Smartphone, tablet, netbook, laptop—what are a writer’s best tools for the road?

Many marketing writers either choose to or have to work on the move, at least often enough to justify buying portable equipment to do the job.

In practice, there are four alternatives: a smartphone, tablet, netbook or laptop. Let me give a quick overview of how I understand them:


Smartphones are quickly becoming ubiquitous in professional circles. Although they are fine for simple tasks like browsing the web, writing the occasional email or tweet, taking notes (typing or taking pictures—most smartphones come with at least a decent camera) or perhaps making an online payment, they are much too small for any more serious work. In practice, you’re limited to using just two fingers for typing: thumbs if you’re holding the device in your hand, forefingers if you’re resting it on a table.

The office applications, lightweight versions of course, that are available do not support much more than basic functions, although you can use cloud applications such as Google Docs or Zoho.

The by far best feature of smartphones is their pocketability (is there such a word?). Considering what they can do, it is amazing that it all fits into a box small and slim enough to fit into your shirt pocket.


Tablets are gaining popularity in the wake of the wildly popular iPad. Other manufacturers are scrambling to grab market share in what is clearly a lucrative business. I can understand the popularity of tablets from a content consumption point of view as the larger screen format improves the browsing experience in comparison with the tiny screens of smartphones.

Content creation is a different story. The on-screen keyboard might be marginally more usable than the screen or slideout keyboards on smartphones, but far from ideal for touch typing. There’s not much difference in CPU performance between the two, though, so in terms of processing power, what a tablet can do, a smartphone can too. As far as office software goes, you’re pretty much limited to the same solutions as with a smartphone. The connectivity of tablets, I understand, is rather non-existent with only a few models having a USB port. Application-wise, again, not much different from smartphones.

One thing I’m curious about but have never had the chance to try in real life is what the glossy screen will look like after you’ve been tapping, pinching, swiping and dragging with your summer-sticky fingers for a full working day, assuming you’re using the machine to that extent.


Netbooks, the next step on the ladder, have more processing power, usually a fair amount of hard disk space and a better keyboard, around 95% of a full one. It is wide enough for touch typing, which is a definite plus if you’re going to do some serious work. Netbooks also run full-fledged operation systems, Linux or Windows, which allows the use of any software that runs under them. Most netbooks have 1.6 GHz processors, which is quite enough for word processing and spreadsheets. With even the entry-level models having at least two USB sockets, moderate expansion is possible.

Netbooks weigh a bit more than tablets, but less than laptops. Where an iPad weighs around 600 g (1.3 lbs), netbooks start a little under 900 g (2 lbs). Laptops usually weigh clearly more than 1 kg (2.2 lbs).


Laptops have been around for such a long time that I won’t go into detail. The lowest price ranges may be a bit weak, being a compromise between performance and price, but the most sophisticated ones easily replace a desktop computer. What is crucial for on-the-road use is the weight, which for some upscale machines can be 2 kg (4.5 lbs). Battery life is a biggish question mark. The cheap ones usually manage to dry up in less than 3 hours while the best ones run for around 6 hours.

To me personally, a smartphone, although I own one, is far too small for work. The definite plus is that you can carry it in your pocket.

Both tablets and netbooks need a case and you will have to carry them separately. Considering that, it seems to me that a netbook might be the better choice because of its performance, even if it weighs more. The difference between 600 g and 900 g isn’t that big.

Laptops sort of fall out of this comparison in practice, because their smaller-scale colleagues can do all the word processing and spreadsheets I suppose most writers will need when travelling.

Now to the point of this post, at last

My faithful 5-year-old laptop will probably die soon, and there’s no way my smartphone, a very old one, too, can take its place. So I’m considering a variety of options:

  1. Ordinary mobile phone + tablet
    The phone for phoning and SMS, the tablet for work and connectivity. When work is equal to writing 90 per cent of the time, I could probably manage using Google Docs or something similar. But when work is writing 90 per cent of the time, can I do it on a tablet? No touch typing, remember?
  2. Ordinary mobile phone + netbook
    As above, but with more processing power, a more familiar operating system, full office suite software, almost OK keyboard and more disk space. Sounds ideal to me. The only question mark: If I don’t happen to have the netbook with me, will an ordinary phone carry me through the day alone?
  3. Smartphone + tablet
    Sounds to me that this option will only produce two devices that ALMOST do what I want. The two primary concerns are the useless keyboard on the tablet and the fact that we’re essentially talking about two identical devices with the exception of the screen size. So, does a better screen justify lugging the thing in a separate case?
  4. Smartphone + netbook
    Obviously the best choice in terms of performance and being able to use the devices independently. But is it a waste of money as the phone can’t be used for “real” work anyway?


