Laptops and Tablets
"You haven't rolled out any electronics in the field until you've had a cockroach pee on everything." - Timothy Prestero
Computers are the workhorses of the ICT4D field staff. They aid in office productivity, equipment setup and debugging, general communications, and long-term storage.
Despite the popularity and diffusion of smartphones and tablets, the traditional laptop still continues to offer comparative flexibility and productivity for many remote fieldworkers.
Modern laptops have come a long way in their resilience to challenging environmental conditions, portability, battery-life, and performance. There is no ideal laptop for fieldwork—the best thing to do would be to talk with fellow field staff, explore options for upgrades and repairs in country, and to evaluate your own personal experiences and preferences.
When purchasing laptops for a project or considering how to bring one with you, there are a few high-level considerations you'll want to keep in mind.
Laptop make and model
Remember that in many cases, the newer and more rare a particular machine is, the more difficult it will be to find replacement parts or get it fixed in foreign countries.
There are tradeoffs to think about in terms of damage and theft risk. You don't want to sink all of your budget into a single piece of equipment that will cause you to migraines if you don't sleep with it under your pillow at night.
Tablets and e-readers
Tablets (iOS and Android) can offer great functionality but also pose a few additional challenges for a fieldworker.
Tablet operating systems tend to be oriented towards their use in always-on connected networking environments. This can make downloading updates, upgrading operating systems, and operating many apps aren't built with offline-first principles more challenging.
Other challenges include battery life in general (though more modern tablets have batteries that outlast their laptop counterparts) and compatibility with transferring media to/from the devices can be tricky.
The advantages of tablets, however, are numerous. They are smaller, lighter, typically sturdier than many laptops, and offer simple, intuitive user interfaces.
Tablets can also be great for data collection and simple app usage for select populations and services. This is definitely an area of growth in the years to come.
Similar to tablets, e-readers are often more highly specialized to focus just on text for reading. E-ink displays (like those seen in the Nook and Kindles have exceptional battery life (measured in weeks), can be viewed in direct sunlight (in contrast with tablet screens), and do a great job of supplementing book collections for the portable reader.
In your fieldwork, this will likely be a bigger issue than you might be used to—older machines (lithium ion) batteries wear out over time, so be aware of that.
A common experience across many countries is an inconsistent power grid, which leads to fluctuations in electricity (sometimes for days, weeks, or months at a time), which, on the whole, can serve to wear down your battery and system more quickly.
One good universal tip is to not keep items plugged in when not using them.
Fieldwork can be a challenging environment for electronics in general—so common sense applies here as well—try to avoid water and moisture, dirt, sand, organic material, direct sunlight and heat (or cold) as much as feasibly possible.
One thing any considerate ICT4D professional will want to think about is the extent to which their device(s) accentuate their degree of outsider-ness. Expensive, unfamiliar equpiment, or familiar luxury brands can be distracting or cause unwanted attention and take away from your field work efforts.