This post is excerpted from our new book Hammocks and Hard Drives: The Tech Guide for Digital Nomads. For much more on choosing the right gear, staying secure, avoiding disasters and every other tech aspect of life on the road, you can pick up a copy here.
One of the most important technology decisions you’ll make as a digital nomad is your choice of device to work on. While a smartphone is good for many things, you’ll be using something else to get the real work done. I’ve tried to run my business on phones, and while it’s bearable for a few days, even the larger devices are cumbersome for anything except the absolute basics.
So, what should you choose? As well as the usual questions around speed and capacity, digital nomads have other things to consider. Weight is a huge consideration, of both the device itself and its charger and cables. Build quality is another — any device that lives in a daypack and gets moved around every day is going to get a hard time, and that’s before you factor in rain, heat or humidity. The better it’s built, the longer it will last.
Support is also a major concern, especially for something that is the sole means of making an income for most digital nomads. What does the warranty look like — and how good is it when you’re overseas or in the middle of nowhere? Outside of warranty, how easy is it to get it fixed and how much will it cost to do so?
Note that I haven’t included the choice of operating system or availability of applications. In most cases, this is far less of a consideration than it used to be and shouldn’t be the deciding factor, for reasons I’ll go into below.
It’s worth spending a bit of time researching your decision — making the wrong choice can be costly in terms of purchase price, wasted time and additional stress. There are enough technology challenges that you can’t control while working on the road without creating your own as well.
Could I Just Use a Tablet?
Tablet computers are getting lighter and more powerful with each new version. The iPad Air, for example, costs less than a laptop and weighs just one pound (less than 500g), yet it comes with a 10” high-resolution screen, fast processor and up to 128GB of storage, with or without high-speed cellular data (LTE). Android-based tablets have similar specifications, usually at lower prices.
Are they, therefore, a good laptop-replacement option for digital nomads?
The answer depends on your specific requirements. As a rule, the more time you need to spend in front of a screen, the less appropriate a tablet will be. Certain tasks are poorly suited to tablet use — long-form writing, detailed graphic design and editing, and software development amongst them.
Neither the touch interface nor the operating systems were designed with these tasks in mind, and although it might be possible to achieve some of them on a tablet, it will be likely be a slow and frustrating experience. In most cases, industry-standard software is either unavailable or severely limited in capability on both iOS and Android, which also doesn’t help.
Without standard USB sockets, even little things like copying files for someone else can be difficult, require additional accessories or just be downright impossible.
With the right mix of requirements, accessories and patience, however, working with only a tablet is an option. Adding a stand and external keyboard to the mix makes writing more bearable, and it’s possible (although not exactly enjoyable) to upload images and format blog posts or other online articles.
SD card readers are available, meaning that photos can be taken on a separate, better camera and transferred to the tablet. Composing emails is straightforward and making calls is as easy as installing Skype.
At this point, though, the reality for most digital nomads is that the size and weight advantages of a standard tablet probably won’t outweigh the difficulties of working solely with one. With that said, there is a middle ground that’s worth considering. A few companies make hybrid devices that seek to combine the features of both a tablet and a laptop.
Microsoft has had some success with its Surface Pro 2 that runs Windows 8 and is marketed as having “the body of a tablet and the heart of a laptop”. It also has the price of a laptop, but for some, the hybrid design and integrated stylus support for drawing directly on the screen may make it worth considering.
The Asus Transformer T100 is more similar to a typical large tablet in price (around $500), but runs a full version of Windows 8 and has a clip-on keyboard option for laptop-style use. It’s not as powerful as the Surface Pro 2 or a full-size laptop, but is surprisingly capable for general computing needs.
This market sector is likely to improve in coming years, but if you’re seriously considering buying one — given the specialised nature of tablets and hybrid devices at the moment — I’d strongly recommend putting it through its paces before committing. Failing that, be sure to purchase from a company with a good returns policy!
It’s not worth accepting too many compromises with what will be your primary way of generating an income on the road — saving a couple of hundred dollars or shaving off a few extra ounces of weight in exchange for ongoing frustration for the next two or three years just isn’t worth it.
Which Laptop Should I Buy?
If you decide to choose a laptop over a tablet (and most of you will), the next decision to make is whether to opt for a Mac or a PC. You’ll probably already have your own preference based on what you already own or have used in the past, but there are some specific considerations for digital nomads that you need to take into account.
