Small is Big: the iPad Mini

Go Bag LogoSmall tablets are tailor-made for road warriors. They’re easy, light, portable, and have all the power you need to access the internet or write an email on the go. More functional than smartphones, less bulky than laptops, they’re quickly becoming a must-have in every go bag. Now the only question is: Which smaller tablet should you carry? For me, there are two serious contenders — the Nexus 7 that’s already in my go bag and the iPad Mini Apple shared with me to review.

The iPad Mini comes with a legacy advantage. Apple is the market leader in tablets, selling more than 100 million iPads in fewer than three years. By one recent analysis, iPads account for 98% of all web traffic originating from tablets — and 54% from all mobile devices, including smartphones. It’s not as if no other tablet comes close: It’s more like every other tablet combined doesn’t come close.

Still, the iPad Mini was only introduced last October, which meant that competitors could beat it to the small tablet market. The Nexus 7 was released earlier in 2012, and, for all intents and purposes, introduced the category*. Cheaper worthy tablets like the Kindle Fire and Barnes & Noble Nook also joined the fray, creating need for Apple to create the iPad Mini, and the appealing chance for price pressure on the iPad premium.

So, which one is a smarter choice to toss in my go bag?

On one level, it comes down to the software, specifically the iPad’s iOS versus the Nexus 7′s Android platform. To note the obvious, app selection is vastly superior for Apple devices. The total number of apps available isn’t necessarily make or break, if the ones you need exist on your platform of choice. But the extent to which you need to be future proof is a factor. The Apple and Android development communities are both robust.

One of the simplest hardware decisions is one of the most powerful on the iPad: The placement of the iPad’s home button makes it possible to wake the device with one hand when it’s lying on a surface. On the Nexus 7 the wake-up key is on the recessed side and cannot even be accessed when laying flat. I often use a tablet right next to my laptop for quick reference, and being able to work it with one hand is big plus.

Surface with Windows RT: The prettiest thing you’ll never want to touch again

Go Bag LogoMicrosoft’s Surface with Windows RT is a gorgeous device that under different circumstances might have been a gloriously unexpected mutation in the evolution of hardware. But beauty can’t conceal the blemishes beneath. The promise of the Surface, and hybrids in general, is that they can credibly replace both a laptop and a tablet. Surface disappoints as either.

Much of what isn’t right is due to the operating system on the device. This version of Windows 8 dramatically changes the user experience by co-mingling a traditional Windows desktop with a separate universe dominated by “live” tiles that allow access to information and apps.  The interface doesn’t impress, complicating appreciation for the hardware itself. For whatever reason, the OS seems slow and unresponsive. And the “full” desktop is crippled: It’s not possible, for example, to install desktop software — like a different browser or software you might need for a 4G dongle — even in the “desktop” mode. It feels like a device that was dreamed up to have one revolutionary new interface instead left the factory with two broken ones. Surface RT with the "type" keyboard

Surface RT with the “type” keyboard

Further, in the one place where the design is spot on, Microsoft’s marketing and sales pitch is out of sync: Surface’s keyboard-as-cover is truly innovative, which makes the significant extra cost for this “option” a bit insulting. As questionable as Surface is, it is outright incomprehensible without it. I tried both the “touch” — which doesn’t have raised keys — and the “type” version which can be used to touch type. Only the “type” makes any sense, and Microsoft seems to be driving us to this patently superior model by charging only $10 more for it than the touch model (MSRP $120 vs $130). I didn’t use my touch keyboard enough for it to come apart at the seams, but there were early reports that it does.

Choosing the ‘just right’ go bag

Go Bag LogoBefore you can properly stock a go bag, you have to, well, have one to fill. For a while, I tried to mix it up — one go bag for the weekend (fewer things needed) and another for the week. Dumb. Trust me: You’ll always forget to decant. You’ll need some obscure dongle or cord you didn’t anticipate. So aim for the Go Bag Golden Rule: Have only one.

The bag itself is the most visible decision you’ll make, so you’ll want it to reflect your style, just keep practicality in mind. Thin and streamlined is sexy, but too small invites overstuffing. Nothing that looks good still looks good if it won’t close neatly. Too big is can become bulky and might lead to extraneous items. You want it to fill out just right.

Don’t be afraid to pay for quality and invest in a bag that feels right and looks good on you. I paid nearly $200 for the messenger bag I use now, but have paid as little as $50 and everything in between. Above $200 you are likely paying for cachet rather than carry, but who am I to object?

Cache and carry: Why you need a go bag

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You’re supposed to have one when you’re awaiting your orders. When you’re having a baby. When you think you might need to outrun a zombie herd. Full of essentials, and a few goodies, a Go Bag is what you grab when you need to get gone, fast. The thing is, natural disasters and life-changing events aside, most of us already carry go bags, without calling them such, just to do our daily jobs and live our lives.

Whether we choose a sleek shoulder bag or bulky backpack, we stock our go bags with the technology tools (and yes, toys) to get our jobs done, stay online, and maybe watch a movie or listen to a book on the commute home. We make sure they have the right apps downloaded and enough juice to last the day. The right devices can handle our business in any environment, and in all the spaces in between them, whether it be the Metro North, the Subway, a passenger seat on I-95, or the JFK-SFO direct.

Properly stocked, a good go bag can help us realize our wireless dreams — letting us work, play and travel from nearly anywhere in the world, making us feel just a little bit in the future. But a bad, poorly thought out, or, heavens, slapdash go bag is less mobile office than modern-day albatross. What should be in a good go bag? That’s the question this new column was born to tackle.