How today's hi-tech traveller can stay connected
For travelling light weight and hi-tech, these gadgets are just the ticket, writes Jamie Carter
IF GLOBALISATION HAS changed the way we live, where we work and even what we eat, it's our travel habits that are increasingly dictating our personal technology.
Anyone who's recently taken a trip on a plane - even the MTR - will have noticed the trend of smartphones merging with tablets. Noise-cancelling headphones, inspired by technology used for decades by airline pilots, are now used by the rest of us, even when commuting.
Even the bags we're carrying are becoming more technology-focused, with special compartments for iPads, Kindles or smartphones and industrial-grade protection that presumes an expensive gadget is the most important thing in your luggage.
It probably is. The days when packing for a holiday meant choosing a good book are over, and no longer is an annual trip "getting away from it all".
"Gadgets keep us connected," says James Hong, director and general manager of marketing at Sony Computer Entertainment Hong Kong. "We need to be connected with friends, partners, family, any time, anywhere, yet we need privacy and 'me' time. Gadgets fill the gap of this paradox."
Hong always carries his Sony PlayStation Vita on trips - no surprises there - but there are now myriad and ever-changing products designed for our on-the-go lifestyles.
Amazon's backlit Kindle Paperwhite (HK$990) is perfect for reading on long-haul flights and the batteries last for a month. Kobo's Aura HD (HK$1,690) and the Simple Touch with GlowLight from Nook (HK$1,240) are just as illuminating.
For those seeking a little more variety in entertainment, recent smartphone-tablets, sometimes called "phablets", such as the Samsung Galaxy Mega 6.3 (HK$3,799) and Sony Xperia Z Ultra (HK$6,200) are the best all-in-one space savers yet.
"Mobile devices have transformed the way we use consumer electronics such as cameras, video recorders and MP3 players, which have now all become available in the form of apps," says Tim McDonough, vice-president of marketing for Qualcomm CDMA Technologies, whose new Snapdragon 800 processor is destined for the next wave of high-end smartphones. "A typical smartphone now has more computing power than Apollo 11 had."
For those who want to stay productive during the trip - for work, blogging or photo editing - the choices are baffling. There are now several keyboard cases available for the iPad that not only provide a netbook-sized keyboard for typing, but act as a prop-up stand that's perfect for a bring-your-own inflight movie. Then there is the Asus Fonepad (HK$2,060), a seven-inch tablet that can also make calls. The space-saving opportunity is hard to resist, but there's no camera and, frankly, who wants to hold such a huge item up to their ear in public?
The Fonepad fits nicely into a suit jacket's inside pocket, so it might be useful for business meetings, but I won't be leaving my smartphone at home just yet.
A less controversial option is the Samsung Galaxy Note 8.0 (HK$3,430), an eight-inch tablet that is the same size as the popular iPad Mini, but far more focused on persuading laptop users to make the jump.
"It's easier to use on the move than a laptop," says Hong Kong-based tech blogger Arnold Aranez mrgadget.com.au "Its five-megapixel camera, phone and stylus are compelling reasons to use the Galaxy Note 8.0 over a notebook while adventuring."
It's cheaper and lighter than ultrabooks, though most are probably holding out for a high-end laptop/tablet hybrid where you can separate the screen from the keyboard. Such "convertibles", influenced by the likes of Lenovo's Twist (HK$8,000) and Yoga (HK$7,000) will likely flourish - but only if the price is right.
"While they may be nice to look at, they still struggle to compete against low-priced media tablets," says Craig Stice, senior principal analyst at US-based IHS Electronics & Media. "PC vendors are still trying to find that magic combination … and most importantly a price that can compete."
Aranez thinks many travellers will choose a laptop or ultrabook over a tablet. "Unless a technology becomes available that allows quick and accurate input of large amounts of text, laptops will still be around for many years," he says, adding that he uses aMacBook Pro for blogging and photo editing, but takes an iPad Mini into meetings.
However, beyond Hong Kong's world-class network infrastructure, most mobile gadgets can lose their lustre.
"When I travelled to Antarctica, there was no network and when I was in the Sahara, there was no electricity," recalls Hong, and it's a reminder that the best lightweight travel gadgets aren't necessarily electronic.
Carrying multiple smartphones, tablets, headphones and accessories is becoming a habit among travellers and commuters, and it's created a new genre of gadget bags.
"A good gadget bag should be part of any serious gadgeteer's or traveller's inventory," says Aranez, who travels with a Samsonite Pro-DLX Rolling tote (HK$3,000) and carries his gadgets around town in a Samsonite Savio Leather II Briefcase (HK$2,390).
"My current favourite for short trips is the hand luggage sized LAT_56° Back-Pack (HK$1,720). It looks like it could withstand a war zone. As well as a compartment for a 15-inch laptop, it has magnetically-closed pockets for gadgets, areas for chargers and room for a shirt or two," he says.
"The technical features came from a background in adventure sports," says Kevin Fox, design director and co-founder of LAT_56°. "However, these bags are designed to make you look the part when you walk into a board meeting or an airport lounge. Bruce Wayne and James Bond would carry this kind of bag."
Clothing can be just as technical. "I like hi-tech outfits," says Hong. "When I was in Antarctica, I tried an Omni-Heat jacket by Columbia, which was heated by a small battery. It kept me warm easily."
Columbia also makes some of the best quick-drying, lightweight - even mosquito-proof - shirts, too, though it's merino wool that travels best. This tightly woven, super-thin fabric creates sweaters and T-shirts that wick-off sweat in humidity while keeping you warm in air-conditioned cabins. Best of all, they don't seem to pick up odour for days.
The top choice here is Icebreaker, whose Superfine 150 Tech T Lite shirt (US$358) I've worn in every climate imaginable, while its Quattro Zip Hood (HK$1,735) rolls up to one-third of the size of a fleece.
After all the high-tech innovations and inventions, it's a sheep from New Zealand that really has what it takes for lightweight travel.