10 essential features for every travel laptop

laptop bag travel caseLaptops are often sold with travel in mind. Many consumers enjoy the idea of a savvy adventurer trotting the globe with cutting-edge electronics in hand, never disconnected from the world back home. It’s an attractive idea, and it sells plenty of laptops.

There’s just one small hitch – most laptops never leave home. Though purchased with adventurous intentions, they often find themselves stuck to a desk or coffee table. Some are lucky enough to make it out on short trips to the local coffee shop or library. Only a rare few see serious mileage.

This reality has a predictable result – contrary to what the ads may say, most laptops aren’t built for travel. Consumers are never told this, so it’s easy to buy a laptop that seems like a road warrior but is instead a couch potato. Here are 10 things you should check before buying a would-be travel companion.

Battery

Endurance is a subject that is quick to come to mind when talking about travel, so let’s get it out of the way first. It’s of course true that you’ll want a laptop with more life than one with less. The problem is finding out how long the battery lasts.

laptop batteryManufacturer claims can’t be trusted. There is no standardized testing method, so there’s no way to know how the figure touted by marketing has been reached. You should instead trust reviews. We always test laptop endurance using our own benchmarks – as do other reputable review sites. You also should consider your usage. Consumers who run demanding software (like games) will get less life out of the same battery than those who don’t (Microsoft Office).

Display size

The size of a display is important because it’s shorthand for the overall width and length of the laptop. A 15.6-inch laptop is always going to be much larger than a 13.3-inch laptop because it must fit a larger display.

The 15.6-inch form factor is popular because it offers a large, easy to use display. But you can’t fly economy class and comfortably use a laptop with a display this large. Even using it on a bus or train can be unwieldy.

lenovo laptopMost travelers should go with a 12.1- to 13.3-inch laptop instead. They are much easier to operate in tight spaces. Smaller laptops also require smaller bags to hold them, reducing the size of the carry-on.

Display type

Most laptops have a glossy display. This works well indoors, but the reflection of ambient light can make a glossy coat impossible to use outside or in direct sunlight. Even indoor use can be difficult when trying to work in a location with large windows, or bright interior lighting. A matte coat reduces these issues and is a much better choice for travel.

You should also consider an IPS display such as those found on some Lenovo X230 and Asus Zenbook Prime models. These displays have wide viewing angles that make text readable even when standing above or to the side of the laptop. Travelers who collaborate with co-workers while on the go will find this a handy trait, too.

Durability

The average consumer laptop is not built to be durable. Most have glossy exteriors that show scratches easily and don’t reinforce the chassis to prevent damage during a fall. That’s fine for a laptop that spends its time on a desk. It’s not fine for a laptop that will spend its time bumping around a bag, jostling in luggage and moving rapidly between locations.

Durability features include chassis reinforcements like metal display hinges, shock-mounted hard drives and spill-resistant keyboards. These are most often found on business notebooks like the Lenovo ThinkPad and HP EliteBook lines. Anyone planning to travel with a laptop frequently should consider the benefits of these features.

Keyboard

Keyboard quality is important for all travelers. Most will be using their laptop as their primary PC, and many will choose small laptops which have limited space for keys. A good typing experience will improve productivity and reduce frustration.

laptop keyboard macbook proConsumers should look for laptops that make maximum use of available space by offering a keyboard that’s as almost as wide as the laptop itself. Users should also pay attention to the size of non-alphanumeric keys like Backspace and Shift. Laptops with large letter keys sometimes make that possible by skimping elsewhere — like these keys.

Ports

Most of today’s laptops, even ultraportables, will have several USB ports. It’s important to make sure that at least one, and preferably two, USB 3.0 ports are available. This ensures the laptop can connect to the latest external hard drives and flash drives and move data as quickly as possible.

Also pay attention to the headphone and microphone jacks. Many small laptops reduce both to a single slot. This is a problem for travelers because some headsets and webcams require both headphone and microphone jacks. It also means you can’t use a microphone and headphones at the same time, which could be an issue for anyone concerned about on-the-go recording.

Power adapter

The power adapter is that hunk of plastic that is connected to your laptop’s power cord. Most people don’t pay them much mind, but they can drag you down while you travel. Some laptops still come with big power adapters that easily add another half-pound to the combined weight of your system. Others ship with unusually short cords.

Most small laptops don’t have this problem, but there’s still room for further improvement. For example, a few laptops have power adapters which include Velcro straps that can makes storing the power cord easier.

laptop chargerYou also will have to think about local power standards if you are traveling the globe, because a power adapter is usually built only to meet the standards of the country it’s purchased in. Some come with interchangeable tips for different countries, which can eliminate the need for an adapter.

User serviceability

Many new laptops, particularly Ultrabooks, ship with batteries that cannot be easily removed and replaced. This is a problem for travelers because it means they’re stuck with whatever is provided. An extended battery is not an option, and the battery cannot be swapped for a second, fresh unit when it runs out of juice.

Even easily replaced components like the hard drive and RAM are becoming more difficult to replace. This can make the laptop harder to repair on your own or more expensive for an independent shop to service. Travelers should look for laptops that are as easy to open as possible.

Weight

Laptop weight varies even between products of nearly identical size. Ultrabooks are a great example. The heaviest weigh in at four pounds while the lightest come in at around two and a half pounds.

That doesn’t seem like much, but it can be. Lighter laptops are a great boon to anyone who has to carry on in a bag for hours every day. They also are generally more convenient because they take less effort to pick up or slide across a surface. A difference of less than a half-pound is unlikely to matter but anything over a pound will be easy for the average consumer to notice.

Wireless connectivity

All laptops sold today come with Wi-Fi built in, and 802.11n is now the standard. There are differences between adapters, however. Some provide support for dual-band or tri-band, while others don’t. A dual or tri-band wireless adapter will provide better speeds when paired with a compatible router.

There are an increasing number of laptops that ship with 3G compatibility from the factory. Buying one of these laptops makes it possible to connect to your mobile data plan while on the go and use it when Wi-Fi is unavailable. All laptops can connect via a USB dongle, but having the compatibility built-in subtracts an item from your list of things to pack.

Conclusion

Buying a laptop for travel is a lot different than buying one for general use. Traits that normally would not matter, like the laptop’s weight and the size of its power adapter, become extremely important.

While we encourage travelers to use this list, overestimating your needs can also haunt you. If you only travel two or three times a year, you might find yourself unnecessarily cramped with a travel notebook, and be happier with something a little larger. For frequent travelers, though, sticking to these points can make the difference between a productive trip and 

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