Blog Post

The Mac Notebook-to-Desktop Conundrum

I’m one of the lucky few who can carry their MacBook Pro to and from work each day, and use the same machine for everything computer-related. Still, I’m not always happy with my current setup. My day job issued me a small Dell (s dell) laptop, which has one major advantage over my MacBook: the docking station.

Apple (s aapl) spends a lot of time on industrial design and usability, so it amazes me that the process to hook up a Mac to an external keyboard, monitor, and mouse consists of five to seven steps, depending on if you’re using a Bluetooth keyboard or not. As I look at the mess of wires coming out of the side of my MacBook, I’ve got to wonder why there isn’t an official Apple-branded docking station.

Docking stations seem like an idea that should have come out of Cupertino, because they reduce clutter and encourage simplicity. All the cables that would normally plug into the side or back of the computer go into the docking station instead, and there’s a single slot that the computer plugs into. Plug it in, and the notebook is now a desktop.

Apple has a patent for an interesting iMac-like dock for a MacBook, which would be amazing if the price was right. However, actually producing docks has been left to third-party manufacturers. Some have avoided the docking station idea by designing holders for the MacBook, and some have designed docking stations that look absolutely ridiculous.

The best bet for a real docking station so far seems to be Henge Docks, which mount the MacBook vertically.  They look gorgeous, but are only available in a 13-inch size as of this writing, with 15- and 17-inch versions in the pipeline. I’ve signed up to pre-order the 15-inch.

I’ve tried just about every combination of desk layout I can think of. I’ve tried MacBook in front, monitor on the side, no keyboard; MacBook on the left, monitor on the right, keyboard and mouse in front (and vice-versa); MacBook in clamshell mode on the side of my desk where the Dell’s docking station used to be, monitor, keyboard, and mouse in front (what I presently use), and a few other setups that just didn’t seem right.

From Apple’s point of view, the solution is to drop a grand on one of their gorgeous LED Cinema Displays. The display doubles as a docking station, providing power, monitor, and USB ports for the MacBook. It’s beautiful, and certainly reduces the cable clutter, but at a cost that’s hard to justify for consumer-grade use.

Browsing through Shawn Blanc’s “Sweet Mac Setups” I find that most of the setups featured go for the “MacBook on one side, monitor on the other, keyboard and mouse in front” rig. For some, this seems to work, for many others the cabling and accessories start to clutter the desktop. This is the point where I become distracted and want to start moving things around.

One of my favorite “setups” remains none at all. I simply open my MacBook wherever I want to work and start doing what needs to be done. But I’m still left wanting a more complete solution. How do you use your MacBook? If you’ve got a setup that works for you, I’d love to hear about it in the comments!

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28 Responses to “The Mac Notebook-to-Desktop Conundrum”

  1. Gadgetman

    I know for a fact thata there are a couple of options out there now for docking station but the one I am most interested is the one coming later this year (according to reports). That is an on end docking solution for the MBP. It is called a byte-dock and will give you everything from a docking persepctive. All the ports in the right way for modern computing etc. Keep and eye out for this one.

  2. I have the Macbook Pro 15″ early 2008 closed on the left, 24″ Dell monitor in front with usb keyboard and mouse. Sometimes I open the Mac to use it as second monitor but I have to move it nearer to me and so there are problems with cables and all the mess I have on my desk.
    I have to connect/disconnect 2 usb ports, power, DVI and audio jack every day so a Macbook dock would be welcome.

  3. I have 3 wires out of the side of my desk top set up; power, monitor, and USB hub. The hub has an iPhone sync wire, wired keyboard and mouse, and two open spots for drives. I suggested you use a powered USB hub. Use a little innovation and your desk top will work better then a docking port. I hated my work Dell docking port.

  4. Monitor’s are for whimps. Mice are for cats.

    I use my MacBook Pro 15″ for 75 minutes on the train on the way to the city, then run 2 miles from the station to the office with it in my back-pack. I work for 9 hours (lunch???) and then sprint 2 miles to the station (always late, so only have 11.5 minutes) before another 68 minutes work home.

