Colorful Vinyl Skins Help Differentiate and Protect Apple Laptops
Apple’s design aesthetic changes slowly these days, especially in the laptop space. At a quick glance, you’d be hard-pressed to distinguish a silver 2012 MacBook Air from a silver 2016 MacBook Pro from a silver 2020 M1-based MacBook Air. And by you, I mean me. And Tonya. At least her previous laptop, an 11-inch MacBook Air, is enough smaller that it’s easy to pick out in a lineup.
Adding further opportunity for confusion is how we keep a USB-C charger on a counter in our dining room, so our most recent laptops gravitate there when not in use. Since there’s limited space on the countertop, her MacBook Pro and my MacBook Air tend to end up stacked, making it even easier to grab the wrong one. (When Tristan came home for the holidays and added his 2017 MacBook Pro to the stack, it made things even worse; despite being space gray, it was still tricky to differentiate from the others in some lighting conditions.)
A few months ago, Tonya became fed up with this state of affairs and found a few small vinyl stickers that she could affix to the lid of her MacBook Pro to differentiate it from my MacBook Air. That helped, but the kid-oriented stickers were a bit cheesy and cartoonish, and it was still difficult to identify a laptop that was open on the table. On the plus side, vinyl stickers are a tough material that won’t rip or get scuffed easily, and they come off relatively easily without leaving any residue. (Call me obsessive, but I could never bring myself to affix a permanent sticker to a Mac; if I accidentally applied it crooked, it would drive me nuts. And what if I decided I didn’t like it in a year or two? I don’t do bumper stickers on cars either.)
Inspired by the vinyl sticker idea and looking for a present for Tonya, I did a little searching on Amazon and discovered that there’s an entire world of vinyl sticker skins for Apple’s laptops. They’re cut to fit precisely—you have to order for your specific model—and there are numerous full-color photos and attractive designs. Some cover only the top and bottom of the laptop, whereas others include stickers for the palm rests, trackpad, and keys as well. A few hide the Apple logo on the lid, but many are designed around the logo or have a cutout there so it shows through. Prices range from $15 to $30, depending in part on whether they cover just the outside or the inside as well.
The hard part was looking through hundreds of designs to figure out which I thought Tonya would like most and which I wanted. Eventually, I settled on a color burst for her and a forest scene for me, both from a company called Cavka. They took about a month to arrive, in a shipping tube from Minnesota. I hope the lag means that they’re printed on demand rather than being shipped from China, but given the broken English in the Amazon product descriptions, I suspect they’re sent in bulk from China and relayed via USPS to the customer.
Because of the shipping tube, the skins arrived tightly rolled, which seemed like it would make applying them harder. I had plenty of time before Christmas, so I unrolled them and put them under a heavy book for a few weeks. That helped flatten them, though I don’t know that it was necessary. There were no instructions, but they’re stickers—you peel them off the backing and then affix them to the Mac.
Applying them was harder than I had anticipated because the pieces are fairly large and thus difficult to position and align perfectly. It might have been easier if I wasn’t obsessive about such things, but it took me about 15 minutes to apply them to each laptop to my satisfaction. I tried numerous approaches—from the top, from a corner, starting in the middle—and had to peel the sticker off and try again numerous times. I won’t pretend to be an expert, but I recommend starting from a cutout or notch in the middle and then working your way out to the edges. The main thing I didn’t realize immediately is that the vinyl is just a touch stretchy, so you can apply a little force to thick spots when extending to the edge to make it line up as desired. Be careful in areas where the vinyl is thin. I did rip one around the foot of the MacBook Pro, but the two sides matched up perfectly, so it’s barely noticeable. Of course, you’ll need to work any air bubbles out as well; peel back the sticker on a diagonal to the bubble and put it down flat again.
For Tonya’s MacBook Pro, I affixed the stickers to only the lid and bottom case, but for my MacBook Air, I decided to experiment with the inside stickers. The palm rest sticker was a little tricky to align around the trackpad to my standards, but I eventually got it right. The sticker above the keyboard went on more easily, as did the sticker for the trackpad and the Space bar.
