HLO: Choosing The Right Notebook PC For Travel

HLO: Choosing The Right Notebook PC For Travel

For the most part, Hand Luggage Only was designed to use gear I already had, but there was always going to be one exception: I’d decided I’d get a new notebook PC as part of the process.

This wasn’t necessarily the ideal economic or technical choice. With Windows 7 due late this year or at the beginning of 2010, I’d be buying too early to get any free upgrade coupons or end-of-life sales discounts. As someone who needs to stay current with OS design, I’d also be facing the prospect of a forced migration to Windows 7 at that point. Given how badly Vista handled that scenario, deliberately choosing it might seem a tad foolish.

However, there were more good reasons to shift than not. Getting a new machine would minimise the risk of any sort of technical breakdown, and ensure I was under warranty if something did go wrong. It would also let me choose a notebook that was as small as possible without being unusable, ensuring there was plenty of room for all the other stuff I’d need in my bag.

I'm a notebook addict, really. I haven't actually purchased a new desktop PC since 1996, and my notebook buying has followed a predictable pattern: screens getting bigger and bigger until I realised that portability was in danger of being compromised. For most of the early part of 2009, I'd actually gone to the other extreme had been using a netbook, HP's 2133, as my main machine. In portability terms, this was very handy, and would have guaranteed me plenty of luggage space, but it had a whole bunch of downsides.

Firstly, it didn't have quite enough power for common tasks: installing applications was slow, and memory intensive tasks (like loading large digital images) was painful at best. Secondly, the lack of any optical drive was a major nuisance for a regular music shopper (I still prefer CDs) and frequent application installer.

Thirdly, the small screen was a bit of a nuisance when working on long articles, and the shrunken keyboard, while widely acknowledged as the best available for a netbook, still required the Fn key for a lot of common tasks. Finally (and perhaps most critically), it just wasn't reliable enough, especially when coming out of sleep mode: one memorable breakdown at Heathrow earlier this year saw me rolling out swear-filled posts on Twitter and vowing to get a more reliable machine ASAP.

The experience taught me that netbooks are useful as take-out-for-a-day machines (a role my Eee PC still plays when I'm not on the road), but I needed something slightly more substantial as a workhorse. I still wanted something pretty compact though, which isn't as tricky as it used to be thanks to the proliferation of thinner business PCs in the $3,000-$4,000 price category. In that space, my attention eventually lighted on the Toshiba Portégé R600.

I'd played with its predecessor the R500 last year, and had found it worked well apart from a tendency for the mouse pointer to move text around when typing at speed and a somewhat unreliable optical drive. Neither of those has proved to be an issue so far with the R600, which has a bigger screen and keyboard than the HP but is actually thinner. That makes it ideal for slipping in the top of my bag, ready to emerge for the inevitable airport security screening.

Is the Portégé perfect? No -- and no PC ever is. Like anything running Vista, wireless networking is always something of a lottery -- I've only been on the road four days and I've already encountered one network it simply wouldn't talk to. It'd be nice to have an extra USB port, though it's not as bad as the single-port MacBook Air. My ideal machine would also have a central trackpoint device, not a touchpad, but those have virtually disappeared from the market (save for Lenovo Thinkpads, which are physically solid but very unreliable on the software front -- that brand has already claimed too many worry lines from me).

But those are all pretty minor quibbles. the return to a full-performance system has been a nice change, and so far nothing dramatic has gone wrong. We'll see how well the PC holds up over the course of the next month, and in 12 months time -- my biggest complaint with previous Toshibas has been that they don't have a really long shelf life.

(Observant readers will of course have noticed that Toshiba is a sponsor for Hand Luggage Only. However, I chose and purchased the Portégé myself.)

Throughout May 2009, Lifehacker Australia editor Angus Kidman will be travelling throughout Australia with just one carry-on bag for the Hand Luggage Only project. His Road Worrier column, looking at technology and organising tips for travellers, appears each week on Lifehacker.


  • Great article! I love my notebook for home use (Dell Inspirion), i don’t like traveling with it because it’s way too heavy and bulky at 18 inches.

    I hope your new protege lasts for even longer than 12 months…

    Happy travels!


  • Good luck with the series Angus. This is a subject which is close to my heart. Out of interest how large is the power pack on the Toshiba. I use a near 3 year old Vaio G1 with similar spec’s. I chose the Vaio because the power pack was small and packed into a tiny space. I have been looking at a replacement to the G1 but nothing really fits the bill. If only the G1 had a faster hard drive and Windows 7 I don’t think I would want to replace it…

  • Just curious, did you look at the HP EliteBook 2530? It’s just that my boss has just bought one. It’s quite powerful and light, and has a touchpad as well as a central trackpoint. There is even a white LED next to the webcam which shines on the keyboard for night use.

    Not sure on the reliability though, this one is awaiting spare parts coming from the East Coast at the moment due to the wired network port giving up the ghost, but the one working day service option helps there.

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