After having problems with an apartment rental Media Studies student Leonie Müller, 23, decided it was a good idea to pack everything into storage, buy an unlimited train ticket and spend the next year working on trains. Three months into the project she’s become the focus of attention when it comes to digital nomads. Naturally we’re not interested in how she sleeps, washes her hair or makes her own food, we’re more interested in what tech she’s using and how she’s using it, right? What ultramobile tech do you use when you’re living on a train?
As a German resident I’ve got plenty of experience of working on German trains. The highlight has to be my Nachtzug experience but in general I’m confined to a seat-back table or a lap. Occasional days in a train are fun but how do you do it every day for a year? A Surface Pro is at the center of it all.
I use the Surface Pro 3 too and despite the large surface area it requires for standing it’s a powerful, lightweight PC packed into a well-built chassis. It’s got excellent WiFi reception capabilities too which is rather critical when you’re relying on free hotspots, in-train WiFi.
The German ‘DB100’ ticket costs over 4000 Euro for the year and includes trains that have WiFi…but it doesn’t include WiFi. A days pass costs €4.95 and if you’re traveling through hills or under tunnels you won’t get much reception. To cut the cost Leonie took a T-Mobile phone contract which allows her to add a months in-train WiFi for the same €4.95. I assume she’s using the same data tariff for the hotspot on her smartphone. My tip would be to get a separate 4G hotspot though because you can put it in the luggage rack or outside a window (not on a train, obviously) and often get better reception. 4G is a must when you’re traveling through Germany too as many of the ‘blackspots’ were filled with 4G-only coverage. Leonie explains in a blog post that it’s not always easy with the on-board WiFi though. “Obviously ‘flowing WiFi’ is pretty cool… the ICE (train) is a 300 km/h cross-country transport and it’s not possible to get total coverage. I try and view the WiFi as an extra and I’m happy when it works.” Clearly offline working is important! Station stops become synchronization stops.
But what about the noise? Leonie invested in a pair of noise cancelling headphones for the noisy times.
Leonie is documenting the year-long project on her blog Wherever You Go, There You Are! and is using it as a part of the of her studies for her Bachelors degree. Look forward to reading more in 2016! In the meantime, if you’ve got ultramobile computing tips for Leonie, drop them below.
Related: Choosing a travel PC. My tips and choices, which incidentally don’t include a Surface Pro 3. Read the article to find out why.
I’ll be traveling to Berlin next week for IFA so I’ll give you a rundown on the kit in an article soon. Hint: The Surface Pro 3 is at the center of my tech kit too.
The best travel PC is lightweight, productive, connected and needs to be efficient, relatively rugged and easy to charge. If you’re looking for a travel, adventure, camping, hiking or off-the-grid PC, you’ll need to read this post.
Travel PC Requirements
The requirements for a travel PC aren’t difficult to meet but there’s a lot to consider. Travelers are mostly concerned with blogs, emails, image editing, social networking, flexible connectivity and maybe a bit of video editing and a lot of this can be done on a phone or tablet but if you want to get some extended writing, image management or basic video editing done efficiently you still need that keyboard and trackpad in the classic table-top clamshell format. Getting the format right is half the challenge with a travel PC but you’ll also need to think about your charging options, budget and a few other important aspects.
Let’s assume that travelers will have a smartphone and that the PC solution won’t be used for photography, location services (maps, check-in, navigation) or always-on services like WhatsApp, Facebook Chat and Skype. As for power and connectivity I’m going to assume the worst – 48 hours without charging and no WiFi connectivity. In reality most are going to come across mains power and a WiFi hotspot without problems but let’s assume your out in the wild somewhere.
If you want to see the proposed solutions, scroll down for my top 6 travel PC choices.