As you can see in the photo, the trackpad sticker didn’t stay on long. I was initially worried that the trackpad might not function properly with the sticker on top, but that didn’t turn out to be the problem. There’s a slight texture to the vinyl, which is extremely welcome on the top and bottom of the outer case, where it noticeably improves grip. I like the texture on the palm rests too, but I instantly hated it on the trackpad, which should feel silky smooth. I didn’t notice any difference when using the stickered Space bar, which was just an experiment. I have no plans to try the rest of the keys since they would defeat the point of having a backlit keyboard, and I may remove the Space bar sticker for consistency’s sake.
We’ve lived with the laptop skins for only a week or so, but we like them a great deal. Telling our laptops apart has become trivially easy, they’re less slippery, and the slightly soft vinyl eliminates the metal-on-metal grating sound when we stack them. I’ve never worried much about scuffing my laptop, but there’s no question that these skins would protect against that eventuality. So if you have trouble differentiating Apple laptops at home or work, or if you want to add a thin protective layer, give a vinyl skin a try.
Now that I’ve gotten the bug, it’s time to spruce up our dishwasher and sun-faded refrigerator, which means deciding between vinyl and magnetic skins, and between Kudu Magnets and Best Appliance Skins.
Another tip for you:
If you find a bubble and it is too difficult to peel-and-replace the decal (e.g. if it’s in the middle of one of the large decals), another way is to make a very small cut in the vinyl (in the middle of the bubble) with a sharp knife (e.g. the point of a pocket knife or an X-Acto). Then you can press down on the bubble, forcing the air out through the pinhole.
If you do it carefully and the knife is sharp, the cut should be barely noticeable.
Or use a sharp needle. Very little hole through which the air can escape. Hardly anything left to see once the air is out.
I’ve been using the plastic “shell” cases for years. Same effect, adds little weight, venting avoids overheating. Probably more protective, too.
I recommend to absolutely every single client that they put a protective plastic shell on their laptop. It stops the computer from getting nicks and scratches and protects from little bumps and drops. And in the case of big drops, the case takes the brunt of the damage (and is inexpensive to replace relative to a damaged computer shell). And you can get something decorative that gives the same style as a vinyl skin, but provides much more protection.
Thanks for the recommendations of the plastic shells, @jlfish and @chart. I hadn’t thought about them as a solution for our problem because I was going purely for visual distinction and wasn’t really worried about protection. But yes, I can see that anyone who’s hard on laptops would benefit from a shell even more than a vinyl sticker. Personally, I’m sticking with the sticker, in part because I suspect that the shell would add just enough more bulk, like an iPhone case, that it would make the Mac feel a little larger. I like my Bellroy iPhone wallet case, but it turns a svelte little object into a much larger feeling mass.
I had a disastrous experience with a shell on my MBP. My wife and I loved to go to a local coffee shop and work while we enjoyed being out. So my wife stood up to get a second cup of coffee and she accidentally knocked over my coffee! I picked up the computer and suddenly realized the cover had sucked in all the coffee - right into my Mac! I moved fast to get the cover off and to dry the computer as best I could. Unplugged it right away but there was no way to remove the battery. Long and short of it all, the computer was cooked. Fortunately I had Apple Care, took the computer to the Apple Store, the repair cost was almost as much as the computer cost when I first bought it a year before. Apple Care covered the whole thing but I never put another cover of any kind on any of my computers.
I would imagine the sticker aspect of the vinyl skins would minimize that problem but for any shell cover be careful because it acted like a sponge drawing that coffee into my precious Mac!
Based on my experience, that’s a very unusual/unlikely scenario. Especially with how form fitting shells typically are. Among all my clients, using shells all these years, I haven’t had anyone report such an event.
And pretty much every single time that liquid is spilled near a computer, there’s a very high chance of a bad outcome. (I get calls on the regular asking for computer repair following a spill… and many people ask about repair for a computer that “mysteriously” won’t turn on after an event they avoid mentioning.)
I always urge clients to keep their drinks at the edge of their reach, and off to the side (which equates to having the drink at least 18 inches away from the computer) and to never bring the container over the computer. Doing this dramatically reduces the chances of spilling on the computer.
I haven’t tried this with laptop skins per se, but a trick for aligning bumper stickers is to spray the sticky side with dilute dish soap before application. This lets you slide it around until it dries (which it does eventually).
