An Easy Fix For The Laptop’s Biggest Design Flaw

Ponzi wrote today’s report on an airplane en route from SNA to SEA.

If you’ve ever headed to the airport an hour or two early or had a layover on a coast to coast flight, I’m sure you’ll agree with me on what I’d like to write about.

What is the one worst design flaw of all computers? What’s the most annoying bit of necessity we all hate to handle, yet spend hours each year fiddling with? The power cord. Here’s my take on how we deal with it.

  1. There are the people in denial. They get rid of it altogether and act like it’s not a problem — until they have to deal with it. They put it out of mind and out of sight — pack it in the suitcase. As svelte and cord free as these people are in the airport, secretly they are the ones who frantically throw everything out of their suitcases looking for it when they have a blackout in the taxi on the way to the hotel. (I know — because I’ve done it.)
  2. The people who don’t care. This group just stuffs that whole cord into the backpack or bag and say that’s part of carrying the laptop, deal with it. Then all their crap comes pouring out when its time to use it — thanks! We really wanted to see your half eaten powerbar and pink pouch that holds your Carefree mini maxi.
  3. Last, there are the ones who try to act like they have some control. This would be my crowd for the moment (I tend to bounce between all three). They roll up the cord and use the piece of velcro if they have it (IBM tried to give us a solution) which usually doesn’t fit the whole cord. Personally I use a black twisty tie to corral the rest of it. While I’m doing this I ponder to myself how much of my life has been given to corraling various cords.

I wonder who is going to be the first company to give us retractable cords. Or at least a wrap lock. Let us wind it around the power adaptor neatly and put in a little clamp. Or better yet a small trough around the power base that u’s to hold a winding cord with a clamp cover. (Maybe they could incorporate the use of those horrible hair clips from the ’90s) I promise you (insert huge corporate hardware company with lots of money for R&D) you would have a lot of happy customers. Heck I’d even bet you too Mr./Mrs. Big Corporate Designer would like it if your cords weren’t everywhere. :)

I will say this for Apple — my MacBook has an adaptor that allows me to make my cord long or short and a small little clip to hold the wire to itself. It’s not very efficient but it was an effort toward acknowledging the problem. So kudos to Apple for trying and at least giving me choices. Too bad the clip part doesn’t really hold it strongly and the wire doesn’t wrap smoothly. Yeah — back to the drawing board on that one, please.

Being a woman who travels quite a bit and likes to carry many gadgets, the less cordage I have to tote, the better. If anyone has any devices with smart cord options — please share.

I’m on a flight now writing this post. Here are the contents of my bag.

  1. MacBook (I’m toting this as a new option for my computing needs; still not convinced of its powers though I am mesmerized by its beauty)
  2. ThinkPad (on lap in hand now — not pretty, but still chosen)
  3. Microphone with cord (small zippered bag) (Sennheiser e835)
  4. Recording device (M Audio — microtrack 24/96) — for podcasting
  5. Wallet/checkbook
  6. Lipstick, perfume, lip liner, vitamin E oil, nail polish (all in a quart Ziploc)
  7. Ink pen — Montblanc
  8. iPod — with earbuds from my PSP (still hate corraling these wires, too)
  9. Sunglasses — cheapo Target pair
  10. Phone — Cingular smartphone
  11. Gum
  12. Portable toothbrush
  13. life.doc CD (to do later…)

So no room for the following: Nice Bose earphones, PSP or Game Boy, more makeup, writing pads, or books. If I choose a bigger bag it’s not going to fit under the seat in front of me. I will say I’m glad the uber tiny bags are out and one large bag is in, otherwise I’d never make it with only two hands.

Ladies what do you carry in your bag? Guys, how about you: backpacks or murses (man purses)? And — what do ya’ll do about cords?

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  • http://www.gearlive.com/ Andru Edwards

    I thought murses were male nurses…

    And as to the MacBook power cable. You ARE wrapping the cable around the built-in nubs on the power brick, right? That, in CONJUNCTION with the little connector piece, is the best I have seen for managing a laptop power cable.

    Most people don’t realize the nubs are there though.

  • http://irish.typepad.com Bernie Goldbach

    I’ve started questioning whether you really need to carry a laptop if you carry a truly smart phone instead. For the past year, I’ve carried two different smart phones that get what I need from mail servers and online calendars. I ended up with two because I was due an upgrade. So I have a three-year old wifi-enabled Nokia 9500 and a six-month old SonyEricsson K800i.

