Elliot Jay Stocks is a designer, speaker, and author. He is the Creative Director of Adobe Typekit, the founder of typography magazine 8 Faces, one half of Viewport Industries, and an electronic musician.

A cloud-centric Mac set-up

Posted on 05 April 2011 52 comments

Article illustration for A cloud-centric Mac set-up

Last night on Twitter, I thought aloud about my possible plans to replace my current Mac set-up with one slightly more cloud-centric. It generated a lot of responses, so I thought I’d elaborate about it here; something I promised to do whenever tweets need clarification.

This is my current Mac set-up:

  • A 15" MacBook Pro for use at home, at the studio, and on the road.
  • A 24" LED Cinema Display in the home office. When connected, I shut the MBP and store it in a BookArc.

(I also have a 13" MBP, but as it’s mainly in use by the missus and is also meant to act as a dedicated machine for my music-making alter-ego, I don’t include it in my ‘work’ set-up. We have a Mac Mini, too, but that’s purely a media centre, and remains permanently connected to our TV.)

This set-up is great. It means that I have a desktop-like experience when working from home, yet I can carry my ‘office’ with me when working at the studio or on the road. It’s the best of both words.

But lately I’m noticing some small niggles:

  • As handy as it is to work with just one computer, I’m actually getting tired of disconnecting and reconnecting all of the cables, especially as I work from the studio pretty much every other day.
  • While portable, the MBP is a bit of a beast. The allure of the MacBook Air — with its iPad-esuqe footprint and weight — grows stronger with every day.
  • Lastly, and most importantly, pretty much all of my files are now in the cloud. So whereas the appeal of having just one work computer to manage was a big consideration a couple of years ago, it’s no longer such a draw in a Dropbox-enabled world.

As it stands, my trusty MBP sits comfortably between two extremes: power and portability. It’s relatively powerful and it’s relatively portable. But what if — instead of trying to find a middle ground — I sold my current gear and opted for the two extremes? In other words:

  • A 27" iMac to live permanently at the home office and provide me with a powerhouse computer,
  • and an 11" MacBook Air for travel, whether that be on a train, at the studio, or simply downstairs on the sofa.

At first, this may seem a little excessive, replacing one solid, all-round computer with two computers that are each quite dedicated to particular tasks. But the key thing for me is that I see the iMac and Air combo more as just one computer: with everything stored in Dropbox, I’m effectively only changing the chassis. Except that with this set-up, there’s no hardware to move around.

Right now, my MBP contains everything: all of my working files, all of my games, and various apps for numerous tasks. But with the option of storing the superfluous stuff on the iMac and keeping the Air lean and clean — essentially just the core apps and my Dropbox folder — I think this could actually work. My photos, music library, and film / TV collection have long been sat on external drives, so there would be no change there. With the majority of apps allowing you to store their library files in a location of your choice (my FontExplorer and LittleSnapper libraries sit happily in Dropbox as it is), it’s not like there would even be much hassle in terms of set-up.

I love Dropbox. In the last year or so, it feels like it’s finally made all this talk of cloud computing a viable, useful, not-just-novel reality. And with cloud-based storage from Amazon already here — and supposedly coming soon from Apple — maybe now is the time to embrace the cloud properly, and discard the notion of hard drives being… er… hard.

This is the first of two posts I want to write about Dropbox and the cloud. The second will be published later this week. Sorry, it was a little later than a week, but I’ve now written about the other consideration with this set-up: a cloud-centric software licence.

If you’re interested in adopting a cloud-based set-up for a business environment, it’s worth reading up on the red flags you should consider when looking for a cloud provider.


  1. TheFella


    05 April 2011 @ 12:44AM #

    Nice post Elliot. You should also check out http://put.io for cloud storage too.

  2. Justin Tucker

    Justin Tucker

    05 April 2011 @ 12:45AM #

    Great article! I’ve been thinking of doing this as well. I sold an old iMac and now use a MBP and an iPad2, sort of like your setup, but on a smaller scale.

  3. Nathan McGinness

    Nathan McGinness

    05 April 2011 @ 12:59AM #

    I recently did the opposite and switched from an iMac and a 13" Macbook to one 15" MBP.

    What I don’t miss:

    - Web design / Photoshop work on a 13" 1280 × 800 monitor. Big enough, but only just. I don’t imagine an 11" would be much fun. Sure it’s light, you can catch up on emails, write documents etc. But can you really do your (design) work?

    - Managing dev environments on two machines. No fun.

    The best part: Whether it’s design, development or business I have zero barriers in being productive away from the office.

    I agree though, the 15" MBP is pretty darn heavy.

  4. James Lutley

    James Lutley

    05 April 2011 @ 01:05AM #

    Great idea. My main setup is a 15" MBP plus external monitor and I’m about to make a similar transition. My only problem with the 11" MBA is the screen and keyboard seem a little too cramped – I’m leaning towards the 13" MBA.