On the subject or spilling drinks, this is another area where I give kudos to Apple’s designers.
As you’re certainly aware, Apple’s laptops have a solid metal bottom. The fans direct air out the back (along the hinge-edge of the case) and air intake is from all other gaps in the case (mostly via the keyboard, I assume).
This is in contrast to nearly every PC laptop I’ve seen, where the bottom of the computer is an open grate, where the fans draw air for cooling.
The problem with the PC approach is that if you spill liquid on the table near the computer, and the liquid runs under the computer, those fans will suck the liquid into the computer and spray it all over every surface inside the case. It is nearly impossible for a computer to survive this without massive damage unless you manage to disconnect the battery very very quickly.
In contrast, in order for liquid to damage a Mac laptop, you pretty much have to spill liquid onto the computer. A spill onto the table that runs under the computer is far less likely to result in the liquid getting inside the computer.
Both the 14" and the 13" MBP (same holds for 16" and recent 15") suck in air through dedicated vents along the sides (where the bottom case cover meets the unibody—the bottom is by no means solid, there is a detachable lid with screws), towards the front of the computer and extending well beyond the center depth wise. Minimal air at best is transported through the KB or ports.
I wonder when Apple made this change. My laptops (which are many years old) don’t have these intake slots.
So a drink spilled on a table near a Mac can now ruin it just like it has been ruining PC laptops for the past 20 years.
It was changed 2012. I want to say when the SuperDrive was removed.
Is there an issue with the Mac having a heat sink on the bottom of the laptop - my MBPro can get warm on my lap - and that a vinyl cover will insulate the heat sink and reduce cooling?
My 2015 MBP 15" has three outer vents on each side, and each of those vents have two inner case vents. BTW, did Apple put similar vents in later MBAs?
Adam, I picked the same starburst for the vinyl sticker for my iPad Pro 12.9! (Or similar; I used the Lock Screen image I believe). For my Macs I almost always use a sticker of the Wave of the Future (from the Boston Computer Museum poster from the 80s/90s); I wanted something different for my 14” MBPro and got a nice Tetris image… I get my vinyl stickers from DecalGirl in (I believe) Delaware… I ALSO usually put a soft plastic case on it, so that I can cover the computer with stickers and still keep the stickers once I swap out the computer. (That’s the theory, anyway. I don’t do that as often as I think I will…)
I’m very happy with the GelaSkin vinyl wrap I got for our MBP last year. Applied easily and looks tremendous. The only drawback is that they only do the top surface of the device. I’ve been tempted to order a second and try to custom cut it to fit the feet and vents for that part.
In my Consulting Business, I take the opposite tack from others. Anything that can restrict heat dissipation I recommend against. Any Mac Laptop I’ve used generates a lot of heat when viewing Video. As the Specs Apple are 50 to 95 Degrees, and since I know clients rest machines on blankets, pillows, their laps, all of which can restrict airflow into fan slots, I take a conservative approach. Also, from a practical standpoint, anything that adds size and weight I can do without.
The Mac Doctor, Inc.
I am almost paranoid regarding risks to electronic equipment, believe me. The problem was a small table that was rocky to begin with and my coffee cup was large cup distanced away but it went flying. I was surprised at the way the liquid got in and how quickly it spread to all the wrong places. Never happened before and never will again.
I raised it simply because I hope others will listen and be cautions with those slip on protectors.
I appreciate your cautions and I practice those. I don’t even drink anything over the keyboard much less a laptop for exactly the reasons you list. Good wisdom!!
I work with my M1-based MacBook Air (no fans) on my lap regularly, and I haven’t noticed any change at all.
DecalGirl advertises as Made in USA, which is nice, purely from the not shipping stuff across the world for no real reason scenario. And I’m amused that they have Apple Pencil skins as well.
Thanks so much for this information. I am using a late 2015 MacBook Pro, and it does get warm underneath. I am a photographer and am still using Aperture so I am in no hurry to upgrade. When I am forced to get a new laptop, I will have to switch to Capture One for editing and storing my RAW files. I am in no hurry to have to change my library and way of working!
Join the discussion in the TidBITS Discourse forum