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Taking a Laptop or Tablet on a Bicycle Tour


asuseeeThe first question to ask when it comes to taking a laptop or tablet such as Apple’s iPad
on a bicycle tour is do you really need one?

For shorter tours of a few days or even a few weeks, the answer is probably ‘no’.

Essential tasks can be tackled with a cellphone (especially if you have an iPhone or Android Smartphone), or even a Kindle 3G eBook Reader. Everything else can wait until you get home. Without a laptop your bags will be lighter, you’ll have one less expensive gadget to worry about and you’ll be more likely to get talking to other people along the way, rather than staring at a screen all evening.

That said, technology does have its uses. We’ve always carried a laptop on longer journeys, and we use it almost daily. This article will guide you through some of the things to consider, including:

Here’s why to take a laptop on an extended journey:

  • Photo Editing: Great if you’re planning a multi-month tour and want to sort out your pictures as you go, rather than leaving them all until you get home.
  • Journal Writing: Some people don’t find writing by hand as comfortable or as easy compared to typing on a computer.
  • Comfortable Internet Access: Internet cafes can be frustrating. Computers are often poorly maintained and full of viruses. The rooms can be stuffy or full of noisy kids playing games, and prices can be high (especially in the developed world). With your own computer, you have more choices about how and where to go online (at wireless or Wi-Fi hotspots, or using a 3G data SIM). At the very least, you can compose emails and journal entries offline, store them on a USB stick and quickly send them from the internet cafe.
  • Information Storage: On your computer, you can keep repair manuals, information and maps about the route and destinations you’re planning to visit.
  • Data Backup: With a laptop you can burn your own DVDs and send them home, without relying on internet cafes or photo shops to do the job for you.
  • Entertainment: In many parts of the world you can buy movies on DVD or CD for next to nothing. You won’t have to watch CNN for the tenth hour running. This use is questionable if you’re planning to do a lot of camping and won’t have regular access to electricity.

Working & Home
Hard at work in the tent. You can write journals and edit photos at your leisure, or even work remotely from the road like Tara & Tyler did, if you have a laptop.

What To Look For?

If you’re convinced that you do want to take a laptop or tablet on a bicycle tour, which one should you take? With dozens of netbooks and tablets to choose from, it’s not an easy decision. Here are some general points to consider:

  • Your Goals: What do you want to do? Will you be creating a lot of content (journal entries, photographs) or using it to watch movies and read websites? If you’re primarily a creator of content, you’ll probably want a laptop. If you plan to mainly consume content, a tablet such as the iPad may be more suitable.
  • Battery Life: Get something that’s rated for at least 6-10 hours of battery life. You don’t want to constantly be looking for a recharging point, and your battery will slowly give less charge as it ages so after a year or so, you may only be getting half the original life.
  • Keyboard Size: Is it full size or at least close to a normal keyboard? If you’re planning on doing a lot of writing, you will really appreciate having a larger keyboard as opposed to the scrunched ones that appear on the smallest portable computers.
  • Disk Space: Go bigger than you think you need or plan on bringing additional memory cards or a portable hard disk as backup. All those photos and videos eat up storage space.
  • Voltage: Check what voltage the laptop can accept without starting to spurt smoke if you’re going to be travelling internationally. Ours takes power between 100-240 Volts. The last thing you want is to plug your laptop into a foreign socket and watch it blow up before your eyes.

Which Models To Consider

There are heaps of options for bike tourists who want to take a laptop or tablet along in their panniers. In addition to the very popular Apple’s iPad, you should consider:

asuseee#1. Asus Eee Netbooks - We’ve had extremely good luck with the Asus Eee series of netbooks. We own two of them and the first one we picked up in Singapore in December, 2008 is still going strong. It’s survived about 20,000km of cycle touring as well as daily use at home.

The Eee range of netbooks can be found with screens as small as 7″ across but we favour the 10″ models. They’re only slightly bigger but a lot more comfortable for typing and editing photos (although you’ll still have to adjust if you’re used to a bigger computer at home). The latest models, such as the Asus Eee 1015PX boast of up to 11 hours battery life, the cost is reasonable (£ 249.99 from Amazon.co.uk). If all that wasn’t enough, we can highly recommend Asus customer service. One of our two Eee laptops developed a noisy fan. Asus picked it up at our door for repair under their global warranty. It was back to us 3 days later. Easy!

