October 28, 2015

Replace Your Laptop with an Android Tablet

Your sleek little Android tablet is easy to carry, so why not make it your travel computer?

I love my Thinkpad, but my go-anywhere travel companion is an Android tablet. I could spend a giant pile of money on something sleek and lightweight like a MacBook Air, Dell XPS 13, or Lenovo's X1 Carbon, which includes a proper trackpoint. These have screen sizes from 11" to 14", good battery life, and enough memory and CPU to do real work.

asus-fintie smallBut, they're still oversized and heavy compared to my 8" ASUS Memo Pad. The Memo Pad weighs .70 pounds. Add a good Bluetooth keyboard, a folio case, and the power cord, and the whole outfit is well under two pounds. In comparison, the 11" MacBook air is about 2.4 pounds and has a bulky power connector. All of the super-lightweight laptops have expensive bulky proprietary power adapters. The Memo Pad uses a generic 5v micro-USB charger, so if you lose it you can easily replace it. I can stuff it in my small shoulder bag or coat pocket and go anywhere. The super-lightweight laptops range from $899 to $1800. I bought the Memo Pad for $175.

Of course, the laptops have more of everything: bigger screens, good keyboards, more storage, more memory, more power, and more connectivity. You can run a full Linux distribution on them. Everything is a tradeoff; if I could get an X1 Carbon for $175, well, duh, of course I would take it.

So, can you do real work on an Android tablet? Yes, you can.


The key elements in doing serious work on a tablet are having a good keyboard and finding the right apps. Maybe you are a very fast finger-poker and don't need an external keyboard; in that case you only need apps that do what you want.

My keyboard is a Fintie Bluetooth keyboard that came with a nice folio stand cover. It is a sturdy little metal keyboard with a good touch. The keys are small, so it might not work for large hands. I can touch-type on it almost as fast as on a full-sized keyboard. I like not having to give up screen real estate for a keyboard, because 8" is none too big. There are many keyboards for tablets now, even soft keyboards that roll up.


I'm not a fan of the Chromebook model, where you must have Internet to do anything. I prefer local apps, and my main app is a good text editor. Of course, I still need Internet for web surfing, IRC, and email. I also need a Git client and an SSH client, and the Android world supplies all of these.

DroidEdit Pro is a great text editor that supports syntax highlighting for nearly 200 programming languages, and it has Dropbox, Google Drive, S/FTP, and Git integration. The interface is very configurable, including keyboard shortcuts, and it comes with a batch of prefab themes. It has HTML preview, runs external commands through SSH, and even has a root mode for editing any file on your rooted Android.

DroidEdit Pro's Git integration is limited, supporting only a subset of Git commands. You can try Pocket Git for fuller Git client functionality. Pocket Git does cloning, checkout, stage, unstage, commit, branching, supports SSH, passwords and private keys, and a nice graphical log. The one command it's missing that I use a lot is git cherry-pick. Other than that, it does everything I need.

ConnectBot is a nice SSH client with a lot of useful functionality, including Telnet and a local file browser. (Yes, Telnet is still useful for troubleshooting connectivity and testing mail servers.) You can run multiple SSH sessions at the same time, right-click select/mouse wheel paste, and use the disconnect all button to stop all those multiple sessions at once.

I tried several mail clients and, as always, found them wanting. If you have a large volume of email, it's going to be pain no matter what. I settled on K-9 Mail, because it supports POP3 and IMAP, you can easily turn auto-sync on and off, and it supports multiple accounts in a nice way: there is a Unified Inbox to see all of your messages in one place, and each account has its own inbox. You can do batch operations, and it has good sorting filters such as date, subject, sender, star, read/unread. You can limit the size of message downloads, store your mail on an external SD card (it's rather amazing how many Android apps still don't have a clue about external storage), and configure all kinds of notifications, including sounds and blinking LEDs.

For IRC, I use AndroIRC. It’s just a nice basic IRC client that supports multiple servers.

The Hacker's Keyboard is a great replacement for the standard Android keyboard. It's very customizable and has a proper numbers row, arrow keys, F keys, punctuation in the right places, Tab/Ctrl/Esc keys, metakeys, and it supports many layouts and voice input.

My little tablet runs Skype and Google Hangouts satisfactorily. Like most small computers, the speakers are nothing to get excited about, but the audio comes to life in a good headset, and it has enough power and resolution for smooth video.

Like any Android device, it has a lot of other useful functionality, such as built-in cameras and an audio recorder. In the olden days, journalists carried large heavy kits. Now we can do it all with a little tablet. I wouldn't want to work on it everyday, because I am thoroughly spoiled by my nice PC with its big screen and good keyboard. As an inexpensive go-anywhere travel companion, it's pretty nice.

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