15 min read
Nevermind Game of Thrones, winter is not coming, at least not in the northern hemisphere. It’s summertime, and here at Toptal that usually means many of our freelance developers and designers are either on the road or getting ready to hit the beach.
When I started writing this, some of our people were in Portugal, trying to work out the math behind surfboards. Now it’s my turn, and I’m wrapping up my draft with a nice view of the Adriatic Sea, just a few miles away from the best windsurfing spot in Europe.
Yes, I’m a workaholic, so this might as well be a good time to cover the topic I had in mind.
I can probably guess what some of you are thinking:
“This is a lifestyle post! This guy is going to talk about surfing, healthy food and excercise.”
No. This is not a lifestyle post. As far as food goes, fresh fish and veggies are always a safe bet. Exercise? Well, cycling to a nearby village to try a marginally different fish dish and sample local wine counts as exercise, at least to me.
So, with all the lifestyle stuff out of the way, I can get back to my message and start discussing the logistics behind travel and remote work. You can buy capri pants, cheap flip-flops, and boonie hats everywhere, but beachside shops usually don’t carry quality hardware that can help you be more productive on the road, or save time and money for more enjoyable activities.
Caveat: If you’re an avid Apple user with a profound dislike of Windows, you may not like where I’m going with this. I don’t intend to bash Apple, but Cupertino simply doesn’t bother with cheap hardware that won’t be missed if it ends up in the water.
Travel Hardware: Myths and Moths
When you hit the road, what do you stick in your carry-on? And no, I’m not talking about shorts and Toptal shirts. You pack a fair amount of hardware, and I am assuming we all have our personal preferences when it comes to our kit. This is entirely subjective, so I’m not going to tell you your choice of hardware sucks.
If it works for you, stick with it. End of story.
Instead, I will focus on often overlooked gadgets and accessories that can make your life easier and complement your existing travel hardware. I will try to stay away from expensive or exotic hardware that may be hard to come by, and focus on cheap stuff that won’t burn a hole in your pocket.
The hardware industry has been making a killing on high-end laptops and notebooks for decades. They come in all shapes and sizes, from ruggedized Toughbooks that can withstand a low-yield nuclear blast, to sleek ultraportables that sacrifice performance and value for money, but look awesome and turn heads wherever you go. Whether you’re in the market for a powerful, portable workstation for virtualization and design, or a featherweight ultraportable that doesn’t skimp on performance, you are likely to spend loads of money on your primary laptop. I am not suggesting high-end computers are a bad investment because they cost a lot of money to produce, and in turn, they save time and boost productivity. Magnesium alloys, high-density batteries, powerful mobile GPUs and low-voltage CPUs cost a lot of money, and performance rigs will never be cheap. Virtually every major component in a high-end laptop costs much more than desktop components with comparable performance, and like all things in life, you have to pay a premium to get the really good stuff.
But does this principle apply to all portable hardware? It does not, and this is the myth I mentioned earlier. Useful stuff doesn’t have to cost an arm and a leg.
The commoditization of IT has turned the market on its head. Devices that used to cost hundreds of dollars a couple of years ago are now being sold on supermarket shelves for $99, and you can get even better prices if you take your time to look for online deals.
As I explained earlier, these cheap gadgets won’t replace your MacBook or ThinkPad. You won’t mothball them anytime soon, but you could get some hardware that will supplant them. You won’t have your full development environment or Adobe CC suite on cheap, secondary devices. At the same time, you don’t need a $2,000 laptop to check Slack, write a few emails, or tinker with spreadsheets while you’re sipping your Mojito by the beach. A convertible or hybrid device can handle basic productivity tasks at a fraction of the cost, plus many of them offer superior battery life and can be charged by a powerbank in your backpack. Why drain the battery on your primary computer just to attend a Skype meeting and draft a few follow-up emails? It’s overkill.
Would you use a massive chainsaw to trim a couple of shrubs in your garden? Of course not. Well, I might, but that’s just because I dislike my neighbors.
To summarize, you will still have to pay loads of money to get a proper primary computer, but you can save money elsewhere, and you can get more flexibility. Luckily, mobile computing has never been cheaper, and just a couple hundred bucks can buy you a useful yet nearly disposable device.
Wait, What The Hell Are Convertibles and Hybrids?
I spent the better part of a decade covering hardware, and based on my extensive experience in the field, I can confidently say that I have no idea.
These are not technical terms, they’re marketing talk. Every few quarters, chipmakers and vendors have to come up with new buzzwords to appease pitchfork wielding activist investors and analysts, but you can only come up with so many pointless buzzwords before you blur the lines between all sorts of product categories, throwing all rules and definitions out the window.
