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Debating the Travel Machine Question

It’s true. I really did encourage Cote to think about getting an iPad. Not because I’m a fan of the machine; I haven’t seen fit to purchase one myself. But I do think that the iPad, and the inevitable wave of devices that will follow it, herald a real change in the computers we travel with.

Look around the room at an analyst conference and you’ll see this at work, already. Desks will be littered with machines, and you’ll see a few netbooks sprinkled in with the laptops. Ever so often, the former will actually outnumber the latter.

Why? Because analysts don’t really need much computing power on the road. And the more you travel, the more you come to resent the extra pound or two that even ultralight laptops represent, not to mention the comparatively terrible battery life.

My primary laptop at this point is a Thinkpad X301, which while underpowered with an ultra-low voltage chip that runs at 1.6 Ghz, will still run Ubuntu and a separate instance of Windows. More and more, though, I’m asking myself why – and whether – even this minimal computing power is necessary.

I’m fairly confident that I could get away with nothing more than a tablet while I’m on the road. Between the T7500 workstation that Dell sent me for the office and outboard storage and compute from Amazon, it’s not clear to me what the benefits are to traveling with a real computer rather than a jumped up phone.

There are doubtless drawbacks to traveling light. One that Cote and I discussed was our tendency to work on slides up to the last minute, which is probably more of a challenge on a tablet style device. As are, I’m sure, other tasks yet to be identified. The question is whether or not these are sufficient to justify a full laptop.

I suspect that, at least for me, the answer is no: that I no longer require a full machine. That the X301 is, for better and for worse, my last laptop for a while.

Considering the following:

  • The overwhelming majority of my day to day applications – document editing, email, IM – are cloud native (coverage), meaning that they are operating system independent. The work that isn’t – like the testing that we do in virtualized images – doesn’t need to be done while I’m on the road.
  • The battery life on my X301 is average, at best. With a substantially dimmed screen, I can make the two batteries (I swapped out the DVD drive for a second) last around four hours. Contrast this with the 10+ hours you can expect from an ARM driven tablet/smartbook.
  • The weight difference is quite substantial. My X301 weighs in at around 3.5 pounds with the second battery. A Skylight, Lenovo’s forthcoming smartbook entry, would shave better than a pound and a half off of that at 1.95 pounds. An iPad would better even that, with the 3G model tipping the scales at 1.6 pounds. If you don’t travel, a pound and a half doesn’t sound like much. But if you travel, you know that’s a big difference, and a big advantage.
  • Most of the sub-netbook class of devices are going to have dramatically revamped interfaces, and within a year or two all will probably be touch enabled. I’m unconvinced this is an advantage relative to a physical keyboard, but in all other areas of usability it’s likely to be an improvement. If I’m doing simple things like using a browser, touchscreens can offer a much better experience.

I’m having a hard time building the case for anything but a tablet or smartbook for a travel machine.

But which device would I pick, if I do indeed go that route? Apple’s iPad is the obvious choice for many at the moment, but I’m not much of an Apple fanboy and that device is going to have quite a bit of competition soon. Google and Verizon have their own Android-based response coming, Dell’s reportedly got a spate of machines on the way, and HP may actually have some plans for the billion plus dollars they spent on Palm (coverage). There’s also the oft-forgotten Chrome OS (coverage) lurking just over the horizon. It’s very interesting to me, as an aside, how dominant ARM has become in this space, virtually overnight.

Anyway, the market’s clearly not going to lack for choice. What I will actually choose is open to question right now, but if you’re looking for my business, I suggest you talk to MLB about getting a version of At Bat for your platform. Nothing is more likely to increase your chances than letting me watch or listen to the Red Sox while I’m on the road.

Whatever I end up doing, however, change is coming. Mobile is the new desktop, and the stakes are high.

Categories: Laptops, Tablets.

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2 Responses

  1. “Debating the Travel Machine Question”: http://monk.ly/cpAeUz
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