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As you may have seen in my other posts I am in the early stages of planning my Eurotrip this summer which if you are interested in seeing the planned route go here:

http://www.tripline.net/trip/Eurotrip_Bruce-6031502460441004AB55F3DFBEB7A2DD

I am trying to decide what sort of gadget I buy to use for communication with home whilst on my journey through Europe.

So far I see myself with four options:

  1. The Tablet PC (iPad, Asus Transformer, Samsung Galaxy);

    enter image description here

    • Advantages: portable, WiFi, 3G connectivity in some, long battery life
    • Disadvantages: expensive, flashy, can't store alot of media e.g. images or movies
  2. The Netbook (Asus EEEpad, Acer aspire, Toshiba, Samsung, Sony) enter image description here

    • Advantages: cheaper, keyboard, Wifi, USB, better storage

    • Disadvantages: less portable, power source to charge?, performance

  3. The Smartphone (iphone, HTC, nokia N97)

enter image description here

  • Advantages: connectivity Wifi and mobile network, lightweight, can do music and basic movies, can charge with USB in some phones.
  • Disadvantages: not able to store photos backup data, not as capable in tasks like a Netbook or tablet pc.

enter image description here

4- Laptop (Dell, Asus, ALienware :D? )

  • Advantages: powerful, storage for photos, games/movies/music
  • Disadvantages: flashy = more likely to get stolen, heavy, expensive

If any of you have tried travelling with any of these devices or could recommend a particular type or make then please do so: I like photography so I need something to store my photos in from my memory card

  • What is Wifi like in Europe is it popular or just in the main cities?
  • Also what is 3G coverage like, would it be worth getting a roaming international SIM card to take with me?
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"can't store alot of media e.g. images or movies" - says who? A 32GB tablet (or phone, or camera or anything) can store about 40,000 2-megapixel photos. If for some reason you don't believe 2 MP is enough (though note, 1080p high-definition television is "only" two megapixels), it could alternatively store about 15,000 10-MP photos. –  BlueRaja - Danny Pflughoeft Jan 23 '12 at 8:02
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@BlueRaja-DannyPflughoeft - my Canon 550D is 18mp :) –  loosebruce Jan 23 '12 at 9:18
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@loosebruce what do you view your photos on ? (a cinema screen?). Also, it might be quite rewarding to travel with no gadget. –  NimChimpsky Jan 23 '12 at 9:52
    
This site, while not addressing your specific question, may be of interest: toomanyadapters.com –  Kevin Jan 23 '12 at 13:23
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9 Answers 9

up vote 12 down vote accepted

To tackle the second part of your question first, we have previously covered this ground on WiFi / 3G coverage in Europe in the following questions:


Now to tackle the first part of your question, about what gadgets to take along. My first suggestion would be don't take a full-sized laptop. Apart from being heavy (and a laptop + power brick does start feeling heavy if you have to carry it around in your backpack!), the possibility of loss from accidental damage being higher, and being a potential target for theft, laptops have poor battery life - won't last you more than 4-5 hours. This can get problematic if you don't make enough pitstops to charge. You can charge up in your hostel, but then remember - so is everyone else! Sometimes, it becomes untenable to leave your devices charging due to not enough charging points available.

I use my smartphone for taking quick pictures and for looking up directions on online maps. If you have a smartphone, there are many apps that can help you automatically back up pictures to online services as soon as you connect to 3G / WiFi. (I'd obviously suggest the latter since WiFi consumes less power than a 3G antenna in most operating conditions.) The problem I find with smartphones - at least Android smartphones - is that they run out of battery incredibly fast if you're using a lot of 3G data. So what I do is I keep my (Android) smartphone in 'airplane mode' so that its WiFi / 3G antennas are switched off unless I need to go online. Toggling airplane mode is a quick operation and will do wonders to your phone's battery life.

I also travel with a netbook (a Lenovo S10-3c, in case you're wondering). It's incredibly light (around 1 kg), gives me 6-8 hours of battery life even if I'm connected to WiFi. The reason why I keep a netbook is that sometimes when I need to book tickets or browse for something online, it's less tedious than trying to squint at a small phone screen. Additionally, because I get such long battery life I can read ebooks or watch movies on long train / bus journeys. Look for a netbook with 'island-style' or 'chiclet' keyboard that has individual, spaced out keys as it makes touch-typing easier on a smaller keyboard (if you know how to touch-type). Unlike a tablet, you can also plug-in your memory card into a netbook and back up your pictures when you don't have access to a data connection. A netbook also allows me to write blog posts or upload pictures on-the-go. Alhough technically possible on a smartphone / tablet too, typing on a netbook is less taxing!

