As the Mobile Mac guy here at Macworld, I see many products designed to improve on-the-go computing. Some are interesting and useful, others are just interesting, and still others remind me of a Billy Crystal movie line from 1989: "Why is this necessary in life?" But it's not always each to tell which is which, especially at first glance. In today's column, I cover a couple simple accessories that puzzled me at first, but that I actually found to be useful after some hands-on time.
ThoughtOut MagStay Pro
Apple’s MagSafe connector—the magnetic power connector used on recent Mac laptops—has gotten plenty of (deserved) praise. The simple but ingenious design, which lets the power cable quickly disconnect under even moderate pressure, avoids many of the power-jack disasters experienced with traditional power connectors.
So it’s a bit ironic that a good number of Mac users have complained about the MagSafe connector for being too easy to disconnect. But to be fair, I can understand these comments: When I’m using my MacBook Pro at home, the power cable detaches with the slightest brush against the arm of the couch. It’s also an issue when using a MagSafe-equipped laptop in bed; blankets and comforters seem to take pleasure in disconnecting the cable.
ThoughtOut is aiming for a middle ground with the $12 MagStay Pro. This simple gadget, designed for 15-inch and 17-inch MacBook Pro models, is essentially an anti-Mag-Safe adapter for the MagSafe connector. It anchors itself into the left-hand USB port on these MacBook Pro models and provides a rigid sheath around the MagSafe jack that prevents your MagSafe cable from disconnecting unless you pull perpendicularly; a slight angular tug will no longer pop out the connector instantly. (To avoid strain on the MagSafe cable/connector joint when purposely unplugging, I recommend pulling out the MagStay Pro first, then pulling the MagSafe connector itself, rather than by just pulling the cable.) A small hole in the top of the MagStay Pro lets you see the LED status light on the MagSafe connector, and you can thread the MagSafe connector through the MagStay Pro, storing the latter on your power cable.
It's a neat idea that works pretty well. On the other hand, there are a couple caveats. The first is that the MagStay Pro takes up a USB port. However, considering that the MagStay Pro is designed for use in situations where you’re unlikely to be using several USB peripherals—on a couch, in bed, etc.—I don’t think this is too big of an issue.
The other consideration is, of course, that by using the MagStay Pro, you’re giving up the advantages of the MagSafe connector (or at least transferring the risk of a cable-yanking accident from the power jack to one of your USB ports). So it’s not something you want to use all the time; just in those situations I mentioned above.
BTI Laptop Travel Stand
I’ve covered a number of laptop stands in the past, but most are for using your notebook on a desk. BTI’s $25 Laptop Travel Stand, on the other hand, is for using your laptop on the go; specifically, on an airline tray table. While that may seem like a niche within a niche—a laptop stand designed to work on one particular surface—the Travel Stand is well-suited for the task.
The ergonomic idea behind the stand is that in situations where your laptop is positioned higher than your hands—say, on an airline tray table—you want the back of the laptop raised so that the keyboard is parallel to your forearms; in other words, so you bend your elbows rather than your wrists. The Laptop Travel Stand, a 4-ounce plastic stand with non-skid pads that folds up into a fairly compact package, positions your laptop keyboard at approximately this angle by raising the back of the laptop about three inches (the front is raised by about one inch). This has the added advantages of raising the laptop’s screen to a much better height, ergonomically speaking, and keeping your laptop cooler thanks to increased airflow underneath.
The stand’s other unique feature is that by protruding over the front of the tray table, the stand lets you position your laptop, securely, two inches closer to you—which means two inches further from the seat in front of you, making it easier to use larger laptops in cramped airline seats (and, hopefully, reducing the chance of damage if the person in front of you suddenly reclines his or her seat).
I took advantage of a couple plane flights during a recent vacation to give the Laptop Travel Stand a try; it turned out to be a cleverly-designed accessory that works pretty well. Although like the MagStay Pro, above, it also has a couple drawbacks. The first is that the two “arms” that hold your notebook in the front stick out about three-quarters of an inch beyond the front edge of the notebook. Although you can choose to position these arms as close together or as far apart as you prefer—the best for me was completely together, so they were just in front of my MacBook Air’s trackpad, with a hand on each side—they can still get in the way a bit. The second is that if you’re using a thin laptop, such as the MacBook Air, the L-shaped supports at the end of each arm—designed to keep your laptop from sliding off the stand—are much longer than the laptop is thick, so you end up with large, plastic “nubs” sticking up and potentially getting in your way. (Again, for me, positioning the two front arms together in the middle minimized the problem, although I occasionally hit these supports with my thumbs while using the trackpad.)
I also found the Laptop Travel Stand to work well on hotel desks, which tend to be laptop-unfriendly thanks to being too high relative to your chair.