Price is not only a personal budget issue but an issue where there’s a risk of loss or theft. Travelling is a sure way to reduce physical security and although you might be insured, you’ll need to buy a replacement before you get any insurance money. The good news is that you can buy a mobile 2-in-1 solution for under $300. (LTE-capable solutions are well under €400 in Europe.) There are two reasons you might want to spend a bit more than $300. The first is storage. 64 GB systems aren’t that expensive (add around $50) but high-speed 128 GB SSD solutions start at around $500. The second reason is processing power and that’s something you might be interested in if you’re going to edit full HD videos. It is possible to do that on a low-end solution but you’ll need to choose the right application, manage your storage and have patience. If you can drop to 1280 x 720 for videos (fine for most people on YouTube, Facebook) then it makes it a little easier on the PC. Remember that full HD videos will take a long time to upload and will use a lot of data. Budget limit: $500 including taxes.
Form-factor: Given that we want a tabletop or lap solution with a solid keyboard and adjustable screen angle we’re restricted to laptops or 2-in-1 PCs with an adjustable hinge. 2-in-1 PC solutions have grown to be popular in recent years and their mobile focus means there are some interesting options available with LTE, GPS and very small volume and weight. They also come with touchscreens which can be handy when in lay-back mode. Separate tablets with Bluetooth keyboards aren’t recommended because of dead batteries, lack of screen protection, separate tablet stand and set-up time but if you think you can organize yourself around that then you’ll find more options. Think single-unit, single battery for the best experience.
Operating System: In order to be as flexible as possible with on and offline working , local media management (photos, video) and flexible connectivity the Windows operating system is recommended and is the main focus for the solutions listed below. Android is an option in the price bracket but you won’t find many suitable Android solutions with the right form-factor. Chromebooks aren’t good for travelling due to limited image management, offline video editing and limited offline app experience. The iPad can be considered if you’re already in that ecosystem but there are limits with connectivity that might catch you out if you’re looking to transfer images or edit video from another device. Apple laptops fall outside our $500 budget.
Size and Weight: Under 1.4 KG total. Target: 1 KG (2.2 pounds.) The weight should include long battery life, keyboard and flexible connectivity options. The screen should be 9-inches or more in size and the resolution can be 1200 x 800 or more. Lower resolutions are usually more efficient on battery but larger resolutions provide more flexibility with multiple application windows.
Charging: A huge advantage for travelers has been the introduction of micro-USB charging on PCs. It brings a choice of hundreds of power packs and solar solutions that can directly charge the PC. The power-packs are generally small and cheap and replacements are easily available. USB charging in PCs often supports multiple levels of charging speed so trickle charging could help to squeeze the last from a USB power pack. Micro USB charging and good quality USB power pack with more than 2A output capability is highly recommended. With the right solution you’ll be able to use the travel PC for 20+ hours without a charge which can take you through 2 days or more.
Storage: The storage size on the PC depends on your media creation style. If you’re planning to offload 60 FPS full-HD videos onto the PC then you’ll need 128 GB storage or more but remember that you can get that in low-cost USB-connected SSD drives and SD cards. You can also consider online storage for when you have enough data connectivity available. Low-cost Windows solutions often come with 32 GB of storage which is enough to get you going but can get tight after app installations, updates and other downloads. Windows 8.1 (and Windows 10) will allow you to use an SD card for storage so if you want to keep your costs down then go for this route. Note that Windows 10 upgrades will reduce available disk storage. Clean up old files and always disable OneDrive folder synchronization to preserve space.
Internet Connectivity will depend on the availability of public WiFi, security and privacy requirements. In some countries, such as Germany, it’s difficult to find free public WiFi. In others it’s not. The quality and security of the connections may vary though so unless you’re planning to travel through multiple countries in a day, 3G/4G connectivity is a must. The cellular modem doesn’t need to be on the travel PC but it can be helpful if it is because you can buy a local SIM card for data and continue to use your smartphone SIM for voice / SMS connectivity. A 3G/4G battery-powered router is also an option and can be an advantage in low-quality reception areas as it can be positioned outdoors while used over WiFi indoors. The disadvantage is that you’re using both WiFi and cellular data which increases power usage.