I don't own a tablet. While they could potentially do the same things a netbook can and give the same or more battery life, they are also costlier. Between a cheap netbook and a cheap tablet, you can probably save a couple of hundred pounds and get a device with 'better' functionality. I also feel iffy about the robustness of tablets; when travelling, I've dropped and generally had my netbook put up very well with abuse when being thrown around in my backpack. I'm not sure whether a tablet could survive the same.

So if it were me, I would go with a smartphone (to take pictures and access maps) and a netbook (cheap, robust). Tip: you can usually charge both your netbook and smartphone at the same time; plug in your netbook to its power adapter, and then plug in your smartphone via a mini-USB cable to your netbook. Depending on your device this method of charging may be slower but if you're short of charging points, this can keep both your devices charged.

I would also suggest looking at two additional devices in your packing list:

  • A flash storage MP3 player (like an iPod Nano or iPod Shuffle): You could literally stuff them inside a sock if you want, the battery lasts days, and they put up with shocks better than hard drive players like the classic iPod. I wouldn't go with an iPod Touch because it's bulkier.
  • A Kindle or any similar e-ink reader (which means NOT a Kindle Fire or B&N Nook): If you like reading books, a Kindle's battery life running into weeks and small weight is excellent for long bus / train journeys. Remember that since it doesn't have a backlight, you may need to buy small clip-on lights for evening / night-time usage. Older generation Kindles with 3G were even more useful because they came with free 3G data access but I believe the latest generation of Kindles only allow browsing a limited set of sites such as Wikipedia.

N.B. I also used to pack a cheap point-and-shoot digital camera, but of late I've taken to leaving it behind. My smartphone can take as good if not better pictures (unless you have a 'pro-sumer' or DSLR camera, the difference in quality of pictures taken by a good smartphone camera and a point-and-shoot digicam these days is next to negligible) and can also record better quality video than my digicam. I find carrying a digicam to be too bulky - once you've stuffed your jeans with your wallet and your smartphone, most digicams aren't slim enough to fit in. (And hell will freeze over before anyone can convince me to take a digicam in a sling pouch around my waist.)

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The latest Kindles have an webkit based browser and allow you to browse any site on the web. No Flash support of course. It help to use mobile version of the web sites, because the zooming can be tiring. –  Peter Hahndorf Jan 22 '12 at 20:02
    
I was referring to Kindle Touch 3G, which can no longer browse every site on a 3G/2G network. –  Ankur Banerjee Jan 22 '12 at 20:10
    
Thanks for this, I will be doing professional photography so I will have a SLR camera with me for photos. I think a netbook is going to be my choice with a 3G optionality built in :) –  loosebruce Jan 22 '12 at 22:03
    
I also already have an Ipod Nano :D –  loosebruce Jan 22 '12 at 22:05
    
@loosebruce: My netbook supports a 3G SIM card to be slotted in for instance. Alternatively, you could tether with your smartphone using USB or WiFi in case you don't want to pay more for a netbook model that supports 3G. –  Ankur Banerjee Jan 23 '12 at 0:34
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I think you have to ask yourself two questions? How connected do you want to be and how much are you willing to carry.

  • Unless you are doing heavy work, a laptop should not be an option, it is way too heavy.
  • Do you write a lot? A travelog, long emails? - take a Netbook
  • Do you always need to be connected? Do you plan to use Google maps to find your hotel when running around in a foreign city? - take a Smartphone. Want to read a lot or watch movies? - take the tablet.

My personal recommendation:

Take none of them!

I am very 'weight conscious' when I travel, so I try not to take too much electronics. Still I can't live without certain things, so I usually carry:

  • A small iPod, shuffle or Nano.
  • A good point and shoot camera.
  • Two 1.8" USB hard drives, to store photos and additional music as well as some Virtual Machines just in case I have to work somewhere. The 1.8" ones are so much lighter than the usual 2.5"ers and they always work with a single USB cable for power. Of course you want to take two in case you lose one of them. Store them in different parts of you luggage.

  • For my next trip I will also take the small Kindle, it will replace both paper novels and guide books. Many hostels now have free WiFi, so I can even use it go online if I really have to.

So, how do I stay connected? I usually stay in hostels and most of them have computers the guests can use for free. I haven't traveled much in Western Europe recently but free internet maybe not so widely available. Also there are less internet cafes these days than there use to be. So for Western Europe this may not be the best option.

