Lu-Hai Liang

thoughts from a freelance foreign correspondent

Top 5 Laptops for Journalists (who like to work in cafes, travel, and write)

with 5 comments

In Beijing, from where I freelance, I often like to sit in cafes to work. The coffee is a good accompaniment and there’s a better chance of random interactions, which I like. To go to these cafes, I used to lug around a heavy, chunky laptop that I’d had since 2009. The £400 Novatech laptop (a British brand and a university gift) powered me through uni, plus a year and a half in Beijing.

Unfortunately, it died when it suffered a big knock, and so I replaced it with this:

IMG_0357 (2)

The laptop I own: the Lenovo Ideapad S210

Best affordable all-rounder

Lenovo Ideapad S210 Touch

It is small, light and very portable, about the same size as an 11-inch Macbook Air. It has an Intel Core i3 processor (which is fine for my needs), a touchscreen, runs Windows 8, and it was a bargain when I bought it in Hong Kong in January for around £318. The laptop has one major flaw however and that is a very short battery life. It lasts about three hours meaning I never can forget to bring its battery charger if I bring it out, which is an obstacle to the pick-up-anywhere-and-write mentality I value.

But, it does have a terrific keyboard. The little thing is great to write on, and how it feels typing out each letter and getting into a groove is a criterion on which I place unequal importance. Writing for a living is an inestimable joy and anything I can do to accentuate that I will. Therefore, this list will place a disproportionate weight on the typing experience.


Best battery life

Macbook Air 13-inch

I am reluctant to list this laptop. It’s easy to move around of course, being so thin and light. The trackpad is the best you can find. The battery life with 13+ hours is also class leading, so you don’t need to look for power sockets in a cafe every time, which is what I need to do.

For clearer text the screen resolution needs to be bumped up – the Macbook Pro’s retina screen is a clear improvement – which helps the eyes when you do as much reading as I do. But this is not the worst thing. No, the Macbook Air, and someone needs to say this, has perhaps the horriblest, most horrendous keyboard to ever grace such a costly machine. The Macbook Pro is better, but its slimmer brother has keys that are flat, squelchy and unresponsive. It’s like typing on a potato.

I would not say no if some kind stranger pressed one into my hands, but I would find no additional satisfaction from writing on a Macbook Air.

Budget alternative: Get an iPad and a third-party keyboard dock. Download the Microsoft Word app for further writing productivity, or alternatively just use a free writing app and send it to yourself via email. The iPad Air also has great battery life and doubles up as a fantastic way to subscribe to magazines etc, especially when you’re freelancing from overseas.


Most fun and portable

Microsoft Surface Pro 3

Most fun? What does that mean? It’s not really a metric tech sites can measure in their laptop reviews. And yet, I think the Surface Pro, which is a laptop in tablet form, is quite a fun little computer. It’s thinner than a Macbook Air and lighter.

In order to do any serious work, you’ll have to buy the separately sold keyboard attachment. They come in two types. One is touch responsive, meaning you’ll have to hammer on a flat piece of plastic with no buttons, or the other one which does have buttons. The latter keyboard is not great – it’s somewhat flimsy but I think it works fine enough, almost a novelty pleasure.

I like the Surface Pro because it’s a sleek tablet, with all the power of a laptop, and you can put it together like a writing transformer. Just taking it out of a bag, setting it up and magnetically attaching its keyboard is a cool experience. I realize how geeky and boyish that sounds.

Budget alternative: The Asus Transformer Book T100. A tablet that comes with a keyboard dock for a very cheap price. It runs Windows 8.1, comes with Microsoft Office installed and a processor that is not too bad. The keyboard dock is cramped and not that fun to use however.

A great Windows laptop, with a fantastic keyboard

Lenovo Yoga 2 Pro

Lenovo is famous for the extra effort they put into keyboard design, and you’ll find superior keyboards across their range. Their ThinkPad line is especially well known for keyboards that resemble desktop typing with high, raised keys that provide excellent tactile feedback. The Yoga 2 Pro is an ultrabook with an HD touchscreen, a processor more than able to handle photo and video editing, and a neat trick of being able to fold over its body to become a tablet. Typing is fast, smooth and groovy.