    You have to be happy with fiddly bits instead of fully keyboard access but the slingsack burden is less.

    I keep all the cables for my recording and listening gear in separate leather pouches inside a Bihn bag that fits everywhere.

    I keep important notes in a Moleskine journal and that fits my GTD routine.

    The whole discussion is horses for courses because some people absolutely think they need a full laptop and electronic aids to exist. But I grew up next to an Amish community and know there’s plenty you can do with retro gear.

  • George Brown

    Excellent article. I am curious though as to why you have both the Apple and the IBM??

    Being a man, and not traveling near as much as I did in the past, I too am a gadget freak. My wife says I carry way too much stuff. I have found, through much trial and error, that my larger LT bag (Dell) works best with an accompanying back pack. This allows me what I feel are the necessities if every I am stranded in an air port or my check in luggage has been lost. The LT bag contains the Dell of course and its power cord wrapped tightly and secured with the wide rubber tether. If lucky, I can get four hours on the battery before being charged, however I can also pull from the backpack the power converter that can be used IF the plane has a power supply. The LT bag contains a micro wireless mouse, my PDA, a small CD/DVD case full of DVDs for viewing pleasure, a compact Bible, my tiny mp3 player, my Sennheiser (HD 280 pro) over ear headphones (excellent choice for flights and much better than Bose), a permanent pen, a ball point pen, a highlighter, a 2 gig USB drive, and Advil. The back pack has the snacks, comics, a thin jacket and a fresh pair of socks and underwear also as you never know when that check on luggage may turn up missing after you reach your destination. Now, through in the fact that I sometimes travel with my wife and son, through in a power head phone extender and two extra closed ear head sets for them to watch and listen to movies as well ;)

    Sincerely,
    GAB 2

  • Alan Monroe

    >Let us wind it around the power adaptor
    > neatly and put in a little clamp.

    Many Dells have had such a powercord for a few years. The power brick has flanges on the ends to help hold the looped cord, and a stretchy rubber belt that wraps around the whole bundle and snaps closed.

  • http://www.utm.edu/staff/tmartin Tommy

    Actually Gateway had a model that came fairly close to what you spoke of. I believe it was about 2003, they had a model called 200E. It had an oval power block on the AC adapter. It had a grove around the middle that the cord was able to wrap around, then a clip on the cord to fasten it down. I didn’t care for the machine itself, but as you said it was nice to have this issue addressed by a PC maker.

  • Dan Searle

    You really should get out more.

    • John Broz

      Dell has remedied this issue by providing an elastic band that is part of the power brick and wraps entirely around the brick and cord to snap together with a round button. Not the nicest looking solution, but handy when I need to pack it. I can merely unwrap however much cord I need and rewrap the band. Just recently Dell has made a non grounded laptop chord their standard. This would have come in handy many times when I could only find a two pronged extension chord.

  • http://www.bulldogfinancial.com/bullblog Marc Nathan

    Ponzi,

    You are 100% correct – the power cord is the the single biggest design flaw with the entire category of laptop computing. Here is a retractable cord from Zip-Linq: http://www.amazon.com/UNLIMITED-Retractable-Notebook-Power-Kit/dp/B0009T035E but it’s still not enough.

    Compaq years ago built the power brick into their machines so you only had one standard cord sticking out. Heavy and imperfect, it was still better than we have today. Until someone figures out that the back of a laptop screen would be perfect for solar panels (not perfect again, but would be a slight improvement on actual battery life), we’re stuck with ugly, tangled and heavy cords that fit awkwardly (or not at all) into various carry bags.

  • http://www.real-time.org E. Douglas Jensen

    Zip-Linq makes retractable AC power cords.

    Several laptop manufacturers provide AC adapters designed to have the cords wrapped around and secured to the adapter — Dell and Sony are two that I happen to own.

  • http://polizeros.com Bob Morris

    I use the eBags gear bag for the laptop and gear. It’s designed by geeks for geeks. They also have a backpack that can hold two laptops. Both have lots of pockets, compartments, and padding around the laptop compartment.

    Cables get labeled with plastic ties. I put small cables and gear in baggies, and label the baggie too. Makes finding stuff MUCH easier. And plastic ties onthe cables mean you never have to guess what it is.

