Tricking Out Your Notebook for Superior Desktop Duty
I use my main workhorse notebook mostly as a desktop substitute, which leads me to muse frequently about "desktop laptops" that would be designed specifically for the growing constituency of laptop owners who mainly use their 'Books as portable desktop computers and rarely for real road work.
For that sort of user, weight and bulk are much less substantial considerations - more of both would be tolerable in exchange for more features, connectivity, and expandability, as well as perhaps the integration of less expensive desktop components like hard drives and RAM that would help keep costs down. There are some big PC laptops with up to 19" displays and even one or two (more to come soon, it seems) with quad-core processors.
So far Apple has chosen not to go this route, although in some respects the 17" MacBook Pro and PowerBook are more portable desktops than serious road warrioring machines. Yet because of their still razor-thin profile, the full potential of the expansive footprint can be exploited to a greater degree than it has been. For example, there is plenty of room for a full 105-key extended keyboard, but instead the Big 'Book uses the same keyboard as their 15" (and erstwhile 12") siblings, leaving huge expanses of empty space on either side.
I'm not holding my breath in anticipation, but I think there could be a healthy market for "desktop MacBooks". If Apple builds them, perhaps with the new quad-core 2.53 GHz Centrino 2 mobile CPUs that are reportedly coming from Intel as early as August, people would come.
In the meantime, while portables have many virtues as one's only computer, decent ergonomics for long sessions at the keyboard is not one of them. To wit: if the 'Book is positioned low enough for a comfortable and wrist-healthy typing posture, one's neck is craned downward at an uncomfortable and unhealthy angle, and in many cases shoulders will be rounded and the chest hollowed.
On the other hand, if the computer is perched at a comfortable and good posture-inducing viewing angle, one's wrists will be angled down, compressing the vulnerable carpal tunnel, and the arms elevated uncomfortably.
The solution to these essential ergonomic issues of laptop use for more than brief stints is to elevate the computer and use an external keyboard and pointing device. This practice has other advantages besides sparing your wrist and neck from possible injury. The thing I miss most about using the built-in keyboard in Apple's 'Books is the lack of Home, End, Page Up, Page Down, and Forward Delete keys (without using modifiers), as well as the missing three F-keys, and I've never found the embedded Fn key solution an adequate substitute for a real numeric keypad with its big, convenient Enter key.
There is a wide selection of external keyboards available that one can use, including the thin aluminum ones from Apple. My personal fave is the Kensington SlimType, but there are probably dozens of keyboard choices that will variously appeal to different tastes in feel and response, wired or wireless, and so forth. The point is that you can get the keyboard experience that you like by going external.
The same dynamic applies, only more so, with pointing devices, where the range of potential candidates is truly vast - mice, both conventional and ergonomic, and trackballs and trackpads, in a mind-blowing variety of configurations, again both wired and wireless. I'm an aficionado of lightweight, wired mice, and the one I use most is the inexpensive MacMice DangerMouse (now available from Mac-Pro), but again let your own preferences be your guide. Apple, MacAlly, Logitech, Kensington, RadTech, and Contour Design, to name just a few, make a wide array of pointing device designs and configurations, and there are plenty of other contenders, not to mention various trackballs and the odd freestanding trackpad.
One issue with using an external mice with laptops has sometimes been cord length, or lack of it, notably on Apple's own corded USB mice and machines with USB ports located only on the left side, where a short mouse cord can be problematical for right-handers. It used to be than most USB keyboards had repeater ports, but lately, especially with ultra-slim 'boards, those are becoming a rarity.
As for elevation, you could just perch the computer on a pile of books or catalogs, but that's an inelegant solution, and with the many and varied laptop stands available, why would you want to? Most laptop stands also allow the computer to cool more efficiently, which should make it last longer, and will at least minimize the intrusion of fan noise from the cooling fan cutting in.
Again, there are so many different laptop stand solutions available that it's best to shop around, read some reviews, and see what appeals and suits you needs best. Some stands have active forced-air cooling fans that are larger and slower-turning than internal ones used in laptops, which is something to consider, especially if you're noise-averse. Others have built-in USB hubs, which is also handy. A priority is for the stand, whatever its accessory configuration, to raise the laptop's screen to a comfortable viewing elevation.
