MacBook Air shells and sleeves

A big appeal—perhaps the biggest appeal—of the MacBook Air is its size and weight: at just three pounds and thin as can be, it slides into places most other laptops can’t fit, letting you bring a laptop without adding much to your load. At the same time, while the Air’s size—and, let’s face it, looks—may tempt you to carry it by itself, chances are you want to give it at least a modicum of protection.

Among the most-popular types of laptop protection—especially for the MacBook Air—are sleeves and shells: slip-on or snap-on covers designed to hold just the laptop, either for protection when carrying the computer by itself or for throwing it inside a larger bag or a suitcase. I’ve been testing several of these models for the MacBook Air; here’s a quick rundown on each. One drawback to such cases worth mentioning up front is that they add a bit of weight and bulk to your laptop. That’s to be expected, but when you’re talking about a laptop as light and thin as the MacBook Air, such additions are disproportionately noticeable.

Hard shells

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Wheeled/rolling laptop bags

In our recent Essential Mobile Gear article, I recommended a rolling bag or case instead of a backpack or shoulder bag. As I wrote at the time:

If you travel frequently…you’ll be able to carry more—possibly even a change of clothes—without putting stress on your shoulders and back.

I’ve been taking my own advice as I’ve recently tested four rolling laptop cases. While they all help you more-easily transport your gear, thanks to standard features such as hard-rubber inline-skate-style wheels; locking, telescoping handles; and padded laptop compartments, and all fit in an overhead airplane bin, they’re otherwise very different bags with different designs and advantages.

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Brenthaven Expandable Trek

A few weeks ago, I covered several compact laptop bags ideal for carrying a 13-inch laptop and a few vital accessories. Today’s bag, Brenthaven’s $100 Expandable Trek Backpack ( ), is (almost) at the opposite end of the spectrum. Although it won’t hold a 17-inch MacBook Pro—it’s limited to 15-inch models—it will hold more gear than most people will ever need to cary.

Available in black/gray, black/orange, or black/blue, the Expandable Trek measures approximately 19 inches high by 15.5 inches wide by either 9 or 11 inches deep (more on this in a bit)—it’s definitely a large pack. The bag is constructed of thick ballistic nylon, and the laptop sleeve, located against your back in the largest part of the bag, has thin padding on the sides and two very thick layers of padding on the bottom. (The bag doesn't use Brenthaven's CORE system.) Overall, like other Brenthaven bags I’ve tested in the past, the Expandable Trek feels exceptionally sturdy and well-made, and it includes a lifetime guarantee. But despite this size and construction, the bag weighs just over 3 pounds empty, which is less than several other large backpacks I’ve tested that offer less protection.

Trek

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Incipio Continental Companion Cables

The white, rectangular power adapters included with recent Apple laptops are 110-240V models, which means they work around the world; you just need the right plug. Apple offers a useful World Travel Adapter Kit ($39) that includes six plugs for electrical outlets around the world; you just slide out the stock plug on the power adapter and replace it with the appropriate plug for the country in which you’re traveling. (This adapter kit also works with Apple’s USB and FireWire iPod power adapters.)

But one complaint some users have had about Apple’s adapter set is that, because the plugs connect directly to the adapter, it can be difficult to plug in the adapter in tight quarters; in fact, if a wall outlet doesn’t have much clearance, you may not be able to plug in the adapter at all. (Apple’s six-foot power cable works only in the country of purchase.)

One solution to this problem is to instead buy a standard international plug adapter (such as this Belkin model) and then use your U.S. cable. Another solution is Incipio’s Continental Companion Cables ($35), a.k.a., the Companion World Travel Cables. This set of cables gives you functionality similar to that of Apple’s collection of plugs, but in cable form. Specifically, you get four foot-long cables, each with a connector for Apple’s AC adapters on one end and one of four international outlet plugs on the other. The result is compatibility with most non-U.S. outlets as well as a foot of flexible cable. Incipio includes a mesh travel bag for carrying the cables and your AC adapter.

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Essential mobile gear

For many people, laptops are just a way to take work down to the corner café. But for true road warriors, portable computing means bringing along all your computing essentials without having to schedule a visit to the chiropractor. As a Macworld editor, I’m often asked what I pack in my laptop bag; here’s a look at the kinds of accessories that are on my must-have on-the-go list, along with some specific examples of them.

Portable hard drive

Just because your laptop is always with you doesn’t mean you don’t need a good backup. Thankfully, portable drives are smaller and lighter than ever. LaCie’s $140, 5-ounce Little Disk (A), for example, offers 60GB of storage in an attractive USB 2.0 enclosure that’s only 2.6 by 1.7 by 0.7 inches in size. Keep your backup drive separate from your laptop bag; if one is ever stolen, you’ll still have the other.

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Starbucks free Wi-Fi vanishes into thin air

As a wise man once said, "Starbucks giveth and Starbucks taketh away." Scant days after iPhone users reported finding free access at certain coffee chain locations that had switched to new Wi-Fi provider AT&T, that feature now seems to have vanished into the ether.

AT&T logon

I revisited the Davis Square, Somerville, location at which I'd found free access last week. Instead of the login screen that readily accepted my iPhone number, I was greeted by a user login screen asking for a user ID and password. While there didn't appear to be an option to sign-up for Wi-Fi access on my iPhone, the login screen seems to accept a variety of user credentials, from AT&T Wi-Fi users to AT&T Remote Access users and customers of a variety of AT&T subsidiaries and services, such as Prodigy, SBC, and SNET.

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Starbucks rolling out free Wi-Fi for iPhones, slowly

iPhone users who need a speed boost over the EDGE connection find the phone’s Wi-Fi functionality quite handy. The only problem is locating a hotspot to use it on. However, Starbucks and AT&T struck a deal earlier this year that will see the coffee retailer’s Wi-Fi hotspots, currently served by T-Mobile, switched to the AT&T network. And that carries potential benefits for iPhone users.

Some iPhone users have reported that the newly launched AT&T hotspots are offering free Wi-Fi access to all iPhone users, as long as you have a valid iPhone phone number with the provider. Unfortunately, the situation is not quite as straightforward as one might hope.

I decided to take a little firsthand look, visiting four Starbucks in the Metro Boston area. I found only one offering free Wi-Fi for iPhones—the Davis Square, Somerville location nearest my home. I snapped a screenshot of the login screen (shown below), which accepted my iPhone’s phone number without question and logged me in with no trouble.

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