    Not a monitor in site. Naked MBP.

  5. I’m a two screen junkie and loathe the fact there are no decent dock + two screen solutions for my mbp. My fav setup so far is an aluminum monitor stand for my mbp so the bottom of mbp screen is in alignment with the bottom of my 23″ display. wireless keyboard and mouse in front. Email and misc apps on mbp, main workscreen on monitor.

  6. I still think working on a desktop is the best user experience possible. As I work from one office all the time, this works for me. Plus, the top of the range iMac is cheaper than a MacBook Pro, Display, Keyboard and Mouse set-up.

  7. I carry my laptop to over half a dozen internal meetings a day so that I can take notes and have ready access to all of my information. In between meetings I work in my office and like to be fully hooked up (2nd monitor, wired-printer, wired-Ethernet, power, external speakers, plus other USB devices or hub). Connecting and disconnecting cables over a dozen times a day just isn’t acceptable to me, and one reason my work laptop will not be an Apple for the foreseeable future.

    Apple wouldn’t even have to produce a full docking station. I would settle for a simple port/power replicator that connects with a single cable to the MacBook. That would actually allow me to hide the replicator and all other cables off my desktop. Now, how elegant would that be?

    While at the subject of ports … Why, oh why are the ports on the side of the Macbooks, with cables visibly protruding from the side rather than out of the way connected to the back of the laptop? Other manufacturers have designed robust display hinges that still allow access to the back of the laptop even with the display open.

    • Hi Oliver,

      I believe you might be interested in the DeskBook Pro from Zemno. It was built to address the needs of the “power” laptop user such as yourself. I work for Zemno and I’d like to hear your thoughts on the DBP if you’d like to offer them.


  8. I’d love to get a Cinema Display, but the price tag, as you say, prevents me from doing so. Has anyone used one of the CinemaView monitors? It’s much cheaper, but looks like it’s pretty well designed. Don’t want to buy before hearing some testimonials, though.

  9. I’ve got the 13″ MacBook Pro and also use the Apple 24″ LED. I find it pretty easy to hook up when I get home. I take my laptop with me to work (where I live on a PC) to use as a secondary computer and when I get home, I just plug in 4 cables – power, usb and display from the monitor and then a cable for my speakers. The only change I would make to the LED display would be to allow it to have a stereo-out port and led the audio go out over USB to the monitor.

    FWIW, I keep my laptop on the left, closed with keyboard and mouse in front of my monitor. Peripherals (iPhone dock, usb external drive, card reader) all go to the right of the monitor. And I don’t print.

  10. Chris K

    I’m sure Jobs doesn’t like docks. Probably does find them bulky and ugly.

    It would be nice if Apple made some lesser versions of their 27″ monitor or let 3rd parties make them.

    Maybe Jobs just figures wireless takes care of everything. Wireless networks. Bluetooth. Wireless printers. Time Capsule for wireless storage. Maybe the new ATV streams wirelessly from your MBP to monitor in the future.

    Or maybe Jobs figures what you really need is 2 computers instead.

    I also wonder if docks are that great. Haven’t used one in a long while myself, but back when I did there was often issues.

    Docks also force you to build your laptop a certain way. Wouldn’t ports have to be on back then? IF not you’re still plugging in cords. How would a dock for today’s MBP work? The ports are the side.

    Then how many different versions of docks would Apple have to make? They’d have at least 4 different docks for their 4 models of laptops.

    Also Apple probably figures they can’t build a dock without pricing it at $400-$500 for the Apple name and Apple profit margins. And by then you might as well by their 27″ monitor.

    Laptops may be outdated anyway. Get an IMac and an IPad for same price as 15″ MBP.

  11. Yep, my MPB is my main workstation. But it’s not the cables that bother me – it’s that I can only have one external monitor.

    There are some third-party solutions out there that sort of work. But it’s screen real-estate this programmer really needs, for his IDE, IM, mail, browser, various other tools, etc.

