My Mac Setup


Already on the web are many inspiring descriptions of Mac setups.  Right now, my favorite is from Patrick Rhone at Minimal Mac. If you love to drool over setups, check out Shawn Blanc's Sweet Setups or the Simple Desks Blog.  So why would I post my own if there are already such great examples out there?  Part of my work involves helping common users imagine how they can streamline their daily lives through tech.  My setup certainly doesn't fit everyone, and quite honestly I know most of my clients would find it incredibly excessive!  My hope is that from this post, you might grab one or two puzzle pieces and plug them into your own setup.

The Macs
My central Mac is a 15" MacBook Pro i7 which I got for free thanks to Mr. Butterfingers at the Apple Repair Depot (prior to the i7, I had a 2008 Pro.)  Within a couple weeks of having the i7, I removed the SuperDrive and installed an SSD through the might and magic of Optibay.  The SSD is my startup disk, while the hard drive (HDD) holds my iTunes (sans movies), iPhoto, and Aperture libraries.  This machine is beastly fast, and I can't imagine it losing pace for quite a few more years.  It is my workhorse.

Plugged into our TV is a Mac mini.  We had an AppleTV for several years, but the lack of features and general lagging caused me to upgrade to a mini.  In my opinion, any Mac addict can use a mini in the home.  Its iTunes library contains all our digital movies and a small collection of music.  When the mini is on, it's usually running Hulu, Netflix, Pandora, or iTunes and controlled by the Hippo Remote iPhone app.  There's really not much else to say about the mini.  I'm currently toying around with Plex, but I find its interface awkward and the plug-in's don't cooperate well.  FrontRow does just fine for me.

The latest addition to my Mac family is an 11" MacBook Air.  Now, I'll be the first to say it wasn't something our household was screaming for.  Disappointment in the iPad's usefulness combined with Molly and I fussing over who gets the laptop eventually led to the purchase of the Air.  Its current purpose is mainly as a writing and browsing machine, and I honestly think it is my most favorite Mac I've ever owned.  (I was a proud 12" PowerBook user as well!)  A chunky magazine is larger than the Air and anyone who has one will testify to its surprising speed.

The iDevices
Molly and I each have an iPhone 4.  Prior to this, I was on the iPhone 3G, so my appreciations of the 4 lies with its zippiness, Retina Display, and stellar camera.  [Recommended iPhone apps.]

We also have an iPad, and to be perfectly honest, I hardly use it.  I purchased it thinking it would be the perfect tool for a student.  This expectation faded when I took it to class for a couple weeks.  I felt like a dweeb setting up my iPad, stand, and keyboard each class period.  Tapping the screen just to move the cursor got real old, too.  Not being able to view more than one window at a time also reduces any serious productivity.  But, what I consider setbacks, some people love.  Perhaps my expectations were too high, but I seriously thought I wouldn't need to cart around a Mac.

Now, my advice to others is try not to make the iPad a laptop replacement.  It is predominantly an entertainment device.  I used to be irked when people referred to it as "just a big iPod Touch," but after having one for awhile, that is a pretty fair assessment.  If I didn't use it for demoing apps and giving workshops for clients, I would sell it.  As of now, it usually sits as a second monitor for my MacBook Pro.

The iPhones and iPad get synced to the MacBook Pro, which like I said, houses the massive iTunes music library.  We also have a couple pre-iPhone iPods around the house that occasionally get turned on.

The Gear
My backup strategy is two-pronged.  Each Mac backs up to a Time Capsule (Mac mini) + External HDD (MacBooks) as well as gets cloned on a weekly basis via SuperDuper to another External HDD plugged into my MacBook Pro.  Eventually, I'd like to have an off-site backup for the "end of the world" scenario (which I hear is just around the corner.)

