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Extreme mobility: Tools and tips for smartphone-only travel

You can enjoy the liberation of traveling without a laptop -- if you have the right equipment and plan ahead.

March 30, 2012 06:00 AM ET
no laptops

Computerworld - After more than 20 years of dragging a notebook computer around whenever I traveled, I finally told myself that enough is enough. On two recent business trips, I joined the small but growing number of travelers who eschew a laptop in favor of a smaller, lighter device.

I could have opted for an iPad or an Android tablet, which would have lightened my load somewhat while providing a 7-to-10-in. screen. But that's an intermediary approach that would still require carrying a phone in addition to the tablet, probably shaving only a few pounds off my travel weight. I decided to go all the way to the light side and see if I could travel with just a smartphone. Call it extreme mobility.

Leaving my laptop and its clunky power adapter at my office has lightened my load considerably. I feel like the After picture in an ad for a new diet plan. Before, I was hunched over, burdened by a heavy notebook bag filled with nearly 10 lbs. of assorted stuff. The After shot shows me standing up straight, holding a thin leather briefcase that houses my smartphone, accessories, paper files and reading material.

All told, I cut 7 lbs. out of my hand baggage -- not bad for a diet that doesn't involve Nutrisystem or eating a mango with every meal.

Of course, it's not quite as simple as swapping a laptop for a phone. There are serious pros and cons to laptop-free travel, and pulling it off takes some extra planning, new hardware and software, and a willingness to squint at a small screen.

In my travels, I relied on an LG Nitro HD smartphone ($100 with a two-year contract), which runs Android 2.3 (Gingerbread) and can tap into AT&T's 4G LTE data service for fast connectivity. It weighs 4.8 oz. (6.8 oz. with its power adapter), a savings of nearly 5 lbs. compared to my HP EliteBook 2560p notebook and its 13-oz. power adapter.

In addition to the phone's included apps for email, Web browsing and mapping, I downloaded several more from the Android Market to make working from a phone feasible. Many of these were free, and those I had to pay for cost less than $30, allowing me to outfit the phone with the programs I needed for laptop-free travel for less than $100. That's half as much as I paid for just my desktop version of Microsoft Office.

While I used an Android smartphone, you can of course get similar results with an iPhone, a Windows Phone or a BlackBerry, although the latter two will offer fewer apps to aid you in your journey.

Successes and failures

During my trips, I succeeded in doing most of my work without a notebook. I was able to keep up with email, do Web research, write using a word processor, update spreadsheets and give presentations. Using a foldable Bluetooth keyboard and having a stand for the phone helped make it all work.

I also found a wealth of entertainment possibilities for the smartphone, including movies, Internet radio and games. Adding a tiny Bluetooth speaker made it, well, more entertaining. I even stayed in touch with my family via Skype video calls and kept an eye on things back home with a remote webcam app.

Unfortunately, my experience was not a clean sweep. I was unable to successfully update my website using Typepad's Web interface, and I couldn't work with complex project management documents. I spent too much time zooming in to make a change or check on a font size, then zooming out to see the big picture. Zoom in, zoom out -- lather, rinse, repeat. Before long, I gave up.

Nevertheless, I've found that I can do nearly everything with my trusty smartphone that I once used my notebook for. Keep reading for the best tools and tips I've found for smartphone-only travel. (story continues)

Before and After: What I Carried

Before After
HP EliteBook 2560p notebook: 70.4 oz. (4.4 lbs.) LG Nitro HD smartphone: 4.8 oz.
AC adapter and power cord: 13 oz. AC adapter: 2 oz.
Cellphone and AC adapter: 5.3 oz. Foldable Bluetooth keyboard: 9 oz.
Wireless mouse: 4 oz. Binder clip stand: 0.6 oz.
Mobile hotspot and AC adapter: 6 oz. Bluetooth speaker: 7.6 oz.
Notebook bag: 56 oz. (3.5 lbs.) Briefcase: 19.2 oz. (1.2 lbs.)
Total: 154.7 oz. (9.7 lbs.) Total: 43.2 oz. (2.7 lbs.)


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