Processor: Given the important need for micro USB charging there’s a big limitation when it comes to processor choice, at least on PCs. In general, the only PCs that include micro USB charging are based around an Intel Atom Z3000-series, X5 or X7 series CPU. Fortunately there is enough processing power in this processor range for all the document, social media, image editing and even video editing that most people need to do. It won’t be desktop-PC-fast and it won’t support a vast amount of multi-tasking but it will be enough and it’s a trade-off that has to be made when travelling. In the future we should see Core M-based solutions that will have USB-C connections. The new Acer Aspire Switch 11V comes close.
Security: Low cost Windows solutions have a lot of security options but they need to be set up well before starting. Ideally you’ll have a Windows solution with free Bitlocker file encryption but some of the very low-cost Windows 8 tablet solutions don’t have this so be careful if you want to store sensitive data. Enable SeucureBoot and enable the BIOS boot password as a minimum.
Acer Aspire Switch 10E
ASUS Transformer Book T100HA
ASUS Transformer Book T100 Chi
ASUS Transformer Book T100
HP Pavilion X2 10 n030ng
Lenovo Yoga Tablet 2
The Acer Aspire Switch 10 (2014) was considered but the battery capacity on it is so low (22 Wh) that it’s probably not worth considering. 3G and Full HD versions could be available at very low-cost though so if you see an offer, it might be worth it.
The list includes three versions of the ASUS Transformer Book T100. The original version is tried and tested and the last models, still available, have 500 GB HDD options (not in consideration here) , 3G and Z3775 CPUs which offer a little bit more processing power than the original versions. The T100 Chi offers a slightly lighter weight, slimmer design and all versions come with the Z3775 CPU. Prices are higher than the original T100. The new ASUS T100HA has the latest Intel Atom X5 and would be an interesting one to test but that’s not the aim here. Besides, it’s not available to buy yet. (Expected in September.)
The Lenovo Yoga Tablet 2 10 has an interesting design because the keyboard is wireless which enables some interesting usage scenarios. For example, the keyboard on the lap and the tablet positioned nearer the eyes. I’ve used this setup on the Asus Switch 12 and it’s really useful but beware that the keyboard needs to be charged separately but the charge should last for 2 months. Having a separate Bluetooth keyboard could be handy when traveling. Pair it with a smartphone and you’ve got your self a tiny workstation for emergency use but the magnetic hinge design will need care and reviewers report that it can slip apart from the tablet. A case might be needed for the Lenovo Yoga Tablet 2. The 35.5 Wh battery is the biggest while the total weight is the lowest. As a tablet it’s going to be easy to hold in portrait mode because of the battery bulge. The CPU power is on the low end of the scale here and there’s a Full HD screen which offers more working space but takes more GPU power to drive. There’s a low-cost LTE-capable version of the Yoga Tablet 2 available which also includes GPS. That could be useful with the offline maps and navigation features in Windows 10 if you find yourself without a phone.
The low-cost Acer Aspire Switch 10E is impressive. [I reviewed it for another publication recently.] The keyboard and screen are good quality and it seems to be very efficient. The only disadvantage is the cheap plastic that it’s built from. It looks and feels cheap but it’s grippy and doesn’t show fingerprints however.
Finally there’s the new HP Pavilion X2 10 2015 model which was supposed to launch with Intel Atom X5 and Windows 10. It’s available in shops now at the same price as the Switch 10E but with a Z3736F CPU and not the promised Atom X5. Like the Switch 10E it also has a good screen and keyboard but it looks a lot better than the Switch 10E. [I had some hands-on with the new model] It’s a solid contender there could be a problem with USB-C charging. (There’s a dedicated charger shown in this video but it’s possible that you could buy a USB 2.0 – USB-C adapter and charge from a standard USB port.)
Top 6 travel PCs by Chippy.
The Acer Aspire Switch 10E is my current #1 choice. I’ve done extensive testing on it and found it to be great value for the money although the WiFi module is a little weak which won’t help in crowded hotspots or hotels. The keyboard is solid and the screen is great. Today at Amazon it on offer for just $239. Details here.
