MacBooks excel as lightweight, portable workstations and have some of the best battery life in the game. With the right peripherals, they also make capable desktop machines. Here̵
Using external monitors with your MacBook
Using an external monitor with your MacBook can be transformative. You can use the laptop screen in combination with an external monitor, or connect multiple monitors and put your MacBook out of the way. The macOS remembers things like your preferred resolution and window layout when you connect or disconnect an external monitor.
It is important to understand the limitations of your MacBook. Its age and hardware capabilities dictate what you can and cannot do. The best way to be sure is to search for your model on the Apple Support website.
For example, searching for a “15-inch 2016 MacBook Pro” will return technical specifications for the base 2016 model. The “Video Support” section states that this model supports two external displays with a resolution of 5120 x 2880 at 60 Hz, or four displays with a resolution of 4096 x 2304.
You can use the same method to understand how to connect an external monitor to your MacBook. The 2016 MacBook Pro we searched natively supports DisplayPort over USB-C, which means it has no HDMI output, only USB-C, hence the ‘native’. The spec sheet states that HDMI, VGA and Thunderbolt 2 are also supported, but you’ll need an adapter for it to work.
Note that if you want to use multiple HDMI monitors with a MacBook, you will need an adapter with multiple HDMI outputs, such as the CalDigit Thunderbolt 3 Mini Dock ($ 129).
If you’re using Thunderbolt to connect your monitor, you may be able to daisy-chain displays. In other words, you connect a display to your MacBook and a second to that first display.
Both monitors are then displayed and you can use them independently in macOS. Before buying, make sure your MacBook and monitor support the necessary technology.
RELATED: Using multiple monitors on your Mac
Choosing an external keyboard
If you’re using an external monitor as your primary display and put your MacBook elsewhere, you need a way to type. The obvious choice is Apple’s Wireless Magic Keyboard ($ 99). If you’d rather have a numeric keypad, you can get the Magic Keyboard with Numeric Keypad ($ 129) for an additional $ 30.
Both keyboards connect via Bluetooth, are rechargeable and use Apple’s iPhone and iPad Lightning charging connector. There is a full set of multimedia keys and the usual Mac-specific layout that you are used to on your MacBook keyboard. You can even specify alternate keyboard layouts such as British English or Japanese at checkout if you prefer.
While Apple makes a solid keyboard, there are plenty of other options. Almost any USB or wireless keyboard (RF or Bluetooth) should work with your Mac. You can also use apps like Karabiner-Elements to customize your keyboard layout. This also means that you can remap keys, such as the Windows Alt key, to Command so that you can use them on a Mac.
Mechanical keyboards are also a solid option. Although often marketed to gamers, they are ideal for anyone who spends a lot of the day typing. Do your research to understand how mechanical keyboards differ from the standard membrane design. Each switch design has a different feel and sound, but they can be individually replaced with custom keycaps, if that’s your thing.
If you plan on going further for your desktop setup, you may want to consider an ergonomic keyboard. They come in all shapes and sizes, from the concave curves of the Kinesis Advantage2 ($ 349) to the split design of something like the ErgoDox EZ (starting at $ 270).
Control the mouse pointer
If you’re reading this, you’re already familiar with the MacBook’s oversized multitouch trackpad. If you want to mimic the feel and functionality, look no further than Apple’s Magic Trackpad 2 (starting at $ 129). There is nothing else in the market quite like this so if touch input is important to you then this is what you need.
Not only is the trackpad huge, rechargeable, and wireless, but it also gives you access to the same multi-touch features you’ve come to expect from your MacBook. This includes pinch-to-zoom, two-finger scrolling, and other macOS gestures that will give you a relatively painless experience on your makeshift desktop.
Most regular mice also work with your Mac, whether wired or wireless. Some wireless mice require an RF dongle that you connect via the USB port of your MacBook. Apple’s Magic Mouse 2 (starting at $ 79) will do the job, but so are much cheaper alternatives. While most of these will work with your Mac, make sure it’s explicitly stated for every mouse you buy.
There are also options if you want to avoid wrist problems or carpal tunnel syndrome. Ergonomic mice are designed for people who spend hours each day clicking and dragging at a desk. There are many weird and wonderful designs to choose from, including vertical mice, which are sideways upright, and trackball mice, which allow you to walk your fingers the most.
Don’t forget about storage
One of the biggest limitations of modern laptops is storage capacity. Solid State Drives (SSDs) are fast and durable, but they are still quite expensive compared to mechanical hard drives. If you want your MacBook to do double duty as a desktop, you probably need some sort of external storage.
This can be something as simple as a single USB attached hard drive. The drive can be used to back up your Mac with Time Machine and store personal information. If you have the money, you can opt for an external SSD. It gives you much faster read and write speeds.
For something more robust, consider investing in a good storage solution. Purpose-built RAID enclosures sit on your desk and offer an enormous amount of flexibility. RAID allows you to assign different external hard drives in different ways, including as a single volume or mirrored backup. If you focus on data redundancy, you can easily swap out a drive if it fails with minimal effort.
If you take the RAID route, buy the fastest enclosure you can afford. If your MacBook has Thunderbolt 3, buy an enclosure that supports that standard. Enclosures are available as bare shells, so you can add your own drives or those already populated with hard drives.
Old-fashioned hard drives are great for home use because they are cheap and won’t leave your desk, so they won’t get damaged on your commute.
You can also use NAS (Network Attached Storage) drives. These make your drives available over your local network or even the Internet, if you prefer. However, NAS drives are slower than those directly connected to your MacBook, especially over a wireless network.
Are you struggling with a scant amount of space on your MacBook? There are also options to increase storage!
Docks and hubs simplify the transition
Docks and hubs serve two purposes for MacBook owners: to increase the number of ports and to simplify the use of your MacBook as a desktop.
The first advantage speaks for itself. If you have a recent MacBook, you are lucky to have something other than a USB-C (Thunderbolt 3) port for connecting external devices such as USB sticks. A hub can solve this problem by providing a greater number of ports. Many hubs are designed for portability, while others act more like a docking station on your desk.
Docks really shine when used as a single connection point for all your desk peripherals. If you connect all monitors, storage devices and other peripherals to a dock, you can easily connect your MacBook to a hub or docking station when you get home, and voilà: desktop!
Portable hubs are inexpensive, offer limited expansion options, and take up little space on your desk. Something like the Satechi Multi-Port Adapter ($ 80) or Anker 7-in-1 USB-C Hub ($ 60) offers plenty of expandability in a relatively small package.
If you’d rather place your Thunderbolt 3 MacBook in a simple vertical docking station, consider the Brydge Vertical Dock ($ 169).
If you want to take it a step further, check out the CalDigit TS3 Plus ($ 249). This dock supports two 4K monitors, a card reader, line-in and audio-out, gigabit ethernet and even allows Thunderbolt daisy chaining.
Hubs are available for every budget or requirement, so shop around to find the hub that best suits your home office setup.
One MacBook can do it all
If you’re struggling to justify the purchase of an iMac or a new M1-equipped Mac mini, you might want to spend your money on external monitors and USB-C hubs.
In the future, the gap between Apple silicon processors designed for mobile and desktop use is sure to widen. For now, however, the M1 Mac mini does not separate much from the M1 MacBook Air.
Are you new to working from home? Check out our Mac tips for working remotely to make the transition easy.
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