    From my tech blog

    eBags gear bag review
    http://bobmorris.wordpress.com/2006/02/22/77/

    How to label cables
    http://bobmorris.wordpress.com/2007/03/23/how-to-label-cables/

    PS My power cord always goes at the bottom of the gear bag because it won’t fit anyplace else…

  • LeAnn

    Do you have a newsletter that just provides information regarding computer technology and programs? I could care less about where you went on your honeymoon or anything else about your personal life.

  • http://www.steve-barr.com Stephen Barr

    Hi Ponzi,

    I think that the problem with the power cord you are experiencing may be as much of a bag problem as it is a laptop problem. I carry around my laptop and also a bunch of books and stuff all the time. I use a targus laptop backpack. That works really well. It has its own padded section for the laptop, and some very room sections for as much other stuff as you would want to carry. My laptop is a Lenovo, so I do wrap the power brick with care and then use the included velco strap to manage the cords, and that seems to work okay. My biggest concern is to always make sure that there is as little stress as possible on the power cord. On the thinkpad I had before this lenovo, the power connection became loose and started to behave badly.

    I would rather have the 9 cell battery. I may buy that as soon as some funds make themselves available. They supposedly give 4-5 hours of battery life. If you had 2 of them, you really wouldn’t need to worry about the power cord for any length of time, unless you are flying to Europe or Asia. What would really be nice is a stand-alone charger for a second battery. That would be a good setup. Overall, I am very happy with my experience with this particular laptop bag, from Targus. I think that that would help more than anything else.

  • http://geekswithblogs.net/ntpro Chris Haaker

    Ponzi – I travel quite a bit as a consultant and though it is an additional cost, I have purchased the Kensington third party power adapter system that works with a load of notebooks and devices by switching out the tips. I love it, it weighs 1/2 as much as the Dell power brick and you can purchase a version of the cord that winds up – genius!
    http://us.kensington.com/html/10433.html

  • http://freddyf.us/think Freddy

    I really don’t pack much in my messenger bag, just my laptop (HP Commercial) with it’s small but still cumbersome power brick, some blank cd/dvd’s, a magazine or two, mouse and Ipod; the rest I pack it in my overnight bag. I try to keep it simple and practical. But you are right, we need a solution for the Power Cord/Brick; I think I saw some Dell models with a cord wrap around brick, but it was so huge that I would rather not use it that way. I am working on an idea for this, if it does really work, I’ll make some millions out of this…

  • Mike

    Good Article

    I use a canvas sort of military looking messenger’s bag it’s not as questionable as a murse. well at least that’s what i think and the the duct tape reapired strap also gives it a more masculine touch. I try not to deal with power cables at all. I have two cables for my laptop one at home and one at work. I do carry two fully charged extra batteries at all times. All because I hate carrying the power cords around. Wrapping them around the large transformer brick has always left me with cracked or frayed cables. A power cord only comes with me when I know I will be away from work or home for more than a day.
    What’s in my bag:
    1. Laptop.
    2. 2x extra laptop Battery
    3. earbuds wound up and twistee tied.
    4. Wireless Opt. Mouse & rf adapter
    5. Cisco serial Cable (twistee tied)
    6. Serial to USB Adapter
    7. Orinoco Gold Card
    8.USB PDA sync Cable (twistee tied)
    9. USB to PS2 Adapter (not sure why)
    10. Blue cloth Lcd Screen wipe thingy
    11. Mini LED Flashlight
    12. Stack of Linux Live distros to hand out. Gentoo (for geeks) and Ubuntu (for everyone else)
    13. A bunch of misc. unread office memos…
    14. And a couple programming Pocket Reference Guides

    I have thought about throwing a couple MREs in therer just in case.
    That’s about it.

  • Andrew M.

    On April 2nd you wrote: “I wonder who is going to be the first company to give us retractable cords.”

    It’s been tried with other appliances and failed because any coiled-up power cord will heat up and eventually the plastic sheathing will melt!

    If they would make it so that the cord is fully extended when in use that would be ok, I guess…

    Also, if you get a chance to look inside a laptop computer you’ll notice there is little or no free space.

    Regards

  • Z. Kopecky

    Tell Ponzi to save the center paper cylinder from a roll of toilet paper. the laptop cord can be folded and inserted into the cylinder and thus reduce tangle effects.
    ZK

  • Bryan

    Compaq already beat you to it…

    I have a 486dx laptop with a power adapter with a place to wrap the cord around, and with a handy little hook on the end of it to clasp and keep it all neat.

