My very first blog post when I set up this website in July of 2019 was about buying a brand new Mac for the first time since 2004, having used a series of hand-me-downs and a Hackintosh (with which I had a love/hate relationship) for the decade-and-a-half in between.
Even though the Hackintosh was a consistent challenge to maintain (and gave me occasional legal anxiety), moving on from that machine was somewhat of a difficult decision since it would mean giving up the total freedom to build and tinker that it had allowed in exchange for Apple’s very closed hardware ecosystem. However, the conclusion that I ultimately came to that summer was that I could recreate at least some of that feeling by going with a Mac mini instead of, say, an iMac.
The benefit of the mini, I figured, was that you could get a relatively inexpensive machine to serve as a sort-of “core” and construct a fuller computer system around it. By adding on my own 4K monitor, some external hard drives, an external graphics card, and my own speaker system—not to mention upgrading the RAM myself—I was able to kind of build a computer.
I was clearly excited about my new computer (as evidenced by that blog post), but over time buyer’s remorse began to set in.
The biggest issue was that it ended up not being nearly as easy as I thought it would be to overcome the relatively puny size of the internal hard drive. I had essentially chosen the base model—256 GB—because a local retailer had it in stock and was selling it for a discount. I had also assumed that I could make up for the lost space with external storage. Unfortunately, I soon discovered that even though it’s theoretically possible to use an external drive as a macOS home directory, it doesn’t actually work well.
I ended up moving my home directory back to the internal drive and using my large external drive primarily for Time Machine backups. I also carved out a separate, smaller partition to store things that would otherwise take up a ton of internal space, like random old backups, my music and movie collection, and my photo library.
This worked for a while, but as time went on, the internal drive still started to fill up—to the point that I was occasionally unable to install new software—which meant having to periodically find creative ways to offload more files.
All this space management became tiresome.
I had also originally thought I could run alternative operating systems like Windows or Linux off of external drives in order to satisfy my need to tinker. Once again, I discovered that what was possible in theory was not very smooth in practice. (I never did figure out if my enclosure was bad, if my USB ports were faulty, or what, but I repeatedly encountered weird behaviors that made the process less than fulfilling.)
And oh yeah, on top of all this, less than a year after buying the Mac mini, we were hit by a global pandemic! For a while my fiancée and I were both working from home. My school system eventually returned to in-person classes, and now my fiancée goes into the office a couple times a week, but what I discovered through all that was how much I valued having, even just occasionally, some space to myself and especially mobility.
Being stuck in the same place day after day while one or both of us was actively working in the apartment got to be really frustrating. While I could have picked up my work laptop and gone and sat on my bed or the couch or something, I hated using that thing. My work laptop (a PC, of course) was slow, loud, and locked down—not to mention I just can’t stand the feel of most PC trackpads.
Technically, I did (and in fact still) have an old 15″ MacBook Pro that I could have used, but that computer was already 10 years old in 2020. I had bought myself some extra time with it by maxing out the RAM and adding an SSD, but the software was becoming outdated. Plus, even under light workloads it generated so much heat that it was really unpleasant to touch—and I’m not even talking about its consistently scorching underside. So that machine was largely out of consideration.
This all brings me to today. I tried to make the Mac mini work for three years, but it just never quite cut it. Moving forward, here were the essential qualities I was looking for:
- Spacious. I like having immediate access to all my photos, movies, music, documents, development projects, apps, and who knows what else without having to spend much time thinking about where to put everything. And while I love using cloud storage as a way to synchronize files between machines and as an extra backup mechanism, I don’t consider it a way to gain extra space. Call me old-school, but I want physical access at all times to all my files without needing an internet connection.
- Well-integrated. Cobbling together a computer, whether it was the Hackintosh or the pseudo-modular Mac mini setup was an engaging project, but actually using the system was not a smooth experience. Fit and finish would be the goal this time around.
- Mobile. The pandemic basically taught me that I needed a laptop.
- Nerdy. Let’s face it: I’m still me. A new computer setup would need to be more practical than the last two, but as a techie at heart, I would still have to be excited to use it.
A week or so ago, MacRumors (a website for, well, Mac rumors) reported that Amazon had restocked its 14-inch MacBook Pro inventory and was offering a $200 discount. Moreover, the computer they were advertising had a slightly updated processor compared to the base model as well as a 1 TB hard drive, which is twice the size of the base model and four times the size of the drive in my Mac mini.
Apparently, I can walk into a nearby Apple store today and take that configuration home with a me along with the same discount (thanks to my being an educator). However, I swear this was not possible a week ago. When I had checked it out, it seemed like the only way to get this model was to custom configure it and, thanks to our current global supply chain crisis, wait until August to have it shipped.