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Thanks for the advice, I will be travelling with what I need but unfortunately that consists of a DSLR and two lenses :( –  loosebruce Jan 22 '12 at 22:06
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I think there are two views here.

Firstly, the backpacker as we know it is changing, or splitting. There are still the 'true', 'hardcore' backpackers, who want to hitchhike everywhere with two pairs of socks and three shirts and a sleeping roll on their back. That's great, but it's not for everyone.

As hostels become more ubiquitous, wifi appears compulsory, the new 'flashpacker' (look it up!) has appeared. The gadget conscious, connected budget traveller. I know I fit into this category, so I'll talk about that.

Throughout Europe, I took a netbook. The advantage of netbooks is the battery life - I'd even consider a second battery next time, just because I'm a geek and use it quite a bit. Wifi is in most hostels, or failing that, in streets. Netbooks don't garner that much attention, and you get used to pulling it out to use. They're also very light.

Now I know people may argue that iPads have longer battery life and are lighter. This is arguably true. However, they're still an attention-grabber, like it or not. And as a traveller, I dislike having unwanted extra attention to my gadgets. It may seem fine at home, but when you're in the middle of a dodgy street in La Paz, I'd far rather pull out my well-used and cheap netbook than a shiny expensive iPad ;)

I also have a smartphone, and the best use of that was for maps. Google Maps was near useless east of Europe, and you need to be online anyway. I downloaded NavDroyd, which cost a few dollars but has free regularly updated maps of EVERYWHERE, sourced from OpenStreetMaps.org. The interface was a bit fiddly, but it was a life-saver in places like Kyrgyzstan.

The other benefit of a netbook is Skype and communication tools. Yes you can Facetime on an iPad, but they've been shown to use quite a bit more data than necessary. I personally find the ability to use more than one program is also hugely beneficial - I can Skype and browse to links in my browser at the same time to send to the people I'm chatting, or look up maps to talk about, for example.

I used to have the original 9" Asus EEEPC 901. It was fantastic, loved the solid state drive and it weighed less than a kg. After two years of heavy, heavy use it finally had some SSD issues after a power surge in Chile. I now have the Asus R101 - a 10" as it's much harder to source 9" ones any more. It's still a fantastic PC, but if I could have gotten another 901 I would have. However I can surf, do video editing, chat, Skype, and watch tv on it with no problems, despite it being a low-power netbook.

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Bah the 901 was 2nd generation! - I had the original 7" 701 and it didn't have a hdd. Mine died after about three years when the fan got dodgy and it started to overheat and eventually cooked itself. My HP is faster and has better battery life but is heavier and not as well built and started to break by about three months old. I'd go for a 7" Asus again if it were only possible. –  hippietrail Jan 23 '12 at 21:02
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The only 9" available now is their Asus "Disney" model. If only it didn't look hideous ;) My 901 had a 12 gig SSD; no regular HDD, very good for bumpy bus rides! –  Mark Mayo Jan 23 '12 at 21:06
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I recently traveled around Europe with the Samsung Galaxy S2 as my sole means of communication. This proved perfectly sufficient, and incredibly useful. As it is significantly smaller than a computer or tablet, it is easily transportable in a pocket. As a result, you can carry it with you at all times, even when walking 6+ hours a day as I did, without extra weight. Battery life easily lasts a day.
I would recommend the S2, as with the largest smartphone screen, it makes communication easier - more room to see, and to type.
It is also great as an e-reader, perfect for trains/planes.

For connectivity, free wifi spots are fantastic. I made extensive use of McDonalds wifi in several countries, sometimes just by standing outside.

Skype also works fantastically on this phone, and I used it several times to video phone with family.

In terms of backup, I believe that you can buy adapters to connect to external usb storage. And with 8GB+ internal storage, with sd card slot available, you should have plenty of room!

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To keep connection with home I don't use fancy gadgets that could get stolen. I prefer instead:

  • enter image description here
  • enter image description here
  • enter image description here
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I agree with you, the simplest things are often the better option. However I prefer to have independance for my communications so I dont have to worry on relying on other facilities that are not my own :) –  loosebruce Jan 23 '12 at 9:41
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@loosebruce you are still dependent on a variety of factors (power source, network connection, wifi, security blah blah blah ...). I personally found it rather "free-ing" throwing out my mobile. –  NimChimpsky Jan 23 '12 at 9:55
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last postcard I sent from Vancouver to NZ still hasn't arrived. All my emails did. Just saying ;) –  Mark Mayo Jan 23 '12 at 10:20
    
I completely agree with #2. Bring along your Tardis, and you can communicate with everyone! –  Affable Geek Jan 24 '12 at 18:45
    
well said. The very best thing about vacation time is the lack of computers, cellphones, internet, and television. –  jwenting Feb 1 '12 at 13:42
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Another article on this from TooManyAdapters:

Staying in touch while on the road

It discusses getting a smart phone / device of some sort, teach friends/relatives how to use chat programs and VoIP programs like Skype, and buying local sim cards.

