I spend most of the year travelling (as long as I’m not sidelined by rare medical anomalies). As a freelance writer/photographer, I need a laptop to make sure I don’t starve.
I have a list of requirements for what I think is the best travel laptop. A computer is a highly personal choice, so if you don’t agree with my criteria, that’s totally fine! This should at least give you an idea what’s out there, especially considering my pick is not a segment of the market that gets a lot of coverage.
The short version is, it’s the Asus T102HA Transformer Mini. Here’s why.
I’m looking for very specific things when I’m in the market for a travel laptop. It needs to be small and light, that’s obvious. And easy, there are lots of small and light laptops.
I also want it to be cheap. I already travel with a lot of expensive lenses and cameras, I don’t want to add a $1,000 laptop to that kit. It also means if it’s stolen, or breaks, I’m not devastated (and the latter has happened before, as I’ll mention later).
Lastly, long battery life. I want to be able to work anywhere I want, for as long as I want. This doesn’t mean 4 or 5 hours of battery, but more like 9+. Even MORE importantly, I want to be able to use a USB battery pack to recharge the laptop. That gives me days worth of working battery life. This is a much harder criteria, as there are limited laptops that charge via USB.
Some new high-end models are shipping with USB-C charging, but these don’t fit the other criteria above. Also, from talking to Kimber Streams at Wirecutter, the current generation of USB battery packs, even those with USB-C, don’t adequately charge USB-C laptops. It will happen, I’m sure, but we don’t seem to be there yet. We’re definitely not there for $400 USB-C, so for now, we’ll stick with micro “regular” USB.
Talking hardware is perhaps the least interesting aspect of the T102HA. The processor is an Intel Atom x5-Z8350. It’s not fast, but it works just fine for most tasks. I wouldn’t want to edit video with it, and if you’ve got a lot of programs open at once, it slows. There’s only 4 GB of RAM, which doesn’t help that situation.
However, it does have a 128 GB internal flash drive, double that of other mini-laptops. I was constantly running out of space on my 64 GB minis, partly due to Lightroom backing up everything, and partly due to Microsofts incessant and massive Win10 updates.
Speaking of Win10, this has the 64-bit version, so you can use the latest and best versions of various software (like the aforementioned Lightroom).
A microSD card slot lets you expand the storage space.
The screen is bright and seems to have pretty accurate colors. It’s a better screen than other laptops in this price range, though it’s only 1280x800, so you run out of real-estate fairly easily. However, given the size of the screen, higher resolutions mean icons are harder to see, so this isn’t as big a deal as it seems. However, the polarization of the LCD is exactly 90 degrees off from my sunglasses, which means I can’t see the screen at all while wearing them. A major bummer since I like working outside. Your mileage may vary, depending on your sunglasses.
The best feature of this, and the other laptops in this category, is being able to charge via normal USB. To me, this is the most important aspect. It means that you only need one wall charger to recharge nearly all your gear (phone, headphones, etc). It also means that a standard USB battery pack will charge/recharge the laptop, giving you nearly infinite battery life. Higher screen brightness might slow or negate charging, but it’s easy to get it all working.
The keyboard has positive click and a light touch. I find it exceptionally easy to type on. Keep in mind, though, it’s much smaller than a normal keyboard. If you have big or non-dexterous fingers, you might have an issue. It’s not as good as a full-size keyboard, of course, but it’s one of the better small-size keyboards.
The T102HA came with a stylus, but I didn’t test it. Actually, I think I accidentally left it at home…
On the back is a fingerprint reader, which is quite handy for a speedy Win10 login.
I’ve been using the T102HA for several weeks. It’s easily the best mini-laptop I’ve owned, and I’ve owned around a half dozen. It’s a little faster than previous models, lacking the sluggishness of last year’s and previous versions. The keyboard is great (for my spindly fingers anyway), and I find I can type at about the same rate of speed as my big ergonomic keyboard at home. Battery life has been fantastic. With 96% life left, it says it will run out in 9 hours, 19 minutes.
I’ve used it to edit several photo slideshows, type several articles, and watch the latest season of Archer. It has been more stable than my last two laptops as well, which is a nice change.
So far I love it, and it was easily worth the $400 I paid for it.
Who else likes it?
Trusted Reviews gave it 3.5/5 stars, praising its size, battery life, and keyboard. They felt it was underpowered, though, and didn’t like the trackpad.
PCWorld gave it 3/5, and I love the title of their review: “This 2-in-1 delivers good-enough computing on the cheap.” Which, honestly, it’s an accurate assessment. Overall they do like it, as long as you manage expectations, concluding “It’s not so bad.” Fair enough.
Acer makes the Aspire Switch 10. It’s pretty similar to this, just with a smaller hard drive and a few other little differences. The form factor of the T102HA is so slick though, I went with it even though I was worried about the charger port.
If the limitations of a mini-laptop like this doesn’t seem like your cup of English Breakfast, Wirecutter has a guide on cheap laptops.
And then there’s the Macbook Air which is ridiculously expensive but quite sleek.
If you can, find a store that has the T102HA so you can try it out. It’s entirely possible, as I mentioned, that the keyboard won’t work for you. But if this is just for travel for you, maybe it’s fine for short stints. Personally, I like it and have typed tens of thousands of words on it already.
Sure it’s a little slow, and I worry that it will die on me like the last one, but so far so good. It’s easily the best small/cheap laptop I’ve owned, and I’ve owned several.