For many people, the attraction of Apple's Titanium PowerBook G4 is that it almost entirely eliminates the compromises like performance and screen size that seem endemic to laptop computers. Even the iBook works fine as a primary computer for many people.
However, both of these computers, like almost all laptops, fall down in one area: ergonomics. They're great for using on the couch, in a coffeehouse, or on an airplane, but when the laptop is sitting on a desk, the screen simply isn't at the correct height. The problem is obvious - laptops combine keyboards and screens, but proper ergonomics demands that the keyboard be on the desk in front of you, whereas the monitor should be positioned so your arm, held horizontally straight in front of you, points at the center of your monitor.
(For more information on the ergonomics of laptops, read the Cornell University Ergonomics Web page, "5 Tips for Using a Laptop Computer," and their more general computer workstation ergonomic guidelines.)
If the problem is obvious, so too is the solution: elevate the laptop and use an external keyboard and mouse. You could plop your iBook or PowerBook on a box or a stack of books to raise it to the right height, but that's a clumsy way to support such an elegant computer and may not provide adequate cooling. If you work in close quarters and need your desk space for other work, you'll also want somewhere to stash your keyboard and mouse.
Three companies have looked at how to elevate a laptop to proper ergonomic height and have come up with remarkably different answers. Griffin Technologies opted for the minimalist look with the sleekly designed iCurve. The Plasticsmith took their design cues for the Lapvantage Dome from the flat-panel iMac. And for the Dexia Rack, Dexia Design used aircraft-grade aluminum to create a stand that looks like the cross between a TV dinner tray and mountain climbing gear. But the three laptop stands don't just look different, they offer surprisingly different functionality as well.
I tested these stands in another capacity as well - holding laptops higher than normal desk height for use while standing up. Perhaps we're unusual, but we use older laptops in fixed positions. Tonya's blueberry iBook sends MP3s to our stereo and provides access to the Web and our Now Up-to-Date & Contact calendar and contact databases when we're not in our offices. And my old PowerBook G3 is our main external server and routes the long-range wireless Internet connection to the rest of the house. We use both of these laptops standing up, but the shelves they're on are too low for easy access (particularly for me, since I'm a good bit taller than Tonya).
iCurve -- The most visually striking of the three stands to my mind is the iCurve from Griffin Technologies. It's made of a single 1.5 inch (3.8 cm) thick piece of clear, molded plastic with a curved base and a pair of forward slanting arms for holding your laptop. Slightly sticky friction pads are inset in the arms to ensure that your laptop doesn't slide off. The iCurve is exactly the width of the iBook; the wider Titanium PowerBook G4 would extend over the arms by a few inches. The front of the iCurve is about 4 inches (10.2 cm) high, and the back is 6 inches (15.2 cm) high. With my iBook, that means the top of the screen is at 15.5 inches (39.4 cm) high, or almost exactly the height of the Apple 17-inch Studio Display's active area.
The clear plastic, cantilevered design, and narrow width of the iCurve make it almost invisible in a sort of modernist way, which is particularly attractive if you don't have much space on your desk. You can easily store your keyboard well out of the way under your laptop when you're not using it. The base is smooth, so it slides easily on your desk surface. Although I worried a little about it being too easily slid off the desk, I did appreciate the ease with which I could adjust the angle or position of the entire stand with a mere touch.
The iCurve's slanted arms worked particularly well for our fixed position laptops, because it put the laptop's keyboard and trackpad at a more accessible angle. On the downside, the prototype unit I tested proved a bit bouncy, so typing made the entire laptop jiggle up and down. Luckily, we seldom type more than a few words at a time on these machines, and Andrew Green at Griffin said the production units used somewhat stiffer plastic to ameliorate this minor irritation.
The iCurve costs $40 and is available directly from Griffin Technologies and at Apple Stores.
Lapvantage Dome -- Take a flat-panel iMac base, give it a short aluminum arm, and replace the screen with a flat plastic tray, and you have the Lapvantage Dome. The Lapvantage Dome Deluxe, which I tested, improves on the standard model by making the arm (and thus the height of the laptop) adjustable from 4.75 inches (12.1 cm) to 6.5 inches (16.5 cm); the standard model is fixed at 5.5 inches high (14.0 cm). Either one should bring your screen close to an ideal height. The base of the Dome Deluxe also swivels 360 degrees (the standard model is fixed), and its platform is made of polished clear acrylic supported by another, smaller piece of opaque plastic, rather than just the plastic piece for the standard model.
