Michael Olivero
The official blog of Michael Olivero, Software Architect & Humble Entrepreneur

Thunderbolt MacBook Ultimate Docking Station Configuration

Friday, 23 September 2011 17:57 by Michael Olivero

If you are a Mobile user, particularly one with the new thunderbolt or display port connections, you may be considering the Apple Thunderbolt Display or former Apple Cinema Display.  Since the iMac 27" are also usable as display via the nifty target display mode feature, this is an alternative I wanted to additionally consider.  After various forums and research I came to the following observations which I'm currently experimenting with to configure the my ultimate docking station for my MacBook Air 11".

First, lets start by laying down some facts as ultimate the facts which are more pertinent to your situation will have higher weight in deciding which direction to choose for your display needs.  Below are some pros / cons when considering the use of each: 27" cinema display, 27" thunderbolt display, iMac 27" 2010 display port model, iMac 27" 2011 thunderbolt model.

  • DisplayPort has wider compatibility with a somewhat simplified spec when compared to thunderbolt
  • The Cinema Display & iMac 27" (2010 model w/ displayport), can be connected to any display port compatible device or digital display capable of adapting to displayport
  • The thunderbolt display would provide expandability with the ethernet, firewire, & additional USB ports (USB 2.0 though)
  • Running Windows in Bootcamp currently will not work in target display mode iMacs using thunderbolt, does however in cinema and thunderbolt displays
  • When using target display mode, the ports on the back of the targeted iMac are not transferred to the connecting MacBook like they are in the dedicated displays
  • an iMac serving primarily as a display for a MacBook would have a double duty of being a workstation for whomever needs it while the MacBook is not docked
  • the typically more powerful iMac is available to be used for high end duties such as video editing or gaming
So having a brand new MacBook Air 2011, which one do I choose?  Since the MacBook Air is very powerful, leveraging to the fullest the latest Inktel Core i5 processors, it can serve as my primary computer for most needs with the new thunderbolt display or former Cinema Display.  However, these displays cost $1000 and for a few hundred more one can get an iMac 27" or even a cheaper refurbished iMac 27".  With this dilemma lingering over my head while awaiting the arrival of the Thunderbolt display, also a candidate, I decided to explore possibilities.  One such possibility was conceived as having very similar results to the Thunderbolt display was to utilize a thunderbolt hub as the intermediary between a display and the MacBook.  I recorded a video blog on the various possible connections here.  In summary, with such a thunderbolt hub, one can plug a single thunderbolt cable into the MacBook as well as the power cord ultimately achieving the same functionality as the Thunderbolt display.
 
 

 

So, interestingly enough though, no such hub existed at the time, however Belkin recently showcased their upcoming Thunderbolt Dock, with the same ports as the Thunderbolt display, making such a configuration a possibility.  Since thunderbolts can drive display port monitors, using such a hub/dock with a mini displayport display should have straight forward compatibility.

The next hurdle would be the accessibility of connected devices.  No one wants to disconnect a device from one computer to then reconnect it to another -- let alone multiple devices.  The Cinema Display and Thunderbolt display both redirect the devices to the connecting MacBook via their USB & thunderbolt connections respective, however a connected iMac in target display mode doesn't.  

So far I was leaning towards the one of the stand alone displays, however if a USB hub switcher existed where I can switch a device from one computer to another at a push of a button, this would allow for what I would call the ultimate docking station for a Macbook.  So with this new device, in theory, I can leave my iMac 27", say, rendering a video off an external USB data drive while I can be working on the MacBook using another USB drive.  Or a more typical scenario, I can temporarily redirect the time machine drive to the MacBook, let it do is incremental back, and then redirect it back to the iMac -- all with a single push of a button and without interrupting other USB devices who can be connected to either computer - WOW!.  After searching forums after forum, I found one small niche company who makes such an adaptor.  The device allows for 4 USB devices to be connected to 2 computers, mutually exclusive to each other and one computer at a time.

 

I bought this USB device for a little less than $50 and was off to try this new setup.  Although the configuration is not complex, I decided to diagram a possible configuration.  It's not too clear, but in essence:

  • The iMac & Air are connected via displayport cable.
  • Both computers are connected to hub
  • Port A of hub has time machine drive
  • Port B of hub has my main data drive for video, etc.
  • Port C has a simple USB hub where I attached my keyboard, mouse, has an extra vertical port for plugging in a flash drive from time to time.

 

With this configuration, I can easily move time machine from one machine to the other with a push of a button.  Or similarly, my main data drive can switch from one to the other.

One benefit over the external displays is the ability to plug in external speakers to the iMac 27.  These speakers are permanently connected to the iMac and work as any normal set of speakers with the addition of working with the MacbookAir when in target display mode.  The current cinema & thunderbolt displays do not have this plug and as a result you need to plug in the speakers to the MacBook every time you dock if you want to use them.

In summary, I have what I consider the ultimate MacBook docking station.  As soon as the Belkin thunderbolt hub/dock arrives, this will change a bit, however it will be just as good or better than the thunderbolt display.