July 15, 2004

'This is what I call a mobile computing platform'

Author: Timothy Lord

On previous travels, I've discovered over and over just how bad a
place a car is to operate a laptop. (Naturally, I'm talking about when
safely parked.) In the driver's seat particularly, I've found no way
to sit with a laptop that's even halfway comfortable, never mind
OSHA-approved. To gain clearance from the steering wheel, I lean back,
and slide the seat as far back as possible. It's not a back-friendly
way to compute. The car-friendly laptop platform I ordered before this
trip, though, makes a huge difference. Car computing is still a pain,
no question, but it's considerably less of one with your laptop
resting somewhere other than your actual lap.The device is called the Mobile AirDesk (to
distinguish it from the same company's home products, which do a
similar job but with different heights in mind). And while it's not
quite as slick as a custom in-car computer, the Mobile AirDesk does
what none of my previous improvised laptop platforms could; it allows
the laptop to swing into a reasonable position for typing, and keeps
it safe (fingers crossed) from anywhere I'm likely to spill a drink
while driving, without the need to completely re-stow the computer. It
does this by crouching on the passenger seat, and affording enough
swivel action to give perfectly adequate keyboard access from the
driver's seat when necessary. When not in use, the entire laptop tray
can just be rotated next to the passenger seat.

(And though I would not recommend this to any drivers
in California
, this swung-away position also makes a dandy
position from which a laptop -- screen turned off -- can be used as an
overqualified MP3 jukebox.)

While the Mobile AirDesk arrived in several pieces in a rather small
box, assembly was straightforward, and was described by a set of rough
but intelligible directions. The unpolished directions didn''t draw much
complaint from me, because assembly really required only glancing at
the provided sketches. (Neither sketches nor written directions,
though, explained a small plastic collar that came in the box; since
assembly didn't seem to require it, and the desk functions as
expected, I hope it served no vital purpose.) No tools were needed
except for a pair of Allen wrenches that were included in the package. With a few minutes of
low-intensity effort -- it took me about five minutes, including
opening the box with a reluctant house key and reading the directions
-- the collection of tubes, plexiglass and rubber bits became an
angular construction that would look at home in a postcard from the
future, or a collection of minimalist sculpture.

Three tubes are joined with T-shaped metal sleeves to form the shape
of an "H" -- this is the desk's base. The clear plexiglass platform
which actually holds the laptop is about 12"x12" with rounded corners;
an optional larger one is available for widescreen laptops. The laptop
platform is held by a crosspiece which is clamped (you set the angle,
and the extension of the arm) to the lone vertical extension rising
from the base. Four plastic nubbins cover screws (one at each corner
of the platform) to create a no-slip zone that theoretically would
hold a laptop in place.

Adjusting the vertical tube is easy; just loosen the pair of
thumbscrews where it joins the base, and swivel until you're happy
with the results. Once it's at the tilt you'd like, tighten up those
screws. (I found using a piece of cloth gave me a few extra
millimeters of twist, and that made the desk noticibly more rigid. I
also lost one of the thumbscrews a few times -- they could use a bit
more leeway before popping out completely.)

The desk is supposed to be held in place by adjusting the
passenger-side seat (sans passenger) in order to angle it forward
enough to pinch one of the base's tubes. In my car, a 97 Subaru wagon,
I found that the seat never got a very convincing grip on the tube,
but that the base was wide enough to make this irrelevant. I ended up
putting a few heavy items (extra water bottles, mostly) around the
rearmost tube (the one that should be grabbed by seat-angling), and
had no problems.

The system works, mostly, but the company would do well to supplement
the plastic-nubbins stopgap system the same way I did. I found that my
iBook (which has long since lost 3 of its 4 rubber feet) was sliding
disconcertingly (though it never actually fell off) when the platfrom
was other than level. At my next gas stop, I picked up a pair of
sticky pads (intended to secure objects like cell phones and CD
players to a car's dashboard), and eyeballed the edges of where the I
wanted the iBook to sit. I stuck the sticky pads on the plexiglass,
and the laptop has clung to it obediently from then on whenever called

While it's not cheap (nearly $170, plus another $19.95 if you want a
larger laptop tray), I consider this desk well worth its price for
anyone whose job requires them to work in the car more than
occasionally. I certainly wish I'd had it long ago.

Slashdot editor Timothy Lord currently lives in Seattle,
and is especially interested in the application of open source (and
Free) software to the public sphere. He's always interested in showing
off cool free software to your school, Lions Club, chamber of
commerce, or boss.

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