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MacBooks suffer under weight of decorative shells

Monday - 4/7/2014, 4:50pm  ET

Idanis Perez,19, studies at the student center on the campus of Georgetown University last week. She bought a red shell for her MacBook to protect her computer from dirt and scratches. Some shell owners and tech experts say the shells do more harm than good. (WTOP/Jamie Slater)

Jamie Slater, special to

WASHINGTON - Walk into any local coffee shop and you'll see a sea of MacBooks with hot pink, teal or other brightly colored covers. The decorative hard-shell cases are sold in Apple stores across the country for their protective qualities, but they might be doing more harm than good.

Screens that wiggle back and forth or laptops that won't stay open are common complaints from case users. Other MacBooks overheat or have damaged wires.

"Because of all the problems I've had with the cases, anybody that asks me, I tell them 'Don't get it'," says Jeff Lauterette, vice president and owner of Mid Atlantic Consulting, Inc., based in Springfield, Va. "It's not worth taking the chances."

Though consumers and tech experts alike report that the cases damage the laptops, manufacturers like Speck deny their products cause any problems.

The two-part plastic or rubber cases cost about $50, while a MacBook Pro starts at $1,299. The case snaps onto the base of the laptop and the back of the screen. The extra weight on top strains the laptop's hinge, causing permanent damage for some users.

After covering her MacBook Pro with a Speck case for a year, Georgetown University student Kate Murray, 21, tried to take it off but the case got stuck. Now the top metal cover of her laptop is pulling apart from the screen.

"I don't have enough money to take it into Apple to get fixed, so I've just been praying that it doesn't get worse," Murray says.

Although tightening the hinges can help wobbly screens, users whose screens won't stay open may have to replace the screen.

"If the hinge is actually broken, that's the screen," Lauterette says. "You have to replace the whole thing. It's one big part."

AppleCare may cover the replacement, Lauterette says, but without a warranty, it would cost about $500 to repair.

Apple did not respond to multiple requests for comment.

The hinge on Georgetown student Karyn Miller's MacBook is looser than when the 21- year-old purchased it. And the screen glitches when she opens her laptop.

"I think there's some kind of wiring that is upset," she says.

Wires run through the hinge to connect the display to the base of the laptop. Sometimes, Lauterette says, wiring problems can be fixed by removing the screen.

Overheating triggers shutdowns

Cases can also cause the laptops to overheat because they cover vents and ports on a MacBook that allow it to breathe. When this happens, the laptop shuts off.

"A lot of these cases basically just leave enough room for the actual cable to plug into the port, so once some of (the air) gets inside the case, the warm air actually heats the laptop up causing it to overheat," Lauterette says.

Taking the case off can fix the problem, he says.

In an email to WTOP, Speck says that its cases do not cause MacBooks to overheat.

"We have heard of it happening with cases made by other companies, but Speck cases are tested thoroughly with thermal imaging and computer monitoring to ensure that the cases do not cause the notebook to overheat. Regardless of whether or not you use a case, you should never cover vents or (put) your MacBook on a surface (such as blankets or couch) that obstructs this area."

Soft sleeves vs. cases

Harry Sandler, a 70-year-old entertainment executive who works with Lauterette and who travels frequently for work, has no problems with his case and enjoys the protection it offers while traveling from his home base in New York City.

"I have been using a shell case on my laptop and have never had an issue. I even eat on it when working on a plane," he says.

Not just for decoration, the cases are also popular for transporting laptops, Lauterette says. Instead, he recommends users get a sleeve or laptop bag to store and carry their MacBooks.

If users feel they need a hard case on their laptops, Lauterette recommends buying a very thin case.

Murray is now rethinking her purchase.

"I originally got it less for protection and more because I knew I was going to have my laptop for a long time Some people have minor scratches and dirt on their laptops, and I just didn't want it to get anything on it," Murray says. "But now there aren't any scratches or dirt, so I probably should have never put a cover on in the first place."


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