A computer can be useful for leisure travellers, and indispensable for business travellers and digital nomads. This article describes the hardware; there are specific articles for Internet access and Internet telephony.
As of the 2020s, a smartphone has apps for most daily needs; see Smartphone apps for travellers for apps especially for travellers. When it comes to ticket systems and maps, mobile apps might be superior to computer apps.
A tablet computer is a lighter option than a laptop computer, but is less versatile.
A laptop computer is both portable and useful, but can be the most expensive option.
Buying a computer at the destination might be a solution, but has some risks when it comes to warranties and returns, if you intend to bring it back home. It may also be a hassle to get language settings and the like to be what you are used to. Also hardware, such as keyboard setup, may differ (the engravings are one thing, but if some of the keys are missing, you are out of luck).
If you do buy a computer abroad, look into possible tax refunds for tourists on high-value purchases; these may be available in popular shopping destinations such as Thailand. However, check the details of the tax refund requirements: this may only be possible for a device you take out of the country with you, and in some cases it's only possible if you don't use the computer before leaving the country.
Buying external equipment on site, such as a keyboard and a mouse, is also an option. They can be cheap enough to discard or donate before returning home. On the other hand, you might want to bring the keyboard, as it is reasonably easy to carry, to get the keyboard layout and engravings you are used to.
Laptop computers can be rented in some locations. For a rented laptop, you should try to clone the hard drive using an application such as Clonezilla and then restore the drive to its original state when returning it since it may be difficult to remove all of your personal info. Otherwise it is best to only liveboot the rented computer. Livebooting involves running an operating system from an external USB thumb drive or DVD-ROM drive so that no changes are made to the local hard disk but the performance of the computer will not be as good when running on a liveboot.
Local computers and libraries
Computers are readily available in many internet cafés and public libraries. You are unlikely to be allowed to install your own software, and you may be restricted to a web browser. There are Java applications intended for this situation: if allowed to be run, they can provide SSH or remote desktop access to a server you set up at home.
Some hotels have a "business centre" with a computer and printer available.
If you have access to university or college facilities, there are often computer labs with a better assortment of software. You may want to learn to use programs commonly available on Linux, Mac and Windows beforehand, the ones you are used to may not be installed – and also here installing your own software may not be allowed. If the computers have SSH and X11, then you can use a remote desktop from your server, with its software available. Also Windows has remote desktop software, but the licences of most Windows software make its use awkward.
If you rent office space, then it should be able to arrange access also to a full-fledged desktop computer with large screens and permission to install your own software. What you want may of course affect what you have to pay.
Printers and scanners are usually available at all these sites. While printing usually isn't free, scanning may be. You don't want to carry a lot of paper anyway, so your actual need of printing is probably very limited. Send PDFs by e-mail instead of prints by snail mail.
Libraries give access to a lot of interesting material. University libraries may give access also to academic journals and a lot of other stuff that normally is behind a paywall. While computer labs usually are for local students only, many university libraries are available to the public.
Libraries, public ones as well as those of universities, often have rooms for reading and for using computers. They are an ideal place for working for some. Universities may also have other suitable spaces. Don't let anyone feel you are abusing these places – they may become restricted if somebody feels you shouldn't be there.
You can print documents at most public libraries and some college campus computer labs but printing may not be free. You can also print documents (not for free) from commercial print shops and some office supply stores. Some hotels will also be able to print documents for you if you are a registered guest.
If you will be plugged into a power outlet most of the time while working, you don't need to worry much about power consumption (although the generated heat may be an issue indoors in hot climates). If, on the other hand, you are going to work on battery, you might want to minimise power consumption.
Screen, CPU and GPU are the most power hungry parts of the computer. Laptops generally have power-efficient versions of them, but if you want a large screen, computer power and fast graphics, some of this efficiency needs to be sacrificed. Don't buy a gaming computer and, if you can, check what level of 3D performance you need.
