Last Updated: January 2017. With contributions from Mark Jones.
Portability, battery life, storage space and of course price are some of the key considerations when buying a travel laptop. When it’s a device that will be with you on the road, it helps to look beyond just raw specs like processing power. What quickly ends up being most important is that your laptop is versatile and lightweight, easy to use, and that it can easily store everything you need (as WiFi or mobile data is never guaranteed, especially if you’re travelling abroad).
I’ve travelled for many years, often working as a blogger / digital nomad. Before my nomad life, I travelled frequently either for work or holidays, and so I’ve been on the road with a variety of different devices. In this post I’ll highlight several categories of travel and ultraportable laptops, their pros/cons, and give you some favourite picks.
Budget Chromebook laptops
Get this if: you want an ultracheap ultraportable… and can make due with a simple OS
Price range: about $150 to $250 (similar in Euro, and about £121 to £202)
Typical weight: from 1.1kg or 2.5 lbs to about 1.5kg or 3.3 lbs
Want a no-frills budget travel laptop? Then a Chromebook can be a wonderful option, so long as you know what to expect.
They don’t run a full operating system like Windows, but only a basic one designed around the Chrome browser. This does make them cheaper, as manufacturers don’t have to pay Microsoft for a Windows license. Microsoft Office or Adobe Photoshop won’t run on these devices, so they may not be for the power users, but a Chromebook might be sufficient for your needs.
Chromebooks may not be that fast or powerful, though Chrome OS is also not very demanding. For regular internet browsing, watching movies, and basic word processing and spreadsheets, and for backing up files from your other devices (like a camera), they get the job done just fine. Internal storage will typically be no more than 16GB or 32GB—though you can hook up a USB drive or USB stick for more, or use cloud-based storage.
Top Pick: Acer ChromebookPrice: $223.99 view at amazon
Acer has specialised in making great affordable Chromebooks and has become the most popular option in this category. The Acer Chromebook laptop does feel very plasticky and its screen is of very average quality, but that’s to be expected for a sub-$200 device. Go with the 11″ for ultra portability, or the 13″ for a more comfortably sized keyboard. I’ve used an 11″ Acer Chromebook extensively while travelling, in particular to countries where crime is a bigger problem (and where I don’t want to worry about losing an expensive ultrabook to theft).
|Dell Chromebook 11
2-in-1 convertible laptops
Get this for: the best balance of performance & versatility on the road
Price range: about $400 to $1200+ (similar in Euro, and about £323 to £968)
Typical weight: around 1.3kg or 2.9 pounds
Convertible laptops can be used both as a normal laptop and as a tablet. After a few awkward master-of-none concepts (such as the ASUS Transformer T100), Microsoft has now shown the true potential of convertible laptops with its amazing Surface Pro, and other manufacturers are following this template.
There are times when you need a full laptop, and other times when a tablet is vastly more comfortable, and now you can have both! I used to sit in airplane chairs all crunched up with my laptop in dinosaur arms position, but now I can just fold up the keyboard and hold the screen like a book. Much better.
It’s amazing to have a device that can easily function as ebook reader, video player, sketchpad, and more — but which can also transform into a full laptop with keyboard when needed. The only downside to convertibles is that they tend to be a bit less powerful than regular ultrabooks, due to obvious size/design limitations. If you need to do a lot of video editing or other intensive tasks, maybe they’re not for you, but they can handle other tasks very well.
Top Pick: Microsoft Surface Pro 4Price:
Microsoft’s laptop helped define the 2-in-1 category, packing a ton of performance into a tiny 0.8kg / 1.7 pound device. If you’re looking for a mid-price option, then starting at about $800 (€740 or £645) it’s a great choice. Ultra-thin and with 9 hours of battery life, it’ll easily last you through a long journey. It may look like just a regular tablet, yet it has a full keyboard, video out (to connect it to a monitor), USB ports, microSD card reader, up to 1TB of storage, and runs the full version of Windows 10. At 780 gram, it’s lighter than any ultrabook.
Note: the Surface is sold both with and without keyboard. If you need the keyboard, make sure it’s included!
Top 2-in-1 laptops
|Surface Pro 4 (128GB)
|Lenovo Yoga 710
|Dell XPS 2-in-1 (2017 model)
Note: this 2-in-1 is different to the regular XPS
|HP Spectre x2
Higher-spec options also available
Get this if: you’re looking for a more traditional laptop
Price range: about $800 to $1500+ (similar in Euro, and about £645 to £1,210)
Typical weight: around 1.3kg or 2.9 pounds
Ultrabooks used to be the go-to travel laptop thanks to a combination of strong performance and high portability. Apple essentially created this category with the first Macbook Air back in 2008, and was soon followed by other PC manufacturers. Ultrabooks replaced the slower and battery-draining HDDs with faster and more efficient SSDs, ditched the optical drive (DVD or BluRay), and put everything in a lightweight unibody chassis.
Having long used a Macbook Air, I now strongly recommend looking at 2-in-1 options for travel purposes. That said, since the keyboard and monitor don’t need to be separate on an ultrabook, their form factor allows for more powerful processors (along with air vents to keep them cool). This means you can usually get more processing power for your buck. Ultrabooks thus remain an attractive option for those needing extra horsepower but also low battery life (usually up to 9 – 12 hours).
One downside to ultrabooks versus regular laptops is that their SSD drives are typically smaller than HDDs. This can be solved by bringing an external USB drive.
Top Pick: Dell XPS 13Price: $999.99 view at amazon
The Dell XPS is the current favorite Windows 10-based ultrabook; keep in mind that thanks to the unibody design, this model is more powerful than the 2-in-1 variant of the XPS listed earlier in this post. It comes with a sturdy full-size keyboard, a 12″ or 13.3″ display, and 12+ hours of battery life at a weight of just 2.6 lbs.
|Dell XPS 13”
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