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I am planning to be traveling through eurasia and asia (russia, china, korea, japan, south east asia...) for a while and, although there are plenty of marvelous things to see and to do, I must keep on working :(.

I am a python developer, dedicated mainly to web projects. I use django, sqlite3, browsers, and ocassionaly (only if I have no choice) I install postgres, mysql, apache or any other servers commonly used in the internets. I do my coding on vim, use ssh to connect, lftp to transfer files, IRC, grep/ack... So I spend most of my time in the terminal shells. But I also use IM or Skype to communicate with my clients and peers, as well as some other software (that after all is not mandatory for my day-to-day work).

I currently work with a Macbook Pro (3 years old now) and so far I am very happy with the performance. But I don't want to carry it if I am going to be "on transit" for long time, it is simply huge and heavy for what I am planning to load in my rather small backpack (while traveling, less is more, you know).

So here I am reading all kind of opinions about netbooks, because at first sight this is the kind of computer I thought I had to choose. I am going to use Linux for it, Microsoft is not my cup of tea and Mac is not available for them, unless I were to buy a Macbook air, something that I won't do because if I am robbed or rain/dust/truck loaders break it I would burst in tears.

I am concerned about wifi performance and connectivity, I am going to use one of those linux distros/tools to hack/test on "open" networks (if you know what I mean) in case I am not in a place with real free wifi access and I find myself in an emergency. CPU speed should be acceptable, but since I don't plan to run Photoshop or expensive IDEs, I guess most of the time I won't be overloading the machine. Apart from this, maybe (surely) I am missing other features to consider.

With that said (sorry about the length) here it comes my question, raised from a deep ignorance regarding the wars betweeb betbooks vs notebooks (I assume tablet PCs are not for programming yet): If I buy a netbook will I have to throw it away after 1 month on the road and buy a notebook? Or will I be OK?

Thanks!

Hector

Update

I have received great feedback so far! I would like to insist on the fact that I will be traveling through many different countries and scenarios. I am sure that while in Japan I will be more than fine with anything related to technology, connectivity, etc. But consider that I will be, for example, on a train through Russia (transsiberian) and will cross Mongolia as well. I will stay in friends' places sometimes, but most of the time I will have to work from hostel rooms, trains, buses, beaches (hey this last one doesn't sound too bad hehe!). I think some of your answers guys seem to focus on the geek part but loose the point of this "on the road" fact. I am very aware and agree that netbooks suck compared to notebooks, but what I am trying to do here is to find a balance and discover your experiences with netbooks to see first hand if a netbook will be a fail in the mid-long term of the trip for my purposes.

So I have resumed the main concepts expressed here on this small list, in no particular order:

  • keyboard/touchpad feel: I use vim so no need of moving mouse pointers that much, unless I am browsing the web, but intensive use of keyboard screen real state: again, terminal work for most of the time
  • battery life: I think something very important
  • weight/size: also very important
  • looks not worth stealing it, don't give a shit if it is lost/stolen/broken: this may depend on kind of person, your economy, etc. Also to prevent losing work, I will upload EVERYTHING to the cloud whenever I'll have a chance.
  • wifi: don't want to discover my wifi is one of those that cannot deal with half the routers on this planet or has poor connectivity.

Thanks again for your answers and comments!

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At least take multiple computers with you in case one breaks. –  rightfold Mar 1 '11 at 16:06
    
@radek-s: Well, I am travelling with my girlfriend so yes, I could carry another one that she would be using but also would serve me as replacement. Thanks for the suggestion! –  nabucosound Mar 1 '11 at 16:21
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Make sure you back upto the cloud everytime you a web connection! enjoy your trip!! –  Ozz Mar 1 '11 at 16:22
    
Take a USB stick too, for extra extra backups when the cloud isn't available. –  Graham Borland Mar 3 '11 at 13:16

13 Answers 13

up vote 12 down vote accepted

My earnest opinion is that netbooks are unfit for any kind of serious work, except for reviewing documents or online communication. The keyboard layout is unsuitable for most text editing tasks and the achievable screen resolutions leave little vertical space for any complex environments.

I would definitely consider getting a notebook. Netbooks are acceptable if you already have a desktop workstation and your generally never too far away from it or for too long. If your still bent on giving them more thought, be thorough: inspect the keyboard layout, double check if any of your commonly used keys are masked behind the function key, ask if you can power on and toy with the unit to get a feel for how would your editors fit on the limited screen real estate and I'm sure you'll come to the same conclusion.