  5. Kyle Fox

    Kyle Fox

    05 April 2011 @ 01:15AM #

    I have a 27" iMac and a the beefed up 13" MacBook Air, and it feels like the perfect setup. I love having both the utility of a full-sized desktop and the portability of a laptop, but keeping files in sync was a huge hassle. But now that I keep all my project files & application prefs in Dropbox (including my Things todo list) stuff is automatically in sync without even thinking about it. And Rdio gives me access to nearly my entire music library without taking up any storage space on the Air.

    The laptop + desktop combo always seemed like it would be the perfect solution, and now with Dropbox (and all the other cloud services) it’s finally a hassle-free setup.

  6. Jared


    05 April 2011 @ 01:25AM #

    So I get it but do you really feel comfortable putting all of your files in the cloud? Client’s private data? I guess I shouldn’t worry – I am syncing 1Password using DropBox. What are your thoughts?

  7. Jake Bresnehan

    Jake Bresnehan

    05 April 2011 @ 01:29AM #

    Great post Elliot!

    WIll be interesting to see if the 11" is too small for your design work? Were you thinking of beefing it up? or going with the stock standard.

    /* Loving the #ideasofmarch/april!! */

    Keep up the great work.

  8. Raphael Essoo-Snowdon

    Raphael Essoo-Snowdon

    05 April 2011 @ 02:07AM #

    Great post! I’m glad you touched on this topic as I’ve been thinking of moving to a cloud-centric world for quite some time now. Dropbox knocked my socks off over the Christmas period allowing me to keep 1Password synced between my machines (Mac Pro and MacBook Air). I can only imagine me taking this approach a step further in the not-too-distant future.

    Looking forward to reading Part 2…

  9. Harlan Lewis

    Harlan Lewis

    05 April 2011 @ 02:17AM #

    I just went through a very similar process. A lot of balls in the air, all nicely handled by Dropbox and Github.

    1) end of life for old work MacBook Pro
    2) new life for new work MacBook Pro
    3) new personal/travel MacBook Air that needs access to all latest dev work/environments without me having to think about it
    4) Mac Mini that powers my TV, shouldn’t access my dev environments, but should share all music and latest tv shows/movies with my MacBook Air.

    On Dropbox I have an “environment” folder full of symlink targets for things like ~/.bash_profile, so even my terminal prompt behaves the same across computers without requiring any thought. Selective folder sync handles music/media needs. Symlinking my Desktop, Documents, and Downloads folders on the work MBP and personal MBAir effectively turns them into the same computer.

    On a MacBook Air note, I’ve been incredibly impressed by just how much it can do (13" 4GB RAM). Even 40+ layer photoshop files that are millions+ of total pixels are handled like a champ. I only get into trouble when running VMWare Fusion AND photoshop AND hitting a rails app or two concurrently. Really, it doesn’t perform much worse than my i7 MBP (8GB RAM, SSD). Amazing.

    Be careful with syncing LittleSnapper’s library using Dropbox. You risk corrupting your library if you have the app open at the same time on different computers. (that said, I Dropbox my LittleSnapper too.)

    Final note – I was lulled into a false sense of security with Dropbox’s online backups. I treated it like a backup service even though it’s not and found myself in some tough situations (especially relevant if you’re syncing risky things like LittleSnapper).

  10. Chris Peters

    Chris Peters

    05 April 2011 @ 01:27AM #

    Great article.
    I’m in the same boat. Currently using a MBP, which in addition to the Dell that I carry around (thanks to the company I work for) the weight is a bit much. I already use dropbox between them all to keep my work in 1 place, and would love to read a follow-up to this if you go through with the plan.

    1 hitch… software licensing. After breaking the bank for a CS5 license on my MBP, paying for it again to have a sum of 2 licenses for the iMac and Air on top of the hardware costs seems a bit daunting. Have you considered the costs of additional licensing as well?

  11. Elliot Jay Stocks

    Elliot Jay Stocks

    05 April 2011 @ 08:06AM #

    @ TheFella: Cheers! I hadn’t heard of Put.io. As I’m already nearing my 112GB limit on Dropbox, another service could be handy, especially as none of my media files sit in the cloud.

    @ Nathan McGinness & Jake Bresnehan: The screen size does scare me a little, but virtually no laptop screen is suitable for extensive design work, so 11", 13", or even 15" screens are still inferior to 24" or 27" displays, so I’m happy to take the hit. As for dev environments, fortunately I don’t have too much running in that department; just the occasional project in MAMP. I guess it could cause an occasional bit of hassle but probably nothing too heavy.

    @ James Lutley: It depends on what your final set-up will be, but for me I felt like if I get a 13" Air, I might as well just get a 13" MBP.

