Ask LH: What’s The Best Device For Public Transport?

Ask LH: What’s The Best Device For Public Transport?
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Hey Lifehacker, What is the best device for daily public transport use? I will soon be traveling on a train daily for an hour so and need something to entertain me. Between laptops, tablets, phones, ebook readers, music players and other devices, I have no idea where to start. Suggestions? Thanks, Commuter Games

Train picture from Shutterstock

Dear CG,

As a fellow victim of the lengthy commute, I understand your conundrum. I live in the Blue Mountains and work in Sydney’s north, which translates to a round train trip of nearly three hours. Luckily, my job as a tech journalist allows me to test various gadgets without having to pay for ’em, so I’m pretty clued in as to what works and what doesn’t.

You probably already own a smartphone which are a great way of killing time, especially if it has a large screen. However, I wouldn’t recommend this as your principle train device.

Most smartphone batteries are pretty limited and you need to keep using it throughout the day. While charging at work usually isn’t a problem, it’s far too easy to forget until the last minute, resulting in a boring trip home. My advice is to keep your smarty in your pants and invest in a gadget purely for travel.

So, what to choose? The answer largely depends on what you like to do on the train. Every product you mentioned above is better suited to one particular task than the others — if you like working on the go, plump for a laptop. If you’re a fan of books, grab an ebook reader like the Kobo Aura. If listening to music is your thing, go for an MP3 player.

However, each of these devices also have their specific drawbacks: laptops are cumbersome and hard to use while standing up, most ebook readers have limited functionality and MP3 players are rapidly going the way of the Walkman cassette player (these days, it’s all about ‘convergent technologies’, apparently.)

Certain tablets, meanwhile, are reasonably proficient at all of the above tasks. They also come in a variety of sizes and different operating systems to suit a user’s preference. If you like having variety, that’s probably the best way to go. Personally, I find seven inch tablets are better suited to train travel than their larger 10 inch brethren. A 7in screen provides just enough screen real estate for most computing tasks yet remains small and compact enough to slip into a bag or jacket.

In terms of specific models, the Asus-built Google Nexus 7 is a pretty good bet. Boasting a zippy quad-core Snapdragon S4 Pro processor clocked at 1.5GHz, a choice 16GB or 32GB of internal storage, 2GB of RAM and a Corning Gorilla Glass display with a native resolution of 1920×1200 pixels (323 ppi), it’s a surprisingly powerful little unit. Crucially, it also comes with LTE connectivity, which means you don’t have to tether the device to your phone if you want to browse the internet (provided you’ve purchased a SIM).

Whatever device you opt for, the important things to look out for are battery life and versatility. In terms of battery life, the aforementioned Nexus 7 should last you a good three or four days in-between charges; especially if you’re only using it on the train.

On a final note, I feel perversely compelled to recommend a product you didn’t mention: the trusty paperback book! I often wonder whether our dependency on gadgets is gradually making people stupider. Although tablets are great learning tools that put a wealth of information at your fingertips, the reality is that they’re chiefly used for gaming apps, Facebook updates and entertainment websites. There’s nothing wrong with being (literally) bookish. Give a try once in a while.

As always, we’re keen to hear any additional suggestions from readers. If you know of a specific gadget that makes for a perfect for travel companion, let CG know in the comments section below.


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  • +1 for paperback.

    Personally, I find a tablet almost unusable without a prop or case that can angle it as required…. in which case why not go for a lappie and have the full blown keyboard?

    I commute 2x per week on a 90 min train from varsity to bris CBD, and after trying tablet, have settled on a touchscreen ASUS plus smartphone. I use the touchscreen to play games (plants vs zombies….), sometimes watch a clip or 2 from youtube, and generally catch up on social emails and even (whisper it) a little bit of work related stuff sometimes.

  • Desktop PC with generator. To make things portable and easy to carry, i use it with a 7″ USB monitor.

    Good times.