Budget alternative: The Yoga 2 (without the “Pro” suffix) costs £400 to £700, depending what size you choose, otherwise the aforementioned Ideapad S210 Touch is a good bet although it is hard to find.

My favourite keyboard, and a killer machine 

Dell XPS 13

This is a premium ultrabook with top-end specs. It looks great, is as thin as a Macbook Air but looks sturdier and more robust. Although the battery life could be improved (only about 6 hours), it does feature a higher resolution screen than Macbook Airs, meaning reading text is easier on the eyes.

This is an expensive machine, indeed the costliest on this list, but I’ll pay it to use that magnificent keyboard. The keys are wider and fatter, each click giving out robust feedback. The font of every letter demands to be hammered with vigour; powered by whisky and tobacco.

Typing on this thing is addictive, as if every hit is a small smack of satisfaction. For us modern writers, we will never get into the mechanical groove of typing on a typewriter like Jack Kerouac or Ernest Hemingway or even Hunter S Thompson. For me this keyboard provides a semblance of the same thrill.

5 Responses

Subscribe to comments with RSS.

  1. […] The laptop I picked up in Hong Kong & I wrote about it previously. […]

  2. Hi there. I just stumbled upon this nice piece of writing, thanks for sharing all that. I have an acer ultrabook that I hate now and am planning to replace it ASAP. I have been doing a lot of research and am still confused and you seem to be the best guy who can help me. So please do…

    I was thinking of going on to buy a macbook air 13 inch. But then some things got me confused. I have been using windows throughout my life but I have no issues in switching to mac I am that tech-geeky who can enjoy the process rather than being bothered about it. I can install Office on to it and stick with word, powerpoint etc so no issues.

    I will tell you my needs (what I need from a computer) and my requirements (work life etc) and then my decision and then would wait for your response.

    Requirements: I am a CEO of a small NGO, a university professor and a Consultant so I move around with my laptop a lot even to other cities. Macbook air 13 got me intrigued due to its portability and battery life in the first place. I work on my machine from different offices at times. But connectivity is no issue. I am not in to gaming of video edit etc nothing really, I use my computer for professional purposes and that is mostly it. OK now I am a writer by passion and have written short stories and working on my novel as well. the reason to tell you this is that the most that I do on my laptop is WRITING and I love WRITING ! (even the size of this comment is reflective of what I mean when I say I write a lot. My colleagues hate me for my lengthy emails 😉

    NEEDS: Wow… shall I be truthful ok well so what I ever do is this: internet surfing (research and all- quite a lot), emails quite a lot I have a gmail account and an office account and I am active on both and what else well well now MS OFFICE i.e. WORD, POWERPOINT and EXCEL….. this is my computing life… nothing else really

    Waiting for your response.

    Q. M. Sidd

    December 1, 2014 at 7:46 am

    • Hi there. Thanks for commenting. The needs you describe are quite minimal really, internet surfing and writing. This though is what most people use their laptops for, me included.

      The Macbook Air 13″ will last you a long time, and is a great option as it has great battery life. You might also consider the 11″ as it is so portable and so easy to carry around not just around the city, but around the office too when you just want to move around. I have changed my mind about Macbook Airs actually. Yes I still think the keyboard kind of sucks and doesn’t make the writing process more enjoyable, but for sheer portability and productivity you can’t beat them. I’d also recommend the Thinkpad line and the Yoga Pros, by Lenovo, as they are very reliable, reasonable good value for what you get, and have excellent keyboards.

      Lu-Hai Liang

      December 2, 2014 at 1:57 pm

      • Thanks for the response. I think I shall go with a Macbook air 13 but the macbook pro also attracts me … saw it with a colleague the other day and felt that it is not really THAT heavy… Lets see !!! Thanks a lot again

        Q. M. Sidd

        December 5, 2014 at 8:01 am

  3. […] Its keyboard and trackpad are set up for ease of use, perfect for writers, and the screen display competes with even most Macbooks, at 13.3 inches and IPS full […]

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: