Earlier this year, I made the move to a MacBook Pro being my primary machine after years of having a desktop with a supplemental laptop. This change really just acknowledged the way I already used my computer since I seldom sat down in front of my several year old desktop. Over time I’d moved to doing almost all my work on my MacBook. In fact, for much of the last six month before making the change, the most common way I accessed my desktop was by remoting to it from my laptop.
This change lets me be more mobile and that brings a lot of freedom when working, but also adds a few challenges with having a computer that’s meant to be on the go. Over the last couple of years while gradually making the switch from my laptop being a supporting machine to my primary computer, I’ve come to use several apps that help simply the job. Let’s look at a few of them.
The greatest advantage of using laptop comes in that I can pick up my MacBook and take everything with me. When I’m done working for the day or when I need to leave, I usually just close the lid and let my MacBook go to sleep. When I have an external drive plugged in to access data this can be a problem as external drives don’t like being disconnected without warning. In fact, there is a chance of data loss anytime you don’t correctly eject a drive.
Jettison is an app that solves this problem by automatically ejecting all external drives when I put my MacBook to sleep by any method. It also adds the nice feature that if the external drive is still connected when I open my MacBook back up the app will automatically mount it back to my Desktop.
Requires: OS X 10.6.8+
Developer: St. Clair Software
It seems that every week it’s a bit easier to find a wireless when away from home or work. Though more common, we’re still a long way from being able to count on wireless being everywhere that you might like or need to work. Even when wireless is available, it’s all too often a slow connection being overwhelmed at the coffee shop or hotel. Or worse hotels often want outrageous prices for wireless access. And at all these places you are at the mercy of connections more often designed for convenience and not security. I’ve found a MiFi gives me reliable and fast access to the Internet in almost any place that I want to work and indispensable when mobile.
Mi-Fi Monitor works with most Novatel based Mi-Fi units such as the ones from AT&T and Verizon. It resides in the menu bar and tracks the celluar signal level of my connection useful where the connection is unstable or borderline. It also provides an indication of battery strength letting me know when I need to recharge the unit before suddenly losing network connection at an inopportune time. Lastly it tracks the traffic transmitted and received which helps me keep from going over my data cap.
Requires: OS X 10.6+ and supported Novatel Mi-Fi device
Here’s some other apps to monitor your bandwidth usage, if you use a USB 3G adaptor or just want to keep tabs on your Wifi usage.
Those data caps are why sometimes I still use the wireless network instead of my Mi-Fi. I’m always cautious about using the public open wireless commonly found at restaurants, coffee shops, and hotels since the information transmitted over this wireless is flying about visible to anyone with malicious intent. HTTPS secured sites won’t have this problem, and since the release of Firesheep in 2010 brought this problem to light, many sites have redesigned around that. Still, a large number of poorly written sites remain out there and sometimes you’ve no choice but to use one, or do not have the time or ability to see if one is well written or not.
So when I’m doing anything regarding personal data on a public wireless network, I use a VPN to encrypt all my traffic so anyone sniffing around sees nothing useful. I currently use proXPN because they have a free plan that limits the connection speed and types of connections, but works well for the only occasional use I need. When using this type of service, you’re putting your trust in the provider of so some care and research into them is required, but I prefer that to the risk of a poorly written web site letting private data be stolen. proXPN offers paid plans providing more features and greater speed.
Price: $Free plan or paid plans starting at $6.25 per month
Requires: OS X 10.6+
Developer: proXPN, B.V.
Another nice VPN you can try is TunnelBear.
When mobile my main screen is my laptop screen which is only 15″ and not the 22″ monitor I have at home. For someone like me with a lot of apps in my menu bar, often I found that some would be hidden by the menus in apps that I used making accessing them inconvenient. I found the solution for this in Bartender. This is a bit more expensive than many apps at $15, but allows you to clean up your menu bar by moving items into a second menu bar called the Bartender Bar. It works with either menu bar items of built in Mac OS utilities or any custom programs that you’ve installed. You can also hide an item completely.
The result is a cleaner menu bar with only the things I really want to see. The other items only need to be running or I access less often can stay out of the way until needed. Bartender also can be set to temporarily move an item back to the main menu bar when it changes. For example, normally I keep DropBox on the Bartender Bar, but when the icon changes due to files being synched, it pops up to the menu bar for five seconds to let me know something is going on.
Requires: OS X 10.6+
Developer: Surtee Studios
Watts functions as a replacement for the built in menu bar icon providing additional functionality. The primary addition is to remind you and guide you through the process of calibrating your laptop battery on a regular basis. This process keeps the keeps the onscreen indicators on time remaining while on battery and the percentage of battery left more accurate and also should keep the battery usage operating more efficiently.
It also provides an indicator of the health of your battery, the number of charge cycles the battery has completed, and the remaining capacity of the battery letting you keep an eye on the battery health and plan for a replacement before needed. It can also provide notifications when battery charge levels reach a certain percentage and to unplug if you’ve had your laptop connected and running for more than a specified number of hours. It’s perhaps a bit overpriced at $6.99, but provides useful information to help get the most out of the battery of your laptop.
Requires: OS X 10.5+
Developer: Binary Tricks
Another option that’s free but basic is coconutBattery.
The increased power and resources available in laptops today makes them a viable option for a full time computing platform. The ability to take your work away from the desk when traveling or just when you need a change of scenery make the decision even more appareling. While laptops face additional challenges in network connectivity and battery life, these apps can help make them less problematic.