Backpacking with a Laptop
Prachuap Khiri Khan, Thailand
Trying to decide if you should shove that laptop in your backpack? I've got a few thoughts on the subject.
Eric, a regular reader/commenter e-mailed me and asked:
I have one more year of school left and I'm thinking about upgrading to a Mac laptop. When I begin traveling, do you think it'd be smart to take it with me? It seems like it would make it a lot easier to store pictures and music; no need for an iPOD. I'll probably have movies on there for long bus rides, and a computer might be harder to steal (since it will almost always be locked up). Also, they have new technology out for Internet virtually anywhere… thoughts? Worth taking or to much of a hassle?
Eric, I think this depends entirely on where you're going to be traveling, for how long, and what you're going to be doing while on the road.
Looking at the cost of a laptop from financial standpoint, I always think: "How many hours of Internet time would I get for the price of this device?"
If you're traveling in developing countries, figure no more than US$2/hour for Internet access—often it's less than US$1/hour if you hunt. Here in Thailand I can find Internet for B$20/hour outside of the tourist zones.
I know Mac's aren't cheap. I'm not sure how much the laptop you're thinking about getting is, but I'll take a stab at it and say US$1,800. That's 1,800 hours in an Internet café. If you spent 3 hours a day in a café, everyday, that would be equivalent to 600 days of Internet usage.
Of course adjusting the price of the laptop, the amount of time used, and the rate/hour will give you (wildly) varying results. But since you're not buying a laptop just for reasons of travel, I'll move on.
Weight & Space
The extra weight you can deal with; the space might be a problem. Space inside a backpack is finite, and must be used wisely. You will often see people with an additional "frontpack," a smaller backpack turned around and carried against the belly, to carry valuables and overflow from their backpack.
I don't carry a frontpack (or like them). I don't like the idea of walking around like an overburdened Sherpa. I also don't like the "steal this for all my best goodies" vibe the frontpack gives off. If it doesn't fit in my backpack, it's out. I enjoy my range of motion (and with it the ability to defend myself properly) too much.
I am a big believer that laptops should be computers for the lap, not the desk. I see no point in buying one of these massive desktop replacements that weigh in at 10lbs and rarely leaves your workstation because it's so big.
My ideal laptop would have a 10" screen or smaller, and weigh no more than 1.5–2.5 pounds, with battery. A docking station should be used at home to provide a larger monitor and keyboard. Portable and functional. I suggested the same thing to my boy Babak, who picked up a tiny Sony Vaio and will eventually construct such a setup.
On The Bus
I have spent a lot of time in buses—probably a thousand hours or more—and have yet to see someone watching a movie on laptop. Revealing the possession of such an item is on the long list things that I wouldn't do to ensure happy and safe bus travel.
You always have to remember that there are people in this world that want, and will take, what they don't have. People notice what goodies you have, and I take extreme care to keep things discreet, especially when traveling on long-haul (overnight) buses. Trust issues are part of the reason I can't sleep on such transport.
Your eyes are going to be stuck to the window while busing during the daylight hours; the passing landscape is far more interesting than you would expect. Night is the only time I can think of playing a movie, but even if you did, how long would that battery last playing it? Probably enough for one flick, assuming you've ripped it to the hard drive (so the DVD drive isn't always spinning) and it's not as long as most Kevin Costner movies.
Rides lasting 17–22 hours are typical in South America—it's a big place. When your laptop gives up at the 4-hour mark or your iPOD after 8-hours, what are you doing to do for the remainder? This is why I love carrying an MP3 player that takes (rechargeable) AA batteries; I take two or three AA's for those long bus rides and life is good.
Mac Versus PC
Other backpackers will see a laptop and go: "Nice! Hey, could I borrow that for a second?"
Mac users are still in the minority, and carrying one would reduce the attempts people will make to borrow your baby; but it comes with a price. If you plan on taking your computer to an Internet café there won't be anyone in sight, including the staff, to help you configure it should you encounter problems configuring it for access.
I would also give though to replacement parts and service. Chances are good that you'll burn up a power supply from faulty wiring or a nasty current surge in a third-world country. That laptop is going to become a brick in your pack real fast if you can't get replacement parts for it locally (or can't afford a very expensive DHL package from home).
Archival, Theft, & Oops!
Never, ever, ever use an iPOD to archive your photos. Solid-state memory devices and cards are so affordable these days, it makes no sense at all; pick up a handful of thumb drives or extra cards for your camera instead. Putting photos on an iPOD (or CD) as a novelty, but never as the sole meas of archival. I've heard far to many tales of woe from people who have had their device lost, stolen, broken, or reformatted by mistake and lost everything.
You're laptop isn't going to be any harder to steal than an iPOD (assuming you treat them the same), but the difference is going to be motivation for the thief. Believe it or not, laptops aren't high on the list of things people look to nab. To most, computers mean work. It's as soon as you start openly playing music on it that it becomes a device for fun—a more desirable target.
Laptop rules: Don't let other backpackers use your laptop; don't let locals see you play music or games on it; mind the liquids and insects.
Purpose & Usefulness
I suppose what it really comes down to is how much you want to work outside of an Internet café. If you are designing Web sites in exchange for room and board, or enjoy day-trading from a chair on the beach, then yes, a laptop is a good idea.
If I was carrying a laptop I would probably also go ahead and get a cell phone. The combination of the two would allow me to get Internet access via GPRS, anytime, from the comfort of my bed. I see this setup as essential equipment for blogging from countries without a developed Internet café infrastructure (such as West Africa, where my buddy Andy is currently using such a combo).
Again, it all boils down to what you're going to be doing on the road. If I was blogging for a business (and making money), like Andy, I'd make damn sure I had Internet access anytime—and he does. Since my writing doesn't generate (positive) cash flow, I use a PDA to write offline, and do my thing whenever I've got 'net access from a café.
Sure I'd love to have a laptop with me to watch movies and listen to music in my room; manage the songs on my MP3 player; sort and retouch photos; research with Encarta; play games; read e-books; work on my Web site; and access the Internet from a secure environment—but I don't.
It's about the balance of wants and needs. It doesn't make sense for me invest in such things (at this point). I don't have the space in my pack or the money in the bank.
Hope that helps you look at things from a slightly different perspective.