Serious Workstation

I’ve recently been putting the finishing touches to my home work station. As my working week is split between an office in Norwich and my ‘Den’ at home, my work station needs to be flexible enough to allow me to move between these locations quickly, easily and effectively. A laptop is central to this as, by default, it allows me to take my files, my work and my life with me. I’ve used Apple laptops for over a decade now and currently use a late 2011 15″ MacBook Pro with a quad core 2.4ghz i7 processor. Initially, I was pretty disappointed with this machine. It came with OS X 10.7 ‘Lion’ installed but this was quickly upgraded to 10.8 ‘Mountain Lion’ which, at the time had just been released. Mountain Lion seemed to chug along painfully slowly and made the experience of using the MacBook feel a bit like a £1400 downgrade! Things didn’t improve when the main board failed giving the laptop a very Windows-like blue screen of death. Repair was swift (and under warranty) by Stormfront – my local Mac reseller in Bury St. Edmunds but the lethargy in operation was still there. My research suggested that I/O seemed to be the biggest bottleneck with the pitiful 5400rpm hard drive the key offender. As Christmas approached I splashed out and bought a 512GB SSD drive for the Mac and also used the opportunity to upgrade it from the Apple-standard 4GB of RAM to the system max of 16GB. What an improvement. I have to say that this was the most impressive upgrade that I’ve ever performed on any computer. The MacBook was like a new (and very, very fast) machine with the phrase ‘new lease of life’ not really doing it justice.

So, what was next? With the MacBook now performing as required, it was time to start utilising it better when working from home where my wife and I have a 2010 27″ iMac. It’s probably overkill for listening to music on and sorting out our photos on Aperture so I needed to start making better use of it.

Unlike its’ smaller 21.5″ sibling the 27″ iMac has a Mini Display Port socket that can handle input and output (the 21.5″ can only handle Mini Display Port output). Input can only come from another Mini Display Port or (the newer) Thunderbolt sources. Although Apple do sell varying lengths of Thunderbolt cables, these could not be used to connect my MacBook Pro to my iMac as although the former does have a Thunderbolt connection, the latter can only handle Mini Display Port. Apple have never manufactured or sold their own Mini Display Port cables but both Belkin and StarTech do manufacture a Mini Display Port male – Mini Display Port male cable so I opted for Belkin and made the purchase on Amazon.

When the cable arrived I hastily got the machines connected up and straight away, the iMac slipped in to Target Display Mode and my MacBook Pro suddenly had another 3,686,400 crisp and very bright pixels to play with. They were very bright too. Far too bright in fact with no way of reducing the iMac screen brightness.

According to Apple’s documentation on Target Display Mode, the iMac’s keyboard would be locked out while connected to the MacBook Pro with only the brightness, volume and other media keys remaining usable. In my case though the brightness controls definitely were not working. More research identified a well known bug (discussed in depth here) with Mac OS X 10.6.8 (that my iMac was running) which had effectively stopped these control keys working while in Target Display Mode. I tried a couple of Apps (Shades and Brightness Slider respectively) but neither was suitable so it seemed the only other fix was to upgrade the iMac to Mountain Lion. This I duly did, enduring the immense 4.5GB download which zapped 45% of my monthly broadband bandwidth allocation (mental note, I must change my ISP) and (thank goodness) finally the brightness controls worked on the iMac and my arc eyes started to recede.

So, with the final addition being to plug in a USB keyboard to the MacBook Pro, the setup was complete. I used a full-size, wired Apple keyboard for this as these are really, really good keyboards. The key clicks seem more tactile on the wired version of the keyboard and make for a much nicer experience than the wireless equivalent in my opinion. After much tinkering and all of the various upgrades, I have to say, this is the best workstation setup I’ve ever used. The iMac’s stunning display becomes the main working screen with the laptop display available to dump screens on and refer back to. An added bonus is that the iMac itself is still running in the background while you’re using it in Target Display Mode so you can log on to it from your second machine and continue to use it for other tasks (video rendering, playing iTunes etc). Apple’s Screen Sharing facility makes this so simple and means you can jump back and forth between the iMac and MacBook Pro without even having to leave Target Display Mode.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

You may use these HTML tags and attributes: <a href="" title=""> <abbr title=""> <acronym title=""> <b> <blockquote cite=""> <cite> <code> <del datetime=""> <em> <i> <q cite=""> <strike> <strong>