Leaving the Laptop Behind

Ever since tablets came onto the scene, I’ve been hoping for a good way to leave my laptop behind. It’s not just that eliminating the bulk of my laptop would make packing light easier–I’m also interested in avoiding the epic redundancy in my travel bag. Given how powerful my iPad and Android phone both are, it seems like I should be able to rely on their combined processing power for at least a few days. Many of us carry more computing power in our pockets than used to reside in offices. So, on a week-long trip cross-country, I decided to give the laptop-free lifestyle a try.

I’m typing this on my iPad, and I’m doing it quickly, but getting to this point was an investment. I’ve been trying out every keyboard case the market’s produced, and most of them have been a disappointment. Flimsy pseudo-keys or too-sensitive boards are no better than the iPad’s own touchscreen for touch-typing. I find autocomplete to be more a nuisance and distraction than an actual substitution for revving up to a high words-per-minute, and right now I’m relying on the ClamCase to make that possible. The added bulk of the case may seem counter-intuitive to the goal of going light, but the combined functionality and the ease of use is, well, exactly like a netbook. I find myself trying to swipe where the touchpad should be more often than I’d like, because I have to remind myself I’m not on a computer. But with a twist of viewing angle, I can go back to tablet-only and forget the keyboard is even there. For a jailbroken iPad, there’s even more potential–the Mac OS X theme just released is a testament to how close the screen experience can be to a laptop. The coming generation of Windows tablets may be more usable as a touchscreen operating system than they’ll be on full computers.

One question I asked myself when picking my solution is what do I really need my computer for when I travel? There are a number of utilities for teaching on the iPad that ProfHacker folks have tried, including screencasting software, voice grading, and Office solutions. Anything demanding programming still requires the laptop, but there’s rarely enough focused time for development work on-the-go. High-end gaming is laptop based, but there are enough casual games to make the iPad or an Android tablet an impressive device for time-wasting. The recent addition of Amazon streaming adds to Netflix to make it a good solution for lengthy airport delays or insomnia.

The usability of the iPad as a creative device has been much in dispute, and it’s where the iPad has faltered for me on this trip. Seemingly simple tasks (like joining a Google Hangout) are made impossible by compatibility issues, and other problems (like a bad download or a broken phone system update) are much harder to solve without a handy usb port to a main computer to sort it out. But I expect that to continue to change as these devices show the potential to be main platforms rather than just accessories. (I borrowed a laptop to make this final post, as copying and pasting text and adding links between multiple applications was still too time-consuming.)

Ultimately, the quest for a convergent device is getting closer to a real solution. Processing power is relatively cheap, and dedicated devices don’t make much sense when the versatility of a touchscreen bypasses the need for particular controls or input. For a conference or weekend trip, leaving the laptop behind is a real possibility–and as our model shifts away from desktop dominance, options should get even better.

What technology do you travel with? Is a laptop essential, or are other devices beginning to replace it in your conference and vacation luggage?

[Creative Commons Licensed Image by Flickr User KateMonkey]

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