Ted on Tech: Staying mobile on a budget

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Accountants need to be mobile today more than ever, but mobile devices that can handle the professional workload can be expensive. Here I review my options for traveling that also help me stay on budget.

Even with the advances in video conferencing, many accountants still need to be out of the office pretty frequently. Back in the early 1990s, mobile meant a 16-pound Toshiba laptop with a 9.6-inch plasma display, or if you had the budget, the almost 11-pound, $8,000 Grid Compass — and these were a big step up in mobility from the original 38-pound Compaq introduced in 1983, as well as the similar Kaypro and Osborne computers, all of which resembled suitcases.

These days, a 5-pound laptop is considered heavy, and 3-pound Ultrabooks are common. But Ultrabooks are expensive. Even with a good quality protective case, damaging, losing or having your laptop stolen is still a very present possibility. Depending on what you actually do while on the road or at a client’s office, though, you may just need to travel with a laptop and assume the risk.

But given that so much of what we do these days is cloud-dependent, you might be able to get away with a less expensive, and even lighter alternative: a tablet. On my last two trips, first to Japan and then to Mexico, I left my clunky, inexpensive laptop at home in favor of a tablet. On the Japan trip, my iPad was encased in a Zagg Rugged Messenger folio case that also featured a Bluetooth keyboard, which together weighed a bit less than most Ultrabooks and was a lot more rugged. On my Mexico trip, I went even lighter and cheaper with an 8-inch Kindle Fire HD tablet. Bought during an Amazon Prime special for about $30, I figured it was fine for browsing, reading, checking my email and playing my Spotify playlists. And if it got lost or broken, it wouldn’t have been a big deal.

These two experiences made me think that an inexpensive tablet makes a lot of sense if you don’t really need to do a lot of heavy lifting while out of the office. For many business-oriented tasks other than email, I wouldn’t recommend a 7- or 8-inch model, however. I think it’s just too little screen space, although a lot of cloud-based applications are now formatted for smartphone use, devices which have even smaller screens. Still, a 10-inch screen is about the smallest I feel comfortable with when using a word processor or spreadsheet.

Two tablet options

I’ve been playing with a pair of tablets recently, and I think either of them might be a good fit to add to your on-the-road kit. One of them is the Lenovo 10-inch Tab 4. It weighs 1.1 pounds, has 2GB of system memory and 16GB of RAM “hard disk,” and runs for hours on a charge. It runs on the Android 7.1 operating system, so you’re going to be limited in what kinds of applications you run directly on the tablet, but both Firefox and Chrome browsers are available in Android format. And since the primary purpose of using a tablet is to connect with cloud applications, you can always use the Google G-Suite, or Microsoft Office 365 or Office mobile apps if you need those kinds of applications. The Tab 4 is fairly rugged, though you do have to exercise reasonable care. And I like the bright screen, which has a resolution of 1280 x 800. Some other tablets (most more expensive) offer higher resolution, but other than streaming video, I find the Tab 4’s resolution just fine. Battery life is also good. I was able to get a bit over 10 hours on one charge. If you need more “disk” space, there’s a slot for a microSD card, though the size is limited to just 16GB. The Tab 4 10 sells for about $170, which isn’t bad for a quality, name-brand 10-inch tablet.

One thing that you’re going to find useful if you do go the tablet route is an external keyboard. I have big fingers, and using an onscreen keyboard, I frequently find I’m hitting the wrong keys. Lenovo has a folio case for the Tab 4 with a Bluetooth keyboard, which is a nice accessory, but costs about $75. You might want to consider a portable Bluetooth keyboard instead. I’ve been pretty happy with Logitech’s keyboards over the years. Right now, I’m using their KB780, which can be paired with up to three devices. At $79, it’s not cheap, and it also isn’t the smallest keyboard in the world, measuring 15 inches across. But it has this nifty groove that lets you slot in your tablet so you don’t have to find some way to prop it up. If the budget, and your carry case, is a bit smaller, consider the KB380. It sells for about $39 and is just a touch over 11 inches wide. It’s Bluetooth enabled, so you can use it with pretty much any tablet or smartphone.

The final device I’ve been testing is the Nextbook Flexx 11A 2-in-1 tablet. This is an 11.6-inch tablet with a removable keyboard. It has 2GB of system memory and 64GB of RAM with a microSD card slot that lets you add another 64GB. It sells for about $200, and is available at Walmart, so it should be pretty easy to pick one up. It doesn’t feel quite as solid to me as the Lenovo tablet, but it has one big advantage: It runs Windows 10. And the standard 64GB is enough RAM to install multiple applications, though with only 2GB of system memory, you’re not going to have a lot of open windows or multiple documents open simultaneously. A big plus is that Microsoft Office Mobile is preinstalled which gives you Word, PowerPoint, Excel, and One Note.

At 3 pounds, it’s considerably heavier than most tablets or even a tablet and portable keyboard. On the plus side, it has a lot more ports than most tablets offer. There are two USB 2.0 ports, a micro USB 2.0 port, and a microHDMI port, so it’s easy to use a flash drive, portable hard disk drive, or a USB DVD or Blu-Ray drive. One thing to keep in mind with the Nextbook Flexx 11A is that it has a wall wart power supply, and the connector is not the common microUSB, but rather a barrel type plug. This means that if you forget to pack the power supply, you can’t recharge your device with a smartphone charger the way that you can with most tablets.

No one solution is best for everyone. Your choice is going to depend on what you need to accomplish, and what kind of resources you need to do it. But if it works for you, substituting a tablet for a laptop may prove a very viable approach.

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