Of course, now I’m wondering if I just missed something on Apple’s website, but what’s done is done. I jumped at the opportunity and bought it—only to have Amazon suspend my account a day before the thing was supposed to ship because, um, apparently I don’t seem like the sort of person who would buy a computer for a good price on Amazon? I did eventually get that cleared up (thanks in part to a phone call to Amazon customer service, which I didn’t even think was possible) and am now typing out this blog post on my new laptop.
Part of why I was particularly eager to order a 14-inch MacBook Pro is because I’ve read so many raving reviews about the machines Apple has released since announcing their home-grown processor line (officially referred to as “Apple Silicon.”) Though already a year old now, the M1 Pro processor in the MacBook Pro still feels pretty shiny and new. Plus, it’s a chance to use a computer built on an entirely different architecture than the now-legacy Intel-based Macs.
On a more practical level, the current MacBook Pro lineup is a significant improvement over the laptops Apple has released the past few years in terms of screen real-estate/resolution and port availability. (The MBP features three USB-C ports, an HDMI port, a headphone jack, and the triumphant return of the MagSafe charging port—as in the kind that used to prevent your laptop from flying off the table if someone tripped over the cord.)
But me being me, this wasn’t enough. Because this machine would be replacing a desktop, I still wanted to be able to get a desktop experience out of it. So even though I said I wanted to avoid it, I did do a little bit of cobbling in the end. Here are the components I’m using:
- 14-inch MacBook Pro (2021 edition) – duh!
- OWC Thunderbolt Hub – This is a cute little hub that lets you connect three Thunderbolt/USB-C devices plus one USB 3.1 (Type A) device to a single port on the Mac. It also provides 60 watts of power delivery, which means you don’t also have to connect a power cable to the laptop. I actually would have preferred something with more ports and more charging power, but thanks to those aforementioned supply chain issues, this was all I could easily get without having to wait.
- Satechi USB Type-C to HDMI Cable Adapter 4K 60Hz – This lets me plug my HDMI-capable monitor into the hub and run it at full resolution and refresh rate. It’s true that I could just plug the monitor directly into the laptop’s HDMI port, but I’m trying to minimize how many separate wires need to plug into the machine.
- IOGEAR Access Pro USB-C 2-Port Keyboard Mouse & Peripheral Switch with Power Delivery – This is a switch box that lets me plug in my mouse, keyboard, and up to two more peripherals, and by pushing a button, I can switch them back and forth between the laptop and another device (more on that below).
- Satechi Universal Vertical Laptop Aluminum Stand – Standing the laptop up vertically saves space on my desk. The stand itself is adjustable for a snug fit, and it’s got some heft to it, which should hopefully make it harder to tip over. (Note: While Satechi pictures a MacBook Pro hinge-side-down in their advertising photo, I have opted to place it in the stand the other way around so as to avoid obstructing the laptop’s air vents.)
In addition to these components, I have a pre-existing monitor with DisplayPort and HDMI inputs, a Thunderbolt-based external hard drive (the one I got with the original Mac mini) for backups and extra storage (because even 1 TB isn’t enough for everything), an old speaker/subwoofer set, keyboard, and vertical mouse (because ergonomics).
The keyboard and mouse plug into the switch box. I may at some point add a webcam so that I can do Zoom calls on the big monitor without having to open the laptop. (My old one died.) If so, it would also plug into the switch box. The switch box, external hard drive, monitor, and power supply plug into the Thunderbolt hub. My speakers plug into an audio out jack on the monitor. (The audio is sent to the monitor via the USB-C/HDMI cable.) And finally, the hub plugs into the laptop.
To convert between a laptop and desktop, there’s only a single cord I need to detach/reattach. AndsSince I’m using a spare power supply with the hub, I can keep the laptop’s official power supply (plus MagSafe cord) in its bag for travel.
Lastly, by using the USB switch box, I can also use my mouse and keyboard with the old Mac mini, which I’m keeping around for tinkering purposes. (In the short term, I’m planning to use it as my primary Windows machine since you can’t run Windows natively on M1 Macs.) The mini is connected to an external graphics box, and that box is connected to the monitor via a DisplayPort cable, which also carries the audio signal.
While a bit intense sounding and pricier than the previous computer, this new setup should satisfy my desire to occasionally tinker (mainly on the old mini), allow me to move around (via the new laptop), and still retain the feel (including large monitor) of working on a desktop. Finally, through the use of the hub and switch box, I’m able to minimize the number of loose wires hanging about (namely, down to one), which makes the whole setup fairly aesthetically pleasing.
This will hopefully keep my need to obtain new hardware at bay for a while (preferably quite a few years) so I can focus my time on my usual blend of creating stuff and solving tech problems instead!