The laptopocalypse is coming. In one of the most insane tech and travel related decisions I've ever seen, the Department of Homeland Security is considering banning any electronic device larger than a smartphone on a wide range of commercial flights.
I won't get into the purported security rationale for this, except to say that we wouldn't be "completely safe" in the air even if we all flew naked; terrorists could just put bombs where the sun don't shine. In terms of 2017, flying without laptops and tablets makes business travelers feel pretty naked. In fact, airlines have downgraded their in-flight entertainment offerings over the past few years assuming that travelers are bringing their own gadgets.
The mechanics of any future ban will probably play out like the ban on large electronic devices on flights from the Middle East, just on a much larger scale. Middle Eastern airlines have rallied by providing laptops and tablets to business and first-class customers. That doesn't help coach class passengers on a 10-hour flight, though.
Being forced to check expensive electronics would create all sorts of security and liability concerns. Right now, most airlines disclaim liability for damaged electronics in luggage. That means they won't pay you if the baggage handlers break or steal your laptop.
Airlines affected by the current Middle East laptop ban, for example Qatar and Etihad, have changed that policy. Hopefully, other affected airlines would as well. But even then, airlines may not pay you the full value of your damaged electronics: according to the Montreal Convention treaty, airlines are only responsible for about $1,560 worth of luggage per passenger on international flights.
Pick the Best Airline
With no laptop in the air, in-flight entertainment systems become more critical than ever. Every hour you spend watching that seatback screen is an hour you aren't stressing about your laptop.
So, first of all, don't accept any flight without seatback screens. For transatlantic flights, various reports have said that Air Canada, Icelandair, Lufthansa, and Virgin Atlantic are all good choices. Of the major US based airlines, Delta gets the nod for best in-flight entertainment from Skytrax.
Your Mobile Office: Phone, Keyboard, Touchpad
If your airline doesn't lend you a laptop, it's time to get used to working on your smartphone.
Android and iOS phones support Bluetooth keyboards, and the Microsoft Office apps on these devices aren't half bad. For email, web browsing, and document management, you can get quite a lot done on your phone. Use a cloud storage service such as Dropbox or OneDrive for your documents, so you can access them on your home computer, your phone, and any computers you get access to at the other end of your journey.
You can get more done with a keyboard. The Logitech K480 Bluetooth keyboard works with your phone and includes a groove that will prop up your phone at the right angle on a tray table. There are a lot of smaller, weirder Bluetooth keyboards out there, but we really like this one.
Not having room on your tray table for a mouse can be a problem, though. I tend to use a keyboard and the phone's touch controls. Android users could also upgrade to the Logitech K830 keyboard, which has an integrated touchpad. iPhones don't support Bluetooth mice or touchpads, alas.
Stunningly, I think we've also just found a real use for Dex, the new desktop dock for Samsung's Galaxy S8 phones. Bring a Dex dock with your S8, and you'll be able to turn it into a desktop computer on the other end of your flight.
For the Kids: iPod Touch
Since the DHS ban applies to anything larger than a smartphone, that puts the tablets we use to entertain kids into peril. Even the Amazon Fire Kids Edition won't hold up to this ban.
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Enter the iPod touch. Now available for $199, this will be family frequent fliers' best friend: a small, portable entertainment device for kids that doesn't require phone service and isn't larger than a phone. Download movies from Netflix or the iTunes Store before leaving on a trip.
There is no high-quality Android equivalent to the iPod touch. There were in the past, but they've gone off the market. If you don't want an Apple product, your best bet is to get an inexpensive unlocked Android phone such as the $139 Moto G4 Play, and just not install a SIM card.
How About Reading a Book?
Books are good. Try one. Just not on an e-reader. They'll be banned, too.