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« Replacing My Mac Pro with a MacBook Air - Part 3 | Main | Replacing My Mac Pro with a MacBook Air - Part 1 »

Replacing My Mac Pro with a MacBook Air - Part 2

Following on from my post yesterday, here is part 2 of my experiment in using a 11" MacBook Air as my primary work machine, in place of a 2008 Mac Pro. In this section, I take a look at some of the extra kit I felt was required to fully replicate the current level of capability provided by the Mac Pro.


The Mac Pro has a 256GB SSD boot drive plus three additional internal drives, two of which are configured as a RAID 0 drive for working files.

The MacBook Air only has 256GB of on board storage.

I could really do with a big, fast drive for project based storage. Only for current projects, as I back off all my data to other storage devices.

The 27" Thunderbolt display includes Thunderbolt, FireWire 800, USB 2.0 and Gigabit Ethernet connectivity. I felt that using FireWire or USB for external storage would compromise the overall solution, so I opted for a relatively expensive Thunderbolt solution.

I decided to purchase a Thunderbolt LaCie 1TB Little Big Drive.

This is a small compact unit containing 2x500GB drives that can be striped for even faster performance. With Thunderbolt connectivity, the external drive performs close to the speed of the internal SSD drive. The drive is small and portable, although does use an external power supply and is relatively expensive. In my Studio environment, with the drive positioned a few feet away, it is possible to notice a small amount of fan noise, but the sounds of the other equipment does seem to mask it. When used in isolation, for instance in a hotel room with just the MacBook Air, the sound is much more pronounced.

The LaCie has dual Thunderbolt ports allowing me to daisy chain Thunderbolt devices. This is useful as the 27" Thunderbolt display only has a single Thunderbolt port.

One of the techniques I use on the MacBook Air, is to have a separate partition with a "clean" build on which to record my screencasts. At recording time, I reboot and boot off the "clean" build. With the LaCie, I could move the "clean" build off the internal SSD drive to the external Thunderbolt drive and boot from that. Performance is virtually indistinguishable from the internal drive. And of course, I have 1TB of disk space to play with, so I can create multiple partitions for various builds and backups, as well as making a big RAID 0 partition for working files.

Video capture

The only specialised device I have with my Mac Pro is a Matrox MX02 mini which I use occasionally for video capture. It uses a proprietary card installed in the Mac Pro. I needed to find a way to replicate this functionality on the MacBook Air.

Two options, both Thunderbolt based:

Option 1 - Matrox have released a Thunderbolt adapter for the Matrox MX02 mini so it's simple to interface with the MacBook Air.

Option 2 - Black Magic have released the Intensity Extreme. A dedicated HDMI video capture box with Thunderbolt.

I opted for the Black Magic Intensity Extreme, although there are a couple of software solutions now for iOS capture namely AirServer and Reflections. This allows me to do full HDMI video and audio capture to the MacBook Air. It also includes a breakout cable for component or other audio sources. The Intensity Extreme only has a single Thunderbolt port, so it needs to go at the end of the Thunderbolt chain. Usefully, it's powered by the Thunderbolt cable so no external power brick is required. The unit is very small, and very portable.


Within the studio, I can continue using my existing audio setup with the MacBook Air as it uses an Edirol USB interface. For portability, I might look at replacing this with an integrated Thunderbolt solution when a prosumer level device becomes available.

In part 3, I'll cover my findings of using the MacBook Air as my main production machine.

Reader Comments (9)

Don, as I see you talking about storage, even though it is not portable to tote with the MBA, I want to mention I upgraded from a Drobo S to a Synology 1511+. It is the bomb...

March 21, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterRandy Dunn

Very interesting series Don. I think thunderbird is a serious game changing technology.

March 21, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterBrian Parker

Thanks for the post Don. It looks like you are well on your way to eliminating the Mac Pro. You hinted in your last post that rendering might be an issue. Do you really think that you could do all of your rendering on your air? Won't you miss all those cores?

Keep up the good work.

March 21, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterDan

Hi Dan, I don't need to worry about rendering. I now use Screenflow to capture and edit my screencast clips. They are in native Screenflow format through the entire workflow pipeline and don't require rendering. They will play in real time and all effects and transitions do not require rendering, they just play. However, the final export and encoding to multiple resolutions do benefit from the multiple cores of the Mac Pro.

March 21, 2012 | Registered CommenterDon McAllister

Interesting! So then you are now creating all of the intro and title information in screenflow also? No more Motion?

March 21, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterDan

Thanks Don, this has been a very interesting series of posts and I'm looking forward to the rest. This would be a great topic for one of your screencasts as well. It's really encouraging to see just how powerful a solution the MacBook Air can be. Thanks again for all you do to keep use informed about "All Things Apple".

March 21, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterBruce Guthrie

I exported just the opening and closing graphic from Motion as a movie file and overlay these with text. I could probably recreate the Motion movies with ScreenFlow transitions if I wanted.

March 21, 2012 | Registered CommenterDon McAllister

Hello Don,

I called Black Magic and it seems their Intensity Extreme is only capable of capturing 720p (although according to Black Magic its capable of capturing 1080p) from the iPad 2 and apparently the new iPad as well. I've searched all around and no one seems to know why they can't capture 1080p. Its clear from Apple's specs that 1080p should work. Any ideas?


March 22, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterSam

Re intensity extreme. Nope, no idea why it can't be used for 1080p. Looks like the iPad will only output it's screen at the lower resolution, reserving 1080p for video out.

March 22, 2012 | Registered CommenterDon McAllister

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