    @ Jared: Maybe I should worry, but I’m not bothered. I think Dropbox is secure enough for the kind of not-particularly-sensitive data I deal with.

    @ Harlan Lewis: Thanks for the tips. I also perform local back-ups via Time Machine and SuperDuper! so Dropbox is only part of my back-up solution. I agree that it can be very easy to get lulled into a false sense of security, especially with its version control!

    @ Chris Peters: I’m really glad you brought up the issue of software licensing. Right now I have Creative Suite installed on my 15" MBP and the 13" MBP used mainly by Samantha, so that’s the two-user licence used up. I would effectively have to buy another one to install CS on a new Air, and that absolutely sucks. However, this could probably be avoided by activating / deactivating the software between one of the new computers and the 13" MBP. It’s a bit of a hassle, but as she only uses CS occasionally on the 13", it might not be too bad.

  12. Alex Hunter

    Alex Hunter

    05 April 2011 @ 08:56AM #

    Thanks for laying out your thoughts on this. As I mentioned on Twitter, I’m going through the same process as well. I know Danny Choo (dannychoo.com) is a big proponent of separating data from the application layer as well. He keeps all his “data” on an external drive (vs. the cloud) so he can work from any of his Mac machines, portable or desktop. I like his approach mainly because I worry about the speed of the cloud, or at least accessing it. I think I’ll need to run some tests.

    BTW, do you have an ipad? If so, where does that fit into the equation?

  13. Elliot Ross

    Elliot Ross

    05 April 2011 @ 09:03AM #

    I’m working towards a similar setup – iMac for the (home office) and a Macbook or Macbook air for travel. I’m already using dropbox to sync between my 9-5 and home computers and it works like a charm.

    As a sidebar, what’s the general consensus on new iMac rumours? It seems likely that there will be one pretty soon, the current one is about a year old right?

  14. Dan


    05 April 2011 @ 09:07AM #

    I literally did this swap last week and it’s the best thing I’ve done. I went from a fully loaded MacBook Pro to an iMac and a 13inch MacBook Air. All I have on my Air is DropBox, Photoshop CS5 and Coda. It’s a perfect set-up. The Air is so so fast, even with heavy PSD files (upgrade the RAM though).

    I would go with the 13inch Air though, this was my hardest decision, I badly wanted an 11inch but after borrowing a friends 11inch for a couple of days, it was just too small to get any ‘proper’ work done for an extended period. If I was a writer and did no code or design then the 11inch would be perfect, but for my personal needs it just didn’t quite suffice. Also, something to note, as I’m building quite a lot of responsive sites these days it became quite infuriating not being able to design/code on certain dimensions as the media queries were always kicking in and reducing the size. Maybe a minor point and easily avoided, but was something I hadn’t even considered.

    Also, I got the 13inch as it has the SD card slot. I figured that if I went on holiday, or was away for a while, I could just load up an SD card slot with movies and music and plug that into the Air when I needed it as oppose to loading everything onto the Air’s HD. I’m determined to keep that as clean as possible, just the basics.

    Good luck!

  15. Samuel Linde

    Samuel Linde

    05 April 2011 @ 09:08AM #


    You can actually sync your MAMP environment with a little bit of symlinking trickery as well. I’m using a 13" MBP with an SSD + 500 GB HDD where my DVD drive used to be and a 27" iMac, so I’m in a similar situation. And you’re right, Dropbox just makes everything so much easier.

    Good luck!

  16. Chris Plowman

    Chris Plowman

    05 April 2011 @ 09:08AM #

    Sounds like it would be a perfect set up BUT what do you do in the worst case scenario.

    Client needs a last minute change hours before deadline and Dropbox is down.

    I realise Dropbox is a very solid solution and I use it every day but every service has it’s problems as we saw with the BBC going down this week.

  17. Elliot Jay Stocks

    Elliot Jay Stocks

    05 April 2011 @ 09:19AM #

    @ Alex: Yep, I’ve got an iPad, but beyond email, it doesn’t play much of a role in my ‘work’ set-up. I often take it with me on the road so that I can use it to catch up with email and what not, and I’ve even used it for speaking gigs in the past, but most of the time I’m out and about, I still need an actual laptop.

    @ Elliot: It sounds like an iMac refresh is certainly on the cards, even if it’s just an upgrade to Sandy Bridge and Thunderbolt. Thanks for reminding me, though. If I do go down this route, I’ll definitely hold off for a while to see if those updates happen.

    @ Dan: That’s really useful to know. I hadn’t thought about the media queries! Totally a point to consider.

