Small, cheap laptop with no internet required
September 8, 2016 7:28 AM   Subscribe

I'm looking for a small, inexpensive (<$400) laptop to use from the rainforest in West Africa for data entry and word processing. It seems like since I last looked for this sort of thing, notebooks have been replaced by chromebooks and fancy tablets, but I won't have access to the internet the vast majority of the time. Do I want a chromebook? A refurbished notebook? Something else?

My main concerns are:

- Long battery life/short charging time

- Does not require access to the internet for full functionality of word processing and spreadsheet software. It looks like chromebooks use google docs, which I've never used for heavy duty word processing or data entry, and I've definitely never used just as a desktop application. I'm having a hard time figuring out how well these work without ready internet access. I'll be accessing the internet at most a few hours a week.

- I suspect a tablet would not be appropriate for data entry and dissertation writing, and I'll need to be able to offload GPS tracks/back up onto flash drives and external hard drives, but if I'm wrong and you know of a wonder tablet that can do these things that isn't also really fiddly in very humid and wet environments, let me know.

- Small and lightweight. My laptop now is a 13" screen, and I want to bring something smaller.

Do you have any recommendations for what sort of computer-type-thing I should purchase?
posted by ChuraChura to Technology (23 answers total) 4 users marked this as a favorite
The HP Stream 11 is the first device that comes to mind. Only 32GB of internal storage, but you can get around that with a Ziploc bag of microSD cards.
posted by fifthrider at 7:36 AM on September 8, 2016 [2 favorites]

It may not be right for you, but consider the $69 PocketCHIP. They sort of pitch it as a little game machine but it runs a fairly vanilla desktop Linux. You should be able to do light data entry and word processing on it, no problem.

You can also do scripting, run R, and many other odds and ends. Basically it can do most anything a Linux laptop can do, only it's tiny and has a button keyboard. I would probably not want to write a dissertation on one.
The tiny size and low price may win you over, also the game and music apps look awesome, and you'll need something to do in your down time right?
posted by SaltySalticid at 7:40 AM on September 8, 2016

In theory, I think a chromebook should do what you want; from a quick google search:

But I assume it still depends on occasional connectivity for initial setup and updates.

And I have no personal experience with chromebooks, or with using a laptop in your situation.
posted by bfields at 7:43 AM on September 8, 2016

I would go with a refurbished Dell laptop ( They're pretty bulletproof - I got one as a graduation present in 2008, and it's still going (though the hinge between screen and computer is getting a little iffy). Install Open Office on that puppy and you should be good to.
posted by joycehealy at 7:56 AM on September 8, 2016 [1 favorite]

Chromebooks do require internet access. You might want to look at the Lenovo Yoga series, these can be used as a tablet or laptop. You might also want to consider something like the Dell Rugged Series.
posted by tman99 at 8:01 AM on September 8, 2016 [2 favorites]

Asus still makes netbooks in the classic EeeBook series, like this one for $200. Reports are that you can get 8 or more hours on the battery. You'll probably get more if you have wifi turned off.
posted by dis_integration at 8:09 AM on September 8, 2016 [7 favorites]

I have the Asus E403SA and couldn't be happier. It is 14" but super light.

I bought it to upgrade from a chromebook when I really hit the point that I needed to be able to run windows programs.
posted by magnetsphere at 8:10 AM on September 8, 2016

I don’t think that’s true tman - you can use Google Docs etc just fine on a Chromebook without connecting it to the internet - Docs, Sheets etc are setup to be offline apps that work just fine without an internet connection.

You might need an internet connection to do the initial Chromebook setup though.
posted by pharm at 8:18 AM on September 8, 2016

"My laptop now is a 13" screen, and I want to bring something smaller."

Bring a used 10" Laptop. Make sure:
It has SDD instead of HDD (Consumes less power)
It has a new battery. Original if possible (not Chinese)

If it has Wifi/Bluetooth, try to either turn it off in the BIOS of in Windows/Linux. Will save power.
posted by yoyo_nyc at 8:19 AM on September 8, 2016 [2 favorites]

Something like this. It is so cheap, you could even bring two, one as a backup.
posted by yoyo_nyc at 8:25 AM on September 8, 2016

I think a thinkpad would be good or I used to have an Asus netbook (though hard to find these days). I made it through the first half of my PC service in Togo with it (as well as 3 years spent traveling around Europe, living in France and Texas).