    How about someone come up with a better AC to DC converter that can be housed in the laptop, without adding a lot of bulk, heat or weight.

  • Richard

    Dell Laptop power supplies all come with a “wrap lock”. Nicely done stretchable rubber that has several locking nubs to choose among.

  • goatboy

    See the 1st comment by Andru – Are you actually using the fold out clips on the Macbook power supply? Here’s some pictures to assist you:

    http://www.flickr.com/photos/thoughtoutbiz/sets/72157594235100040/

  • Jeff

    Ponzi,

    You mention the powercord and like so many above, I was going to mention the Dell. As for the smaller cords in you bag, check out the fishbone wraps. http://www.daydeal.com/product.php?productid=13119&cat=2336

    I’d like to know why noone has been able to do away with the external brick and put the power supply back inside the laptop the way they used to be (Toshiba’s 380 I think). Then you would just need a paper towel tube to hold your cord.

    Cheers,

    Jeff

  • Ken Maxwell

    After being a journey man electrician for 40 years, and a computer geek for 15 years I have found that there is no easy fix for power cords. Using stranded wire every coil or wrap puts strain on the wire and eventually will cause a flex break in the cable. All retractable designs put stress on the end of the wire that sticks out of the winding block and soooner of later will pop the connector loose. The best way to compact the cord for carying, is the old fashioned single crochet wrap, then tie it up with a twist tie.

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  • John Neilson

    Never mind the cords – why can’t we get rid of the “power brick” altogether? With everything else being miniaturized, it’s time this was made small enough to fit inside the laptop. Then an extendable cord like a vacuum cleaner one would solve the other problem. My Toshiba M50 has a max current rating of 2.5A so why do I need a 10A cable to connect it?

  • DDmak

    There are some good gadget suggestions here as an alternative to hold the powercord. But the MacBook power cord is not very generic at all because the end of the cord that plugs into the notebook is a magnetic connector, so most of the gadgets might not work.

    DDmak

  • anonymous

    You mean your laptop isn’t powered by an induction coil, using the power being broadcast all around you? Haven’t you heard of Tesla?

    (but seriously, why hasn’t someone made a power supply like that?)

  • Bruce Allen

    I have traveled for many years around Europe originally as a Hardware Support engineer carrying toolbag & manuals etc, not nice! Thankfully these days I only need to carry a Laptop & its associated bits & pieces, I ahve struggled with the shoulder bag, briefcase, bacl pack etc, the main result was that my chiropractor saw mw more frequently. I finally have what I think is the best solution, the TUTO rolling bag. It comes in various sizes but even the smallest will take a laptop in a padded section, there are plenty of other storage places for the cord, iPod, PDA etc as well as a seperate file folder zip out.

    BUT the best part is it is on FOUR (4) wheels so it does not tip over like the old 2 wheel roll arounds. Also its very strong, you can actually sit on it if you have too!

    OK, it may not be as cool as other bags, but is definitely the most practical, it also fits in Airline lockers under seat etc.

    PS I’m NOT a represenititve for TUTO just like there products!

    Bruce

  • Juan Galván

    I do use a leather tote bag for cabin flight, that has two side separations, one for cables I use at work (laptop, USB-RS232, straight and cross Ethernet, and the phone ones, all of them tied up with velcro or twist ties) and power brick and the other for agendas, presentation cards, and similar stuff. In the larger separation on the middle, goes the laptop, cameras, notebooks, reading, even once I included a set of thermal clothing for a trip to Ottawa at late january this year. Not questionable (well, maybe a bit kinky in very pervert eyes), fits cabin standards and doesn’t look too much as a “laptop case”, so is less prone to atract possible smugglers. Anyway it doesn’t separate from me.

    It is cumbersome to go around with all of this, adding the phone/pda/usb drive we use to carry in pockets or hanging from the neck, but we have to deal with that, so I go for group 3, that works best for me.

  • http://miniburb.wordpress.com/ Scott Lewis

    My complaint about laptop power cords is far simpler. Why does one end of the cord have to be permanently attached to the “brick”? I have had to replace the entire power cord/brick a couple of times because of cords that were chewed by a pet. If both sides of the adapter had removable cords it would be far less expensive to replace just the cords, rather than having to buy an entire power supply when a few inches of cord are ruined.

