Travel Tech Showdown: @JohnnyVagabond v. @DrivingInertia

Travel Tech Showdown: @JohnnyVagabond v. @DrivingInertia

Lisa and I love the site,, but Wes and I have very different takes on travel tech. His setup would cost over $4,000 to replicate (he was fortunate enough to win a photography contest to help pay for it). Want to spend less? Keep reading: my dream setup costs $1,600 (or less) and keeps all the functionality I need. Here’s how they stack up.

Computer: MacBook ($999 – $2,500) v. Acer ($200 – $400)

11.6" Acer: Such. A. Deal.
11.6″ Acer: Such. A. Deal.

Wes admits to being an Apple fanboi, so it’s not surprising that he leads off with an Apple laptop. Wes uses the $2,500 15″ Retina model. He’s a badass photographer, but if you’re not, you can get by with a lot less and still get work done while on the road. Not only is $2,500 a lot of money to lay down, it’s a lot of money to put at risk of theft while traveling. Talk about ruining a trip — how’d you like to have that stolen?

I’d opt for a $300 Acer with an 11.6″ screen and Windows 8, and I’d add a 120GB SSD for $100. Or, for the more nerdy, save another $100 and get a $200 Acer C7 Chromebook, that same SSD, and install ChrUbuntu instead of Chrome (I’m planning to do this … if only my current Acer wasn’t still going strong after four years … and running Ubuntu on an SSD). Either way, you’re saving 85-90% over the MacBook — enough to buy up to NINE replacements — and you get a very functional, very small travel computer.

View all my top 5 under-$500 travel laptops picks here. 

Also … It should go without saying that there’s no reason to buy a dedicated travel laptop unless you’ve got a good reason. Like maybe you’ve got a 15″ behemoth that weights 6 pounds and you want something lighter. Or maybe your laptop is running Windows 98 and only has about 6 minutes of battery life. If you’ve got a reasonably-small laptop with reasonably-good battery life — perfect. Use it. Just don’t trust it in one of these.

Portable backup drive: ioSafe ($250) v. Cheap Enclosure ($10)

Working at South Carlsbad State Beach.
Working at South Carlsbad State Beach.

The ioSafe drive Wes uses is awesome — it’s basically bombproof and bulletproof — but you can save a lot of money (and heft) if you’re willing to be careful and treat your backup drive as an intermediary between your laptop and a more secure backup online. Again, it helps if you’re not a serious photographer wanting near 100% fail-safe backups.

You know that hard drive we just took out of the Acer? Well, put it in a cheap USB hard drive enclosure and use that as your backup drive. Put it in a ziplock bag to keep it waterproof, and whenever you find good internet, back everything up online using Box, DropBox, or Google Drive. This is the setup I use. Box recently offered 50GB free for life, and if you buy the Chromebook, you’ll get 100GB free for a year from Google. Online backups are best.

Note: A portable backup drive is entirely useless unless you’re traveling for more than a month. Less than a month? Just keep you photos on your SD card and hard drive and back them up when you get home. If you’d prefer a 3rd spot for safe keeping — use a big SD card either in your phone or kept in your pocket.

Tablet: iPad ($350 – $500+) v. Nexus 7 ($200) or Kindle Fire HD 8.9″ ($300)

I agree with Wes — most non-blogger, non-business, leisure travelers can easily ditch the laptop and travel with a tablet alone (or nothing, of course!). If you’re going to go that route, the Kindle Fire HD 8.9″ is worth a look along with the older-model iPad Wes uses. Don’t do this if you’re going to lament the loss of your keyboard. Or, better yet, get a Bluetooth keyboard if you’re going to lament the loss of your keyboard.

The Nexus 7 is smaller and lighter and cheaper, which are all nice qualities, but the 7″ screen isn’t really laptop-replacement level, so bring it along only if you’re trying to spare your laptop battery (like maybe you have one of those Dell E-Series laptops that every office seems to issue that have terrible battery life) or use it for entertainment and/or navigation. Or embrace the minimalism — I ditched the laptop on our trip to New York and still managed to get some work done on my Nexus 7. Unlike the Kindle, the Nexus 7 does have a great GPS, so downloading the local map wherever you are in Google Maps and using it to navigate offline is an option.

Samsung Galaxy Chat
Samsung Galaxy Chat

Phone: iPhone 5 ($650+ unlocked) v. Sony Xperia tipo or Samsung Galaxy Chat ($160 unlocked)

The iPhone 5 is expensive. If you want an unlocked GSM phone to use around the world, you can save $500 or more by avoiding Apple. Both the Sony Xperia tipo and Samsung Galaxy Chat run Android 4.0 and are plenty capable. The Samsung has a keyboard (if you’re into that sort of thing), while the Sony doesn’t. Both are sold unlocked by Red Pocket Mobile, a MVNO (mobile virtual network operator) that operates on the AT&T network in the US. Both will work in a lot of countries too — just insert a local SIM — and both are capable of connecting to email, Facebook, Twitter, WiFi, etc. Click here to shop Red Pocket Wireless.

Want more power? Try the $300 Nexus 4.

Note: You don’t have to buy a Red Pocket Mobile service plan to use the phones abroad. The phones are sold unlocked and ready to go. But if you do use them in the US, they have attractive rates that could save you some money while in the US. Just beware: I found the activation process a little clunky. Be patient — you’re saving serious dough.

Camera: Canon Digital SLR ($350 – $850+) v. RX100 ($650)

Sony RX100. Cue the drool.
Sony RX100. Cue the drool.

If you have a camera, bring that camera on your travels. Don’t buy another camera. But if you’re buying a camera, consider the RX100. I want one. Badly.

Everybody loves this camera because of one thing: its huge, full-frame 1-inch, 20.2-megapixel CMOS digital sensor. I love it for one other reason: it uses a standard USB charger to top up its battery. That means one less cord to carry, which is awesome for travelers. And the thing is damn compact — smaller and simpler than a digital SLR. Boy, I want one. Better get saving. It’s a splurge. I just don’t really need it … I already have a Lisa.

Update: Glenn’s camera pick (comment below) is pretty sweet. Check out the ~$200, 4.5 star Nikon COOLPIX P310. It doesn’t, however, use a micro USB charger.

Extras: Read this post on what else Wes travels with, but it terms of technology, I travel with a backup battery brick. These compact gizmos can top-up anything that charges via USB — your phone, your tablet, your Sony RX100. Bring one to be sure you’re never low on juice.

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