Sleeves in Brief: Rigid cases

This week’s Mobile Mac Weblog theme is sleeves —loosely defined as a compact case designed to hold just a laptop, either for protection when carrying the laptop around by itself, or for throwing the notebook inside a larger bag or a suitcase. (Although some sleeves cheat a bit, giving you room to store a few documents, or even a few small accessories.) On Monday, I wrote about a number of soft sleeves and hard shells that we hadn’t previously had a chance to cover. Today I give you the details on a few rigid cases. I’ll be looking at leather cases on Friday.

Rigid cases

Soft sleeves are great for avoiding scratches, but if you need something sturdier—to carry your MacBook Pro on its own, or if you’re worried about your MacBook getting bumped or dropped while inside another bag—a sleeve that provides impact protection may be a better option. One caveat: unlike soft sleeves and hard shells, which provide some degree of protection without adding much bulk, the extra protection offered by a rigid case comes at a cost to your laptop’s svelte figure.

Axio Hardsleeve
Axio Hardsleeve ($80): Axio’s hardshell laptop backpacks are popular among bikers and cyclists for their excellent protection; the Hardsleeve offers similar security in a sleeve design. Available in gloss white or embossed black, the Hardsleeve features double-sided ABS plastic on the outside and EVA foam with a “soft-lycra” lining on the inside. Although not as rugged as RadTech’s MacTruck —which is made entirely of aluminum alloy and weighs 5 pounds—the Hardsleeve nevertheless offers impressive protection against shocks and drops. I was able to put a 30-pound weight on the middle of the top of the case—the weakest point—without undue pressure on the screen of a MacBook Pro inside.

The foam interior of the Hardsleeve provides a 3/4-inch barrier around the edges of your laptop and a thinner cushion on the top and bottom. When inside, your MacBook or 15-inch MacBook Pro (depending on the Hardsleeve model) fits like a glove, moving only a fraction of an inch from side to side. The case’s zippers generally slide easily, although I occasionally had to give them a firm tug. Axio also includes a set of adhesive, rubber feet for the bottom of the case—you can apply these feet to keep the case from sliding around on flat surfaces, or to protect those surfaces from the case itself.

The downside to the Hardsleeve’s excellent protection is, as noted above, added bulk; for example, the version for the 15-inch MacBook Pro is nearly 16 inches wide, 11.5 inches deep, and 2 inches thick, and adds nearly two pounds to your load (the MacBook Pro itself is 14.1 by 9.6 by 1.0 inches). But if you need the protection, the bulk may be worth it—the Hardsleeve is the most protective sleeve-style case I’ve seen.

RhinoSkin Hardcase
RhinoSkin Hardcase (for MacBook, $60; for 15-inch MacBook Pro, $70; for 17-inch MacBook Pro, $80): I mentioned the Hardcase briefly when I covered notebook cleanup and protection for the June issue of Macworld , but it deserves a bit more screen time, so to speak, because it’s so, well, unique . (Some might—fairly—call it a bit odd.) Made of ABS plastic, the Hardcase is more similar in design to an iPod case than a laptop sleeve: Once you put your laptop inside, you basically leave it in there. Close it, and two latches secure the case; foam and rubber pads inside keep your laptop from moving around. Open it up, and then open your laptop, and you can use your laptop without removing it from the case; flip-down doors on the right and left provide access to your MacBook’s ports and connectors, and there’s even a small hole for the laptop’s infrared receiver. (An opening in the front of the MacBook Pro version lets you use the laptop’s optical drive.)

For the most part, this use-in design works, although it’s not without a few quirks. For example, a MacBook’s security slot is too close to the left edge of the Hardcase, making the slot unusable, and larger FireWire and USB plugs may not clear the flip-down door on the left side. If you’re a palm/wrist dragger, you may find the front edge of the Hardcase uncomfortable. Finally, even though you can use your laptop while inside, the case’s lid doesn’t stay upright with the laptop’s screen; it falls down to the work surface. On the other hand, the case is double-hinged, so you can actually flip the lid down and underneath, although this isn’t a solution for use on your lap, as the bottom—actually the inside of the lid—has several sharp, plastic edges. (These comments refer to the MacBook version of the case, which is available in black or white; I haven’t tested the MacBook Pro model, available in silver.)

