A notebook for travelling

Submitted by peter on Thu, 07/01/2021 - 15:00

What do you need for computing while travelling? Here are ideas based on real experience.

SSD

The very first requirement for anything portable is SSD storage. Rotating disks break when moved. Moving magnetic heads break disks when moved. Buy only SSD storage for the built in disks. Keep the cheaper magnetic disks for the external backup storage you plug in when sitting safely at your desk.

The most common cause of failure for laptops and notebooks when away from the safety of your own disk is a bump while the machine is switched on, breaking the magnetic disk. Any good brand of SSD is far tougher than any other form of data storage. The horror stories about SSDs are mostly from the cheap unbranded junk that may be made using chips rejected by the ethical manufacturers.

I usually buy notebook computers with the smallest SSD option then upgrade to a full size SSD after a few days of use to check the notebook is working. The first time I did that, 128 GB SSDs were the default size and 256 GB were a premium option with the occasional 512 GB SSD a ridiculously expensive option. I installed a 1 TB SSD for about the cost of the 256 GB upgrade. The SSD I used was 2 ~ 3 times faster than the brand used by the manufacturer.

The case

The second cause of failure is from a cheap case. Either the screen cracks from a cheap plastic case that is too flexible or the case breaks at a corner after just a small drop to the floor. You can test a machine by moving the lid/screen by the corner. Is there any flex? Try bending the case. Is there any flex or noise from components scraping across each other?

My first laptop computer had a steel subframe to stop the plastic bending and to protect the main electronics board from impact. The machine was bumped off chairs onto hard floors (while switched off) and never broke anything that stopped me using it.

My next choice was a good brand with a titanium case. Good brands can be defined by looking at service records. Dell is the industry average for reliability. Toshiba was above Dell back when Toshiba made notebooks, although they did, for a while, have separate models for consumer sales and for professional use. That notebook survived long trips in backpacks up mountains, rock climbing, and banging around on the floor of cars.

Brands below Dell include Apple, one of the reason why, at Web development conferences, you would often find the trendy people with Apple notebooks talking about files lost when Apple replaced their broken notebook. All the people with three year old Dell notebooks would look horrified from the though of having a notebook so unreliable that it has to be replaced in the first year.

My recent purchase is a slightly above average brand. I chose one of their tough models. It is tested to a Mil spec, a step above most notebooks. A good notebook should last six years, not six months, with only the replacement of the battery.

Battery

Battery life is critical for travel. How long is your commute on the train? I had a 1.5 hour commute and tested several machines.

A brand would advertise an 8 hour battery life. Reviewers would report 6.5 hours from their tests. I would use the same machine in a train with the bright Australian sunlight and get only 4 hours because I had to keep the power hungry backlight at the maximum setting.

After a year of use, the battery degrades to 3.5 hours. After 3 years of daily charging, the battery is down to 2 hours and needs replacing.

If you need a real life 3 hours charge across several years of use, you need to start up around 10 ~ 12 hours of advertised charge.

Second charger

For a commute from home to an office, look at a spare charger. Good alternative brand chargers are often less than half the cost of the original brand. You can buy one for the office. Charge at home for the trip to work and charge at the office for the trip home.

The extra charger gives you the power to enjoy longer commutes. Catch the earlier train to enjoy a sunrise breakfast on Sydney Harbour. Survive the flying commute, an hour on the train from the beach to the city, an hour at the airport while waiting to board, another hour at the airport while you wait for the delayed plane, and the hour in the taxi stuck in peak traffic at the other end.

I once did that twice in one day due to someone stuffing up bookings. Luckily I found out when arriving back in Sydney, avoiding the train commute home then back into the city.

OLED

If you work in the sun, OLED screens are many times better than LCD. There are far fewer layers to fuzz up the sunlight. Contrast is naturally better. LCD fails with polarised sunglasses because LCD screens have to have a polarised layer.

OLED also saves on battery life, a really noticeable difference when you have to work with an LCD back light cranked up to maximum blast. Your eyes will thank you.

You can further reduce the OLED power usage by using black backgrounds as the colour black uses no power. Any dark colour saves power. LCDs waste the same power no matter what colour you choose.

I tend to work in the shade of a tree when outdoors and settle for LCD. Currently OLED screens on notebooks are limited to notebook models I do not buy for other reasons. OLED is also more expensive and, for my use, the dollars saved can pay for better SSD.

sRGB

When you edit images, you want what is called 100% sRGB coverage. The screen shows a wider range of colours, something that is difficult with an LCD screen. 100% sRGB LCD screens on notebooks are almost as expensive as OLED screens.

I use an external screen for critical editing. If I was away from home for months instead of weeks, I would pay extra for a notebook with 100% sRGB coverage. Unfortunately some of the best notebooks for travel have 100% sRGB available only as fancy models lent to journalists for reviews. You cannot buy those models in shops or online.

