What's the perfect device for life in a disrupted world?

Could you live, travel, and work with only a tablet? A laptop? Or do we need a new "everything" device? Crave's Eric Mack continues to travel far and wide in search of perfection.

Eric Mack Contributing Editor
Eric Mack has been a CNET contributor since 2011. Eric and his family live 100% energy and water independent on his off-grid compound in the New Mexico desert. Eric uses his passion for writing about energy, renewables, science and climate to bring educational content to life on topics around the solar panel and deregulated energy industries. Eric helps consumers by demystifying solar, battery, renewable energy, energy choice concepts, and also reviews solar installers. Previously, Eric covered space, science, climate change and all things futuristic. His encrypted email for tips is ericcmack@protonmail.com.
Expertise Solar, solar storage, space, science, climate change, deregulated energy, DIY solar panels, DIY off-grid life projects. CNET's "Living off the Grid" series. https://www.cnet.com/feature/home/energy-and-utilities/living-off-the-grid/ Credentials
  • Finalist for the Nesta Tipping Point prize and a degree in broadcast journalism from the University of Missouri-Columbia.
Eric Mack
4 min read
Not a bad office view. Eric Mack/CNET

VILCABAMBA, Ecuador--Growing up in the 1980s, I remember thinking it was too bad that all the adults had to work all day long in the same place doing the same things every day. And maybe I should be a librarian, because then at least at work I'd be surrounded by books with pictures of cool places.

Turns out that Eric Mack circa 1985 was quite the small-minded and silly boy.

Technology -- and the Internet, in particular -- have since disrupted (and will continue to disrupt) every aspect of our lives. It's the reason that I can sit on top of a hill somewhere in the Ecuadorian Andes and draft this missive about the imperfection of the current selection of technologically advanced devices that I can use to research, write, and submit said missive.

That's right, folks. Today I'll be exploiting the fruits of our remarkable age of instantaneous global information and connectivity for what's become quite the popular 21st century pastime -- marveling at the limitless possibilities of today and then quickly turning around to complain that the abundance of awesomeness that surrounds so many of us 24/7/365 isn't completely perfect just yet.

Today's case in point comes courtesy of the global proliferation of easily accessible broadband; unbelievably cheap voice and videoconferencing solutions that ride those rails; and a plethora of affordable, portable, and powerful devices to help tap into both. This combination makes it possible for me to be "productive" -- in the 21st century, IT sense of the word -- from almost anywhere on earth. Add a solar panel and/or piezoelectric system and satellite connection to the mix and you can swap out "almost anywhere" for "literally anywhere."

And yet, I sit here today reporting from a faraway land in almost total comfort except for one complaint -- my bag of gear is killing me! Its contents include a Dell 17-inch Windows laptop with wireless mouse and USB podcast recording mic, a Nexus 7 with Bluetooth keyboard and earpiece, my Verizon Android phone in near-permanent airplane mode, an unlocked GSM Android phone for local calls and texts, a Kodak Playsport HD video camera with separate light and tripod, an Edirol digital audio recorder with separate broadcast-quality shotgun microphone, a cheap Energizer battery recharger kit, and a voltage step-down and outlet adapter kit (just in case I go to Peru).

Such is the burden of living and traveling in a disrupted world. Technology opens new avenues of possibility, each with its own requisite consumer electronic device.

Yes, there's certainly evidence of overkill in the above list of gadgets, but it could have been even worse. At first I was planning to bring an AC-powered 8-channel mixing board. I eventually convinced myself that the USB mic and Edirol recorder would have to do. I could have used my smartphone camera in place of the Kodak Playsport, but the image quality and usability haven't proven themselves to be nearly as dependable.

No perfect pairing of portability and productivity
The biggest disappointment, though, is that neither my laptop nor my Nexus 7 have proven to be sufficient for meeting my productivity needs on their own.

With the laptop, size, weight, battery life, and conspicuousness are major issues that keep me tethered to secure spaces near an outlet. With the tablet, there are limitations in terms of the operating system, app functionality and form factor that make it difficult to be as productive as I would be with my laptop.

Working in New Mexico's Chaco Canyon Park: We were promised this, and more, weren't we? Johanna DeBiase

The result is that both systems tend to go where I go at once and all the weight takes a lot of the fight out of me, causing me to concede rather easily when called on how ridiculous it is to have more gear in my backpack than many people have in their offices. Yes, it is ridiculous. You're right. I give up.

That brings me to the central complaint of all this belly-aching. This disrupted life that many of us lead seems damn near perfect, so when will there be a more perfect device to help us live it even more perfectly?

To put it a little more succinctly, where is the killer device that will entertain and connect us while also allowing for maximum productivity and portability?

A contender on the Surface... er, horizon?
Right now, nearly three years after the dawn of the iPad, I look at the tablet market and don't see a single serious option that puts it all in one, complete, awesome, blow-me-back-into-my-own-hemisphere-caliber package. There's a small chance that the upcoming Microsoft Surface Pro could be a contender to the title of first true "everything" device, but I'm not hopeful that the first iteration will provide enough capability for me to be confident enough to toss my current patchwork security blanket of devices aside.

On paper, Netbooks and later ultrabooks (this category includes the MacBook Air in my mind) would seem to offer a solution, and yet neither really came to dominate and mine sets in a drawer back in New Mexico. Something about them just seems to say "we can do better... nay, we deserve better than this."

So I put it to you -- is the perfect device or system for everything that makes up our disrupted, chaotic yet strangely convergent and inter-connected lives already out there? Did I just miss it?

Or is it on the horizon? Will Microsoft start shipping it next month? Or maybe it will come next year in the form of augmented reality goggles from the likes of Google or Apple? Maybe Samsung's long-touted flexible screens are the missing piece from my puzzle?

There is another answer to all this, I suppose. I could just quit my whining and enjoy the view.

Nah, then I'd be out of a job -- and I don't think libraries are doing much hiring these days.