    @ Chris: It’s a possibility. But then, there’s always that risk, isn’t there? A web server goes down just as you’re finishing dev; Photoshop crashes just as you’re finishing a design. I’m not saying we shouldn’t make our lives easier by reducing the risk, but hopefully Dropbox going down would only have an impact if you moved between machines in the last few hours before a deadline, which is unlikely.

  18. Colm Britton

    Colm Britton

    05 April 2011 @ 09:13AM #

    This post is very timely as I have been thinking of doing something similar too with the main point of contention being whether the MBA would be able to handle some graphic work I do, such as using Photoshop. Your post and the comments have given me a lot of food for thought. Cheers.

    Plus, if you are thinking of doing this you might want to wait until June because there is a rumour that Apple will be updating the MBA with the latest ‘Sandy Bridge’ chip which they recently put in the MBP. That should add a fair bit of extra ooomph.

  19. Tom Carmony

    Tom Carmony

    05 April 2011 @ 09:28AM #

    With my 15" MBP getting long in the tooth, I’m looking to make a similar transition to an Air, though probably as my primary machine. Having shifted away from any print design work to exclusively identity and web UI, I feel like I can get away with a bit less horsepower, and Rdio’s allowed me to really limit the amount of music/media I would need to carry on a portable.

    I absolutely love the IDEA of the 11", but I really think any extended use on one would be too taxing on my (already poorly sighted) eyes. Practically, I’ll probably end up with the 13" MBA at some point.

  20. Eric


    05 April 2011 @ 09:44AM #

    I put a lot of thought into my current web design + dev setup, and it looks like this: A single 13" MacBookPro (2.66GHz, 8GB RAM). That’s it.

    I had a setup with a monitor and mouse and keyboard, but it was just too clumsy to connect everything and disconnect everything. When I get to the office in the morning I just put the MacBook on the table connect it to power and off I go. Having two different setups never worked for me personally.

    The only thing I can imagine is moving to a 13" Air, but I’m quite hesitant because of the storage options, but then I should have a media disk anyway.

    That said, the most design I do is directly in the browser, so no Photoshop or anything required, where screen estate really matters.

  21. Trent Walton

    Trent Walton

    05 April 2011 @ 10:19AM #

    In January I moved from my 15" MBP to a 13" Air and a 27" iMac, both with SSD, and I’m loving it. Dropbox has been a huge help, but I’ve not been too concerned with having every app or font available to me on the 13". I find that the limitations can lend themselves towards clearer thinking & more focus. Writing on an Air is magic. It’s also handy for commenting on a friend’s blog whilst your newborn is up for a 4:00 AM feeding :)

  22. Nick Thorley

    Nick Thorley

    05 April 2011 @ 10:41AM #

    Hi all – dont you all worry about the processing power of the air. At the moment it appears very quick – I think this is due to the SSD and hence when software evolves and photoshop needs raw processing power, dont you think it will start to become slow very quickly when compared to the MBP with i5 and i7 processors.

    I fear everyone is being seduced as the air seems quicker than their old machine.

    Valid concern?

  23. Robin


    05 April 2011 @ 11:24AM #

    Lately I’m looking for the same thing. Currently I have MB 13" 2008 which is my home and portable.
    Due to the weight of this freaking thing and replaced my Mac Mini with a Boxee Box for Media Center, I’m going to use my Mac Mini as a desktop system and planning to buy a MB Air 13" as my portable system.

    I have looked into getting a 11", but the screen size (at least for me) is just too small. Although the resolution is bigger than my current MB 13", you have to (almost) squeeze your eyes to see everything.

  24. Rick Hurst

    Rick Hurst

    05 April 2011 @ 11:52AM #

    Hi Elliot,

    I’ve thought about this extensively – probably far too much! I was initially set on the idea of an 11" Air for ultra portability, but sometimes when I work on site for a client, or i’m “on the road” I don’t always have access to a monitor, and I think even though i’m a developer rather than a designer, the low resolution would be OK for coding, but be a total pain for HTML/CSS layout stuff. The 13" Air on the other hand has the same resolution as a 15" MBP, so would be better than I currently work with on my old 13" macbook. Also by all accounts the Air goes like a bomb and seems to be capable of most things including heavy photoshop work. Maybe heavy editing in FCP would benefit from a MBP or iMac, but the Air sounds very capable otherwise.

    As for having two machines – is the chore of plugging cables in really that much of a reason to get another machine? ;) I get what you mean though, i’m constantly doing it, and carrying round a bag full of adapters, but my reason for sticking to one machine is that it can be time consuming setting up multiple complex dev environments, so maintaining that on more than one machine is a PITA.