The MacBook Pro is elevated with an mStand.  A USB keyboard (now discontinued) and magic mouse sit in my desk's tray.  Oh, and there's a beloved BassJump plugged into the Pro.  The MacBook Pro is close enough to my TimeCapsule that I ran a long ethernet cable to it.  This drastically frees up network bandwidth, as the Pro is constantly chatting with other gizmos.

We have two rather old AirPort Expresses (G) catching AirPlay in the kitchen and living room.

Software: the Heavies
The most important software for Mac users is iTunes, and its most underrated feature is Home Sharing.  This is the highway that moves music and movies from Mac to Mac. The coup de grâce is its ability to automatically import newly purchased content.  My Pro is instructed to do this for all music.  If I buy an album while on the MacBook Air or Mac mini, it will eventually migrate over to the Pro.  The Mac mini does this with all movies and TV shows.  Home Share.  Believe it.

As I said earlier, iPhoto and Aperture reside on the MacBook Pro.  If we are on vacation with the Air, I simply create a new Aperture library for importing and minor editing.  Then, import that library into the main one on the Pro when I get home.  There is an excellent post on using a satellite MacBook Air for Aperture at Aperture Expert.  Oh, I use Aperture for my own photography; iPhoto for storing pictures I get from friends' cameras.

Dropbox is where I store all my documents and current projects.  Its LAN syncing is a huge benefit over the MobileMe iDisk as well as its speed and conflict resolver.  Has anyone not heard of Dropbox?

MobileMe handles my contact, calendar, and bookmark syncing.  iDisk is used for archiving various digital keepsakes and I hardly use it anymore since diving into Dropbox.

Hazel + CleanMyMac make sure I don't have messy folders and old files.  I also have a Dropbox + Hazel + Automator concoction I use for moving small files back and forth from Mac to Mac.  Dropbox's LAN syncing makes this incredibly fast.  I'll have to do another writeup on the details of this.

The Mac Instructor
Seven months ago, I left Apple Retail (I'm the guy in the yellow shirt) and started my own business.  I go to people's homes and teach them how to use their Apple gear.  Now that I have the MacBook Air, it will usually come with me in case I need to look up a file or demo software.  If I'm doing a presentation, teaching iMovie, or simply in need of FireWire, I'll bring the MacBook Pro.  Regardless of the trip, I'll bring my Triage Portable Hard Drive.  If you've ever been to the Genius Bar for a Mac appointment, you've probably seen the guys pull out one of these.  It is a drive partitioned into every install disk since Tiger.  It also has a bootable "Triage" partition with various utilities and installers.  It accompanies me to every appointment and comes in handy quite a bit.  Daylite is my CRM software, iWeb is how I build my website (embarassing, I know!), DrawIt is my attempt to do drawerings, and Square is how I take payments.

The Student
When in student mode, I use my Macs for writing, studying, and research.  Accordance is my Bible software, Evernote is my file cabinet for handouts & scans, Pages is my word processor, Bean is my notepad, and Mental Case is my flashcard app.  All files are synced (and therefore backed up) via Dropbox, which should be installed on every student's Mac.  You've probably assumed that it's the MacBook Air that comes to class.  That's a good assumption.  ;-)

Scaling down
I could easily see myself selling the MacBook Pro, moving its iTunes library to the Mac mini, and using the Air as my primary computer.  As I mentioned before, the iPad can also be ditched, leaving me with Air, iPhone, and mini.  But alas, Molly needs a laptop for writing and research.  I'm not one to intentionally create marital strife, so I won't be selling a MacBook anytime soon.

Want more?
To quote Frank Chimero, "You should either be bored or dead by now."  Seriously, thank you for reading this far.  If you're still hungry, head over here:


Rick Stawarz

Minneapolis, MN

I am an Apple Certified Support Professional with over a decade of experience supporting families, schools, and businesses. Tech has always captured my imagination, but it's not my only passion. I'm an ordained Anglican minister;  Aeropress is a daily ritual of mine; I've driven across Mongolia; and I'm the father of three girls. I hope to provide for you a balanced and realistic perspective into the practicality of technology.