The Lapvantage Dome feels like the most massive of the three stands, due to its 10 inch (25.4 cm) diameter hemispheric base, and a tray that's 13.5 inches (34.3 cm) wide and 11.25 inches (28.6 cm) deep. Although the tray is notably larger than my diminutive iBook, which is only 11.25 inches (28.6 cm) wide, the iBook covers the lower opaque plastic piece perfectly, simulating the look of the flat-panel iMac's screen, with its clear acrylic edge. A Titanium PowerBook G4 would cover much more of the surface. The Dome isn't heavy, but its rubber-footed base provides solid support - it feels the least wobbly of the three stands. Unfortunately, the base also prevents you from sliding your keyboard as far under the platform as with the other two.
I appreciated adjustable height, although the 1.75 inch (4.5 cm) range isn't all that much. I also liked the way I could rotate the base easily for someone else to see without having to slide the entire stand; with laptop LCD screens, being able to view the screen straight on is important.
The Lapvantage Dome costs $50, and the Dome Deluxe runs $80. Both models are available in either white or black, and you can order them directly from The Plasticsmith.
Dexia Rack -- Both the iCurve and the Dome were designed purely with the desktop in mind. Dexia Design considered the desktop while designing the Dexia Rack, but didn't stop there, creating a stand that's as at home on a couch as on your desk.
To hold your laptop, the Dexia Rack uses an aluminum 14-inch by 11-inch (35.6 cm by 27.9 cm) tray, the middle third of which is open to provide cooling and reduce weight. A pair of sculpted aluminum legs fold out from the bottom of the tray to provide support. When extended, the legs are 20 inches wide (50.8 cm), offering sufficient space either for stashing your keyboard, should you be working at a desk, or to span the legs of most people, should you be sitting in a chair, couch, or bed. They raise the tray to a height of 7 inches (17.8 cm), which puts the top of my iBook's screen at about 16 inches (40.6 cm) again, a generally reasonable viewing height. Two thin metal cables crisscross underneath the tray to prevent the legs from folding too far out. When closed and locked, which they do with a satisfying snap, the legs fit neatly under the tray, making for a neat and easily portable package that's only .75 inch (1.9 cm) thick and weighs less than 1.5 pounds (.68 kg).
The width of the Dexia Rack, which is necessary to accommodate a full-sized keyboard or your legs, results in the tray being more appropriately sized for the Titanium PowerBook G4 than the iBook. The Dexia Rack also requires a wider surface area than either of the other two stands, although its actual footprint is tiny. The tray has indentations on either side that reduce the chance of laptops without rubber feet from sliding off, but adding rubber feet (try Radio Shack) would decrease the chance of accident. The Dexia Rack also lacks rubber bumpers on its smooth aluminum feet, which makes it slide on your desk well and prevents it from catching on loose couch or bed surfaces.
Although I enjoy the warmth of my iBook during this cold time of year, in the heat of the summer, I hate the hot iBook making my legs sweat. I also find the weight of the iBook becomes uncomfortable during long writing sessions. The Dexia Rack neatly solves this problem by supporting the laptop well above your legs, while still keeping it low enough for comfortable typing. Keeping in mind that everyone's proportions are different, I found the Dexia Rack most comfortable when I was sitting straight up. The more I reclined (as I'm wont to do in bed, particularly), the harder it was to align my arms flat with the keyboard without bending my wrists. I have a long torso and arms, so it's possible others wouldn't encounter this problem as much.
I haven't had the Dexia Rack long enough to try it on a trip, but I do intend to take it with me on Christmas vacation or to Macworld Expo in January. I'm looking forward to trying it while on the road, since I often find myself working on couches and in hotel room beds (hotel room desks, when present, are often at a terrible height for my wrists).
The Dexia Rack costs $45 and is sold mostly through college bookstores and computer stores, although you can also order directly from Dexia Design via email or phone.
TidBITS Buying Advice -- All three stands elevate your laptop and provide a place to stash your keyboard. None of them obstruct your access to side- or rear-mounted ports, and all are priced between $40 and $80. With the possible exception of the Lapvantage Dome Deluxe, they're also somewhat at the mercy of your work surface. Many tables and desks (such as my dining room table) are too high for comfortable typing, and when I instead used my properly adjusted desk as my work surface, the screen height dropped a bit below ideal.
Despite their commonalities, each of these laptop stands worked well and will appeal to a different type of user. The $40 iCurve is the least flexible of the three, but it's stunningly elegant for those who appreciate sleek design, and its minimalist approach worked particularly well with our fixed position laptops. The Plasticsmith's sturdy Lapvantage Dome Deluxe looks a bit bulky and costs the most at $80, but it alone lets you adjust the height of your screen and it's the sturdiest of the three. And whereas the iCurve and the Dome will never leave the desk, the foldable Dexia Rack fits into your laptop bag for travel and can support your laptop over your lap on a couch or in a hotel bed, providing particularly welcome spacing between the toasty laptop and your legs in hot weather.
You won't go wrong with any of these stands, I'm happy to say, making them an excellent alternative to suffering with poor laptop ergonomics or haphazardly stacking your laptop on a teetering pile of books.
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