I need to do some more keyboard testing with the Lenovo Yoga Tablet 2 but if it suits me it would jump to #1. The flexibility in keyboard use cases, large battery capacity, low eight, low-cost LTE / GPS version and high-resolution screen make it the most exciting prospect here. It’s a little more expensive than the T100, Switch and Pavilion options but not when you consider the LTE version available for just €369 in Europe (after taxes.)
If the ASUS Transformer Book T100HA was available I’d be adventurous and go for it because of the CPU, GPU and slight efficiency advantages of the new Atom X5 processor. Pricing isn’t known at the moment and there’s also a need for a few in-depth reviews. The USB-C port is a potential issue but it looks like there’s a separate micro USB port that’s used for charging.
A Z3775, 64 GB version of the original ASUS Transformer Book T100 would be the most sensible choice in the list. With more space for storage and a bit more CPU power it edges ahead of some of the others. It’s a big seller, easily available and there’s a huge community of T100 users out there that can help if there are problems. Steer clear of the 500 GB hard drive option if you’re traveling. (Use a USB SSD, SD cards and online storage.)
The HP Pavilion X2 10 falls down the list because it has a dedicated USB-C charger (USB -> USB-C charging might be possible with an adapter) and it hasn’t been reviewed yet. There’s a €279 offer on it in a shop just 2km from where I’m typing this so I’m tempted to go and pick one up.
The ASUS Transformer T100 CHI is a strange beast. A high-resolution screen and high-end Z3775 CPU could help productivity and the design is sweet, but it’s expensive. Separate keyboard and tablet charging might be a problem although a single charge of the keyboard should last for a few weeks.
Where’s the Surface 3?
At $499 the Surface 3 just gets in under the $500 budget limit, without a keyboard, which would take it up to about $600. The Surface 3 is a great travel PC with a high quality screen, high-end Atom X7 CPU and good battery life. It can be charged via micro USB and fulfills every need apart from price. Using the Surface 3 on a lap is a bit awkward but possible. The keyboard is backlit. At double the price of an Acer Aspire Switch 10E it’s not great value but if you can stretch that far with your budget it’s the highest-quality choice out there and might be the best choice if you’re thinking of doing some video editing.
Android travel PC.
You won’t find an Android 2-in-1 with a fixed-hinge keyboard for under $500. The interesting Xperia Z4 tablet (also available with LTE) is up above $600 with the keyboard and although the Lenovo Yoga 2 10 tablet with Android is cheap and light it doesn’t come with the keyboard. The outgoing ASUS Transformer Pad TF103C could be an option if you can find it. The Galaxy Note Pro 12-inch tablet is an interesting option with the optional Samsung keyboard case but like the Xperia Z4 tablet it comes in above our $500 budget.
My pick of the Android options would be the Samsung Galaxy Tab S 10 with the dedicated Bluetooth keyboard dock/case which you should be able to pick up for around $400 The dock has a fixed-angle tablet stand but when I tested the solution briefly at IFA last year I was quite impressed.
The lightest travel PC.
A full PC for $300 in under 1KG is impressive but what if you need to cut more from the weight and size? You’ll need to sacrifice screen size but it’s possible with a range of 8-inch Windows tablet PCs that are out there. One of the most interesting, and one that is available with hard cases, is the new HP Pro 8 608 with Bluetooth keyboard case. Forget ‘cheap’ with this but it’s really interesting solution that weighs around 500 grams (with keyboard case) and is one of the cheapest mobile solutions with WiFi AC. Also available if you can find it is an outgoing Lenovo Thinkpad 8 model. There are 50 or more low-cost Windows 8 tablet options available between $100 and $200 but a few stand out of the crowd. The HP Stream 8 comes with a cellular modem and free data for under $200 (also available with roaming data in Europe) but only has 1GB of RAM so you have to be really careful not to run too many apps at the same time. You can get a tailored keyboard case for it too but then you’ve just doubled the weight of the solution. If you’re happy with a folio case then products like the current HP Pavilion X2 10 (under 1KG with keyboard) and the Lenovo Mix 3 10 (very lightweight with folio case) are worth looking at.