My No-Laptop Conference Experiment

For a while now, I’ve been wanting to lighten my travel load. I currently carry a MacBook Pro 13″ from mid-2014. It’s a great machine, and I really like it, but its weight is non-zero, and it comes with the usual raft of accessories – video dongles, power brick, and whatnot. Thing is, for the most part, I need very little when I’m on the road other than the basic Office apps, email access, and a Web browser. The gotcha is when I present at a conference, when I need to run 2-3 VMs, which the MBPs 16GB of RAM does just fine.

So for the recent TechMentor Orlando, I decided to conduct an experiment. I brought my laptop as Plan B, but resolved to try and teach entirely from my iPad. My iPad Mini, to be precise, equipped with an Apple Bluetooth keyboard and Lightning-to-HDMI dongle. If the experiment worked, the plan was to shift to a 12.9″ iPad Pro as my only travel computer.

To handle my lab VMs, I turned to Azure, where I get a $150 monthly credit as an MVP. I used the Marketplace to create three VMs: A Windows 10 client, a Win2016 DC, and a Win2016 SQL Server. I left these spun down and deallocated until the morning of my sessions, and then spun them up. They’re all quite decently equipped in terms of CPU and RAM, but they only cost about $10 a day to run out of my credit. When stopped, they literally cost a few cents a day for storage. I planned to use Microsoft’s iOS RDP client to connect to them.

Everything worked like a charm. I tested the connection over my T-Mobile service (the iPad is on my cell plan), and over the conference’s general WiFi (not even the speaker-exclusive, less-crowded network). Worked great both ways. My only hiccups were around getting used to the RDP client, and in the Bluetooth keyboard. There’s a quirk in iOS where it won’t recognize modifier keys on BT keyboards – so Ctrl, Alt, and Windows didn’t work. The RDP client provides a “supplemental key bar” with those modifiers, and once I figured that out, it was OK. The iPad Pro’s hard-connected keyboard does support modifier keys, so that’ll be even better.

I also accomplished all my usual daily work on the iPad, despite it’s tiny screen (again, the Pro will solve that). Updating Pluralsight’s master catalog documents from email status reports was easy thanks to the split-screen view. Video conferencing worked great thanks to a native Blue Jeans client. Skype calls were smooth. Email and Web browsing were obviously fine (I use both Safari and Chrome on iOS). We use Google Drive and its related apps a lot, and both those and the Office apps worked very well. I even presented a couple of slides using Keynote (I like its presentation mode better) on the iPad.

So I’m pretty much sold. I’ll have an iMac at home (I really love the sharpness on the 5K screen). Apple’s iCloud Drive works much like Microsoft’s OneDrive to keep all my documents in the cloud where the iPad can reach them (so there’s no need to explicitly sync documents when preparing for travel), and nearly every app I need has an iOS version. And for tasks like Visual Studio, I have an Azure VM already set up to run from the iPad, although I don’t need that on the road all that often.

You could do something almost exactly the same using a Surface, of course, and those weigh in almost to the ounce as much as an 12.9″ iPad. I just personally prefer macOS on my daily machine, so iOS makes a better companion to that. But if you’re in the Windows world, a Surface could easily be your travel computer, and for a lot of people your full-time machine as well. And, the PC ecosystem has a lot of super-lightweight-yet-powerful options, including some great choices from Lenovo. As I said, I’m personally very attached to macOS, not Windows client, and so my setup makes more sense for me.

I’m really keen to see Microsoft’s new breed of pocket computer (I’m not sure calling them “phones” is valid anymore) that can go from your pocket to a big-screen desktop monitor and be your only computer. All in all, it’s just amazing how far these gadgets have come in the last few years. Provided you can have Internet connectivity for certain things, a tablet really can replace a PC in a lot of ways. I expect companies like Microsoft and Apple to continue blurring that line, too. I mean, we feel really close to a world where you slot your tablet into the side of a 5K monitor for working and home, and just slide it out when you’re ready to hit the road with a lighter-weight device.

One thought on “My No-Laptop Conference Experiment

  1. Matt Hitchcock

    Be sure to record videos of your demos. Conference WiFi and Azure are great but … Murphy’s law.

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