So, convertibles, detachables, clamshells, 2-in-1s, hybrid tablets… What are they really?
They’re basically cheap computing devices, usually based on tablet hardware platforms. Their design and form-factor vary wildly. I know this is a very broad definition, but this is a broad product category.
I agree, at least to some extent. These devices can’t and won’t replace your primary computer, but they’re not supposed to - that’s the point. They are secondary devices, stuff you can fall back on in case your primary fails, or if you need something lighter and more portable for menial tasks. However, if you think all these devices are underpowered and useless in a professional setting, you’re probably wrong, and once you try one of them you may be in for a pleasant surprise.
I had a chance to try out a few tablets, hybrids and ultraportable notebooks based on Intel’s latest 14nm Atom x5 and x7 processors (codenamed Cherry Trail). These processors are cheap and tiny, but they can still run circles around most 5-year-old laptops. Whereas a high-end mobile processor costs a few hundred dollars, the price of Atoms is measured in tens of dollars. This does not necessarily mean you end up with terrible performance. These highly integrated chips have four physical CPU cores and integrated graphics capable of handling everyday tasks, media consumption, and even running some casual games.
Don’t be fooled by the “quad-core” moniker. Yes, these are quad-core processors, but the architecture is different, and four Atom cores are usually much smaller than a single CPU core used in Intel’s Core-series chips. This means performance is much lower, but since these are 14nm parts, power consumption is ridiculously low. This means the processor can be cooled passively, and a vendor can get an Atom processor for the price of a beachside lunch. In fact, sometimes vendors pay next to nothing for them, because Intel subsidizes its platforms, although the chipmaker tends to use different nomenclature for this controversial business practice. Last time I checked, they were referring to it as “contra-revenue”, and didn’t like people using the s-word, which is exactly why I am using it.
While a thoroughbred Core i5 mobile processor requires 15W to 35W of juice when it’s running at full load, tablet Atoms can get away with just a fraction of that, on the order of 2W to 3W. This obviously has massive implications on battery life. A few years ago, I had a chance to review one of the first Atom-based hybrids, designed by Asus. One of the biggest problems I encountered during my review was battery life. I had a hard time draining the bloody thing in my everyday routine. It was like a Duracell Bunny; it offered all-day battery life and then some. Better yet, it could be topped off using a standard microUSB charger, although it took a while to fully charge. Intel was clearly onto something, and its engineers from Israel to California obviously did an exceptional job designing this new breed of Atoms.
That was three years ago, and things are even better now. The latest crop of 14nm Atoms is even more efficient, so battery life should not be an issue, even if you get a dirt-cheap “whitebox” device.
But what about the rest of the spec?
This is what a typical low-end hybrid/convertible/2-in-1 tends to have under the hood today:
- Atom x5 or x7 series processor - usually an entry- to mid-level x5 chip
- 4GB of LPDDR3
- 32GB/64GB of eMMC storage - eMMC storage is slower than proper SSDs, but eMMC 5.0 drives can be quite fast and won’t bottleneck the system
- microSDXC card reader
- FullHD IPS touchscreen - usually ranging from 10.1 to 12 inches. Some devices also support stylus input, in case you need to sketch stuff or just doodle something
- Optional 3G connectivity - 4G is still quite rare in this product category, but that’s changing fast
- 6000mAh to 12000mAh batteries - this largely depends on display size and the form factor
- Windows 10 - Apple users probably won’t like this, and neither will the Linux crowd
- Proper full-sized keyboard with touchpad
Big brands usually market such devices at about $500+, but if you want something really cheap and expendable, you might want to consider Chinese vendors, as you can get something with this sort of spec for $200+, and you’ll usually get slightly better specs than if you go for a big brand device. Some of them use virtually the same components as big brand devices.
Personally, I rely on a compact 10.1-inch “detachable” based on a more powerful Core M processor, with a pretty good stylus which I use sparingly, mostly to annoy our illustrators with my half-baked ideas. Core M devices cost more than Atom-based hybrids, but they offer superior performance and can actually replace your primary computer in some situations (especially if you get a bigger device, as 10 inches isn’t going to cut it for most people).
Unfortunately, Apple users don’t have nearly as much choice.
If they insist on avoiding the traumatic transition to Windows, they’re limited to the MacBook Air series or the new iPad Pro, neither of which are cheap or expendable. Of course, you could use a standard 9.7-inch iPad for some tasks, but in my experience, the relatively small 4:3 screen and the necessity to carry around a Bluetooth keyboard leaves much to be desired. If you’re an Apple user, and if you can live with Windows from time to time, you’re probably better off getting a cheap Wintel hybrid with a proper, full-sized keyboard. It all depends on what you’re going to use these devices for.
