My Turn

MacTablet, MacBook mini, and MacDock: Resurrecting the Dockable 'Book

- 2006.05.31

My Turn is Low End Mac's column for reader-submitted articles. It's your turn to share your thoughts on all things Mac (or iPhone, iPod, etc.) and write for the Mac web. Email your submission to Dan Knight .

The idea behind the PowerBook Duo and its desktop dock was sublime: an ultra lightweight portable that could cover more than the basics in the field and return home to a larger hard drive and a full size monitor.

Where it suffered most was price. A high end Duo 2300c, for example, set you back over $4,000. Add a dock and monitor to that, and it just wasn't worth it. The average person didn't then (and certainly doesn't now) have $5,000-6,000 to splurge on a computer concept that at best became a novelty.

Ahead of Its Time

The idea was way ahead of the technology.

But docking a notebook computer isn't a dead concept. It's currently in use by millions of Apple customers. With its own processor, hard drive, display, and memory the iPod is essentially a very specialized computer that operates on its own away from the desktop, but it has a whole other level of functionality when it synchs with its designated computer.

It's also the single most popular product Apple has ever produced.

The iPod wasn't the first MP3 player, but Apple came into a new and relatively untapped market and blew everyone out of the water with a superior product. One of the big reasons for this was iTunes' seamless integration. And what is that but the marriage of two independent computers sharing information automatically?

My point?

Like many people I know, I have both a laptop and a desktop computer: an old G4 tower and an iBook G4. Despite its age, my tower is the mother ship: It's got four times more storage than my iBook and is the computer I turn to when I'm at home. Even though the tower is half the speed of my iBook, it's got a nice video card and a bigger screen. It's just more comfortable to use when I have the choice. I have what seems like a million CDs, and my iTunes music library alone doesn't fit on my 60 GB iBook.

Lately, I find my fastest computer, the iBook, is getting minimal use. I could buy a bigger hard drive for it, but laptop drives are still about twice as expensive as their desktop equivalents. Not only that, but the biggest drive for a laptop is 160 GB drive, and I don't think my iBook (circa 2004) can handle it.

Let's look at the bigger picture: 160 GB isn't that amazing. For a laptop it's news, but I've got 220 GB shacked up in my old G4 tower, and I did that for pennies in comparison. If I had a G5, I could get 500 GB for the same price as getting that "revolutionary" 160 GB laptop drive.

Duo Redux

Basically it would be somewhere between a MacBook and an iPod. You could keep both cost and size down, because it would be designed to work with your desktop computer, not be a desktop replacement. It would be a seriously powerful peripheral (think an iPod on steroids). You wouldn't need a big hard drive or a ton of expensive laptop RAM, because it would be for everyday field use (e.g. Internet, word-processing, Keynote/PowerPoint presentations, watching movies you imported from your desktop, etc.).

At least two products come to mind:

MacBook mini

The MacBook mini would be a 10" laptop with a full version of OS X. It wouldn't have a CD/DVD drive, but it would have a nice fast SATA hard drive that could quickly sync to its host computer via a dock. A smaller, but still usable, keyboard (better than a phone or BlackBerry).

It would have less ports, because it wouldn't be a desktop substitute like the MacBook or MacBook Pro. It would have its dock connector (which would double as video out for presentations), a USB port, and a headphone jack. That's it. No modem, no Ethernet, no FireWire, no audio in. Wireless is everywhere.

Apple has always seen the future and had the gumption to drop technologies on their way out (floppy drives and dialup modems, to name two). The MacBook mini would have AirPort Extreme and Bluetooth built in.

MacTablet

The MacTablet would be the same as the 10" MacBook mini, but even slimmer because it wouldn't open up to a keyboard. It wouldn't have a built in keyboard at all. It would have a touchscreen and (that's right, I'm going to say it) a stylus. A small USB keyboard could be used if desired, but essentially this thing would really be the iPod on steroids.

When you docked it to your existing desktop, the screen of the MacTablet would be a second monitor where in addition to automatically syncing you could manually add and removes files as you see fit. You would also have a built-in backup of essential files, because it would sync just like an iPod. Where the iPod stands in as a back up of your music library, the MacTablet would serve as a back up to your most essential files.

I'm guessing Apple could make a MacTablet and sell it for a couple hundred less than the low-end MacBook. It's everything the Duo should have been.

Just like MP3 players in the pre-iPod world, there are tablet computers out there, but there's just nothing "must-have" about them. The MacTablet could be the first "must- have" tablet computer.

MacDock

The MacDock would address the second biggest drawback of the original Duo. The Duo couldn't dock with a Mac, just to the specialized Duo Dock. Additionally, the Duo Dock couldn't work without the Duo.

This is where the MacTablet would take its cue from the iPod. The MacDock would put the tablet's screen at an angle that kept it both off your workspace and viewable as a second monitor (either mirrored or extended desktop, depending on the user's needs).

The dock port of the MacTablet would work exactly like the iPod's, connecting to an available USB 2.0 port. Since the hard drive would be about the same size as a large iPod (60 GB), after the first long sync with information on the host computer, subsequent dockings would sync data within minutes.

The one thing the MacDock wouldn't have in common with the iPod's dock would be its ability to power or charge the MacTablet over USB. The MacDock would have its own AC adapter. But you'd want this, because in addition to not wanting to pull enough power to charge a larger battery through a USB port, you'd want a portable that could be plugged in to an outlet in the field if the battery was expended.

You could also bring your MacDock along if you were one of those people who opted for a USB keyboard, essentially turning it into a full laptop on any available flat surface.

Like the iPod dock, the MacDock would not be essential for use of the MacTablet or MacBook mini; it would just add to ease and functionality to the experience.

The MacBook mini could have a pivoting screen to allow it to utilize the dock as well, still exposing its screen in the closed position for use as a second monitor.

The touch screen of the MacTablet could also prove functional (much like a Wacom tablet), as it would upright when working as a second monitor.

Unlike the Duos of yesterday, the possibilities for a dockable portable with existing technologies are endless.

Share your perspective on the Mac by emailing with "My Turn" as your subject.


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