From today’s Twitter discussions I know that at least one of my Twitter friends is a copywriter like me and is fascinated by his iPad. I don’t know whether iPad has some secret properties other tablets don’t, but for this discussion I’m lumping it together with the rest of the pack in the same category. Mac enthusiasts please don’t take offence.

If you have gone through the same difficulties in deciding as I have outlined, please reach out. What is your present setup? What were your criteria? How did you arrive at your solution/decision? Reading the above, do you think I’m not understanding something? Any help would be greatly appreciated. Just fire away in the comments (I’m sure it will also help others besides me). Thanks!



  1. supertramp - 2011-05-08 @ 09:12

    Thanks for this article. Helped a lot. Been struggling with which would be the best writing solution for the time when i am on the move.

  2. Kimmo Linkama - 2011-05-08 @ 09:41

    Thanks for dropping by, Andy. I’m glad that the story helped you perhaps at least to define the problem more accurately (writing it did that to me). I’m still vacillating between options, so if you find a solution that helps you, let me know!

  3. Anonymous - 2011-05-08 @ 17:01

    Hi Kimmo

    It’s an interesting question. The more choice we have, the more decisions we have to make. And this is an important one if you don’t want to end up (a) spending a fortune, and/or (b) spending your life wondering which device to use for some task or other.

    I don’t travel much – I mainly work at home. So I don’t really need to write or edit anywhere but my house. If I did, I’d probably think about a Macbook Air for very light, effective computing on the move. As it is, I’m going for the following setup:

    Simple phone: For phone calls and very occasional emails. Nothing else. Since it’s just a phone, I can switch it off if I don’t want to take or make any calls, e.g. in the evening. It’s also going to be small enough to take anywhere, and cheap enough not to worry about.

    At present, I actually have a smartphone (HTC Magic). But I am fed up with its complexity, sluggish performance even for things like texting (following an Android update), fragility (it has to live in a silly little pouch) and general fussiness. I’ve realised I don’t really want a little computer on me the whole time. At least not now I’ve bought…

    iPad: For reading online, blogs etc. For me, the iPad is the device for people who acknowledge that reading online is a central part of their day, and who want to be comfortable while they do it. Games etc are a nice add on but not essential. The other important function of my iPad (3G) is to allow me to read and reply to email when I’m on holiday, which is vital – actually too vital to be handled on a tidgy little phone. Similarly, I used to read online with my phone, but the iPad blows it out of the water.

    Laptop: It’s actually my main ‘home’ machine, ie the place for all my music, photos etc. Still the weapon of choice for power browsing, i.e. anything involving lots of searching or buying a product. But it’s definitely seeing less action since the iPad rode into town.

    If you’re interested, my main ‘work’ machine is a Mac Mini, which is brilliant.

    So there you have it. For me, it’s about assigning functions to devices. Phone = phone, iPad = reading, Laptop = doing. That’s what makes most sense to me – while the devices can certainly tread on each others’ toes for lots of functions, I’m happier when each one is doing what it’s best at. If I was going to get rid of anything, it would be the iPad, which is really an indulgence. But once you use one, there’s no going back…

  4. Kimmo Linkama - 2011-05-08 @ 23:42


    “It’s about assigning functions to devices”—exactly what I’ve been after, and you condensed it into six words. Perfect!

    Like you, I do most of my work at the home office, but when I’m away I still need to be able to browse, read & send email and work offline in a reasonably ergonomic way.

    I’m using my mobile mainly for calls and SMS, to some degree for reading and answering emails.

    So from your thoughts and my own ponderings it seems a network-capable netbook and a pretty basic phone would fit the bill. The only problem with the phone is that when you’ve been writing for a living for 20+ years, you’re rather hooked on a QWERTY keyboard. Then again, full keyboard phones are available at around £100, which isn’t a big investment at all.