Google apps and all sorts of web apps look and behave identically on Apple and Windows. This obviously makes a potential transition from OS X to Win a bit less inconvenient, given the secondary nature of these computers.
4G Stands for Gotta Get Global Gear
So, you packed your laptop, tablet, camera, Kindle, smartwatch, and a bunch of other devices, and hopefully, you didn’t forget the chargers. You’re good to go, but you’re traveling abroad and you’ll have to rely on wireless data when WiFi access is not available.
A few years ago, this was a massive problem, because cellular data plans were expensive and pre-3G standards did not offer a lot of bandwidth. This limited our options and forced us to be on the prowl for decent WiFi networks, or even use stone-age hotel Internet (I still have my sawed-off LAN cable somewhere).
Now, it’s not only possible to get relatively good cellular data abroad, it’s something that we take for granted, and the cost tends to be negligible. You’re usually just a Google search away from a cheap pre-paid SIM card that can get you online at 3G or 4G speeds, depending on where you’re traveling (4G coverage is still spotty in some regions, and may be limited to impractical or expensive post-paid mobile plans). You can also get inexpensive portable 4G routers and modems, as well as unlocked dual-SIM phones.
However, there are still some pitfalls to avoid.
Just because a device is 3G or 4G compliant, that doesn’t mean it can use every 3G and 4G network. In fact, the vast majority of them can’t. These are very broad standards, and telcos use different frequencies and bands in different countries. Things get exponentially more complicated if you travel overseas. Instead of explaining how and why we ended up with loads of different spectrums and standards, I’ll just suggest you do some research on your own. Here’s a good place to start, and you can check out this LTE frequency bands sheet on Wikipedia while you’re at it.
Unfortunately, I cannot help you here, because there are too many variables in play. I could write a huge essay that still wouldn’t explain it well enough. You will have to check the frequencies and bands for every device and potential destination yourself. Once you figure out where you’re likely to travel, and which standards your mobile devices need to conform to, you can start shopping.
The next question is whether you really need a mobile 3G/4G router. What about a cheap phone for tethering instead?
Hardcore geeks and geekettes may be inclined to take the router route, just because they tend to focus on specs. Dedicated routers have a number of obvious advantages, and since this is an engineering blog, I see no point in explaining why proper routers trump smartphone tethering.
However, that does not mean we should dismiss unlocked dual-SIM smartphones because they have quite a few things going for them as well. In fact, they’re probably a better choice for most people. They tend to be cheaper, more compact and offer more functionality and flexibility. If you don’t need to connect loads of devices at once, and don’t expect to go through a few gigabytes of data a day, a simple smartphone should suffice. Your AirBnB or hotel room will have WiFi anyway to take care of “heavy” stuff.
There are a few points you need to consider:
- Are you going to travel with a few coworkers or go solo?
- How often will you be away from WiFi access and for how long?
- Will you even consider accommodation without broadband access?
- Would you rather have a dedicated device or a smartphone Swiss Army Knife?
- How much money are you willing to spend?
- Can you live with 3G connectivity rather than full 4G speeds?
Personally, I prefer backup phones over routers because I rarely find myself in a situation that would necessitate the use of a mobile router on the road. While routers look better on paper, I simply don’t need them, but that’s just my routine and may not be applicable to everyone. A good “world-mode” 4G router usually costs $200 to $300, and for that sort of money, you should be able to pick up a great backup phone. Cheaper routers are available as well, but they usually can’t deal with 4G bands, whereas most cheap phones can.
Android phones are clearly the more frugal option, yet they can augment or even replace your primary phone in an emergency. You also end up with a lot more choice.
For example, you can buy a very compact phone, or an oversized design with a 5.5- to 6.5-inch screen that can double as a tablet. If you’re an avid outdoorsman, you can get a ruggedized smartphone that can take a lot of punishment and won’t die if you soak it in mud and water. Some vendors offer smartphones with oversized batteries, rated at 6000mAh or even 10000mAh. These devices are designed to double as powerbanks, allowing you to top off your iPhone or Nexus anywhere while providing tethered connectivity. However, that’s just marketing. This is why you really need a big battery in your cheap travel phone: 4G connectivity consumes a lot of power, especially if you are going to tether more than one device and use up a lot of bandwidth.
