When you leave your laptop behind

We've all heard how the phone in your pocket is really a PC. Well, a few weeks ago I put that to the test literally. I left for a week of heavy business travel in three cities to see if my phone (actually a series of phones) could replace my MacBook Pro. For my tests, I carried an iPhone 3GS with a Mophie JuicePack Air, a Palm Pre Plus and an HTC HD2. I also had a Stowaway Bluetooth Keyboard which works with the HD2.

This is not the first time I've traveled sans laptop. I've taken day trips and even a European trip with no PC. But those trips were all made safe in the knowledge that I'd need nothing more than email access. In this case, this was hardcore travel, with deadlines and serious meetings. My only ground rules were no PC use. That meant no borrowing colleagues laptops or using business center PCs. This was phones only. Here's what I learned.

First, there's something truly liberating about not traveling with a laptop. Yes, there's the 4.5 pounds it saves me, I wish losing 4.5 pounds were that easy going to the gym. It's quite fun, far more than it should be, going through security without having to take out your laptop (although, on one leg of the trip, I had to PROVE that there was no laptop in my bag *Sigh* ). When all is said and done, that's the primary advantage, not having to carry the extra weight and the ability to move through TSA screens faster.

The downside, however, was huge. If you're planning to leave behind your laptop, here are some issues you'll have to deal with.

1. Battery life. All my phones failed me at some point. At SXSW, running from early morning to late night proved too much for every device I carried. The Pre Plus and HD2 barely lasted the better part of a day. The iPhone 3GS fared much better, thanks to the Mophie JuicePack Air that let me get through the harshest of days. Even then, topping off now and then helped quite a bit. When you're constrained to one device, you tend to use that device a lot more. So in addition to phone calls, email and general mobile tasks, I was writing and editing reports, reviewing presentations and spending a lot more time with email in particular as it was my only way to stay connected. Tip: Turn off 3G and rely on EDGE when possible to save battery life. WiFi also uses less power than 3G if there's a hotspot open. Likewise, turn off Bluetooth and dim the screen as much as possible to eke out more time.

2. Size matters. The biggest issue I kept running into related to screen size. Phones are just too small for content creation (at least for my 40+ year old eyes). Even with the HD2's larger screen and resolution, creating content was a nightmare. At best I could work with text. Numbers were virtually impossible for me to manipulate. The lack of multiple windows proved time and time to be a frustration. While most of mobile activity does not involve content creation or editing, those with that need are best to avoid the phone. I'm not saying it can't be done, it just can't be done well. Likewise, the iPhone's virtual keyboard is fine for casual email but for real text entry, nothing beats a full sized keyboard. This is where the Stowaway Bluetooth came in handy with the HD2. It would be very nice to see Apple support for BT keyboards in iPhone and iPod Touch soon.

3. Apps Matter. When it comes to content creation, nothing beats Microsoft Office or iWork. While both Docs to Go and QuickOffice worked well enough for casual use, neither was up to the task for real work on the go.

Bottom line? Leaving your laptop is fine for short trips, where the focus will be email, light content viewing and very minor editing. For now, the phone, no matter how good simply can't supplant a real personal computer when it comes to getting work done. For those that suggested a netbook, to me that's the same as a PC for all intents and purposes. Now, if only there were some device that lived between the PC and Phone that could replace the PC for heavy business travel. But that's a topic for another column, after April 3rd...