Over the past months I’ve become more and more of a hermit, tucking myself away in my studio and working almost non-stop. Being visually-impaired, I’d convinced myself I couldn’t use coworking spaces like I used to, but when I stopped to think about why that was, I realised something simple:
Working on a MacBook Air for 8 hours a day is a problem.
I’ve had the same Air for 5 years, but it’s almost never been my main machine. It’s served me incredibly well, but today it’s going to a new home. In its place, and in place of the succession of iMacs I’ve used for the last 3 years is one machine, a docking station and a monitor. Here’s my new setup.
15" MacBook Pro 2017
If my plan to work among other humans was to succeed, I’d need a machine that was powerful enough to be my primary “driver” (as the YouTubers say nowadays), and had a big enough screen that I could work on for 8 hours a day, with some sort of riser or stand to bring it up to eye-level so I wasn’t hunched over the thing.
That left me with the 15" MacBook Pro with Touch Bar (as there’s no “Escape” option for this size of notebook). Sure I could’ve gone for an older generation machine or maybe chanced my arm with the “MacBook Adorable”, but I’ve slowly started to notice myself driving my machines harder and harder, and bumping up against their limits, so doubling the memory and increasing the clock speed over my current desktop seemed sensible. And right now, although it was going to be a pinch, I could afford it. Just about.
What I couldn’t necessarily afford was a larger hard-drive, so I went for the lower-end 15" model and a good, fast, reliable, portable USB drive. I used one I already had, rather than spend money on a USB-C drive, which of course led to the next problem.
Plugging in on the road
This machine’s a big investment, and not a toy, so it has to be able to do everything, connect to everything and power everything. When I’m out and about, I need quick access to USB, and an SD card reader for my Zoom recorders. There are a few of those snappy little side-attached hub things you can get, but the best-reviewed one I saw aws the Ucouso UC28A USB C Hub. This is sturdy and feels well-made, and is fast enough to run my little USB drive without any discernible problems (as of yet).
My plan is to spend at least three, maybe three-and-a-half days working away from my home studio, but what about those days I am at home, or working after-hours and on weekends (which I do a lot)? For that, I’d need something beefier.
The docking station
Last year I bought a 25" Dell monitor which I thought was the tits. Turns out its resolution leaves something to be desired, and today I’m awaiting its higher-res replacement, but as it’s relatively cheap, has lots of USB sockets but wouldn’t, in my estimation be beefy enough to power my MacBook, I’d need something else.
There are a few solutions out there, but I followed an online recommendation and went for the CalDigit USB-C Docking Station. It is not cheap, but I really, really like it. I can plug my monitor into the DisplayPort output into the Mini DisplayPort input, the monitor’s proprietary USB output into the dock’s USB input (which gives me access to three USB ports), and my USB hard drive into the easy-access port on the front of the dock.
The dock is independently powered so it can maintain a charge on my MacBook (I’m not sure if it can charge the battery but I’m not worried about that), and all of this is done through one USB-C cable, plugged into my MacBook Pro.
Think about it. An HD display, half a dozen USB devices and power all coming through one thin cable. The future is now.
The one major flaw with the dock is that, under macOS, it can’t drive two displays independently. It has HDMI and DisplayPort outputs, but when plugged in, the OS only detects one screen, show the displays are mirrored. Apparently this is a software problem that doesn’t exist in Windows (Apple has never truly supported dual monitors properly). this is because I’m not stumping up for Thunderbolt displays, which support daisyc-chaining. But since it’s a software, rather than a hardware limitation, there’s a more-than-0% chance it may happen in the future.
First impressions of the MacBook Pro
I had a pretty shaky start on Monday, when the thing arrived and I started trying to restore from a Tine Machine backup over wifi my docking stuff hadn’t arrived yet). This, possibly combined with having plugged the USB-C charging cable into the wrong port, caused the MacBook to completely power down instantly, three times. The second time I booted up, I decided on installing everything afresh to keep my OS and tiny 256gb hard drive clean, so when, after nearly finishing the TouchID setup, it powered down again, I got seriously worried, then moved the power cable to the left-hand socket (I’ve since had no issues).
When I booted the machine back up, my account had been setup and I just needed to go back into setting TouchID up. Nothing appears to have been corrupted or half-installed, so I’m grateful to Apple for building the OS sensibly and not forcing me to have to format the machine and start again.
I have to admit, the powering-off thing really did trouble me. The machine came with 60% (or so) charge, but I know this line and its 2016 predecessor has been plagued with really odd issues, so I wasn’t completely blown away by the idea that for some reason, plugging a power cable into the wrong socket might make the thing freak out.
But since having setup the machine, I’ve not had a single problem. I’ve used it at my coworking space and for a couple of days at the home studio. Yesterday I recorded a couple of hours of lossless audio and spent the afternoon editing it. Where my previous iMac had tiny little corrupted artefacts in the audio file, on the MacBook there were none. And Audition only crashed once, which is franily a miracle.
Waking up the MacBook at home was a slightly tedious process before the Apple Watch was detected and I was able to unlock it by just sitting down. Previous to that, I had to move the keyboard into a different USB slot (I still insist on using a keyboard with a number pad and, more importantly, proper arrow keys) and I think the thing would only wake up if it detected movement on the Bluetooth mouse (probably because the dock doesn’t wake up until the notebook does, and it’s the notebook that’s detecting the Bluetooth mouse). But I suspect, now that my Watch can unlock the Mac, it’ll be quicker to get started.
I’m pretty excited about my new working environment. I keep the stand in a locker at my coworking space but everything else comes with me, so I can really work wherever. At home, the only thing I miss is a good set of speakers (I always liked the iMac and Cinema Display sound), but honestly the MacBook’s own speakers are pretty impressive, and if I’m doing any audio work, I’m always using headphones.
I love having docking solutions that work out-and-about, and at home. And because I’m only ever working on one machine, the only “syncing” I have to do is plug my notebook in via USB-C, and my hard drive into the front of the dock. And remember to properly eject the drive when I leave.
When I’m cowering, I keep my laptop powered, so I don’t suspect I’ll come afoul of too many battery issues for 90% of what I do. I don’t yet have an option to plug into a projector while I’m on the road, but I gather that stuff’s dongleable, and it’s not soething I do all that regularly.
I also have an iPad Pro, which I lucked into after a tax rebate. If I’m ever at a meeting or occasionally giving a talk, this is likely the machine I’ll use. It’s great for writing, note-taking, reading and should do fine when plugged into a projector. It’s the perfect device for meetings as it’s thin, light and versatile, and I can take it with me everywhere.
I’m not intending to do the same with the MacBook Pro. It’s just that little bit too precious and important, and it needs to last me a long, long time.
I wanted a machine that’ll get me out of the house. One that I can’t use as an excuse for either not being productive, or being too tired at the end of a day (because non-retina, or because small screen, or because low power, or whatever else because).
I think I’ve found it, but it’s come at a price. Then again, if you want stuff that’s powerful and reliable, you can’t skimp. I’ve cut a few corners in this setup, but they’re corners I can live with. At its core I reckon I’ve got a machine that can do what I need it to, with maybe even a little wriggle-room.
Wish me luck.
Let’s see what I say in a year’s time ;)