    13" Air is currently therefore on my shopping list – just bought a new kitchen though, so milking every last bit of value out of my old macbook for the time being :)

  25. Sylvain


    05 April 2011 @ 01:03PM #

    I’m a webdesigner and I actually moved from a 2.4Ghz 15" Macbook Pro (2008) with a SSD to a 1.86Ghz 13" Macbook Air with 4G of RAM as my primary machine (in combination with an external monitor). I didn’t need more power and it feels good to actually start looking for something that is not just a question of processing power, the Macbook Air is more about the freedom to work where you want. I can put it in my bag without hurting my shoulder or my back, I can use it on my couch without burning my legs… The battery life is enough so I don’t have to always bring the power cable with me.

    I use Dropbox and Arq for online backups, Photoshop for designing and Textmate, Transmit, MAMP, Terminal… for coding. Everything runs smoothly.

    The only thing I had to do is disable OpenGL in Photoshop because it was slowing the software. Other Air users, do you also find that Photoshop OpenGL support is bad with the Air ? Once OpenGL is deactivated Photoshop is really snappy. Did you also turned that option off ?

  26. Tanner Christensen

    Tanner Christensen

    05 April 2011 @ 04:19PM #

    I’d be interested in hearing how the switch goes for you if you decide to make it.

    My problem with working from the cloud is backing up your important files. How do you backup from a cloud server exactly? Or do you simply rely on the hosts routine backups?

  27. Ali Blackwell

    Ali Blackwell

    05 April 2011 @ 04:37PM #

    I’ve had a MacBook Pro with an SSD for the last six months. It’s been amazingly fast. Recently though it’s started to slow down a bit – not by much – but it’s definitely not as fast as it was.

    The MacBook Air is bound to be super-fast. An SSD is worth way more in performance than a few notches on the Gigahertz clock, so it’s no surprise that people have been blown away by its speed. It is likely faster than MBPs from last year with regular hard drives. But it will slow down. By how much we’ll have to see, but it will definitely slow down.

    Apple are calling it “the next generation of MacBooks.” This suggests to me that all MacBooks will eventually get an SSD as standard, and the beautiful lightweight form factor of the MacBook Air. My fear is that by moving now, not only is the Air likely to slow down, but Apple will bring out a MacBook Pro in six months that will blow the Air out of… the air.

    The idea of maintaining two work environments fills me with horror, as does the idea of paying for two licenses. The cloud is the future, sure, but the future is also inevitably a “pro” version of the MacBook Air. As a professional, I’m very wary about moving onto a machine that wasn’t designed for professionals. And if I’m going to take the risk of moving my data and software into the cloud, I’d need to know I had the support of truly professional hardware.

    The last MBP refresh was disappointing. We all know Apple – something way better is just around the corner. I’m going to put up with the extra few kilos, and save myself thousands of pounds. I’m going to wait for the pro version.

  28. Harlan Lewis

    Harlan Lewis

    05 April 2011 @ 06:51PM #

    Looking forward to article #2 in this series. I’m curious – is anyone holding out on their next computer upgrade until a Thunderbolt (lightpeak) in the laptop refresh?

    @Sylvain – I have also disabled Photoshop’s OpenGL on my Air, but do the same on an i7 MBP – it’s caused some strange zooming and scrolling behavior for me in the past.

    @Nick Thorley – You’re onto something, as the single largest performance gap on my Air has been running CPU-intensive tasks: unit+functional tests, video editing, and video games. I don’t play many video games and do run most of my tests on the i7, so neither of these impact me much. I’d love it if video editing was faster, but if that’s a priority you really need to tailor a rig for it. What this illustrates to me is how few of my regular tasks are actually CPU-intensive. YMMV, and I hate to make a claim about no one needing more than 640K of memory, but I’m having a hard time coming up with reasons why processing power will become the bottleneck in standard tasks over the next couple of years. Newer computers will always handle newer software better, but I/O speed is where the short-term future is looking affordable for major improvements (and therefore people will come up with ways to use it). By the time the world turns and discovers affordable breakthroughs in CPUs (similar to the switch to multicore a few years ago) it will be time for a new computer anyway.

    @Chris Plowman – regarding the risk of Dropbox going down, it’s worth noting that this would actually mean Amazon’s S3 is down. Not unheard of, but they’re more trustworthy than whatever homebrew I could cobble together. Further, the service being down doesn’t prevent access to your files – only the ability to sync latest changes. If you’re actually using an assortment of Dropbox-synced computers on a regular basis your work will be kept up to date by default.

  29. Samuel Lavoie

    Samuel Lavoie

    05 April 2011 @ 07:59PM #

    Thanks for this post. I also like Dropbox a lot but still lack a clean and efficient way to manage my clients folder and documents either on Dropbox or GDocs… still can’t go full on with GDocs for everything. The Dropbox or put.io might be interesting with a 100-200 Gb in the cloud. Any feedback on speed read/write?

    I’m also at my MBP 15" end of life, 3 years of reliable services hook up to an 23" Cinema Display. The new Air grown on lot on me and might consider it when the new 27" iMac comes out.

