I’ll never forget the first time I got my hands on the MacBook Air, at its debut in January 2008. “This thing looks like it’s descended from a spatula,” I wrote in my New York Times review. “It’s a stunningly beautiful aluminum slab, three-quarters of an inch thick. Its edges are beveled to look even thinner. When it’s on a table, you might mistake this laptop for a placemat.”
At the time, the price of the sleek computer from Apple (AAPL) was $1,800, the hard drive held 80 gigs, and the battery lasted five hours. (Today, $1,200 gets you 3.2 times as much storage — flash memory, not a spinning hard drive — and 12 hours of battery life. And the speed is much, much better.)
But I also wrote, “You can’t make a three-pound laptop without sacrificing something, however.” And on the Air, that part hasn’t changed.
So today, as a public service, I’m going to review three obscure but absolutely ingenious add-on products that address those sacrifices, and that turn the MacBook Air into the dream machine it deserves to be.
The storage problem
Flash storage like the Air’s has its advantages: It has no moving parts, so it’s far more rugged than a traditional hard drive. It also offers better battery life and speed, especially in starting up and opening programs.
The downside is that flash storage is much more expensive than a hard drive, which is why you don’t get much storage on the MacBook Air. The base model comes with only 128 GB. You can pay several hundred dollars more to get 256 or 512 GB instead, but that’s still nothing like the 1 or 2 terabytes available on some laptops.
One quick, cheap, easy solution is this: The SanDisk Ultra Fit flash drive. It’s a tiny, tiny flash drive, so small that you can pop it into your Air’s USB jack and leave it there. You’ve got a second “hard drive” of 128 GB for only $30. (There are smaller ones, too, for as little as $10.)
The Transcend JetDrive Lite is a similar idea ($150 for 256 GB), except that it goes into your MacBook’s SD memory-card slot.
The Ultra Fit and JetDrive are great for offloading files you just want to carry with you, but they’re not fast enough to be a main “hard drive.” You wouldn’t want to use one as your video-editing “scratch drive,” for example.
That’s where the weird and wonderful TarDisk comes in. (The name sounds gooey and gross, although I guess it’s supposed to be a pun on the Tardis machine from “Doctor Who.”)
It’s way, way more expensive — $150 for 128 GB, and $300 for 256 GB — but it’s a whole different ballgame. It’s a tiny, finely crafted aluminum flash-memory drive that you insert into your Air’s SD memory-card slot. (It’s also available for the MacBook Pro.)
There, you can use it just like a second hard drive. But the real magic is when you “pear” it with your main drive. (Is that supposed to be a pun on “pairing” it? Weird.)
Pearing is quite a dramatic bit of surgery. You have to back up your Air, erase it, “pear” it using an included utility program (a technical, disorienting process), and then copy all your stuff back onto it.
When it’s all over, you don’t see two icons on your desktop; the TarDisk has actually joined souls with the main drive, forming one new, gloriously spacious, single new entity. If you started out with 256 gigs, now you’ve got (for example) 512 gigs. If you started out with 512, now you’ve got and incredible 768 gigs. And you haven’t lost any speed.
It’s a fascinating idea, and it works well. You are, of course, giving up your card slot forever; you’ll have to come up with some other way of importing photos from a camera (like using a USB cable).
Even more frightening: Once you’ve expanded your storage with a TarDisk, you can never remove it. Pulling it out of your slot once it’s been “peared” is a bad, bad idea. (The only way it’s safe to remove the TarDisk is to reverse the pearing process — once again backing up, erasing, and restoring your whole Air.)
But if you’re looking for a way to expand your “hard drive” without opening up the machine (as you must using the non-Lite JetDrive kit), that compromise may be worth it.
The docking station
If you use a laptop as your main machine, you may already appreciate the beauty of a docking station: a contraption full of jacks. You plug into it a big second monitor, full-size keyboard, real mouse, external hard drives, and other gear. Then, whenever you’re at your desk, you pop your laptop into the docking station, and you’re ready to get to work with all the convenience of a desktop workstation.
For the longest time, no MacBook Air docking station existed; now, I’m happy to report, one does. It’s called the LandingZone 2.0 Docking Station. (It’s also available for the MacBook Pro.)
It’s white and beautiful and a little pricey ($160), but it’s fantastic. It offers even more jacks than the Air does: Four USB, one Ethernet (requires downloading a driver), a mini Display Port (doubles as a Thunderbolt jack), and a security slot.
The four USB jacks are powered, which explains why the Docking Station requires a power cord of its own. Your memory-card slot is left open and available. So is your headphone jack — meaning that if you like to connect speakers, you have to do that part manually every time.
You set your laptop against the back posts and then push the sides of the Docking Station inward (see my video above). Most of the time, all of the jacks and prongs line up perfectly and snap against your MacBook. Sometimes, it takes a couple of tries, which is the biggest knock on this device. (Oh — also, the Air won’t fit if it has a case on it.)
And that’s it: All the gadgets on your desk are now instantly connected. No fishing for cables, no plugging in, no fussing. Your second monitor pops on, and you’re ready to work. Your desk looks much tidier, whether the laptop is present or not.
To disconnect, you pull a lever on the back; the “wings” pop apart so that you can grab your laptop and go.
Windows laptop luggers have enjoyed the convenience of desktop docking stations for years, but they still seem weird and alien to Mac fans (the docking stations, not the Windows users). This one isn’t as effortless as the best PC docks, but it does the job well and looks great doing it.
The MagSafe 2 problem
Back in 2006, Apple introduced its brilliant MagSafe connector: a magnetically attached laptop power cord. If someone trips on the cord, it snaps out harmlessly instead of dragging your $1,000 laptop to the floor.
And then came the MagSafe 2. This “improved” connector, born in 2012 and now standard on all Apple laptops, features a thinner, weaker, magnet. Much weaker. It falls out all the time. Uncross your legs — it falls out. Turn to reach for a beverage — it falls out. Yell at the TV — it falls out.
That problem goes away when you buy the Snuglet ($20 for two). It’s a tiny metal liner for the laptop’s power jack; it’s got all the weight and bulk of a staple. Somehow, this thin band of additional metal amplifies the force of the MagSafe 2’s magnet. Without adding anything visible at all, the Snuglet gives you a cord that doesn’t fall out (until someone actually does trip on it).
The Snuglet comes with a removal tool, but I’ve never in my life used it; the whole idea is that the Snuglet shim stays forever inside the power socket, fixing the annoyance of the too-weak connector.
If you have cats, children, or morning coffee, I also recommend a keyboard skin to prevent unauthorized fluids from getting inside your laptop.
Otherwise, though, that concludes my tour of Things Your Air Really Should Have. Here’s hoping you pounce on the ones that sound useful — and that your Air thanks you.
David Pogue is the founder of Yahoo Tech; here’s how to get his columns by email. On the Web, he’s davidpogue.com. On Twitter, he’s @pogue. On email, he’s firstname.lastname@example.org. He welcomes non-toxic comments in the Comments below.