Advice for Buying and Setting Up Laptops When You're Traveling or On-Call

Why stress over losing that expensive personal or work laptop? Buy a cheap one for risky situations.

In a previous article, I wrote about how to prepare for a vacation so you aren't disturbed by a work emergency. As part of that article, I described how to prepare your computer:

Even better than taking a backup, leave your expensive work computer behind and use a cheaper more disposable machine for travel, and just restore your important files and settings for work on it before you leave and wipe it when you return. If you decide to go the disposable computer route, I recommend working one or two full work days on this computer before the vacation to make sure all of your files and settings are in place.

It turns out that this advice works not just for travel but also for a laptop you take with you while on call. So in this article, I elaborate on the above advice and describe some strategies for choosing and setting up an appropriate laptop to take with you while on call or traveling.

Why Choose a Different Laptop?

I was faced with the dilemma of choosing a travel laptop when I went on vacation a few months ago. I needed to be reachable while on vacation, just in case, but I knew I didn't want to lug around and cross borders with an expensive company laptop. There are a number of reasons why this is a good idea, and most of the reasons you would want to use a separate, cheap laptop for travel also apply for an on-call laptop.

Less Concern over Loss, Damage or Theft

Although it's true that your laptop might get lost, stolen or damaged while you commute to work, it's much more likely to happen outside your normal work routine. While you are on call, you might take your laptop to restaurants, bars, events or a friend's house, and because you are outside your normal routine, it's more likely that it will be stolen or that you might accidentally leave it behind. Also when you are commuting to work, you likely have some kind of backpack or case for your laptop, but outside work, you may be more likely just to throw your laptop in the trunk of your car.

While traveling, especially traveling abroad, you are most definitely outside your normal routine, and a laptop is even more likely to get lost, damaged or stolen. The more expensive laptop you have with you, the more enticing of a target, and the more you have to lose. Also, with increased security around airports and customs these days, laptops are more likely to be inspected, confiscated or forced into checked luggage. Plus, if you do have to put your laptop in checked luggage, these days, you must lock your luggage with keys that security agents can unlock. Unfortunately, there are many stories of unscrupulous airport employees who have taken advantage of this fact to steal high-value items from luggage while it's out of its owner's possession.

An Immediate Backup for Your Work Laptop

Having a second laptop that's ready at any moment to take over work duties adds an extra backup in case your work laptop itself breaks. Instead of being out of commission while you are waiting for a replacement, you immediately can resume work on your backup. It also provides you with a backup in case you leave your work laptop at the office.

How to Choose Your Laptop

The key to a good on-call or travel laptop is to get something cheap. As computers have continued to get faster, the fact is that many people can get their general work done (especially in a pinch) with laptops that are many years old. This is especially true on a Linux desktop, even if you aren't someone who spends a decent amount of time on a terminal.

Used Thinkpads are a great choice for travel laptops, because they have good Linux compatibility and are rugged and easy to repair with replacement parts that are easy to find. Because so many organizations have used them as company laptops, you almost always can find a used one cheap on an auction site. Keep an eye out for a model that is listed as having no OS. Those laptops tend to be cheaper because people want to avoid having to install an OS, but as Linux users, we would just overwrite the OS anyway! I've consistently found that if I'm patient, I can get a Thinkpad with reasonable specs for less than $50 on auction sites. If you are willing to splurge on extra RAM or an SSD, these old machines can be surprisingly speedy.

Another option, especially if you want a more portable laptop, is a Chromebook. Although these machines normally are designed to run a limited, secured OS that centers on Google services, they also can run Linux well once you switch into developer mode. Some people use cheap Chromebooks as their default travel computers since they just want to check Gmail and browse the web while traveling. Personally, I found a used Acer C710 for $40 and was able to add RAM and an SSD from a spare Thinkpad, and it turned out to be a rather capable Qubes-compatible machine.

Setting Up Your Laptop

I use Qubes both on my work and personal laptops, and I've long used its built-in backup and restore tool whenever I travel to make sure I have a fresh backup in case my laptop is lost or stolen. Now that I rely on a separate laptop for travel, I just restore that fresh backup onto my travel machine and test it by working on it for a day before the trip. This also means I can selectively restore only the files and settings (appVMs in my case) that are relevant for the situation. In the case of its use as an on-call computer, I don't have to worry as much about fresh backups as long as all of my VPN, SSH and other credentials are kept up to date.

Since most people don't use Qubes, just take advantage of whatever tool you prefer to back up your laptop (you do back up your laptop regularly, don't you?) and restore onto your spare computer as regularly as you need to keep important files up to date. Given that you are doing this to protect against the laptop being lost or stolen, be sure to enable full disk encryption when you install the OS to help protect your sensitive files just in case. For those of you who are extra security-conscious, you can take the additional step of wiping and re-installing your OS whenever you return from a long trip, just in case you are worried about any malware that found its way on your computer while you were on untrusted networks.

Conclusion

In general, I highly recommend selecting a cheap laptop for your on-call and travel computer. You will find you have extra peace of mind knowing that not only will it be inexpensive to replace your laptop if it's lost, broken or stolen, but also that you when you return home, you can get on your regular computer and get right back to work.

Kyle Rankin is a Tech Editor and columnist at Linux Journal and the Chief Security Officer at Purism. He is the author of Linux Hardening in Hostile Networks, DevOps Troubleshooting, The Official Ubuntu Server Book, Knoppix Hacks, Knoppix Pocket Reference, Linux Multimedia Hacks and Ubuntu Hacks, and also a contributor to a number of other O'Reilly books. Rankin speaks frequently on security and open-source software including at BsidesLV, O'Reilly Security Conference, OSCON, SCALE, CactusCon, Linux World Expo and Penguicon. You can follow him at @kylerankin.

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