I currently have a thinkpad for work and those things are sturdy. You want something that is ugly and holds up. Also somethings g with lots of ports/Ethernet, etc for when you finally get Internet and additional dongles are just waiting for something to go wrong.
posted by raccoon409 at 8:29 AM on September 8, 2016 [1 favorite]

If you need to do field data collection in addition to data entry back in camp, you may want a tablet. We use iPads with waterproof cases and they hold up well to rough field use and being immersed, as well as hot (though not humid) weather. It's not a great computer replacement for all tasks, but it may help you keep your laptop in safer conditions.

Every laptop I have used in the tropics died from humidity so I have no advice there.
posted by Dip Flash at 8:40 AM on September 8, 2016 [1 favorite]

I would look at used Toughbooks. They're ruggedized and they are real Wintel computers so interfacing with thumb drives and GPS devices is no problem---unlike a tablet (I don't know how well a Chromebook would handle those either).
posted by Monochrome at 8:51 AM on September 8, 2016 [2 favorites]

> consider the $69 PocketCHIP

It has bare collapsing-membrane bubbles as keys and a 320x240 display. Also, it won't be available to the general public until late October.
posted by scruss at 9:34 AM on September 8, 2016 [2 favorites]

If you're going to be doing a lot of typing, I really discourage you from getting a 10 inch laptop unless you're already comfortable on that sized keyboard. They usually have to make compromises to make them that small that make accurate typing hard.

What is your power source going to be like? If you're severely constrained, a tablet with Bluetooth keyboard will be the easiest thing to charge, as 5 volt DC is very common. If you're going to have regular access to 12 volt DC, make sure you have an appropriate adapter for the laptop.

A Chromebook will not work for you with Chrome OS, but if you're comfortable with Linux, you can easily run it on them. If you are not familiar with Linux, I would strongly recommend against relying on it in the field and trying to learn it on the fly.
posted by Candleman at 9:35 AM on September 8, 2016 [3 favorites]

scruss - thanks for the clarification, on the membrane keys, but I think you got the screen wrong. According to their documentation, PocketCHIP has a
'4.3" display made up of 480 x 272 pixels. The display is resistive touch and responds to tapping and sliding.'

I know it's a slightly off-the wall suggestion but OP said they wanted something small and this is the smallest thing I know of that acts like a normal desktop/laptop computer. I also have no idea when OP's field season starts, in my experience they try to plan these sort of things more than a month out ;)
posted by SaltySalticid at 9:46 AM on September 8, 2016 [1 favorite]

I might use a large screen smartphone with the cell and wifi radios turned off, and either a bluetooth or wired keyboard. A phone that's good for a day of operation in a charge can go for two or three days of regular use with cell and wifi radios off.
posted by zippy at 10:12 AM on September 8, 2016 [1 favorite]

that isn't also really fiddly in very humid and wet environments, let me know.

This is tough and most cheapie machines will fart out. I'd get a cheap used dell XFR, toughbook, etc. There are intermediate models of both that aren't SUPER rugged/chunky/heavy that are still moisture resistant and reinforced. Dell calls this the "rugged" and "rugged extreme" now.

Alternatively, i'd buy two of the CHEAPEST junkers i could find and back everything up to several flash drives constantly. Like the aforementioned asus x205(which is a good cheap computer, but fairly flimsy) or the hp stream 11.

I can dig around and memail you links to cheap ebay auctions on the first two if you're interested.
posted by emptythought at 11:53 AM on September 8, 2016 [4 favorites]

I don't know about tropical conditions, but I used an old 10" Asus EeePC for several years, running Linux Mint. It worked pretty well, though it was often slooow. In retrospect, Xubuntu would have been a better OS choice. The cramped little keyboard took some getting used to, though.

I was recently given an old Panasonic ToughBook that would be my first choice for adverse environments, but it is big, heavy, and clunky - factors only slightly mitigated by the built-in handle.