If you tend to keep a lot of stuff connected to your 'Book at its desktop workstation, but frequently also use the machine as a portable as well, a convenient accessory is a BookEndz docking station, which allows you to leave all of your cables connected while just unplugging the BookEndz unit itself from the computer's port panel. BookEndz models are available for MacBooks, MacBook Pros, Aluminum PowerBooks (all three sizes), and for Titanium PowerBooks as well.
An alternative to or enhancement to using the laptop's own built-in display while in desktop mode is to hook up an external monitor. If you have a 'Book that supports monitor spanning (a.k.a. extended desktop), you can to use the internal display and the external monitor in tandem, mousing smoothly from one to the other.
iBooks only support video mirroring - the internal display is duplicated by the external unit. There are third-party hacks available that will induce the iBook to support monitor spending, but there have been reports that this can cause damage to the machine. Another issue to consider is that it has been suggested that the stress (i.e.: heat generation) associated with driving an external monitor for long periods of time may be contributory to logic board video circuitry failure, especially in iBooks.
'Books with VGA Ports
The types of external display supported by Apple portables can be a bit confusing. All machines beginning with the the G3 series PowerBooks through the November 2001 Titanium PowerBooks (400, 500, 550, & first generation 667 MHz) support standard VGA displays (the first generation PowerBook 12" and iBooks with their included adapter).
'Books with DVI Ports
Beginning with the May 2002 release of the PowerBook G4, DVI output is standard with VGA supported through an included DVI-to-VGA adapter. This configuration includes the later TiBooks, all 17" PowerBooks, and all 15" aluminum PowerBooks. The second generation 12" PowerBook and later also support DVI output (with an included DVI-to-VGA adapter). MacBook Pros have a DVI-out port for a external display (VGA-out adapter included, composite/S-video out adapter sold separately); The MacBooks have a Mini-DVI out port (adapters for DVI, VGA, and composite/S-video sold separately), while the MacBook Air requires an optional Micro-DVI adapter.
DVI for Older 'Books
If you have an older PowerBook without DVI support, want to use a higher resolution screen, or work with up one or two external displays, there is a way. Village Tronic's VTBook PC Card video card supports both G3 Series and G4 PowerBooks equipped with a Type II PC Card slot and running Mac OS 9 or Mac OS X. It works with a VGA, DVI, or ADC monitor (with a DVI-to-ADC adapter). VT Voilá, a Mac OS X software utility, eases multi-display use. Unfortunately , it won't work with iBooks because they have no PC Card slot.
Use 2 External Displays with the MacBook Pro
If you have a MacBook Pro with an ExpressCard slot, Village Tronic's ViDock Gfx enables up to two additional displays to connect to your portable computer offering uncompromised desktop class speed and quality video. With the options of VGA, DVI Dual Link, or Dual DVI video output (Pro Edition), all the displays currently on the market can be supported, including the 30" ones at 2560 x 1600. Again, no MacBook support due to the lack of an ExpressCard slot.
Charles Moore has been a freelance journalist since 1987 and began writing for Mac websites in May 1998. His The Road Warrior column was a regular feature on MacOpinion, and he is a news editor and columnist at Applelinks.com. If you find his articles helpful, please consider making a donation to his tip jar.
Other articles by Charles W. Moore
- Apple's Great Hebrew Support, AirPort Express Silently Upgraded, Pismo G4, and More, Charles Moore's Mailbag, 2012.12.03. Also a WindowShade replacement approved by Apple, upgrding a 15" MacBook Pro, and three 13" MacBooks.
- Is There a Cure for a Smelly Mac?, Miscellaneous Ramblings, 2012.07.30. For those suffering from Multiple Chemical Sensitivity, gases let of by a new computer can be no end of trouble.
- Optimizing PowerBook G4 Performance, TenFourFox May Run Faster with NoScript, and More, Charles Moore's Mailbag, 2012.07.18. Also pros and cons of Linux on G3 PowerBooks and iPhoto 11 no longer updating in Snow Leopard.
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