  30. Filip Stefansson

    Filip Stefansson

    06 April 2011 @ 12:58PM #

    I think you should go for the MBA 13". If your current MBP has a regular display(not highres) you will increase the workspace with the MBA:s 1440×960 res. Pretty awesome.

    I currently have MBA 13" and I don’t think I could use a smaller display.

  31. Michael Camilleri

    Michael Camilleri

    06 April 2011 @ 03:01PM #

    Last October I went from a 15" Windows laptop to an iMac and ended about 7 years of just using a laptop of some description instead of a desktop. I’m thinking about doing something to you Elliot but not sure how well things work in terms of media. I’m constantly listening to my iTunes library. Is this something you plan to stream to the laptop? Or just when you’re on the road, no music?

  32. Cian Clarke

    Cian Clarke

    05 April 2011 @ 10:23AM #

    It’s interesting to see so many people using the 15" as their portable of choice, and concerned over the weight & bulk of the machine.
    I use a 17" unibody MBP as my desktop and portable of choice, and it performs of course wonderfully as both.
    I’m a stickler for resolution, and could never imagine being able to function at less than 1900X1200, although it’s perhaps just me being petty.
    Interestingly, although the 17" is significantly heavier, I still find it perfectly portable. It went to college with me (a 2.5hr commute), goes to all my client meetings.. I guess having had a 17" laptop since I was 17 may possibly help.

    Downsides? Only one i’ve come across. Because the machine only barely fits in my rucksack, I’ve had 2x 1TB 2.5" hard drives fail, possibly because they haven’t had enough shock resistance. Since then, I’ve decided the cloud is the only way, and make do with 320gb internal!

  33. Karan Varindani

    Karan Varindani

    05 April 2011 @ 04:23PM #

    You see, I took a somewhat opposing approach: I decided that instead of buying 2 machines, I’d combine them both into 1.

    My setup: A 17" Core i7 MacBook Pro, with 8 GB RAM and a 1 TB HDD. A beast, by any standards. However, the weight of such a solid machine has begun to take it’s toll. I carry this thing on my back for 4 hours a day, minimum, while in school, and it’s really heavy!

    I’ve decided to get an iPad 2 to lighten the load. I opted out of a MacBook Air, because I need to have my iTunes Library synced and up-to-date on both machines, and my iPhone, and I can’t have that. (I’m a real audophile- checking Play Counts and everything). I’ll have to use iWork.com to do my syncing of files, because iWork for iPad doesn’t support Dropbox (yet!), but I’m gonna let the iPad replace my school work for me. I’ll get all my school books on there, have my games, music, whatever and I’ll use iWork a lot. Then at the end of the day, 1 iTunes Sync to backup and transfer everything.

    I held up getting the iPad 1 because I always consider 1’st-generation devices ‘test devices’. The company can take away what’s good and what’s bad from it, and the 2nd generation device will be the real deal. Hopefully, I won’t regret my purchase: iPad 2, (PRODUCT) RED Smart Cover, 64 GB, 3G + WiFi. Coming in June.

  34. Thomas Greve

    Thomas Greve

    06 April 2011 @ 09:03PM #

    My setup: A 24" iMac with additional 22" Display and a 13" MacBook, both with 4GB RAM and 320GB HD.

    The iMac is my main system. The MacBook is used when I have to do some work at a client office or when I am traveling.
    I keep both systems synced via CarbonCopyCloner and firewire cable. To do so, the MacBook is started in Target Mode. I do this little job every few days and shortly before I leave my office to go to a client.
    Changes made on the MacBook are synced to Dropbox to bring them to the iMac when I am back in office.
    So both machines are near to be identical and this works fine to me.

    Dropbox is very nice but actually the size is to small to fit all of my needs.

  35. Bryan Fuhr

    Bryan Fuhr

    07 April 2011 @ 08:22PM #

    Great post. Like you, I rethought my configuration a couple of months ago, around the time the MacBook Air 11" launched. I’m running your proposed set-up. I use 27" iMac at home, and my MBA on the go with DropBox as my go-between. It’s brilliant. And seamless. I can’t wait to be able to stream music through the setup. Let’s hope someone comes up with a scaleable solution soon.

  36. Kyle Alden

    Kyle Alden

    07 April 2011 @ 08:21PM #

    I recently did a similar thing and switched from a 13" Macbook Pro that I docked at home to a 27" iMac and an iPad to. I now don’t own a personal laptop (though my office provides me with one, I only use it when I need to use the Windows version of Excel and Powerpoint on the go).