Asus EeePad Transformer Tablet#2. Asus EeePad Transformer Tablet- For the tablet fans, we think the EeePad Transformer Tablet looks pretty cool. It’s a tablet that comes with a separate keyboard, so you can have a tablet when you want it, and the equivalent of a laptop when you need to write for longer periods. It runs an Android OS, so you have access to all the Android apps, and a massive 16 hours of battery life with the keyboard docking station attached (9.5 hours without). The price is also impressive: £ 239.99 from Amazon.co.uk which, at the time of writing (June 2011), is a bit less than the iPad 2.

MacBook Pro#3. Macbook Pro – At first glance, this seems like overkill for a bicycle tour and in some ways it is. The 13″ Macbook Pro is relatively expensive ( from Amazon.co.uk) and heavy at 2kg, compared to most other computers. Why would you bother?

For us, the inbuilt iMovie video-editing software adds a lot of value. It’s so quick and easy to use, that we couldn’t imagine editing videos any other way. The screen size is also a luxury compared to a tiny netbook. This is not an option that’s going to appeal to everyone but for the minority of us who are big into blogging, photography, video editing and other multi-media activities, the Macbook Pro is worth considering for extended bicycle tours, where you’ll need to produce a lot of content on the road.

Of course, there are dozens of models to choose from, and we can’t list them all here. Some options mentioned by TravellingTwo readers include:

You can also read an extensive discussion on our Facebook group about which laptop to take on a bicycle tour, with lots of specific recommendations.

Oh Those Vibrations – How To Pack It

Start researching laptops and bicycle touring, and you’ll quickly come across stories of laptops that died from all the vibrations of the bicycle’s movement. That might have been a major worry years ago but in our experience today’s laptops are fairly robust.

Almost every long-distance bicycle tourist carries a laptop now, and we rarely hear of any breaking. Of course routine failures can happen but don’t worry too much about vibrations having a major effect on your machine.

Just after taking this photo, Andrew's rear pannier (with laptop) fell off while we were going 30km an hour. The laptop suffered no damage.
Just after taking this photo, Andrew’s rear pannier (with laptop inside) fell off while he was going 30km an hour. The bag bounced several times but the laptop suffered no damage.

That said, a laptop is an expensive toy so do try to pack your laptop or tablet with some care.

The biggest danger is probably dust and dirt, so get a good sleeve for it. We have one with a zipper that keeps the laptop nicely sealed when we’re not using it. When packing the laptop, we wrap it in clothing and pack it in the middle of a back pannier, so it’s as far as possible from the bicycle and surrounded by other soft items. We make sure the entire bag is tightly packed, so the laptop can’t rattle around inside the bag.

Fingers crossed this does the trick but you just never know. Back things up regularly, just in case! You can do this by carrying an external hard drive, or by burning CDs and DVDs with photos and sending them home (most internet cafes can do this for you, if you don’t have a burner in your laptop).

What Next?
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37 Responses to “Taking a Laptop or Tablet on a Bicycle Tour”

  1. Ingrid says:

    We are still using the Toughbook Panasonic CF-W5 which you recommanded in the beginning. The battery still lasts for more than 5 hours. We are going to put on the maximum of 1,5 GB RAM and a 120 GB harddrive.

  2. Have travelled with a Macbook for over three years. Been many places like to Tibet, China and the Andes, also on rough roads. Macs are of course the best computers. They last. No virus, no crash. And they are not expensive because you get something that works and comes with a whole package of beautifully integrated applications.

    Now I am travelling extremely light on my single speed Asia tour I use a Macbook Air. The answer for all travellers.

    http://www.old.osmosno.com/edge_of_Tibet.html#14

  3. friedel says:

    Thanks for the tips with the Macs, Sebastian. I have never used one. Maybe we should try one next time :)

  4. Steve says:

    Apple’s iPad due for release this month looks to be an even better solution.It’s lighter and cheaper AND smaller than a MacBook air. You can create documents and write journals on it and put all your photos on it.
    Should slide into a pannier easier than a laptop and doexsn’t surrender any functionality. It’s WiFi too!