I've also run Linux on a Toshiba Chromebook via crouton, which works ok but the mouse is buggy (I believe that's specific to this model). Running Linux allows you to install normal software instead of relying on gWhatever, but it has a really strange keyboard (no Del, Home/End, CapsLock, etc.) that suitable for web browsing and basic typing, but not coding or intensive word processing. Switching from the cramped EeePC keyboard to the absurdly spacious Chromebook keyboard was a weird transition, too. With small computers, it's probably a good idea to try typing on them before you buy.
posted by sibilatorix at 12:05 PM on September 8, 2016 [4 favorites]

If you're doing a lot of number crunching, get a peripheral number pad. Trying to enter lots of numbers on a small keyboard or one of those fake fn-key num pads is toooooooorture. I had a USB one in college for lab writeups, they come in bluetooth now.

Are you going to be doing a lot of analysis in the field or just data collection/entry? If it's the later, you might be able to get away with Open Office/Google Sheets/Excel for Android. If it's the former, you want a real computer that will run real MS Word and Excel (despite all the valid bitching in this thread about Excel renaming genes, it's still the least worst option around).

I think the netbook recommendations above are probably your best bet, I had an older 10" eeePC for grad school and the battery lasted me a whole day. If you're interested in a tablet+keyboard combo, I'd stick with Windows tablets, maybe an older Surface? that has a full-size USB port. It's possible to get Android tablets to recognize external drives, but it sounds like a PITA and you'll need a dongle.
posted by yeahlikethat at 12:09 PM on September 8, 2016 [2 favorites]

You lucky skunk.

I've used Google Docs for scientific writing, and it's actually not bad (if you haven't used Paperpile, I can't recommend it enough -- blows the pants off of EndNote). However, while you can use it in offline mode, in that case a traditional word processor is really better. I've also used a Chromebook running Linux via crouton (feel free to MeMail me if you decide to go this route). It's actually fairly good, but definitely has enough quirks that unless you enjoy (or are willing to tolerate) some computery tinkering to get/keep things working, I wouldn't recommend it. Particularly if you're writing your dissertation on it: you want a system you feel comfortable with and which won't introduce even more stress.

However, my Acer Chromebook failed (wouldn't boot) after less than a year of (urban, U.S., non-rugged) use. I sent it in for repair, got the motherboard replaced, and the repaired machine failed again less than a year later. Of course, different brands may vary, but the whole point of most Chromebooks is that they're low-end machines made from cheap components -- basically, "throw-away" computers. I've never had to use a computer in the rainforest (again, you lucky skunk), but I imagine humidity is an issue no matter how careful you are. This is likely to stress any cheap consumer-grade computer. The last thing you want is to have your dissertation-writing device die while you're in the field.

Ideally, I think the thing you want is a "semi-rugged" laptop of some sort. This does add to the price, but I found this sale on refurbished Panasonic Toughbooks that seems to bring it down to around your price range. I haven't used one myself, but sibilatorix above does indicate that they're pretty bulky. Personally I might be willing to trade some bulkiness for peace of mind while writing a dissertation, but like I said, I haven't had to use a computer while in the rainforest; you probably have a better idea of your relative priorities.

Good luck!
posted by biogeo at 12:37 PM on September 8, 2016 [3 favorites]

Also, regarding power constraints, if you are going to be extremely limited in your ability to charge, sticking to something that will charge over USB will give you the ability to carry a few external batteries that you can hand over for charging without tying up your device or risking it being stolen.
posted by Candleman at 12:47 PM on September 8, 2016

I thought I posted this yesterday, but I don't see it: they're a bit on the big side, but the Thinkpad x220, x230 and x240 laptops are available off-lease in your price range, and they're sturdy, performant, and pretty well batteried.

Asus has been making T100 transformer variants for several years, so hopefully they've got the kinks worked out. Those have reasonably good reviews , are compact and have decent battery life. It's tablet-ish but with a fairly attachable keyboard. I'd take pains to get one with 4gb of RAM, as many have 2gb.
posted by wotsac at 12:40 PM on September 9, 2016

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