  • My commute is considerably shorter (half an hour) and I do it with an iPhone, a kindle and a pair of Bluetooth headphones.

    Personally I make an effort of not “playing” on my phone and only using it for streaming music and reading on my kindle as it’s good for me to block off some time and do some reading.

    Saying that if you are routinely doing larger and longer commutes I’d probably recommend a phablet sized phone. There is the issue of remembering to charge true, but I personally would find the cost of having two data plans a bit too much and I never have an issue of charging.

  • I used to travel daily from Bendigo (central Victoria) to Melbourne, that was normally a 4hr round trip, sometimes 6hr during summer (some engineer thought welding the tracks together was a good idea. Tracks expand in heat, then buckle, 120kph now a 60kph trip…yay!).

    Back then I used a Toshiba Satellite Pro that had enough grunt to run Fallout 3 for just on 2hrs. But due to it’s size was often cumbersome with the seat in front of me. For the longer/delayed trips I’d switch over to a pocket PC (yes remember those things?) running snes emulators (lot’s of Advance Wars 2).

    These days I find netbooks do the job well with enough battery life to last 3 to 4 hrs. They aren’t too large usually, and offer a good mix between work and play.

  • Unfortunately for me I get terribly motion sick on public transport if I try to read or look at a screen, so I’ve found the best option is my Lumia 920 along with podcasts or audio-books. The only problem with it is being lulled to sleep by the often incredibly soothing voices of the audio-book.

  • For gadgetry I have to admit that at 10″ my Surface is just a touch big for the bus – I do carry it everywhere with me, it’s great for reading comics and doing stuff away from public transport, but I feel that a ~7″ machine would be better suited if it were used purely for the daily commute. So, Nexus 7 would be the way to go!

    Also, +1 to paperback book (which I’ve been doing myself, recently). Another thing to consider is a puzzlebook – a dollar at a newsagency and like a paperback its batteries will never run low while you’re figuring out a Sudoku.

  • Two pro-tips for if you go the nexus 7 route:

    If you don’t want to pay for the LTE N7, I recommend pocket linked with an RSS feed (can be done through IFTTT) so sync your RSS feed. It means you can catch up on lifehacker without using data.

    Also, switch the tablet to airplane mode during the day (and if you’re using the above method, switch it off just before you leave the office, so you can download the pocket items). The battery lasts much longer, and if you’re not using it, you might as well not burn through the battery.

  • I too have a long commute. But I find I’m not always in the mood for the same thing all the time, one week or month I might be really into something, and want to continue with it on my bus time, or I might be in the mood for some book reading.

    I don’t take everything with me at once, it depends what I’m in the mood for. These are my devices:

    Budget laptop, 15.6″ with enough ummph for games (Skyrim on the Bus)
    iPad (tv show catch up and book reading)
    Mini iPod (Podcasts)
    3DS XL (Right now I’m in the middle of an Animal Crossing obsession, nicely fits into the handbag)

    And sometimes, a paperback book! And my iPhone 5s is with me all the time too. (Twitter!)

    Also, find a good laptop device bag, I’d recommend a slim one, that can easily slide under the seat in front of you on a plane. Always prepared for being stuck somewhere boring!

  • I have a roughly equal commute to Chris’, but mine is by bus. I’ve been trialling a Surface Pro 2 and Steam as a way of killing time. For some reason, it is slightly easier than an iPad, I’ve found. It’s worked well so far, and the battery pretty much lasts the three hours roundtrip on a single charge (just!). It’s trial and error as to what works – I’m surprised by how well Alien Breed is going, but Syberia has been a struggle. I’m surrently toying with the idea of bringing an Xbox controller, as well, to play something like Dead Space 2 or Skyrim – balancing the ideas of accessibility vs bulk. Since I installed iTunes and the Kindle app, it does pretty much everything my iPad did, and then some.

    Prior to the Surface, it was an iPad and iPhone, which was a good enough solution for 2 years.

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