    Steve

    • friedel says:

      Steve, I agree that things are moving quickly in the netbook / portable computer world. They always do! I’ve been meaning to update this page for that reason. But I’m not so sure about taking an iPad on tour. The lack of SD card / USB port would be my biggest quibble. We were always putting things on USB so we could then take the USB into an internet cafe and upload photos and journals. Yes, you can get adaptors, but to me that seems like a grab for more money, and something else you have to carry around / search for.

    • Becky says:

      I now have an iPad2 with the Zagg keyboard case – it is a great solution for portability and still gives you a netbook sized keyboard – and it is pretty light.

      I would not recommend the MacBook Air for quality reasons. After having 2 of them warrantee replaced in the space of a month Mac upgraded me to a macbook Pro – I’m glad because I now use it as a desktop, but it certainly is not nearly as portable as the iPad. The Air was light, but quality was a huge issue.

      • Frank says:

        I bought a Macbook air and after a couple of months the screen was replaced, because part of the screen didn’t display the image correct anymore. After that my Air has worked without problems, including a month cycling I did in Europe.

      • Frank says:

        I bought a Macbook air and after a couple of months the screen was replaced, because part of the screen didn’t display the image correct anymore. After that my Air has worked without problems, including a month of cycling I did in Europe.

  5. Gudrun says:

    Thanks for all your comments here, they are really useful. My husband and I hope to set off on a grand tour in a few years time. He will be retired, but I will still need to work (a bit) and I am hoping to be able to do so doing translations, i.e. having a lap top along will be essential.

    I am pleased to have read Sebastian’s comment re MacBook (which I have at the moment) and Mac Book Air, which he seems to rate even higher and although expensive also strikes me as a great option. Sounds like you have found it to be sturdy enough?. I’ve read Friedel and Andrew’s comment about stowing it in the back pannier, wrapped in sleeping bag and with pannier fully packed. Any other tips?

    How have you found charging it, i.e. on camp sites, cafes or via a solar system? I’ve also just read your post about a new front hub dynamo, would that work for charging the lap top? I’ve currently got Freeloader with extra solar panel, but not sure it would generate enough electricity for the laptop.

    Any tips would be extremely welcome!

  6. Rob says:

    I have an EEE myself, great laptop, and for it’s size/weight a great thing to carry around.

    If you can’t afford a Mac, get an EEE and think about putting a Linux distro on it. It’ll take some learning, but with mine I can get 10 hours battery life, and it does browsing and photo editing which are all I really need. No viruses, spyware etc… and it’s fully encrypted incase it gets pinched.

    For £30 it’s sometimes worth considering an extra 1Gb RAM. I’ve got 2Gb in mine, and it just makes photo editing (SLR RAW images) that much easier.

  7. Clint Burkinshaw says:

    I too will be embarking on a 28,000km long distance tour on a cycle, and work in the field in I.T. So can only be appropriate for me to comment on this subject.

    Another option is the latest technology in tablet PC’s these days. All weigh significantly under 1kg, and last anywhere from 9 to 10 hours of continual HD video play back. This would, I predict, amount to 15-20 hours of standard word-processing on the dimmest brightness level.

    2011 is the year of the tablets. The most popular being the iPad 2, however recently a truckload of different Android based tablets have hit the market, offering better connectivity (card readers, usb ports, hdmi ports, etc), operating system functionality & multi-tasking capabilities.

    My recommendations…

    - For the standard non-tech savy person that’s already familiar with how to use a iPod and is after simplicity and solid construction, I’d perhaps recommend the “iPad 2″. Though keep in mind, this has no USB port, Card Reader, or expandable memory). But does what it does well.

    - Those who want that bit more functionality out of their tablet, both connectivity and operating system wise. Go down the road of the latest wave of Android Tablets. The top contenders – the “Toshiba Thrive”, or “Asus eee pad transformer” or “Acer Iconia A500″, all running the google Android operating system, built on hardware manufacturers that have proved themselves in the industry for years.