    I keep all my work files in Dropbox. I use a Parallels virtual machine to run Windows (for my 9-5) on my iMac, and keep all my personal apps (chat, email, music) in the OSX side, which is fully segregated from the VM (except Dropbox). I enforce productivity by running Windows full-screen in a different Space and only leaving that Space on breaks. I use my iPad during the day as a Twitter/Email/Calendar dock as well as a remote so I can control iTunes without leaving my Windows space.

    After work, I shut down my VM and take my iPad on the go as my portable computer. If I really, truly need more than the iPad can do, I remote into my Mac. But I’ve done that maybe twice. If I need to work on the go, I either remote into my VM at home from the iPad, or worst-case bring my budget PC and work via Dropbox.

    In a perfect solution I wouldn’t ever need a laptop, but since I rely on Windows-only productivity apps it is occasionally necessary. However, I haven’t missed my Macbook once.

  37. John Chandler

    John Chandler

    07 April 2011 @ 08:35PM #

    I did almost exactly what you describe here a few months ago and it is a fantastic setup. Your thoughts and all the me too replies leaves me wondering if Apple has noticed a bump in iMac sales.

  38. Jaryd


    07 April 2011 @ 09:16PM #

    You have described my exact, to the letter, setup. I had a 15-inch MacBook Pro, but was tired of lugging it around, so I sold it and bought a 27-inch iMac for my web development. It was working swell, but in my last semester of classes I absolutely had to have a notebook computer, and the new MacBook Airs had just made their appearance so I went for it.

    I have both Macs syncing my documents, library files, etc, using dropbox and it works mostly flawlessly. My one complaint is regarding how Things writes to its library file though. I have to make sure to close Things on one Mac before opening it on another or else it’ll get messed up. I wish it wrote to the file continuously, and not just at close.

    Great to see that my setup makes sense to other people as well!

  39. JiPé


    08 April 2011 @ 02:33AM #

    Funny you are talking about replacing your current setup with a iMac27 and a MacBook Air. This is EXACTLY what I did early this year. I did have a single MacBook Pro that I was keeping with me all the time, at the office hooked up to an external monitor and at home just stand alone to be able to move around as I please.

    I was getting tired of all this, the MBP 15 being too heavy. I decided to have only my iPhone as the on the go office gear and have a refurbish low entry price iMac 27 for $1500 and a brand new MacBook Air 13 for my everyday use at home and on the go (when it is needed to go see clients). Something light that I will never ask myself, do I bring it with me?

    This is the best decision I ever took. Now the most important work files are synced with Dropbox between the two machines and all important media files on a remote server for backup purposes.

    The MacBook Air is certainly the best computer I ever had in my life. It is small, light, has the perfect resolution ratio for its 13.3 inches and it is so quick with its Flash memory on board that I don’t see the difference with my old MacBook Pro i5 2.4 Ghz with a 128 SDD. And when I say this I truly mean it. Not a single day I did wish to have my old MacBook Pro with me.

  40. Mike


    08 April 2011 @ 02:33AM #

    I agree 100%. Ditto on the set-up.

    The MBA 11" is a game changer in this respect. Jobs knows that, and my guess is the next wave of mobileme and all of that will render carrying around a brick anymore obsolete. It already has.

    I followed this path late last year. Loaded MBA 11", and the 15" brick and display never leaves the home office now. Everything clouded and synced. Not to mention the thing has saved my back.

    Also thinking of dumping the 15 and display for an iMac for what that setup is for – editing and design.

    The Air? Stripped everything out of there and is solely set up for productivity from the shareware and apps out there.

    Love it.

  41. Austin


    08 April 2011 @ 03:54AM #

    I also just went through this exact process and have been very happy with my decision to make these changes. Looking forward to part II.

  42. FSan


    08 April 2011 @ 03:57AM #


    Question on these changes, switching from a 24" LED Cinema Display to a new 27", some issues with the end color on publishing to web, a client complaning about a blue background colour when on my new screen was green, what is the best option to use on display preferences > color (Apple RGB, Adobre RGB, Color LCD, …)?

  43. FSan


    08 April 2011 @ 03:57AM #


    Question on these changes, switching from a 24" LED Cinema Display to a new 27", some issues with the end color on publishing to web, a client complaning about a blue background colour when on my new screen was green, what is the best option to use on display preferences > color (Apple RGB, Adobre RGB, Color LCD, …)?

  44. Dan


    08 April 2011 @ 06:14AM #

    How do you sync Fontexplorer via Dropbox?

  45. Anne F

    Anne F

    08 April 2011 @ 08:56AM #

    I do this already, it works fine. That said, I’m a lawyer so I don’t have to try and deal with Photoshop etc on the go. To the person above who was worrying about backup: Dropbox files are also stored on your computers so they backup with Time Machine/SuoerDuper etc as usual (I use both, by the way, in a triple backup system. Nothing like a paranoid lawyer).