In my opinion, any laptop purchased to do mainstream work on the road in 2014 should have specifications similar to the following:
Chipset: Intel Haswell i5 or i7
Screen: 13”, 1440×900 resolution or higher
Storage: 256GB or higher — solid state drive (SSD) preferred
Weight: 3 pounds (1.4kg) or less, but the lighter the better
Ports: 2+ USB sockets, at least one of which is USB 3.0.
Warranty: At least two years, international if possible
While you can opt for lower specifications if you need to, bear in mind that you’ll likely be making a noticeable compromise if you do.
For those in the Apple camp, the choice of which laptop to buy is relatively straightforward. There are only two different Macbook lines — the Air and the Pro — with a few configuration options for each.
Prices for the bare-bones Air start at $999 in the US, although you’re looking at more like $1400 once you’ve upgraded to a more useful specification. If you really need as much computing power as possible, the Macbook Pro range starts at $1299 for the base model, and climbs to over $3000 with all of the upgrades selected.
If you’re going down the Macbook path, think carefully about the kind of work you’re likely to do. While the latest Pro is noticeably lighter than its predecessors, it still weighs almost half as much again as the featherweight Air, and can easily be that much more expensive as well. The change to Haswell chips in the latest Air gave it a significant performance boost, and if you’re primarily writing and working with online tools, it’s the one to go for.
If you’re regularly performing tasks that take plenty of horsepower — heavy-duty graphic or video editing, for example — then choose the Pro. You’ll appreciate the resolution of the Retina screen, and the productivity boost that comes from top-of-the-line performance might even help you make back the additional cost.
Every Macbook comes with a solid state drive — its lack of moving parts help the laptop stand up to the rigours of travel, albeit at the cost of less capacity for your money. Apple’s global warranty is also useful for travellers, although bear in mind that the greatest benefit (being able to drop it into a store for quick repair or replacement) only applies in the 14 countries with official Apple stores.
There are authorised repair centres almost everywhere, but they typically can’t perform a warranty replacement themselves. More on that here.
Mac OSX is a stable, powerful operating system, with many inbuilt features (like Time Machine backups, for example) that are useful for digital nomads. Most business and productivity software is available for it, and some applications used by creative professionals — Final Cut Pro for video editing, for instance — are only available on Mac.
In any case, with apps increasingly moving to web browsers and the cloud, compatibility with a particular operating system is becoming less of a concern each year. Your choice of OS isn’t irrelevant quite yet, but it won’t be too long before it is.
There is a much wider range of options in the Windows camp, but after you’ve eliminated models that are too heavy and too large, they aren’t hard to narrow down. Start by looking at anything with “Ultrabook” in its description — such laptops can be no more than 20mm deep and need to last for at least nine hours performing basic tasks on Windows 8.
More than with Apple equipment, build quality can be a concern. Electronics get a hard time on the road, and the cheaper Windows laptops are often more prone to breaking — plastic just doesn’t withstand the knocks like metal does.
Spending a little extra money up front will often yield a longer-lasting machine — I’ve been using an Asus laptop with a metal alloy case for the last 2.5 years on the road, for example, and other than some worn-out keys and missing rubber stoppers, it’s still going strong.
For a digital nomad, the two biggest benefits of opting for a Windows laptop are a better price/performance ratio, and ease of repair.
It’s not hard to find a machine that’s light, fast and well-built for little over $1000, and once the warranty period is up (or you’re just somewhere where it’s impossible to get warranty service), it’s fairly easy to find a local computer store that can attempt to repair a broken Windows laptop.
In most cases the individual components are generic and easy to replace, and almost every technician will have enough experience and tools to diagnose the problem.
Windows 8, the most recent version of Microsoft’s flagship operating system, has received mixed reviews. While some of its features — touch support, for instance — are welcome additions, it is often accused of being difficult and inconsistent to use.
Windows still dominates the home/office computing world, but as mentioned earlier, one’s choice of operating system is becoming less of a concern as software heads for the cloud. Digital nomads will always need to be able to do some work offline — ubiquitous Internet on the road is still a pipe dream — but the balance is shifting further towards the web each year.
When it comes down to it, though, for most digital nomads the choice of whether to buy a Mac or Windows laptop will come down to what they can afford and what they’re familiar with already.
With the exception of a few pieces of specialised software, you’ll be able to function equally well with either kind once you’ve used it for a while — web sites and most applications are exactly the same no matter which operating system you use.
There is no universal right answer — as long as your laptop meets or exceeds the specifications listed at the start of this chapter and is built well enough to not get easily damaged by life on the road, it should do the job.