    Brilliant pieces of technology.

    Thanks,
    Clint
    – Travel Photography

    • Clint Burkinshaw says:

      P.S. If your tablet has a USB drive, you can use it to backup your photos onto a portable USB HDD and/or USB thumb drive. You can also use the port to plug in a travel keyboard, instead of using the on-screen one. Also SD card slots are brilliant for instant transferring and backup of your camera’s photos. HDMI port can allow you to instantly hook your tablet up to a television in high definition.

      For those who are interested, the Asus Eee Pad Transformer also comes (at an extra price) with a keyboard docking station that contains an inbuilt battery and will extend your tablet’s life for another 6 or so hours.

  8. Friedel says:

    Hi Clint, thanks for your comments. This article is now a bit outdated, so I´m putting it on our update list for the summer and I´ll be mentioning tablets in the new article.

  9. Houston says:

    My wife and I love our iPad for touring. It is small, light, and 3G SIM connectivity means we don’t have to search out WiFi hotspots. We do everything on it, including photo backup / editing, and we charge it off the dynamo hub via a biologic freecharge (we also charge batteries for our headlamps and cameras this way). The only down side is we sometimes have trouble sharing it. Great article as always Friedel.

  10. matt picio says:

    I’m currently touring with both a MacBook 13″ and a Acer AspireOne (long story). I was carrying a portable HDD with all of my files, and the files I was actually using were also on the MacBook HDD. The USB HDD died – I didn’t lose anything critical (the photos and journals), but I did lose access to my movies and most of my music – it’s all backed up on a hard drive at home, but I no longer have it on tour. I’d recommend if you do that, and you have the means to keep an extra HDD, to back up everything to THAT, and keep it in the shipping packaging, ready for someone to send out to you should your hard drive die. It’s very easy to carry up to 1TB of storage space, but at present the hard drives above 640GB in size are not as reliable. (In a year, they will be)

  11. evan says:

    My laptop has a solid-state hard drive, which leaves it with no moving parts (aside from the fan). This makes it WAY less susceptible to problems from vibrations. I’d consider it a must for a travel laptop. (iPads, smartphones also have SSDs).

  12. Bobster says:

    Some thoughts I have:
    – Ipad has no USB
    – Ipad is alot more valuable and flashy so is a target for thieves
    – Ipad is quite big, whereas EEEpc folds up
    – try typing on an Ipad

    -bob

    • In response, I’d suggest:
      1) the iPad Camera Connection Kit provides a USB connection
      2) yes it is valuable but that’s because they’re so amazing
      3) its not that big, and they are very thin
      4) get a zagg keyboard, this also serves as a screen protector

      I’ve had an ipad2 for about 2 months and love it for both home and travel use. It does pretty much everything and my expectations have been exceeded!

  13. In terms of ‘bang for the buck/euro/pound/ringit’ etc, I think the ASUS 10″ netbooks are hard to beat. They have more than enough computing power to run serious applications, the screen & keyboard are (just) big enough and there are plenty of ports to connect SD-cards, phones, cameras and so on. The internal HDD is also more than adequate for copies of your precious trip photos.

    We used one on our recent trip and it withstood the general abuse & vibration of a bike trip really well. They seem really well built for the price.

  14. +1 on the SSD, it will lengthen the life of your workhorse a lot..

    By the way, one important reason to bring a laptop is safety: as long as you keep your own machine clean you do not have to worry about keyloggers that are more common than browser on internet cafe machines! Would be a shame to life frugally and then have your PayPal account raided :)

  15. I recommend the Lenovo IdeaPad S10-3.

  16. Interesting article and informative feedback from comments. Being a senior pedal-pusher I have to watch the weight. So my Acer notebook has come off the packing list and in goes my HTC Wildfire Android. Additional hardware for HTC, two backup batteries, mini blue tooth keyboard, 16gb SD card, Crabble cradle and finally a couple of touch-screen stylus for on the go note taking for a total cost of £62.

