving08-20&linkCode=as2&camp=1789&creative=390957&creativeASIN=B005J2E2US

      But honestly, I’d go to a local store and see if they have any on clearance. I’ve seen prices under $300.

  • Frank

    ipads are definitely not a good travel device. As many travel related sites around the world are created in flash (totally inefficient but a lot of people do it anyways.) It makes buying tickets online a pain in the butt with ipads.

    I no longer travel with a laptop unless it is a business trip. The weight and the responsibilities that come along with a laptop out weights the need for one. I have a 11-inch Macbook Air, even that is a pain when traveling for pleasure. I’ve given that to my wife and now use a 13 inch Macbook Air. It’s fantastic for business trips. why the trade? cuz I need the SD card port on the 13 inch which the 11 does not provide.