  12. I’m another MBP to work every day man, and oddly I was thinking about this very thing this morning. It irks me that I have to plug in 6 cables every time I put my laptop on my desk (power, ethernet, FW, 2x USB and mini display port), and why on earth did Apple design their monitors (I have the old 20″ one) so that the PSU has to be within a foot or so of the computer it’s plugged into – it means the PSU has to sit on the desk instead of being out of the way.
    Amolpatil2k put it best, I think – now that Apple’s pushing more into the enterprise market, I think they’ll start paying attention to efficient physical desk space management. But don’t expect it to come in a big box that sucks the laptop in – it’ll be minimalistic and svelte. It better be, lol, or I’m not bothering with it. Convenience and clutter-removal are no use if it takes up twice the space on the desk.

  13. Hi, I’m another lucky “who can carry their MacBook Pro to and from work each day”.

    When I moved from my Dell Latitude with docking station to my MBP I suffered, every day I must plug DVI, ethernet cable (here the wifi is very slow).
    keyboard and mouse are plugged on external Dell monitor USB hub so I must plug on MBP also this USB!

    The clamshell is a pain at least for me, it works only if power charger is plugged otherwise the MBP turns off

    Well, a good docking station for MBP sounds very necessary for me, too

  14. Cold Water

    I’m a MacBook-up-front guy, when I have it on a desk. Most of my work goes on the external monitor, while IMs, etc. go to the laptop display.

    But it’s just not as nice as connecting all the cables to my ThinkPad dock at work and having everything connected at once when I latch in. The best part is that I get TWO monitor outputs.

  15. Perhaps I’m just older than all of you but Apple made docks more than a decade ago with their Powerbook Duos. (Jerry Seinfeld had one on his desk, just before he got the 20th Anniversary Mac.) I still have mine (can’t bear to give it up) and it looks like a regular computer housing and sucks in the closed Powerbook Duo in like a VCR tape. Very cool.

    As for me, I use my Macbook Pro as the second monitor to the 24″ Apple Display with power and usb connection. Printing is wireless so no cables there. With my iPad, my MBP now says hooked up to the monitor at home and the iPad is what goes to the office (no monitor my own business email).

  16. more: The printers are hooked up by ethernet to my time machine internet setup, so I don’t have to connect any printing cables.

    By the way, I don’t accept your complaint about Apple’s monitor with all they cables connected. They have done their best to solve exactly the problem you are complaining about. The cost is what you pay for the Apple brand and the quality of the monitor. If you want convenience and perfection of function, then you have to pay the price. If you don’t have the money, fine, but don’t think you have the right to complain about plugging in a few cables…

  17. Steven Fierberg

    I have the oldest intel macbook pro. I have the power adapter, a speaker miniplug, and the plug to my 23 cinema display waiting on my desk. I have separate power adapter that is in my notebook bag. When I pull the thing out of my bag, I plug in the display, the power, the miniplug. It takes less than 10 seconds. I have a bluetooth keyboard (was the apple, now the microsoft ergonomic) and the bluetooth trackpad. I don’t have to do anything with them. If I want external hard drives, the firewire 800 to them (daisychained) is right there. It is no big deal. I don’t really understand why you say there are 7 steps, or that it is an issue at all. It is not for me.

  18. Totally understand! I also travel back and forth to work with a MacBook Pro. My solution, is MacBook closed and to the right of the monitor. I use the bluetooth keyboard and mouse.

    BUT, I find myself sometimes wanting or needing two screens. So when that happens I open up the MacBook and use it as a second display, or is the monitor the second display?

    For example, If I am attending a webinar or WebEx meeting..etc. On the monitor I have the browser open to the meeting page. On my the MacBook I will have Evernote open and take notes while watching. While doing this I do find myself using both keyboards, don’t know why though just happens!

  19. amolpatil2k

    For nearly 20 years 1990-2010 Apple wanted a non-business rep. For the next 20 years, Apple would want only a business rep – the last piece of the convergence juggernaut. So expect 3rd parties to start thinking about Apple in the Office. Then after every significant one has given the docking station a shot, Apple would come up with its definitive rendition costing twice as much. Then it would’ve truly arrived at the OFFICE.