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+1 it's a mistery to me how some people get awya with a netbook as their sole computing cevice. For me, no screenspace = no fun = no work. –  stijn Mar 1 '11 at 16:37
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+1 - Netbooks are cellphones on steroids. If the requirement is to work, get something that can perform as well as a pc but won't feel like carrying the pc with you everywhere you go. –  Joel Etherton Mar 1 '11 at 16:41
    
Great answer! And @stijn I totally agree with you. –  eestein Mar 1 '11 at 17:43
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@stijin: It depends on your work flow. I use my netbook (one of the 10" screen, so one of the larger netbooks) for writing code at times. I run Linux without X. I use screen to multiplex my terminals, vim for editing, mutt for mail, irssi for IM, and usually w3m with framebuffer support for web browsing, or occasionally firefox + vimperator + directfb. It actually ends up being a pretty productive setup. –  Cercerilla Mar 1 '11 at 20:01

You are going to be hardpressed to find a better laptop than that macbook pro. They keyboard and form factor are fantastic in my opinion. I just bought a crazy MSI box with the super fanciest cpu and memory config. It is great as long as I have a keyboard and mouse. Howevever, whenever I have to move it to the lab and use the keyboard, I regret not just buying a mac.

The short answer is, get a computer with a good keyboard, we type a lot, and typing wrong keys just messes with the flow.

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macbooks are very well built, not too much more expensive than a decent lenovo/toshiba/etc and the support is fantastic - if you are travelling anywhere with a mac store and you have a problem .... well you don't have a problem! –  Martin Beckett Mar 1 '11 at 17:03
    
+1 - 100% agreed. I bought an i3 laptop over an i5 just because the i3 has a fantastic keyboard. It's the whole reason I buy new laptops every year, the keyboards must be crisp and comfortable for me. –  Sergio Mar 1 '11 at 23:20
    
Not much more expensive than a decent lenovo/toshiba? Wow, where do you shop? My local shop has the Macbook for $959, and an equivalent (both 13.1" screen, dual-core CPU at~2.5MHz, 2G memory, 250G HD) Toshiba for $499. This is in the US, is there less disparity where you are? Nothing against Macbooks, but they've never been able to compete on price. –  TMN Mar 3 '11 at 15:08

Pick a THINKPAD T series with the 14 inch screen size and no lower than a 1440X900 resolution - they great keyboards and are very durable and travel friendly. If you can spend a bit more go for something like a Thinkpad - T410S (lighter version of the T410) Look for coupons and sales they can be had for significantly lower than advertised.

They even come in No OS/Linux builds.

These look very dull and conservative - quite unlike a flashy mac - so it might not attract a lot of attention

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Plus, even when you poor coffee over the keyboard they're supposed to work on (and if it's damaged because of that even falls under warranty) - they're designed to work after all :-). –  vstrien Mar 3 '11 at 13:21

13.3" or larger laptop form factor as a minimum for any kind of serious work as far as Im concerned. Anything smaller and at least the keyboard (and maybe the screen and performance also) will annoy you.

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I seriously think that resolution is far more important than size, it's all about the number of characters you can get on a line. –  Anish Patel Mar 1 '11 at 17:49
    
@Anish As I've said in my answer, the impact the size has on the keyboard may be more important than the screen size. Also larger screen means larger resolution while remaining at a readable text size. –  Alb Mar 1 '11 at 18:04

From what you described, any notebook you buy o the market today, should be able to handle that. So I wouldn't sweat over that part at all.

What I suggest however, if you're already in the market and buying a new one, is to pay attention to battery life and laptop weight. It may not seem like much, but oh boy, can 0,2kg make a difference on a machine you are supposed to carry all the time (remember, it's never only the laptop - there's always the charger as well, some usb sticks, few ... I don't know ... CDs, some papers ... the bag has its weight as well ...).

So aim for the decent battery life, if you're in more "deserted areas" or for less weight, if you're in places where you can always jack in.

My $0,02E

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Hate to sound like a fanbois - but that is a big win for macbooks. The PSU on my dell laptop is the size and weight of an anvil. –  Martin Beckett Mar 1 '11 at 17:05
    
@Martin Beckett - There is nothing wrong with Macbooks, quite the contrary. Although I've never had one, I've always liked the finished touch of Mac products. However, in here, I was more speaking in general - unlike Macbooks with which I have no experience, with travelling I have loads(!) of experience. These two factors are essential in all cases, except on your desk computer. –  Rook Mar 1 '11 at 17:29
    
@Rook - you are quite right though the extra weight and bulk of spare battery, external optical drive and PSU and the cables is often forgotten. Another big pain is propriety interface adapters that you need to carry (and not lose) –  Martin Beckett Mar 1 '11 at 17:37
    
