Life on the road

Not long ago, it was generally understood that if you were serious about getting work done, you needed a desktop computer. But walk into just about any café, business meeting, or college class, and you’ll see how times have changed. Laptops are currently Apple’s fastest-growing product line, with sales up 79 percent over the last year. In fact, Apple now sells more laptops than desktop systems.

With multiple processors, sleek designs, and plenty of hard-drive space, Apple’s newest laptops—the MacBook and MacBook Pro—have little reason to envy their desk-bound siblings. These powerful portables can meet the needs of the most-demanding road warriors, including photographers, programmers, and designers. But living with a laptop has its challenges. For example, you’ll need to figure out how to keep your battery charged on long trips, and you’ll have to take additional security precautions to keep your Mac safe.

If you’re ready to leave your desktop behind, these strategies should help you cut the cord.

Staying in power

When you make the switch from a desktop Mac to a laptop, it’s not uncommon to become obsessed with power—specifically, where to find it and how to keep it from vanishing before the movie’s end credits roll.

According to Apple, a MacBook’s battery can run for up to six hours on a single charge; the 15-inch MacBook Pro can run for up to five (you’ll get five and a half hours from the 17-inch model). However, these numbers represent a best-case scenario. If you use your laptop for processor-intensive tasks, your battery will drain more quickly. For example, working in Microsoft Word while checking your e-mail over a wireless network will drop your battery life to about three hours. And if you watch a DVD, that movie had better be shorter than two and a half hours.

Thankfully, there are plenty of ways to extend your battery’s charge.

Keep the Juices Flowing If you spend a lot of time away from home base, be sure to carry your AC adapter with you. That way, you can recharge whenever you find yourself near a free outlet. You can purchase a spare power adapter from Apple for $79. By the way, despite the differences in wattage, you can use the MacBook Pro’s 85-watt power adapter with a MacBook. You can also use the MacBook’s 60-watt power adapter with a MacBook Pro. But you might have to choose between charging the Mac and running applications— you probably won’t get enough power to do both simultaneously.

If you spend a lot of time in your car, you might want to consider a car power adapter, such as Targus’s $60 Mobile Power Inverter. When plugged into your car’s cigarette lighter, the Mobile Power Inverter provides an outlet for your laptop’s AC adapter. It has a built-in surge protector, and it can recharge other portable devices, such as PDAs and cell phones.

If you need power while flying, you may benefit from Apple’s $59 MagSafe Airline Adapter, which plugs into the EmPower ports and 20mm ports found on some planes—typically in business or first class. Not all planes offer in-seat power, so you should do your homework before booking your flight (for a useful guide to planes that offer power ports, go to SeatGuru ).

If you’re worried about running out of juice before you have a chance to recharge, buy a second battery that you can switch to when the first one dies. You can purchase a spare battery from Apple for $129. You can pick up an extended-life battery from FastMac for $100 and keep going even longer.

Conserve Power To make your battery last as long as possible, eliminate unnecessary power hogs. The best place to start is in the Energy Saver preference pane, which offers options for putting your screen or computer to sleep after periods of inactivity. But there are also some less-obvious solutions.

Whenever possible, turn down your screen’s backlight (using the F1 and F2 keys) and unplug USB devices such as mice and card readers (these devices use energy even when they’re not in use). You should also turn off AirPort and Bluetooth on airplanes and when you don’t need them; these technologies are battery drains. You can turn off AirPort via the Airport Status menu—it’s the one that shows the strength of your wireless signal—at the top of your screen. (If you don’t see the menu, open your Network preference pane, double-click on AirPort, and select the Show AirPort Status In Menu Bar option.) To turn off Bluetooth, open your Bluetooth preference pane, click on the Settings tab, and select Turn Bluetooth Off.

And be sure you have enough RAM to keep your hard drive happy. When hard drives don’t have sufficient memory, they must rely more heavily on virtual memory, which requires more processor work and, in turn, uses more power.

Calibrate Your Battery When running off the battery, your laptop monitors how much power you have left, and it displays a warning when the battery is getting low. But over time, your battery display may become less accurate, making it harder to gauge your battery’s performance. You can help set things right and keep your battery running efficiently by calibrating your laptop’s battery. The calibration process helps the battery’s internal circuits find the battery’s high and low points, so it knows how much power it has.

You should calibrate your battery as soon as you get a laptop. To do this, connect the AC adapter and let the laptop charge completely. Keep the adapter connected for at least two hours after it’s fully charged (feel free to use the computer during this time, as long as you keep it plugged in). After two hours, disconnect the adapter and use the laptop as normal. Let the computer run until the battery gets so low that it forces the computer to go to sleep (make sure to regularly save whatever you’re working on when the battery gets low). Leave the laptop alone for at least another five hours, so the battery will fully discharge, and then plug it in. After that, recharge it and use it as usual. For the best battery performance, you should calibrate it every few months.

You can keep an eye on your battery’s health with the help of Coconut Flavour’s free coconutBattery. This utility shows you your battery’s current and maximum charge, as well as the number of battery cycles you’ve used, so you can have an idea of how long your battery will last.

Apple MagSafe Airline Adapter: If you’re lucky enough to score a seat with an EmPower port or a 20mm port, you can use this power adapter from Apple to keep your laptop running for the entire flight.
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