Beyond the Spec Sheet
When picking a laptop to work and travel with, it’s not just about the numbers. Having enough memory and storage space, a fast enough CPU and low weight are all important, but there are a few other things to consider.
How well your laptop is built is probably one of its most important features, yet you’ll rarely find it mentioned in the literature or by the salesperson at the computer store. As I’ve mentioned already, laptops get a hard time on the road.
It’s all too easy to spill things on them or knock them against a wall, and a daypack isn’t much protection when you drop it on the ground a little too hard or find out it’s been sitting in a puddle of water at your feet for an entire bus ride.
Everyday wear and tear, especially in hot, humid and dusty environments, will reduce even the best laptop’s life expectancy. If it was poorly made to start with, the situation is even worse. For that reason, I’d suggest taking the following into account:
- Don’t buy a brand new model. Even from manufacturers with a reputation for quality, the first laptops to roll off the production line are never quite as good as those that follow a few months later after all the little issues have been ironed out.
- Read online reviews closely, especially on independent sites. Pay particular attention to anyone with a story of equipment that arrives in poor condition, or quickly breaks — especially if any replacement has similar problems.
- Try to give it a test drive first, either at a local store or from an online retailer with a good returns policy. Make sure that the case seals perfectly, the screen moves backwards and forwards without noise or resistance and that all of the keys and trackpad buttons move exactly as they should.
- Don’t be afraid to return a laptop that’s not in ideal condition — if there’s a problem now, it will only get worse as time goes by.
Keyboard and Trackpad
When you’re using something for many hours per day, year after year, even small issues soon become major annoyances. Keyboards and trackpads are a prime example. Look for a laptop with keys that are firm to the touch without being hard to press, that rebound quickly and decisively without clicking loudly enough to annoy everyone around you and that don’t stick.
The same idea applies to the trackpad — make sure that buttons work every time, and that the tracking surface is responsive without the cursor flying all over the screen. Macbooks are renowned for having the best trackpad of any laptop, so even if you’re not planning on buying one, try to use an Apple laptop for a few minutes to provide a benchmark.
As well as considering size and resolution, it’s worth trying to find a laptop screen that has a matte coating rather than a reflective one. While the digital nomad cliché of working from the beach is exactly that — a cliché — you’re likely to find yourself with sun and other bright lights on your screen fairly often, by choice or otherwise.
A matte finish keeps things at least somewhat visible in direct light, making you more productive and your eyes less strained.
Models and prices change all the time, and these recommendations should be taken with that in mind. Always do your research, especially when it comes to pricing — a particularly good special could make an otherwise unremarkable laptop worth considering.
With that said, here are a few recommendations for three different kinds of digital nomad.
Those With Basic Needs
If your computing needs don’t extend much beyond replying to emails, general document creation and editing, and using mainly web-based apps, you could consider the following. These have lower specifications (particularly screen size) than I’d typically recommend, but are fine for basic use. All of these devices are thin, light and can be found for between $500 and $1000 in their default configuration.
- Microsoft Surface Pro 2 or Asus Transformer T100 (convertible Windows)
- Apple Macbook Air 11” (standard MacOS)
Those With Mainstream Requirements
Most digital nomads will fall into this category. Any laptop that you purchase from the range below will perform well for most tasks that you throw at it, and unless you know that you need a more powerful computer for a specific purpose, will typically provide the best value.
I’ve chosen machines that meet or exceed my recommended specifications and are appropriate for a travelling lifestyle in terms of weight and build quality. You can expect to pay between $1000 and $1500.
- Dell XPS 12 (convertible Windows)
- Toshiba Kirabook 13 (standard Windows)
- Apple Macbook Air 13” (standard MacOS)
Those Who Just Need Raw Power
If you need the best laptop you can find, there are still a few options out there that are (somewhat) appropriate for working from the road. You’ll likely be paying a premium in both weight and price, but that’s the way it goes — when you need the power, you need the power.
All of these models can be configured with high-resolution screens, top of the line CPUs, 8+ GB of RAM and more. They typically tip the scales at between 2.5 and 3.5 pounds (1.2-1.6 kg), and will cost anything from $1500-$3000 depending on configuration.
- Samsung ATIV Book 9, Dell XPS 13 or Asus Zenbook UX301 (standard Windows)
- Apple Macbook Pro 13” with Retina display (standard MacOS)
Which laptops would you recommend for travellers, and why?
PS: If you found this useful, don’t forget to pick up a copy of Hammocks and Hard Drives for much more on the tech side of life as a digital nomad.