Screen size

The size of the notebook screen limits all sorts of uses. Smaller screens are more portable and they make editing more difficult. I had a netbook with a 10" screen and could not use it for anything outside of reading email. A 12" netbook made life a little bit easier for working with text. 13" screens are of no more use tome than 12" screens. I used a notebook with a 14" screen back in the days when screens had wide borders. My new machine has a 15.6" screen with narrow borders, keeping the machine to a size similar to my 14" notebook. I still use an external screen, 35", for critical image editing.

The 14" and 15.6" inch sizes fit in a backpack comfortable on an adult male my height. My slightly slimmer mountain climbing backpack is a snug fit for the 14" notebook and too tight for the 15.6" notebook. For long walks, choose the backpack most comfortable for you then choose a notebook to fit the backpack.

Both of my backpacks have some padding but the slimmer backpack does not have enough for a notebook computer. I purchased a separate slip cover style bag with reinforced padded corners for the new notebook and will use that for some trips. For other trips, I will look at a hard cover waterproof case.

USB 3.1 gen 2 or better

NVMe SSDs can run faster than the USB 3.0 speed of 5 Gbps, limiting their use for external storage. USB 3.1 runs at the same 5 Gbps speed. USB 3.1 gen 2 runs twice as fast, 10 Gbps, faster than the current generation of affordable NVMe SSDs. You can run a really fast external disk at full speed if you choose a computer with at lease one USB 3.1 gen 2 port.

The current range of NVMe SSDs in a USB 3.1 gen 2 enclosures provide you with fast access to terabytes of storage, for backup and to offload some data from your notebook. I am looking at carrying one for storing large image RAW files.

USB 3.2 offers the same 10 Gbps gen 2 speed plus the faster gen 2*2 20 Gbps speed. USB 4 and Thunderbolt offer 40 Gbps. When those options are on affordable notebooks, you will also need SSDs that can maintain that sort of speed, SSD enclosures with the same speed, and USB cables for that speed.

I choose a premium notebook to get Thunderbolt 4 for future compatibility, an additional cost of AU$600 compared to the USB 3.1 gen 2 options. Thunderbolt 4 includes USB 4. Shopping around, I negotiated most of the $600 off and purchased at a time when I could immediately claim back the cost on tax. Hopefully your next shop will have lots of Thunderbolt 4 options at reasonable prices.

Backup

How do you backup your computer? Online backups are in fashion. When you travel outside 5G network range, you find the limitations of backing up into the cloud.

Magnetic disks work well for incremental backups and survive when carried in hard cased luggage in your car but can create problems with the security checks at airports. You need at least two magnetic disks in separate luggage.

Second SSD

My notebook can fit a second NVMe disk. The second disk would be using power all the time. I could leave some of the files on external storage for occasional use. Full speed use of external storage requires something like NVMe SSD through the faster USB options or Thunderbolt 4.

My new purchase has Thunderbolt 4 and, for now, I will leave out the second SSD. In the long term, I will upgrade the size of the first SSD as that option will use less power than using two medium size SSDs.

Both a bigger internal SSD and a second internal will remove the problem of juggling an external USB device while on a crowded train. I am delaying the purchase until I need it because every few months brings newer SSDs using less power compared to their size.

Ports at the back of the case

An unusual cause of notebook failure is the cable or USB device plugged into the back of a notebook screen. Someone pushes your notebook screen back to get a look at the screen while standing at your desk. The bottom edge of the screen pushes down on the cable plug. Either the screen breaks or the motherboard breaks. Dead computer.

I check the notebooks have all the sockets at the side.

USB on a cable

You plug a USB stick into your notebook. The person next to you bumps the USB stick. The best outcome is only a broken USB stick. The worst result is a broken USB port on the computer motherboard.

There are tiny USB devices that are hard to bump but they are slow with limited capacity. If you have one containing music or a separate work project, copy the contents to internal storage.

Large capacity USB storage is too big to safely plug into your notebook. Use a cable. Other people can bump you all they like without breaking your computer.

Intel 11th generation processor

AMD released a new improved range of chips a couple of years ago, offering more speed for less power. Intel released generation 10 chips at the same time but the gen 10 chips did not save significant battery power. Their new gen 11 chips catch up to AMD, reducing battery usage by a significant amount, and offer better "single thread" performance, something of use for some of the software I use.

My recent shopping showed Intel gen 10 chips in most machines. Gen 11 were just starting to appear. With all the competition from AMD, the Intel gen 11 options were no more expensive. I did not have to pay extra for gen 11.

Plan for the future

Look ahead at what you will need next year and the year after. A few hundred extra dollars this time might save you spending thousands for a replacement next year.

Notebooks are not desktop computers. You cannot plug in an extra board or a bunch of disks for expansion. The most you can do is add a second memory stick or a second SSD. Everything else has to be an external plugin limited by the USB speed.

In my case, the Thunderbolt 4 port was the only thing I had to pay extra for. The other advanced features of my new notebook were available on lots of competitors, removing the need to pay a premium.

Conclusion

Shop for what you need, not on price. After you find what fits your requirements, start looking at price differences and who will negotiate the best price.