Wednesday, June 29, 2016

My almost half-a-pound, almost $100, travel computer setup

The ultimate travel computer: it's ultralight; inexpensive enough that you don't worry about it getting bashed around, stolen or used only occasionally; and of course, it's super capable, whether that means using it to hack code, edit photos or watch a movie. In other words, it doesn't exist. Over the years I've tried various approach to travel computing, from simply schlepping my usual work laptop, to using a Netbook to using my Cell Phone plus a bluetooth keyboard. This latter method is what I've been relying on for either overnights or for longer overseas trips, when the only "work" I'll need to do is emergency bug fixes. And while a Galaxy Note 5 + a full sized keyboard + ssh can do amazing things, there's no denying that the screen size is still a limiting factor. Which brings me to my latest attempt at a travel computer: the Asus Chromebit.

The Chromebit is part of the wave of stick computers, which like Netbooks of the day, are all the rage. For around $80, you get a fully functional computer that's the size of an oversized stick of gum. Here's my entire travel setup:

That's the Chormebit itself, the wall adapter, an HDMI extender and a tiny bluetooth keyboard. As you can see, the entire setup weighs about half a pound. Not too shabby for a little over $100.

In terms of action shots, there's really not much to show. Once you plug everything in, you end staring at a Chrome OS computer. And once you log in, you've got a Chrome browser which behaves like any other browser you've ever used. Still, here's the setup in use. One photo is from our kitchen and another in the hotel we stayed at last weekend:

It was actually pretty sweet doing route planning with Google Maps on a large screen TV.

I hadn't used Chrome OS before the Chormebit, so I didn't have much in terms of expectations. But the experimenting I've done so far has lead me to be very impressed. I've plugged this into various TVs and monitors, and it all Just Works. There's no doubt that my Mom's next computer should be a Chromebit. This is just too easy to use.

Let's see how this setup stacks up against the criteria I mentioned above:

Ultralight: Check. I've often debated with Shira where's the most secure place to store a laptop while traveling. The Chromebit gives you a new option: your front pocket.

Cheap: Check. It's hard to argue with a capable computer for $80. And the fact that it's lacking a fragile screen means that you worry far less about damaging the device.

Capable: Maybe. Probably. Hopefully. This one is an open question. Most of what I do these days is web based, from Google Docs, to Blogging to managing photos. And what's not web based can usually be addressed over ssh, which Chrome OS has clients for. In terms of hardware, when everything is finally in sync over Bluetooth, the results are quite impressive. I've had minimal problems pairing a full sized keyboard, real mouse and speaker to the Chromebit. Once theses are connected, it's like your working on a "real" computer. I haven't yet experimented with booting Linux on this device; who knows, maybe it would work. For now though, just having a full sized web browser and ssh seems to cover my bases.

But alas, the setup is perfect. There are definitely a few key 'cons' to relying on a Chromebit as a travel computer:

No HDMI Access, No Computer. My thinking is that most hotel rooms have an HDMI capable TV in them, and failing that, the business center of the hotel should have an HDMI capable monitor. That's a big assumption and one that could go terribly wrong. Even if you have access to HDMI, you need a relatively close outlet, which was almost my undoing at the last hotel we stayed at. The only good news is that the setup is light and compact enough that if you can't put it to use, there's no harm done.

Bluetooth is Bluetooth. By that I mean that regardless of the host computer, pairing Bluetooth devices can be a pain. My original plan was to depend on the Perixx keyboard I use with my phone, but the Perixx wants to pair with a single device at a time. I had visions of me being in some far off land with the Chromebit booted up, but not having a detected keyboard to actually log in. My fix, for now, is to depend on the tiny MiniSuit keyboard, which I happened to have lying around. I keep it exclusively paired with the ChromeBit and it provides reliable keyboard and mouse capability. I can then use it to pair my larger keyboard or another mouse if need be.

I'm definitely curious to see how this setup performs on the road. When I have additional field data, I'll be sure to share.


  1. My travel setup is based on a Raspberry Pi; it costs about the same as yours, and probably weighs about the same. I carry a Raspberry Pi 3 ($35), good quality SD card ($20 -- Samsung EVO+), 5V 3A power supply ($10), plastic case ($10), HDMI cable ($5), RCA cable with TRRS connector ($5 -- make sure you get the right polarity on the connector, many are wired wrong for the Raspberry Pi), and full-size keyboard with trackpad ($15 -- I refuse to use little keyboards). The HDMI cable connects to recent televisions, the RCA cable connects to older televisions, and I've never been unable to make a connection. The Raspberry Pi 3 has built-in wifi (though it's not very good, and I usually carry a $15 wifi dongle as well). With the Raspberry Pi you get a full Linux desktop, with real ssh and everything else you would want. Performance is not bad, certainly sufficient for internet browsing, email, and light document creation; if you want high-quality video, you can enable the hardware codecs from the Raspberry Pi website for $5, or you can just use the software codecs, which will work but at a lower screen resolution. I also carry a power bank ($XX depending on how big you want), which I charge from the 5V 3A power supply, then use to power the Raspberry Pi and recharge my cell phone, and a large-capacity thumb drive. Other than the full-size keyboard, everything fits in a small leather pouch, which I have on occasion carried in my front pocket.

  2. Thanks for sharing!

    First off, I'm glad to see that the use-the-monitor-on-site approach is working for you. That's especially clever to carry along an RCA adapter, I hadn't even imagined something like that existed.

    I definitely appreciate having a Real Linux Box available. I wonder if I'll tire of Chrome OS? Time will tell.

    If I do, I'll have to consider the Pi route.