    By the way, yours must be the most profound reply to anything I’ve ever asked online. Big thanks!

  5. Anonymous - 2011-12-27 @ 14:51

    I write a lot of articles, often about 1000-1500 words long. Being on the move, will a netbook do the business for me, or do I have to lug around my laptop? Thanks.

  6. Kimmo Linkama - 2012-01-03 @ 10:41

    Ron, sorry for your comment getting stuck in the queue over the holidays.

    I’m afraid this is going to be an ‘it depends’ type of answer. My own experience, with not-too-big hands and fairly slim fingers, is that a netbook will do the job. Because of the cramped keyboard of a netbook, it does take a bit of getting used to, but once you’re comfortable with it, even the ‘shrunk’ layout works.

    If, on the other hand, if the keyboard just isn’t compatible with your physical properties, then there are, unfortunately, not many alternatives besides a full-size laptop.

    Performance-wise, a netbook will serve a writer perfectly.

    I hope this helps a bit.

  7. Anonymous - 2012-01-03 @ 12:13

    Thanks for that, Kimmo. One alternative option I am looking at is the Dell tablet, plus a wireless keyboard. Have you had a look at the Dell Inspiron Duo? It claims to move easily from tablet to PC and back again, and has had a lot of good reviews. Ron ______________ Ron Ferguson Vinbreck  Orphir Orkney Scotland KW172RE Tel: 01856 811353 Mob: 07810553710

  8. Kimmo Linkama - 2012-01-04 @ 11:24

    Unfortunately, I have no experience in the tablet plus separate keyboard combination, but my own thinking goes like this:

    If you know you will be using the device only in places where you can sit at a table, then why not. On the other hand, if you need to travel by car or train, for example, I fear it’s going to be quite a pain to assemble a working solution from several pieces of equipment.

    Think about a train, for example. If you need to go to the toilet or want to go to the restaurant car for a snack, you will have to pack the whole setup in your bag, whereas with a netbook you could just slap the machine shut and carry it with you.

  9. Anonymous - 2012-01-04 @ 11:51

    Good point, Kimmo – didn’t think of that. Thanks Ron ______________ Ron Ferguson Vinbreck  Orphir Orkney Scotland KW172RE Tel: 01856 811353 Mob: 07810553710

  10. Anonymous - 2012-02-22 @ 18:42

    Thanks for the excellent post. It’s an excellent & informative one. I am an avid reader of the transformational nature of personal communication & computing technology.

    My blog on this topic is Tablet vs Laptop vs Smartphone . Here I have made an analytical reasoning about the evolution of netbooks to laptop & mobile phones to smartphones to tablet.

    Its all about market force which driven the whole communication technology from miniaturization to functionality to large touch screen. In my blog I display the hottest & latest & best selling smartphones, laptops & tablets in the market : regularly updated

  11. Michael (copywriter) - 2013-12-15 @ 13:27

    Things have moved on since this piece was written. I just went through the same thought process and opted for a Microsoft Surface. Lots is written about tablets and relative processing powers, apps etc. At the end of the day, I opted for Microsoft Word on a stick, as Word is still the tool of choice and it is integrated here.

    The question of why a tablet over a netbook or portable also depends on where you are going to write. I find myself with downtime on trains and airports. So something that does not require much space and can snap shut is handy for me. If you are more hotel-based, a portable might still be the most comfortable solution.

    Although there are lots of things that you can and cannot do on different tablets, the integration with Word was the deciding factor. I bought the version with a thin extra keyboard, but have found myself removing it of late.

    Last thing, the entry level Surface is very good value.

    • Kimmo Linkama - 2013-12-15 @ 14:50

      You’re right, things have indeed moved on. It feels like the speed of change has been higher in 2013 than in the couple of years before that.

      True, the environment where you’re going to use it plays an important role. As does your clients’ preference: Microsoft Word is hard to bypass. On the other hand, I’ve found myself using cloud-based tools and storage space more and more. So far, no serious problems with compatibility, or complaints from clients that they don’t want to use the cloud.

      Thanks for your “update” on the equipment! I haven’t (yet) purchased a tablet, but short tests at shops still seem to indicate power typing on a less-than-full keyboard tends to slow things down pretty much. Will have to investigate further.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published / Required fields are marked *