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Cost-Effective Media Wrangling Redux

After using my new media wrangling kit in the field a few times, I've augmented it with a few accessories and come to a few realizations that made it worth revisiting this entire premise. As in many cases, smaller is not always better, and when it comes to operating a computer, this is definitely the case.

Small-Laptop Alternatives

In searching for solutions, I saw some of the powered USB 3.0 hubs up at well over $50. This, coupled with the now-more-expensive 10" tablet and the attached keyboard cover, meant that building a new system could push me into small laptop territory when it came to cost. Using a small laptop instead of a tablet would offer the convenience of already being integrated and functioning less like a bunch of things cobbled together. So I searched and searched. The reality I found was that budget laptops aren’t as high quality of a product as the tablet I picked, especially when it came to the wide viewing angles of the tablet’s IPS display.

Specifically, I was searching for a laptop around $300. Windows, not Chrome. At least one USB 3.0 port, but preferably two, which would eliminate the need for a USB 3.0 hub. An integrated SD card reader would eliminate the need for an external reader in most cases, but I’d still need to bring a reader for CF cards and other media. The solutions I found could be counted on one hand, limited by the availability of USB 3.0.

But I did find two products worth mentioning.

First was the Hewlett-Packard Stream 11 laptop (Figure 8, below). It has Windows 8, an 11.6" screen, 1 USB 3.0, 1 USB 2.0, an integrated SD card reader, and HDMI (for an external monitor), and it costs only $200.

Figure 8. The $200 HP Stream 11

But the reviews are mixed, mostly noting the unit’s poor screen. Secondly, like the tablets, it’s only a 32-bit OS, so no media management apps. While this was a downer, the compactness and affordability of the laptop really made it comparable to my $180 tablet with $50 keyboard cover. The laptop offers the integrated SD card reader, but it's unknown if it’s fast enough to avoid slowing everything down. And I'd still need an external powered USB 3.0 hub.

The other model I found worth considering was a Dell Inspiron 15 (i15RV-954BLK). This laptop (Figure 9, below) features a 15.6" display (not FullHD), built-in ethernet, built-in SD card reader, two USB 3.0 ports, two USB 2.0 ports, and a 64-bit OS (Figure 10, below Figure 9). Now, the media management apps could be used. Two HDDs could be plugged into the computer simultaneously without issue. While it looks like the ideal solution, there are caveats.

Figure 9. The Dell Inspiron 15

Figure 10. USB, HDMI, and Ethernet ports on the Inspiron 15

The Inspiron I found has already been replaced by newer models that do not offer 2 USB 3.0, ports so looking for this one means searching for an older machine in scarce supply. It was originally a higher price, but it sold out at $280, well within the budget I set. With its 15.6" screen, it’s big enough to have a dedicated numeric keypad. It’s also five pounds with the power adapter. So it’s big and heavy--more than 2x the weight of my 10" WinBook. But I'll have to add up the weight of all the accessories to see if it’s a more fair comparison when everything is considered.

After that, prices jump into the $800s and well over $1,000 for laptops with two USB-3 ports. I’ve seen information about various other machines with two USB 3.0 ports, but when I would try and dig up more data, I’d find another page that said it had no USB 3.0 ports. As you might expect, accurate information on discontinued products can be hard to come by .

The Future

Right now, I'm sticking with a 10" WinBook with keyboard cover, which weighs in at 2.4 lbs. and costs $230. The Amazon Basic USB 3.0 hub adds $20, and the Inatek USB 3.0 hub/card reader adds another $20.

I have the flexibility to swap out elements as needed. It’s not that heavy or cumbersome for the key purpose of copying media cards to client HDDs in the field. I can also use the tablet as a prompter and for other uses as well. However, I’m still enticed by the ability to leverage dedicated software to facilitate and streamline the process. It’s just more professional to have a specific and repeatable process for this critical aspect of media management. If the weight and size of everything needed ends up being about the same, I'll probably leave behind the “compact” part of this setup for the sake of capability and step up to the Dell Inspiron.

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