  46. Simon Doggett

    Simon Doggett

    08 April 2011 @ 10:25AM #

    I’ve been thinking similar thoughts too, but the cost of pimping out a 27" iMac is a little off-putting.

    I also have a 15" MBP which is my workhorse, and have a 24" iMac at the office. Dropbox keeps things manageable.

    My current plan is:

    - wait for OSX Lion to come out
    - chuck an SSD in the MBP (so there’s TRIM support), pair it with a cinema display and leave it in one place
    - get an 11" MBA for roving about

    Buying an iMac without an SSD just wouldn’t be right, and it’s a £600ish upgrade with Apple right now.

  47. Martin S

    Martin S

    08 April 2011 @ 02:05PM #

    After 7-8 years with a MBP/PowerBook 15" as my main and only computer and carried with me all the time, I recently switched to the same setup as you described (27" iMac + 23" Cinema Diskplay + Air 11"). I really love this setup. Fast + portable and Dropbox, MobileMe and Gmail makes the syncing really easy.

  48. LD


    08 April 2011 @ 04:06PM #

    This is how I roll for the most part. For me, my older MBP 15" C2D is now my “desktop”. It never leaves the mStand and has a second monitor attached to it. My portable is my MBA 11" (and an iPad and iPhone). I would have a 27" iMac other than it’s not in the budget at the moment. But that’s the plan. I don’t need a ton of power as I mostly just do boring things like PowerPoints, email, and other writing. the old 15" MBP is sufficient for my meager multimedia needs.

    I’m not a Dropbox user though. I’ve never been a fan, even though there is a lot to like. Surprisingly I’ve found Microsoft’s Live Mesh to be the best for my needs. It syncs to the cloud for folders I choose and syncs between machines and not to the cloud for unlimited other files. Most of my stuff I don’t actually want in the cloud so this is perfect for me. If Dropbox offered P2P syncing in addition to cloud then I would likely switch.

  49. JohnF


    09 April 2011 @ 05:29PM #

    This is my plan, with one exception, in that my desktop will be a Sandy Bridge-based Mac Mini + 27" display, as I’ve had an iMac and during it’s lifetime it had to pay a couple of visits to the Apple Store, leaving me without a decent sized screen. With a display, if anything happens to the Mini, I’ve still the option of connecting up the Air.

    I’m hoping that the rumoured MobileMe changes will allow me to replace Dropbox, so I can try and cut down on the number of services I subscribe to….

  50. Torquil


    07 April 2011 @ 09:13PM #

    This is almost the exact set-up I’m about to adopt. Currently I’m working full-time between a 4 year old white MacBook (for offsite) and a 5 year old G5 (office). Both are slow and dimwitted by today’s standards, but I’ve learned that installing and running only what I need to get my job done makes them more than capable, and I don’t think I’m encountering any inefficiencies by working on older machines.

    Having said that, the MacBook has recently had terrible display issues, the corners are literally peeling apart, and it’s getting way hotter than it used to, so it’s time for it to retire I think. I’m looking forward to working on a 27" iMac, and using a 13" Air as my off-site work station – working from an external HD as opposed to the cloud, which I’m only using for frequent back-up.

  51. Justin Kuntz

    Justin Kuntz

    11 April 2011 @ 08:13PM #

    I made this transition late last year with a 27” iMac i7 and an black Macbook 13” (gave my 15” Macbook Pro to an employee). I ran into issues with application activation, managing preferences (sure some are universal while others are specific to screen size) and finally dev environments – a huge mess. Maybe I gave up too early on working with Dropbox (I have over 60GB) but could not spend anymore time problem solving and I did exactly what Nathan did and am now back on a new 15” MBP (I don’t mind the size/weight).

    I am still looking for the perfect setup but need a much easier solution. It would be great to have my entire team on 27” iMacs and use the old laptops (or Macbook Airs) for portability. We use a MacMini server and network attached storage for client files (already past 1.5TB). Would probably be better to integrate the server and external HD instead of utilizing my current Dropbox workflow. Would love for some suggestions migrating to Elliots suggested approach but for a team atmosphere, server and network attached storage and offline work.

  52. Matt Felten

    Matt Felten

    13 April 2011 @ 08:43PM #

    It’s an interesting concept. I was doing the same setup, only with a 15" MBP, for a couple years and I’ve just recently “upgraded” to the laptop+cinema display model. There were a number if things that started frustrating me more and more as I started working away from home more.
    1) Font syncing. If I started working on a project away from “home base” this would cause me problems almost every time. Free fonts weren’t that bad but the bought ones with download limits would cause me grief.
    2) Chat logs. Some of my long-term clients will IM me just to chat, and then manage to throw in something about a project that I’ll subsequently forget. It’s nice having those records anywhere.

    I think cloud services are great but it’s not at a point yet, for me, to keep two work machines in perfect sync.

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