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One factor you may want to keep in mind is electrical plugs.

With iProducts (including laptops), you can buy from your local Apple store a worldwide kit. This was useful when I was going from Australia to Japan in July, with an iPhone and a MacBook Pro.

By contrast, Asus' website makes it hard to get a power cord. I'll be going to Japan again in February, and taking an Asus notebook with me. Currently I'm planning on taking a "universal adaptor" with me, and possibly buying a power cord once I get there. I haven't been able to find in Australia an adaptor for Japan handling three prongs - maybe they're not legal.

I don't know how reliable a "universal adaptor" will be. When I was googling about using computers bought in Australia in Japan, I got conflicting advice about whether the lack of a third prong will be an issue. I'll try to add examples of websites giving conflicting advice some time this week.

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If you absolutely need to backup your photos, I'd go with a netbook + smartphone combo. Otherwise, you could get by with just a smartphone. It lets you access maps, app, and the internet. There are lot of offline mapping apps, like Galileo, which you can use to navigate around the city or country. What you do is load up the data while you're connected to wi-fi at your hotel, then you turn off data roaming when you're walking around the city.

For people who find surfing the net annoying on the smartphone, you could go with smartphone/tablet combo. If you have more money and are willing to take a risk, you could go with smartphone+Macbook Air.

Wi-fi is everywhere, and should be available in your hotel. Browse Tripadvisor or Hostelworld reviews to make sure other travellers also found the wi-fi to be good in your hotel. 3G coverage is also everywhere. If you need to use wi-fi while you're walking around, just look for the nearest Starbucks, which has free wi-fi. There are also a bunch of apps that download a database of all free wi-fi locations in your area.

If you're using maps and GPS a lot on your phone, it can drain your battery fast. I'd recommend bringing a recharger. On a recent trip, I carried around the New Trent IMP120D, which had 12000MAH or 6 iPhone charges. It was too bulky for a pants pocket, but since it was winter, I carried it in my coat. If it was summer, I'd probably go with a smaller device for day trips. 2000MAH equals one iPhone recharge, so anything that's 4000MAH+ would probably suit your needs. I never had to do more than 2 recharges during the day. Make sure you charge it up all the way at night. These devices are also convenient if you're staying at hostels. If you're sharing the room, you can lock up your iphone at night, and just leave the recharger in the wall socket. Most of these are under $80, so it's better to risk losing the recharger than your phone.

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I'd recommend smartphone only for the following reasons. In my view the 2 disadvantages mentioned (not able to backup data; not as capable) largely don't matter.

  • Less bulk in your backpack; less stuff to steal.
  • A smartphone can do pretty much everything (general internet access, maps + gps, take decent quality photos, play music). Agreed, not as handy to use as a laptop if you need to book flights quickly or whatever, but there are computers widely available at hostels and internet cafes.
  • For most people, the best backup option is the internet anyway; e.g. Dropbox or one of several other services. (Assuming you have decent connectivity from time to time, but in Europe you generally have.) You can perfectly well upload your photos etc from your smartphone. I'd argue that the storage on a computer you carry around on a long trip makes for a lousy backup strategy.

Yes, for games and movies, etc, a smartphone isn't optimal, but then, you can do all that at home. How about exploring Europe instead? ;) If you want to do things like video editing while on the road though, then yeah, take a netbook/laptop.

I have taken many trips around Europe (and the world) with this approach and never really missed a bigger computing device of my own.


General wifi availability varies a lot from country to country, but in good hostels and hotels you'll find it everywhere, so it should't be a problem. (Except for foursquare addicts like me :P). E.g. in Hamburg, Germany very few restaurants and cafes have wifi while in French or Italian cities it's much more common. Besides Starbucks and McDonald's, Apple Stores are good for wifi, and make for an internet cafe substitute too.

Small tip that I use all the time: load up maps of your next destination when you have wifi access (so that the map data gets cached); then when arriving there and looking for your hostel, etc, you can navigate perfectly with just the GPS signal (no costly internet access needed).

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