@Martin Beckett - How true. Terrible, just terrible - always seem to have the "luck" that every camera, cell phone, external hdd etc. etc. comes with a different usb cable than the ones I have available at the moment :) My opinion is that such things should be strictly(!) standardized. (like cell phone chargers for example) –  Rook Mar 1 '11 at 17:51
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@rook - that is one thing Apple is terrible for. Which $100 displayport connector are we fitting this week? –  Martin Beckett Mar 1 '11 at 18:51

I have a Macbook air. It weighs nothing, it's pretty stonking quick, and I'm able to run windows inside virtual box (for free) and use windows based IDE's (Visual Studio 2010) and mac based IDE's like R and IDLE.

It's expensive, sure, but it's worth every penny. In the UK it costs approximately £1000, well worth it.

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Exactly what I was just typing. :) –  Amy Patterson Mar 1 '11 at 16:55

Try to get hold of an Acer Timeline 1810TZ.

Pros

  • looks like a netbook, but...
  • dual core
  • 4gb ram
  • VGA & HDMI ports
  • small enough to smuggle in hominem (possibly)

Cons

  • the silver one might get mistaken for a Mac
  • no SSD
  • costs half the price of a MacBook Air, so the Joneses may not be impressed
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I had a Samsung NC10 which was capable of running Visual Studio for small .NET projects and could easily handle Python, Ruby and Java IDEs. The Samsung range pack a lot of punch for their size. The battery life on the new models is about 10 hours (at least 5 with WiFi on), and the keyboard is almost full-sized. I certainly have no problems touch-typing on it.

The previous netbook lasted for two rather abusive years, with only a small crack in the case, faded keys and one of the 3 USB slots not working. I've now upgraded and the new one is even more powerful, running Windows 7 Starter with no difficulty. If you're installing Ubuntu on it instead then you'll get even more out of it. Resolution is small but decent enough for terminal work, making PowerPoint slides, writing documents, etc., and the camera produces a decent Skype image and sound. Connectivity, security, all good.

I wouldn't want it to be my only device... unless I was on a world tour, in which case, less is indeed more and I'd be happy to stick with it. I also have a 17" MacBook Pro and will normally pick up the Samsung for preference on my way out the door (those MacBooks are heavy).

I have also left it in a taxi once and in a pub twice, because I am careless and frequently tired. Every time it comes back to me, because it's only worth a couple hundred pounds and not worth anyone stealing. Beautiful.

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Maybe not appropriate as an entire answer on its own, but one major thing to keep in mind with netbooks is you're very likely going to be ham-handing the keyboard and trackpad. I have tiny lady hands and my netbook still feels cramped. That's not even mentioning the screen size, which has been touched upon already.

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Sorry, no personal experience, but I thought this model was interesting: http://www.linux-netbook.com/asus-eee-pc-1005ha Comes with Linux out of the box. For less than $400 you may not cry as long if it is stolen/broken. Has a webcam if you want to Skype back home.

I commute with a Toshiba NB205. Not ideal for development because of monitor size. I'm getting use to the keyboard. More power would be nice. I've been able to run some of the Microsoft Express versions of Visual Studio. The version of Windows 7 is weak. May not be worth the trouble installing Linux and hunting for drivers.

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I have a 15" notebook that I'm pretty happy with. 4gb memory, 2.4 ghz i5 processor. The keyboard size was an important aspect for me, as I can't type well on the cramped ones they put on netbooks. I could always use more scree area though. I really wouldn't go any smaller. My advice would be to balance weight, screen size and processor speed in whatever order of importance you want, and fit it into your budget. There are enough options out there that with a little research you can find the right one for you.

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I'd say take a hard look at a 13" MacBook Air with the hi-res screen and max RAM:

They are very light, very very well built, quiet, have great battery life, great (full size) keyboards and the only usable trackpad on the market. 13" is small enough to fit in every backpack, the resolution is decent, and while it's not a speed demon, it's absolutely fast enough. The PSUs are lighter and better designed than most others.

The only real downside is that people may want to steal them. Uglify them with electrical tape or something if that bothers you.

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Panasonic Toughbook (comes in different display sizes) is VERY robust and I consider the battery life also quite good; however keyboard and weight might be an issue.

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... but it's fairly expensive for what you get. Unless you're always working outdoors and under dusty circumstances I wouldn't go for a toughbook. –  vstrien Mar 3 '11 at 13:22
    
Depends on the requirements, if it's worth the price –  Simon Mar 3 '11 at 13:45

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