    Making the power adapter part of the laptop would be great… and making the cord universal even better. But these extras are icing on the cake of cords that can be replaced without replacing the adapter portion.

  • Bruce Allen

    The main reason the manufacturers of Laptops make only one side of the cord replaceable is that the Power Supply is a Switching universal type that can handle 120V through 220V (Typical) so for different countries they can supply the appropiate cord with the correct molded power plug (EG 13A UK, Shuko for most of Europe) without having multiple versions of the Power Supply (Brick). Making the output side cord replaceable adds cost as well as one possibility of losing it!

    Agreed it would be nice to have the Wall-wart intergrated into the Laptop, but that would add other complications like weight size, heat dissipation as well as the different local voltages etc.

  • http://phostech.blogspot.com irishandrew

    Hi Ponzi,

    I tend to travel light, as I’m usually only away for ~3 days at a time – so it’s all carry on luggage for me. I only like to bring one bag – so that tends to be a Lowe Alpine Contour Runner. Tech wise I spread out what I bring between the inside pockets of my coat and my backpack. I usually travel with:

    – Fujitsu Lifebook p1510 tablet with extended battery – with wireless turned off this gets me between 5-7 hours depending on the workload of the CPU. It’s tiny (8.9″ screen) but it has all my work and notes sync’d over the net to my main system back home, and in addition I can load up some tv shows or music on its HD (60GB) for the trip. The tablet interface is perfect on flights, and the long battery life means I can usually leave the powerblock in my bag until I’ve arrived at my destination.

    – The Fuji power block isn’t huge, but compared to the computer it seems oversized – they did include a little nylon draw-string bag to keep it in for travelling though.

    – mp3 player (usually creative or zune) – this slips into the inside pocket of my coat with my passport and boarding card. I usually wrap the earphones around it (I use noise cancelling sony earphones) but they usually manage to tangle!

    – wallet; stays securly in a jeans front pocket

    – Sony Ericsson K800i; with this I have any appointments set to remind me, as well as having 3G access letting me check my e-mail quickly on the move without the need to fire up a system.

    – Lamy multipen; highlighter, pencil, biro and stylus in one – again in my inside pocket :)

    – Sunglasses; unless I’m going somewhere cold and dark, or don’t need to be mysterious (usually left in a pocket in my bag).

    Usually the washbag etc. goes on the bottom of the bag – with toothbrush in a separate pocket for easy access. Clothes on top of this with power cord for the Fuji in the lower front pocket. Sunglasses and any other “bits” go in the top front pocket. A book to keep me going is always at the top of my bag. When I’m not using the fuji I can still slip it down the back of the bag even if it’s fully packed. I don’t usually tend to bring a charger for my mobile phone as it lasts long enough on standby. The mp3 player charges from the fuji over usb.

    The bag is never detached from me – if I’m sitting its strap is wrapped around my arm or leg – but I tend to get by with just the 3 pieces of tech and make up for it when I get home :P

  • http://www.geeked.info Ed

    I carry my laptop every day, everywhere I go. The power cord takes up maybe 4 seconds of my time to wrap up thanks to the velcro strap Toshiba was nice enough to include. In the past I’ve had to add my own

    Step 1. Grab the two ends
    Step 2. Fold in half, repeat as needed
    Step 3. Wrap velcro around brick and cord, securing it all together.
    Step 4. Place in bag.

    Seriously, it’s not that big of a deal. Writing the blog post probably took more time than what I will spend on dealing with my laptop cable for the rest of the year.

  • Steve

    Why don’t you run Windows on the Mac via Parallels or something similiar and ditch the dedicated MS laptop. Two laptops is too much.

  • road runner

    I, as a university student, carry in my backpack:
    – Some books and notepads.
    – A Bert and Ernie zipped bag holding pens and pencils (mostly promotionals, they’re free you know)
    – An iBook 12″ 1.2 in a Tucano protective sleeve
    – It’s power brick, the DC end never totally unfolded, I use the original metal wrapwires to limit it’s length to 2’=6dm. The AC end I always roll up and put the brick in a side pocket in my backpack; I can pull it out blind.
    – A Creative optical wheel mouse (ye basick mousey that is), wire wrapped up to about 3’=1m using a rubber band.
    – A TI-83 graphical calculator (battery powered, no wires ever)
    – A raincoat
    – A LAN cable, rolled up in a compact bundle in a separate pocket on the top.