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 note about my new Mac set-up

Posted on 09 August 2011 23 comments

Article illustration for A note about my new Mac set-up

[UPDATE, 10.08.2011: I’ve edited this post so that it now lists the complete specs of the two machines.]

People keep asking me about my new iMac-plus-Air set-up, so I wanted to write a quick note it: so far, it’s absolutely bloody fantastic!

I’ll elaborate. As I said when I originally blogged about my plans for a cloud-centric Mac set-up, it’s all about the extremes: the biggest possible iMac and the smallest possible Air. Many people can’t understand why I went with an 11" Air, but in my opinion, a 13" defies the point of getting an Air in the first place. People forget that the 11" Air has a horizontal resolution of 1366 pixels, which is just 74 pixels narrower than my old friend, the 15" MacBook Pro. 74 pixels! So all you lose (horizontally) is this:


Of course, I must admit that I’m not relying on the Air being my only machine; it’ll be sharing the duties with the iMac, which is obviously huge. Its horizontal pixel count is 2560. Blimey.

The specs

11" MacBook Air
Processor: 1.8GHz i7
Memory: 4GB RAM
Storage: 256GB SSD

27" iMac
Processor: 2.7GHz i5
Memory: 8GB RAM
Storage: 256GB SSD + 1TB Serial ATA
Accessories: Wireless keyboard and Magic Trackpad (used in conjunction with my pre-existing Logitech MX Revolution mouse)

The story so far

I’ve had both machines for five days now, and have been using them for actual work for about three days. I’m happy to report that apart from the initial pain of having to set up two machines rather than one (double the installations, double the preference changes, etc.), they’ve been performing exactly as I’d hoped. The Air is blazingly fast; even faster than my old MBP — which had an SSD in it —  and seems about as fast as the iMac in every task I’ve thrown at it. And yes, I’ve been using Photoshop on both. Working across the two machines has been absolutely fine so far, as all of the important stuff (including several libraries and preferences, not just apps) is synced via Dropbox.

I realise that this is early days yet, and I’m treating this as something of an experiment, but it’s working wonderfully so far. For anyone who travels, the Air is just perfect: it’s super light, extremely small, and the new models are pro-level machines in terms of power. And having the iMac at home with absolutely everything on it means that I can keep the Air lean, too, which is even better.

The new Macs

Needless to say, I’m selling my existing 15" MacBook Pro. It’s a couple of years old now, but I put a 256GB SSD in it about five months ago and it’s basically like a new machine. It has 4GB or RAM and I’m throwing in a spare battery (it’s the unibody model, but the one where you can open the bottom part where the battery lies), a neoprene sleeve, and a BookArc. £900. Email me if you’re interested. Sold to my studio mate, Mr. Tom Oliver Harrison!


  1. Raphael Essoo-Snowdon

    Raphael Essoo-Snowdon

    09 August 2011 @ 09:22PM #

    I would love to know how you keep them in sync via Dropbox as I’d love to do the same with my machines.

  2. Robert Bavington

    Robert Bavington

    09 August 2011 @ 09:24PM #

    That’s a pretty slick set up Elliot ! What do you think to Lion ?

  3. Dan Eden

    Dan Eden

    09 August 2011 @ 09:26PM #

    I second Raphael’s comment – I’m thinking about getting a MBA later this year to team up with my 24" iMac. Good to hear that it’s working out ok, it gives me hope!

  4. Alex


    09 August 2011 @ 09:28PM #

    I just got my iMac 27", upgraded to Lion – not really happy… Quicktime freezes entire computer, Photoshop crashes… Hopefully they will release a good bunch of updates…

  5. Greg McAusland

    Greg McAusland

    09 August 2011 @ 09:29PM #

    That’s quite the interesting setup. I’ve been planning on picking up an air next month, and the hopefully a thunderbolt display.

    It never, however struck me that for almost the same cost could pick up an iMac as well.

