Choosing a Travel Computer

Will doing some movie editing on an ultrabook in Paraguay

Will doing some movie editing on an ultrabook in Paraguay

Written by Karl

After you weigh the pros and cons of bringing a computer, you will be faced with the decision of what kind of computer to bring. Below we’ll take a look at some of the options, from smallest to largest.

What to look for

The main things to consider when Trekking Hard with hardware are: portability, cost, durability, and performance. Here we’ll compare and contrast smartphones, small wifi devices, tablets, netbooks, ultrabooks, and laptops. You should shoot for the smallest & cheapest item that will work for you. A small computer helps you pack light, and a low cost computing is especially important for traveling due to elevated risk of theft or damage.

I won’t dive too much into specifics about hardware, because the industry tends to change very quickly. However, when you are ready to buy, do some googling for model numbers, and read reviews about products you are considering. One of the best sites for comparing specs and doing market research on computer products is The reviewers on that site tend to leave detailed feedback and are generally very reliable.

Smartphones & iPod Touch

Smartphones are super light and über portable, and for this alone, they are a tempting choice. You get a keyboard, music, movies, and wifi capabilities, which for many people is enough. However, there are plenty of disadvantages to using smartphones as your primary computer on the road. The keyboard is tiny; the screen is tiny; the storage is tiny. You really cannot equate a smartphone with a laptop.

Additionally, they can be very expensive when compared to budget laptops. Making international calls on these bad boys can also be expensive (and tricky). You also want to avoid 2-year contracts. If you go this route, watch for the upcoming post on backpacking with phones.

The iPod Touch and its android competitors have similar pros and cons to smartphones. They don’t work as traditional phones, but they still let you listen to music, watch movies, and browse the internet when you’re on wifi. If this is all you need, you might be able to get by.


Tablets can be convenient for hopping on wifi, checking out maps, and other basic things, but, like smartphones, they also have some limitations. Limited storage and inputs makes backing up photos a pain. Cumbersome touch-screen keyboards might annoy you when typing long messages. Some of these issues can be addressed by clever additions, like external keyboards and storage. However, if you’re carrying around a bunch more stuff to make your tablet act like a laptop, it’s usually easier to just bring a laptop!


Netbooks are great because they’re incredibly cheap and lightweight - they usually boast impressive battery life as well. The main drawbacks are the limited power and small, low-resolution screens. I’ve since graduated to more-expensive and less-portable laptops on the grounds of increased performance and screen resolution. If you think you want a laptop though, and don’t perform high-power tasks like video editing, then a netbook should be your first consideration.


I’ve also traveled with ultrabooks, which usually run 13-inch screens, but are similarly very portable. These laptops have a much larger range of features than the netbooks, with a corresponding range in prices. Generally you will find better processors, screens, and higher RAM allocation. Battery life is slightly-less than netbooks, but in this category there are exceptions to every rule.

15-inch and larger

My current laptop has a 15-inch screen. With larger laptops, the extra size is sometimes a hassle. It’s incredibly thin and light, though, so in spite of larger dimensions, it’s hardly any heavier than an ultrabook would be.

I really wouldn’t recommend this large of a laptop to other people even though I carry this myself. I have very specific use for a high screen resolution, but for most people this perk won’t be worth the added weight, size, and cost. If this is also something you prefer, check specs carefully because many 13-inch laptops have the same resolution as a 15-inch you may be considering.

Save money

The most frugal solution is to use a laptop you may already have. Even if it means a little more hassle, the choice not to buy can save some serious dough.

If you still decide to buy, and you have an idea of what hardware might suit your needs, shop around! A little due diligence can save you a lot of money, which you can put in your travel account instead.

Comfortable with computer hardware? (Or do you have a savvy friend?) Many budget laptops can be boosted with upgraded RAM or Solid State Storage for considerably less money than purchasing a pre-built system with the same specs. Even though I have saved hundreds and hundreds of dollars, I wouldn’t recommend this route unless you or someone you know is confident in working out the details. You wouldn’t want to muck up something important inside the computer before even turning it on.

What do you bring along, and why?

About the Author

Karl's picture

Karl Keefer built the Trek Hard website. He has been quasi-nomadic since graduating college in 2009.