    Also I have taken out my Canon 350D and extra 55mm – 200mm lens. I find the HTC camera takes superb photos.

    Here are some ideas I use with the phone, audio/text note-taking, photo/video log and GPS route planning and recording. All the things you can do on a laptop/notebook or tablet. I have only one other piece of other electronic kit, my life saving Kindle, cannot travel without my books.

    The Nomadic Romantic English Gentleman

    • Clint Burkinshaw says:

      Traded your SLR for a camera on a phone? …really? Though If your not interested in photography at all, I guess that’s fine and saves you a lot of weight.

      I’m going to be taking a few electronics, as with my trip – ill be cycling from London to Singapore and will last at least a year I predict.
      1. Asus Eee Pad Transformer + Keyboard Dock
      2. Canon 7D SLR + 4 Lenses (50mm, 10-22mm, 17-55mm, 70-200mm)
      3. Amazon Kindle
      4. iPod Touch

      Total weight for them all I imagine to be hovering around 4kg. Though to charge these, I’ll be taking a SolarGorilla & PowerGorilla, which will add an extra 1.5 or so KG’s to it.

      But as I see it – it’s not a choice. I love travel writing and will be blogging my journey, and extremely passionate about my photography. This just means I have to suck it up and carry it ;-) I’m pretty fit as a person so feel I should have absolute no problems. *crosses fingers* :-P

      …I’ll be leaving in 3 months, so anyone considering taking a similar amount in a future trip, feel free to contact me in a few months and see whether I love it or hate it :-)

      Cheers,
      Clint

      – Travel Photography

  17. Clint best of luck on the trip, I’m envious to say the least. Been taking photographs since I was 12 and have accumulated a personal collection of 40,000, a few good shots in that 40,000 but I must admit your collection on on Explosive Aperture are pretty impressive.

    As for a trip from London to Singapore I would certainly take my Canon and a notebook. Since I only do short tours in Hampshire now my phone produces photos ideal for Blogger/Facebook/Google+ and Picasa online.

    Look forward to your account of the trip, I’ll become your No 1 Senior Fan.

    The Nomadic Romantic English Gentleman

    • Clint says:

      Cheers mate. Phones these days are definitely fine for what your after I guess. I recently backpacked through sahara Africa and middle east with an slr and lenses. To be honest, that did get a little frustrating carrying it constantly on my back. But this time my bike is my work horse :-P

      Hampshire hey, beautiful! I recently lived there in Southampton for a year and a half. Did constant trips into the new forrest :-P pretty part of the world u live in.

      40,000 …impressive! You’ve earned your break :-)

      Well cheers for the kind words. Don’t stop traveling yourself!

      Happy cycles!!

  18. Aushiker says:

    Thanks for post. I am curious as to whether anyone is using a Macbook Air? I would have thought that was a better option for Mac users?

    Here in Western Australia (and maybe Australia) we have Telecentres which are now known as the Western Australian Community Resource Network which are a good alternative to internet cafes. I used one last week and was charged $6.00 for about two hours of use.

  19. Andrea says:

    I’m wondering who’s written this article. When you write about the macbook pro, you say we can’t imagine not having it for our video work but then in the comments you say you’ve never used one. So i’m a bit confused.

    But what i really wanted to ask was there’s little mention of weight. does anyone know the weight of the netbooks. I’ve got a macbook. Its not a pro but i would like to get something lighter for my next trip and the macbook air is not for me despite what the poster above says. Its simply too expensive. My next mac will just be a macbook pro though the macbook air is beautiful and i am confident with macs which i can’t say about the alternatives.

    • oddbikes says:

      Hi Andrea,

      I just weighed my netbook together with its power adapter. Type: ASUS EEE PC 1000H, (a fairly standard 10″ netbook).

      Total weight: 1642g

      Hope this helps,
      Trevor

  20. Thanks for the post – good info.

    We too use a Macbook Air and I’d rate that as a much better option than the regular Macbook/Pro. It’s very light and compact and with Flash memory as its harddrive is much less susceptible to vibrations on the road. Flash (solidstate) memory reads/writes faster than a regular HD too, making a very fast machine.