RhinoSkin Hardcase straps
In order to facilitate cooling, the bottom of the Hardcase provides a series of small vents, as well as four large feet that raise the case approximately a third of an inch off a desk. These feet are rather bulky, and at times make the case difficult to slide in and out of a bag, but they also serve another purpose: as anchors for included snap-in backpack straps. These aren’t the most comfortable straps ever, they’re difficult to adjust, and the case itself has no padding, but it’s an interesting carrying option that works in a pinch.

The other unique feature of the Hardcase is a clip-on plastic compartment, approximately one-third the size of the case itself, for storing a few accessories, such as your laptop’s AC charger and a few cables. This adds considerable bulk to the case, but it does come in handy when you’re carrying the Hardcase by itself.

Mobile Edge Portfolio
Mobile Edge Notebook Computer Portfolio ($60): In size and shape, the Portfolio—which fits the 15-inch MacBook Pro—is similar to Axio’s Hardshell, above. However, it’s a much different case overall. On the outside, instead of ABS plastic, the Portfolio uses a less-rigid faux-crocodile material (in black or pink), and the inside uses thinner, softer EVA foam.

Although this design means the Portfolio doesn’t provide nearly as much impact protection as the Hardshell, the Portfolio can accommodate quite a bit more gear. Larger than even the bulky Hardshell at 17 by 13 by 2 inches, the Portfolio holds your MacBook Pro and still has enough room for a zippered, nylon pouch to the side for storing a mouse and several cables. There's also a thin document pocket in the case’s lid that can hold a file folder or a couple magazines. Your MacBook pro is secured in the case by a nylon strap that fastens using Velcro.

The Portfolio also offers a couple carrying options not found on the Hardshell. A thin shoulder strap, made of the same faux-crocodile material, attaches to two D-rings on the outside of the case, and you get two unpadded nylon handles that fold into the case when not in use. A four-inch wide flap at the top of the case gives you a Velcro closure for carrying the case—for short distances—without zipping it up.

The Portfolio isn’t nearly as protective as Axio’s Hardshell, I personally don’t like the fake-crocodile-skin appearance, and the case is too big to fit in all but the largest of bags. On the other hand, it’s less expensive than the Hardshell and offers a number of convenient carrying and storage options.

Tom Bihn Brain Cell
Tom Bihn Horizontal Brain Cell ($50): I’ve always been impressed by the quality of Tom Bihn bags, and the Brain Cell is no exception. Specifically designed to clip into Tom Bihn bags, it nevertheless works well on its own or inside other bags and backpacks. Made of 500-denier Cordura nylon with rigid side panels and interior padding, the Brain Cell offers impressive protection. Even the bottom of the sleeve is rock-solid, with only the top edge omitting some sort of rigid plate. (That edge instead offers two layers of foam padding, one on each closing flap; the two flaps secure using Velcro.)

Two unpadded, nylon handles and a pair of connectors for a shoulder strap (not included) let you carry the Brain Cell on its own. An external document pocket accommodates a couple file folders, magazines, or a book; the pocket is actually somewhat elastic, so you can use it carry your laptop’s AC adapter and a few cables in a pinch.

Although not exactly a hardshell case, the Brain Cell protects nearly as well and offers more carrying options; the ability to carry a few small items is a nice bonus when you’re toting the case by itself.

(The Brain Cell model I tested, specifically made for the 15-inch MacBook Pro, is 15 by 11.8 by 2 inches and weighs approximately one pound; versions are available to fit almost any laptop. The Brain Cell is also available in a top-loading vertical model designed specifically for use in backpacks.)

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