I recently bought a backup/travel phone and decided to go for a dual-SIM all-rounder: a big-brand device that doesn’t skimp on performance yet doesn’t cost much. It packs a 5.5-inch display, aluminium body, 2GB of RAM, 16GB of storage (expandable), 4000mAh battery, and a mid-range Qualcomm Snapdragon 650 processor under the hood. It’s even got a fingerprint scanner and a decent 16-megapixel Sony camera with PDAF, although these are hardly priorities for a backup device.
It set me back about $150. Do you think I overpaid? Because I don’t.
Getting Online and Staying There
No matter what you do and what sort of platform you prefer, you are bound to need extra power for your gadgets. This is the great equalizer between iOS and Android, Linux and Windows - all toys need a socket.
Luckily, the industry has done much to standardize DC chargers, so the days of worrying whether or not your device will work on a different continent are long gone. You do, however, need a multi-socket adapter if you are traveling overseas, but I guess that goes without saying. As far as smaller devices go, USB is the ubiquitous standard. All you need are the appropriate cables or adapters and you’re good to go (micro-USB on most devices, USB Type C on next-gen devices, Lightning for Apple devices).
It sounds simple, but there are a few things you need to keep in mind.
First off, please don’t buy the cheapest power supply units, adapters, cables or anything that plugs into your DC port. It’s just not worth the risk.
For example, with cheap USB cables and chargers you can face the following headaches:
- Lack of support for fast-charging standards, namely Qualcomm Quick Charge 2.0 and 3.0
- Lower than declared output
- Horrible cables incapable of handling 2 amps or more
- Questionable reliability
- Safety/security concerns
Before Apple users start making fun of their Android counterparts and their cheap micro-USB chargers, they probably need to consider the following: Apple’s own chargers and cables tend to get the worst imaginable reviews of any Apple product, and here’s a good (or bad) example of what I’m on about. So, if you want to bash non-Apple users, I suggest you just show them your MagSafe connector and you’ll win by default.
With chargers out of the way, let’s take a quick look at so-called powerbanks. These cheap and practical devices come in a variety of capacities and form-factors. Every self-respecting geek should have one in their travel bag, period.
You should be able to get a good powerbank for $20 to $40. This should be enough to get a unit with dual USB output rated at 2A or more, with capacity ranging from 10,000mAh to 20,000mAh, and Quick Charge support to boot. Many are based on 18650 batteries, so a unit with four 18650 cells on average delivers 10,000mAh, which is enough to charge an average phone three or four times. Some DIY designs also allow you to charge 18650 cells, which comes in handy if you have other devices compatible with these cells (flashlights, laser pointers, bicycle lights, and so on).
While many people may not be familiar with this battery standard, it’s actually been around for ages. Laptop batteries of yesteryear were basically three to eight 18650 cells soldered to each other, so chances are, you already used them without even knowing.
A lot of new powerbanks also support Quick Charge, USB Type-C output, while others feature integrated wireless chargers. Also, if you’re an iPhone user, or use a big-brand Android device, you should have no trouble getting ruggedized cases with an integrated battery, which will protect your device and give you an extra day of battery life.
The Ultimate Travel Hardware Guide
Sorry, but I haven’t got one. It all depends on your needs, your hardware, and lifestyle. It would be presumptuous to assume otherwise.
However, I can think of loads of inexpensive must-have items for every geek backpack.
- High-quality multi port USB charger
- Extra USB cables and adapters for all your devices
- Universal AC socket adapter (or two)
- 10,000mAh+ power bank
- SIM card removal tool, nano-to-micro SIM adapter
- MicroSD to SD adapter and/or compact MicroSD USB reader
- HDMI adapter (hardware dependant)
- Spare phone and/or mobile router
- Spare flash drive, memory cards
- Backup headphones
- Bluetooth mouse with spare batteries
- Cable and hardware travel organizer
All items listed above should weigh just a few hundred grams and take up a little space in your bag, provided you organize them properly. Their overall cost, save for the spare phone or router, should be around $100. A secondary dual-SIM phone should add about $150 to the total. All of these items are readily available online, via Amazon, eBay, or Chinese e-commerce platforms like AliExpress.
I took the liberty of including a few bits that aren’t directly related to productivity, such as memory cards and corresponding adapters, since I assume most don’t rely solely on their smartphones for photography. I did not include toys and gadgets that many of us take to the beach, like action cameras or fitness trackers, but much of the travel hardware listed above should help you deal with them as well.
But what if you want a bit more? Well, having a secondary computer is always a good idea. I’m a fan of redundancy, and I hate having to sort out hardware issues on the road. At today’s prices, you just need a few hundred bucks to get a good Atom-based backup machine, provided you don’t insist on using a MacBook all the way. The same goes for smartphones. It’s always good to have a backup, but more importantly, a cheap dual-SIM phone can be used for tethering.