    We carry two Western Digital Passport USB HDs (320/500GB) for our Adobe Lightroom photo libraries (I’m a photographer) with one as the main drive and the second as a back up.

    To make the Air bombproof in the pannier we keep it in a lightweight plastic box, of the type that electronics people carry their bits and bobs in. The box is padded with closed cell foam.

    Working very well for us so far halfway through an 8 month tour through Sichuan, Yunnan and SE Asia.

  21. Andrea says:

    I don’t think vibrations are as big a problem as you seem to think Mark – at least not for the macbook. I’ve just done 3000km and at least 1000 of them was on corrugated and stony roads, not to mention great thick clouds of dust. My macbook is fine. Its also the second trip its been on now. The first was about 4000km when sometimes it was bumpy. Once it bumped right onto the ground from hip height and its got a dint in the corner to prove it. We’ve also hit the turf together on at least one occasion. The macbook was just in a cheap laptop bag in the pannier and wedged in by my camera which i keep covered only in a fleece beanie or my woolie jumper. (on the other hand, maybe it was the spaghetti side of my kit that hit the turf, though that didn’t shatter either. Bombproof is possibly only necessary in a war zone. What do you think?

    Re the two passport HDs. Is this to prevent against accidental loss of images, or computer glitzsch. What about theft? Is that not likely in your reckoning.

    I mean its not as if i take major precautions but when i’m travelling, theft is what i worry more about with regard to my images. Or are these passports worth the worry. I’ve got one. Should i travel with a second one too, i wonder. I mean you don’t have to be a professional photographer to worry about the safety of your pictures. Any loss of pictures is devastating. but what can you do. You just gotta keep living. I somehow accidentally deleted the first 10 days of images of my recent trip and about 10 days of my diary as well. God knows how all that happened. A slip of the finger i suspect.

  22. @Andrea, It’s reassuring to hear about the durability of your Macbook. Sounds like it has stood up to more than I would have expected. Personally I’d still pick the Air for its lightweight and compactness though.

    Re the hard drives for photos: no theft is not factored into having two drives, the reason is to protect against accidental deletion or one of the drives dying on me. The fact is, all hard drives will fail eventually, no matter how failsafe or consistent they might seem to be and for that reason I never leave valuable files on only one drive. Having your photos backed up on a second drive would have solved the issue of your accidental deletion. For the minimal weight of these drives, it’s well worth it IMHO.

    As for theft… the best thing to do is burn DVDs now and then, put images on a flash drive and post them home, or upload them in hi-res to an image/file storing service.

  23. Roger says:

    I have a 6v son dynamo and a PedalPower+ 4i which served me well recharging my phone, torch batteries and ran my headlight on previous tours. Now I have an iPad which gives me mail,Internet, google maps, camera, gps, blog, photobucket, iBooks, Facebook, iMessage,FaceTime,and every other ap I have downloaded . I’ll find out this trip whether I can recharge it from the dynamo or whether I’ll have to wait for a pub or a van park.
    If anyone knows of a transformer style of arrangement, I’d like to know about it.
    Thanks in anticipation
    Roger

    • Check with PedalPower+ but you may find your PedalPower+ will charge the iPad or your could update it to the PedalPower SUper-i-Cable which I believe will do the trick.

  24. Rogcha says:

    I completed my 2500km tour in September. It was wonderful! I installed a 3w PedalPower DC dynamo in my trailer wheel before i departed and ordered a 12000mah power bank from China for the trip. (This cost $34!) This item didn’t arrive in time for this trip but it was waiting for me when I arrived at my destination. The DC dynamo proved faulty and wouldn’t charge anything on the journey, but when I complained to the supplier, they refitted a new AC dynamo into my wheel and threw in a Super-i cable. This arrangement is excellent. The super-i cable will charge a mobile phone and the extra battery bank will charge the iPad. I just have to keep on riding to keep all my battery banks charged. Of cause I take my wall chargers with me in case I stay at a Caravan Park which supply mains power. I was planning to do another 1800km trip in the new year but the tropical wet season had put a dampener on those plans.

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