    Interesting interesting

  6. Eric Kelly

    Eric Kelly

    09 August 2011 @ 09:32PM #

    I’ve got the same setup except I went with the 13" Air. I wish I could have went with the 11" but I often need to spend full days on the Air and I wasn’t sure if I would have been able to handle the smaller screen.

    Dropbox really is the key to a setup like this. I don’t think I’d be able to handle having to manually sync between both. Dropbox makes it effortless!

  7. Rick Hurst

    Rick Hurst

    09 August 2011 @ 10:20PM #

    Very jealous! I’m still having dilemmas over the 11 or 13 – it boils down to how much I think i’ll end up working on the laptop with no external monitor. I currently do that a lot with my 13" macbook which is just adequate at 1280 × 800, but it’s actually the vertical resolution I miss when i’m doing front end stuff with firebug or chrome developer tools open, stealing some of my browser. I’m also a bit obsessed with battery life and I keep talking myself into the 13 because it has a bit more. But then I look at the 11 and get seduced by it’s lovely useable gadget miniature-ness.. :) I think I need to spend a few hours working on one really..

  8. Frank Sedivy

    Frank Sedivy

    09 August 2011 @ 09:33PM #

    Nice setup, i’m attempting something similar with MacPro and the good old 30" together with MBA 11" for travels.

    The only bit i’m slightly worried about is that so far i’ve been used to travelling with my 17" MBPro which no doubt is a complete pain carry around but when you get to work around different offices and clients throughout the week the 17" screen something nice to rely on as there isn’t always a spare screen to ‘steal’. :)

    Great setup though – how is that trackpad working for you? I’m sticking to the MagicMouse for now but the pad is on the list already.

    PS Completely agree on the 11" vs. 13"! :)

  9. abdusfauzi


    09 August 2011 @ 11:25PM #

    i always wanna have this kind of setup, but maybe with a Mac Pro. Having using MBP 15" for the past 3 years really taken some toll on my back and shoulder. Plus, I am small, thus it took more effort to carry the MBP on my shoulder. Ouch.

    I am interested on how do you setup your dropbox; syncing those preferences and libraries. Or maybe you can also post up some tips how do you manage your Air-to-iMac working files.

  10. Glenn Wolsey

    Glenn Wolsey

    10 August 2011 @ 12:46AM #

    I too have a love affair with the 11" MacBook Air. When these new ones were released, I purchased the 13" i7 (having previously owned the C2D 11") – once this arrived I decided the magic had disappeared. I’m now typing this on my i7 11" (arrived yesterday) and patiently waiting on my 27" Thunderbolt Cinema Display.

  11. Jonathan


    10 August 2011 @ 09:18AM #

    Same set-up as me, I have the air a week now and love it

  12. Ian Tearle

    Ian Tearle

    10 August 2011 @ 10:06AM #

    Yes, I too would love to know exactly which preferences and a how to of what you are syncing with dropbox, I tried with CODA, and gave up.

  13. Patrik Inzinger

    Patrik Inzinger

    10 August 2011 @ 12:48PM #

    Awesome setup! I was thinking about getting a 11" Air as well… They almost fit in your pocket :P

    I’d love to see a “How to” of your dropbox setup too! Syncing everything between machines seems very interesting but I can’t image how you set everything up and made it work.

  14. Christian


    10 August 2011 @ 02:42PM #

    Very much the same setup I’m considering — very glad to hear your experience has been good so far.

  15. leroy


    10 August 2011 @ 03:48PM #

    Thanks for a great idea. I will be copying you.

  16. Nate Kadlac

    Nate Kadlac

    10 August 2011 @ 05:10PM #

    Pretty nice setup you have. If the MBA has handeled everything you’ve thrown at it, comparatively to your iMac, I’m still surprised you find the iMac necessary over just an external display? The new thunderbolt Cinema Display will have FW800 and ethernet for external storage, which will allow you to keep your storage needs and give you the same real estate. Either way, it looks great on your desk!

  17. AJP


    10 August 2011 @ 05:49PM #

    I’m moving to a similar setup. I’m really interested in how to are synching some of your preferences over dropbox, as DB has a limitation of symlinking to individual files (such as preference files). Folders are no problem, but individual files are a pain. Just curious. Thanks!