The integrated GPUs (graphic processors) of most laptops are enough for normal work. Some models may leave also the graphics for the CPU (central processing unit) to handle, and this works if the CPU is up to the task and what you do isn't graphics intensive. If you are going to do video or 3D editing, check what you need. The amount of RAM (working memory) is also a factor – video and 3D models require much space and if they don't fit, the slower SSD memory has to be used. RAM also uses power, but much less than the CPU and GPU.
For screen size, you want enough that you can work efficiently. Try doing serious work for a few days with the setup you intend to use – don't wishfully think you'd manage with less than you are used to. On the other hand, don't buy a larger screen than you need. There are also differences in power consumption between technologies. For working in bright sunlight, some screens can handle that power-efficiently, while some don't handle it at all.
There are some tricks to manage with a smaller screen. You can use virtual desktops, which allow switching from one set of windows to another; that way you don't need screen space for windows you aren't using at the moment. Get rid of any toolbars you don't use; they can easily be turned back on as needed (learn how). If you cannot manage with the smallest possible font sizes, then a (new) pair of glasses might help.
If you need a large screen, then you might want to consider a palmtop computer (or suitable smartphone) for work where you don't need that screen. You probably also want to be able to plug in a larger screen when one is available. Check that your laptop can handle two screens and most display standards (including SVGA), and carry adapters as needed.
Most laptop computers have flexible settings for power optimisation. Check that they are in use and optimised for your needs. To extend battery life, reduce the brightness of the screen and reduce the monitor resolution when a lower resolution suffices.
Laptops typically have both a minimum and a maximum safe operating temperature. You should use a laptop heater in cold environments and a laptop cooler in hot environments. If the computer has to do heavy work, a cooler may be useful also in normal room temperature. Avoid having direct sunlight shine on the computer; a "laptop tent" can keep sunlight off in the daytime and moisture off in the night (make sure the cooling is still working).
Risk factors for computers include theft, damage from shocks or liquids, malware, and trouble with authorities. Apple laptops are more likely to be a target for theft in some places.
- Laptop lock. Most laptops come with a slot to attach a cable that locks the machine to a piece of furniture. These are a fine idea for nearly any traveller and more-or-less essential for a digital nomad. They are by no means foolproof, but they will prevent an opportunist from making off with the machine when you are not paying attention.
If you carry sensitive data and perhaps otherwise, it is worth paying attention to USB security. Disable the boot-from-USB feature so no-one can attack directly that way, and consider putting a password on your BIOS to make it more difficult for an attacker to alter the boot sequence. Also disable the "feature" that makes the machine automatically execute a program (which could be malware) on a newly inserted memory stick and don't allow the stick to define what applications to use for opening files (or never just double-click a file). Consider disabling the feature of taking USB keyboards into use on attaching them, as some malware makes USB sticks pose as keyboards, writing commands to the computer. Some USB controllers are reprogrammable through the USB interface (with no authority checks), which means that any USB stick or other USB device that has been used with an untrusted computer might be compromised, unless you know it is immune. For charging, there are "USB condoms" that disable connectors other than those for power.
|“||Backups are for wimps. Real men upload their data to an FTP site and have everyone else mirror it.||”|
—Linus Torvalds, creator of Linux
If you store something valuable (work, travel diary, photos) on your computer, you should have a reliable backup scheme, and many IT professionals prefer to have at least two backups for important data. The commonest choice for local backups are a USB stick or an external drive with a USB interface. Keep it somewhere other than the laptop bag so one disaster is not likely to destroy both data and backup.
Some data can be backed up by uploading it somewhere. If you are working for an employer, arrange to put your work on their servers. You could also register with any of the companies that offer backup services in their "cloud" to consumers. Otherwise computer code can go on Github or Sourceforge, photos on Photo.net or Flickr, and so on; the free versions of these sites will make all your uploads public, but several of them also offer services that keep the data private, for a fee. Wikimedia Commons takes all sorts of media, but only material that might be of educational use and has a license permitting reuse, and any uploads are public.