Monday, March 28, 2016

The "laptops" in my bag

I took one of my Chromebooks to an event last week and a couple of people asked me about it. So I thought I’d take the opportunity to talk about my larger devices as an extension to my recent “What’s in my bag?” post. 

In general, I carry a laptop-like device and a tablet-like device. Laptop-like devices are really a lot better for typing on and tablet-like devices are better for reading or watching video on a plane. And I haven’t found anything that really switches between the two modes well. I’m happy to stipulate that the Microsoft Surface Pro 4 may be that device for some people but I’m really not in the Microsoft ecosystem and longer so that doesn’t work for me at this point. 

More on tablet-like devices in a later post but, usually, my laptop-like device for travel is my 2015 13” MacBook Pro. Because it’s a full laptop, it’s the most versatile thing to take with me—especially if I might not always be connected. It weighs about 3.5 pounds and is .71 inches high. For me, this is about the perfect compromise for working at a desk and traveling. The smaller MacBook models are just a bit too small or tradeoff things like a second USB port that keep me from wanting to use day-in and day-out. I do value compactness and lightweight when I’m traveling but I find that, by the time you add chargers and dongles and various adapters, another pound or so of laptop just isn’t a big deal. This is still a very svelte laptop by any historical standard.

How about Chromebooks?

First, let me share my thoughts on Chromebooks in general and then I’ll get to a couple specific models. 

Chromebook are pretty awesome for the right use. At around $250 for many models, they’re a great match for doing web-based tasks (browsing and online office suites or even many software development tasks). You even get a hidden Crosh shell that gives you utilities like ssh. You’re not totally dead in the water if you go offline—for example, Evernote switches back and forth between connected and non-connected modes pretty smoothly—but they’re definitely oriented toward situations where you have reliable WiFi. (On the one hand, this is increasingly common; tech conferences notwithstanding. On the other hand, it’s also hard to do many things disconnected even if you have a full laptop.)

For $250, you’re not going to get high-resolution screens, backlit keyboards, or things like that. But my 13” Dell Chromebook from 2014 sits on a table downstairs in my house where I often find it more convenient for doing a lot of searching than using a tablet. (Yes, I could go find my laptop but I find it being “just there” handy.)

A variety of higher-priced Chromebooks out there have more features. Personally I get a lot less interested in a Chromebook as it gets to a ~$500 price point and beyond given that it won’t replace a laptop for most people.

More interesting from a travel perspective is a device like the Asus Chromebook Flip. It’s a 10.1” laptop that weighs about 2 pounds. The touch-sensitive screen also flips into a tablet mode. In my experience, it also has pretty reliably “all day” battery life which is probably a couple hours longer than my MacBook. If I don’t need more than a Chromebook and want to go lightweight, this is what I carry.

A few caveats:

Unlike my 4GB Dell, I have the 2GB memory Asus model—mostly because that’s all they had at the Best Buy when I needed something during a trip when I accidentally left my MacBook at home. It does stutter every now and then if there are multiple tabs open, so go with 4GB. 

The keyboard is fine, but it is small. I have no issue with using this as a travel laptop but I wouldn’t want to type with a keyboard this size all the time.

The tablet mode is “OK.” By that I mean it feels a bit weird having the keypad under your fingers when you’re holding the folded laptop though it can be used as an ebook reader in a pinch. I also don’t normally get movies and TV from Google Play so I don’t have a simple source for video content. This isn’t a problem with the device so much as the fact that Google is yet another separate ecosystem for content that you may or may not already be using.

So. For most work trips today, my MacBook Pro still usually wins. It’s just more versatile and I have access to a lot of presentations and other materials even if I’m not online. But, it’s not hard for me to imagine smaller (perhaps convertible in some way) devices becoming a more practical travel option over time.

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