  18. imran


    10 August 2011 @ 09:11PM #

    I don’t adore Desktops. I have been using MBP 15" mainly because I love Laptops 2ndly because of its’ 5 hrs of battery time… lately I have been extremely confused between 11’ and 13’ MBA… I just want that for reading I have an iPad 2 that’s great too. But due to my job i have to use a laptop….. your post makes good point about 11’ but i think i would final decision when i do see the both of them physically side by side.

  19. Bobby Whaler

    Bobby Whaler

    11 August 2011 @ 03:58AM #

    Interesting article.

    Quick question: if the Air is good enough for photoshop and all other tasks, why not buy the 27" display and only have the Air? It would save a ton of money, better for the planet, etc.

  20. Dan Warne

    Dan Warne

    12 August 2011 @ 12:37AM #

    This is the set-up I’ve been contemplating buying too. And certainly I will be using Dropbox (I am already). But my issue is that Dropbox only covers me for 50GB (and I don’t really want to have to pay the $20 a month for 100GB).

    My problem is my very large Aperture and iPhoto libraries, along with my huge iTunes library. Obviously, those have to live on the iMac, but I’d like to find a way to sync a subset to my MacBook Air.

    It’s kinda surprising that Apple has not released a sync solution for MacBook Air to another Mac, despite pushing people towards the “digital lifestyle”.

    I can’t use a pure NAS solution because the NAS can’t feed videos to my Apple TV.

    What I’ve been contemplating is a Thunderbolt NAS that could be plugged in to my iMac most of the time, but replugged directly into the MacBook Air if I needed to do some heavy duty file shifting.

    I can live with my iTunes videos being on the iMac because it’s easy enough to watch them over WiFi from the iMac to the MacBook Air, or via the Apple TV.

    But what bothers me most is the photo library — I’m not completely happy with the idea that all my photo downloading and editing is going to have to be done on the iMac, because it’s something I do need to do on the go.

    However, I can’t see it’s really something I’m going to be able to do on the Air because my MacBook Pro’s primary SSD has over 250GB on it already, and that’s without the iTunes, Aperture, or iPhoto libraries, which live on the 750GB HDD I’ve put in the optical drive bay of the MBP.

    Of course, one of the logical conclusions to this discussion is “perhaps the MacBook Air is not the right computer for you…?” — but I really want a MacBook Air! It’s so close to being a perfect main computer for me. I just wish there was an option to order it with 512GB SSD rather than 256.

  21. Karin


    15 August 2011 @ 09:05AM #

    Very nice setup! I have done a similar thing back in March, although back then I decided to go with the 13" MBP instead of the Air. Today I would probably choose the MBA over the MBP too.
    Some people have been asking about syncing with Dropbox. I am doing a lot of Flex development and need to keep both machines in sync because I take the laptop when I work at client’s sites and use the iMac at home. Dropbox works fine for individual files like .ai or .psd, but the Flashbuilder files and settings didn’t behave nicely so I ended up copying projects backwards and forwards every night.
    Until I found another solution. By Microsoft, believe it or not. It’s called Windows Live Mesh, and yes it works on the Mac very nicely. The advantages are that it not only syncs with cloud based storage (Skydrive), it also syncs directly between machines over the local network. And for some reason it works a lot better than Dropbox. Another advantage is that you can sync any folder on the file system, not only in the Dropbox folder. And you get 5GB cloud storage for free. I have been using it for 2 weeks now without having to copy any file manually from one machine to the other.

  22. Jez Swinscoe

    Jez Swinscoe

    17 August 2011 @ 12:51PM #

    If you have an existing machine that’s a few years old then an SSD and some more RAM can give you a machine that feels like you upgraded the whole system. I was pleasantly surprised at the improvement.

    Very nice looking setup Eliiot

  23. The PokerGosh

    The PokerGosh

    20 August 2011 @ 10:30PM #

    New Airs are just amazing machines…

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