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
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
for $100 and keep going even longer.
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.
5 steps to a more secure laptop
You wouldn’t dream of carrying around your tax forms and bank statements in your backpack. Yet many of us don’t think twice about leaving equally sensitive data unprotected on our laptops for anyone to find.
If you must carry around personal or confidential files, make sure you’ve taken appropriate steps to protect them—and yourself. Losing a laptop is bad enough; your identity and bank accounts shouldn’t be at risk, too.
1. Require Identification
With OS X’s Automatic Login feature turned on, your laptop is literally an open book. Anyone who presses the power button will have instant access to your files. To turn this feature off, go to the Accounts preference pane and click on Login Options. (If the button is dimmed, first click on the lock icon and enter your administrator password.) Deselect the Automatically Log In As
option. Now anyone who tries to use your laptop will have to enter a password to access your system.
2. Encrypt Sensitive Files
The login process will keep out the casual snoopers, but it won’t guarantee privacy. Thieves who know what they’re doing will be able to get around this barrier. So take extra precautions for sensitive files such as financial information or company data.
One of the easiest ways to protect important files is to place them in an encrypted disk image. When locked, an encrypted disk image ensures that only someone with the correct password can access the data. Once it’s unlocked, however, you can easily work with the files it contains.
You can create encrypted disk images with the help of Disk Utility (/Applications/Utilities). To create a new disk image, choose File: New: Blank Disk Image, choose the desired size, and enable encryption. When you click on Create, you’ll be asked to provide a password for your disk image.
To work with the disk image, double-click on the resulting disk-image file and enter your password. It should appear as a disk in the Finder’s sidebar. You can now drag any folders or files you want to protect onto the disk image. When you’re done, unmount it to again encrypt the contents. (
for detailed instructions on setting up encrypted disk images).
3. Lock It Down
Encrypted disk images protect your files only when they’re locked. If you step away from your laptop after you’ve logged in and unlocked your files, anyone who walks by will have full access. To prevent this from happening, require a password to wake your computer from sleep or from the screen saver.
Open the Security preference pane and select the Require Password To Wake This Computer From Sleep Or Screen Saver option. Then switch to the Desktop & Screen Saver preference pane and set your screen saver to turn on after a few minutes. (You may also want to set a hot corner so you can activate it manually.)
If you don’t want to have to enter your password every time you sit staring at your Mac’s screen for a couple of minutes, you can opt to lock your screen only when you’re stepping away from your computer. Open the Keychain Access utility (Applications/Utilities), and choose Keychain Access: Preferences. Click on the General tab and select the Show Status In Menu Bar option. A small lock icon will appear in your menu bar. Quit Keychain Access. The next time you need to step away for a moment, click on the lock icon and select Lock Screen.
4. Give Good Samaritans a Hand
In case some well-intentioned soul finds your misplaced laptop, make sure that you provide information on how to get in touch with you. Visage, a $10 preference pane by
), gives you an easy way to add text—such as your first name, your e-mail address, and a phone number—to your Mac’s login screen.
5. Track It
So what happens if your laptop gets stolen? If you’ve installed tracking software, such as SealthSignal’s
XTool Computer Tracker, you may just have a shot at getting it back. This software communicates with a central server when the Mac is connected to the Internet. If you lose the laptop, contact SealthSignal—there’s a chance it will be able to find out where your computer is.
Supply Your Contact Info: Visage, by Sanity Software, gives you an easy way to add text to your login screen.
Make yourself comfortable
Sitting hunched over a laptop is fine when you’re on the road, but if you’re planning to work for a long time, you’ll want to make yourself more comfortable. When you’re at home or at the office, take your cue from traditional desktop systems and create a functional workstation. With the right peripherals, you can have all the advantages of a desktop Mac (a large monitor, a full-size keyboard, and a comfortable setup) with all the convenience of a laptop. When you’re setting up your equipment, consider these tips:
To simplify connecting your laptop to the various cables you use, consider getting a docking station.
sells docking stations for all current Mac laptops, as well as many older models. The $159 MacBook Docking Station, for example, fits right into the ports on the left side of the computer. It even offers an additional powered USB hub, as well as a VGA port for connecting an older monitor. Once you’ve connected all your peripherals and cables to the docking station, you can simply slide the docking station into your laptop’s ports. All your other cables stay connected to the docking station, so docking and undocking is faster and produces less cable tangle.
Cut the Clutter
If you’re bothered by cable clutter, consider going wireless with a Bluetooth keyboard and mouse, such as Apple $59 Wireless Keyboard and $69
wireless Mighty Mouse
). When Bluetooth support is turned on, your laptop will automatically detect your keyboard and mouse, so there’s no effort on your part. Just be sure to turn off Bluetooth when you’re on the road, to save battery power.
Keep Your Cool
If you have an external monitor and input devices, you may be tempted to simply close your laptop and forget about it while working at your desk. But your laptop will work more efficiently if you give it a little breathing room. Leaving your portable flat on a desk or table will raise its temperature, causing its fans to run more often. To help it cool down, place your laptop on a riser so air can circulate on all sides. Even a piece of wood or a book will raise the computer enough to allow air to flow beneath it. I also recommend leaving the laptop lid open slightly so that air can circulate and dissipate any heat.
Use Your Laptop as a Monitor
If you’re on a budget or you’re tight on space, you can save money by using your laptop’s screen as your monitor. If you go this route, consider getting a laptop stand, such as Griffin’s $40
Elevator. A laptop stand has two advantages: it raises the laptop to eye level, which is much better for your neck and back, and it allows air to flow beneath the laptop.
Kirk McElhearn has authored and coauthored a dozen Mac books. His blog,
Kirkville, features articles about OS X, the iPod, and more.
Plug It In: The MacBook Docking Station, from BookEndz, connects to all your peripherals and fits into the ports on your 15-inch MacBook.