Just a few days ago I wrote, not for the first time, about having mostly quit the Mac. I t was a response to a forum post over at Mac Power Users though it was also a post that had already been brewing in my head as a general frustration that I’ve had with managing my Mac. I’ve been a Mac user since around 1993 when I purchased my first, a Mac Color Classic. Still have it. Since then many Macs and I’ve loved using them. It’s only been the past couple of years that I started finding macOS frustrating largely because the simplicity of the iPad has sort of spoiled me, especially in terms of background maintenance type tasks. Also, window management. Bit’s of friction that just kind of crept in with the Mac. But really that might move me from the real topic of this post so I’ll save that bit for another day.
But more relevant to this post is that over time the iPad, as the simplest possible computer grew to feel like a comfortable extension of me. First and foremost a slab of glass. I’ve never gotten over that simple fact that this simple tablet was the computer. It not only set a new standard of simplicity but also of personal, direct interaction. And also the beginning (for me at least) of a new way of thinking about modular and portable computing.
Of course the laptop is that to a degree. Certainly portable and a complete package. I sold my last laptop in 2016 because I’d mostly stopped using it. I was either using my Mac Mini or my iPad. I no longer wanted a mobile device that was permanently attached to a keyboard. At that point the iPad OS was more limited so I often still used my Mac Mini at a desk for many computing tasks.
The past few weeks I’ve been getting closer to purchasing a replacement for the 10 year old Mac Mini. It’s still working pretty well but with inflation, supply chain disruption etc, I thought I’d go ahead and get the replacement, a 2021 M1 Mac Mini. I’ll keep the current Intel as a backup, maybe a server (which is already it’s primary function) or gift it to a family member. In any case, before purchasing I carefully considered a MacBook Air.
Why I skipped the laptop and went with the Mini is the subject of this post as it speaks to the modular, portable Mac I really want but which does not exist. I’ll say first that I went with the Mini because I have a 27" 4K display which is what I’ll be using anytime I use the Mac. Why pay extra for the 13" screen, keyboard and trackpad I don’t want or need? The reason I almost spent the extra was that the laptop also comes with it’s own battery, essentially, a back-up power supply and can be charged via USB C from AC or DC power supplies. If I’ve got a power outage my iPads, mobile hotspot, iPhone, etc can all be charged via a solar powered battery indefinitely. As would a MacBook Air. Sure, I can use the standard AC wall plug such as the one that the Mac Mini comes with and run it for many hours from that back-up. But not indefinitely. That’s okay and not a problem because when it comes down to it I’ll be using the iPad for most tasks anyway. But thinking about it did send me down a rabbit hole.
The modular Mac I want most would be a Mac Mini with a battery and the option to charge/power via USB C. But why? Why not just a laptop? Because as I get older I want a bigger screen for larger text. And because I want to be able to have that screen at various heights as needed. And because I’m happy to use an external keyboard and mouse or external trackpad. So, in part, it’s very much a hardware positioning issue. Again, the iPad has spoiled me. I’m used to being able to arrange work spaces in all sorts of ways between the iPad, keyboard and trackpad.
But it’s also an expression of the Apple hardware and software ecosystem. Between my iPhone, 2 iPads and Mac, everything is connected. While not perfect it mostly works most of the time - generally speaking, it feels like like being in a very functional, useful and often magical modular computing ecosystem. I expect I’ll notice and enjoy this even more with an M1 Mac running the latest OS and features like Universal Control.
But about this Mac Mini with a battery, well, I suspect that the current Mac Mini could be much smaller with the lower energy Apple Silicon. I’m imagining a device about half the size and weight. Unlike a laptop, the dimensions of this device would not be constrained by the dimensions of the built in screen, keyboard and trackpad. Maybe a fan, maybe not. But with a built in battery it could be an always on device, easy to transport from home to office or even to different locations within a home. With one of the new portable screens, a keyboard and trackpad, the overall package wouldn’t have to be much more than a laptop. But has the option of a larger screen set at an optimally ergonomic height with different arrangements between the keyboard, mouse and screen rather than for optimal ergonomics.
I can imagine a scenario where I’m at the home office working at the 27" display attached to this portable Mac Mini and/or iPad and the usual peripherals. But a quick unplug of the display and I’m off to the library or a coffee shop or office. Maybe I’m headed to an office where I’ve already got another display, keyboard, etc waiting so I just take this tiny Mac Mini and my iPad. Or maybe I’m going to another space and I can take a portable 15" display, keyboard and mouse. Certainly that’s more heft and bulk than a laptop but it’s still very portable and, the key point, at the home office it has advantages over the laptop.
One last thing I’d want in this kind of set-up would be a new macOS and iPadOS feature, an extension of Hand-off, Continuity, Sidecar and Universal Control that would allow me to initiate control of the Mac from the iPad without a third party app and without the Mac or iPad initially being on the same network. In this setting the iPad would see the nearby Mac, recognize it as mine and that it was running without a display, and prompt a connection, turning the iPad into a wireless display for the Mac, no dongles or third party software needed. Currently I can control the Mac via an app like Screens but that requires that both be on the same wireless network. Or I could use a third party wireless dongle or a wired connection via an app like Duet (see below story).
I can imagine that carrying a portable, battery powered Mac Mini and an iPad that could seamlessly initiate screen sharing/control would be a very cool feature in certain circumstances.
I’ll end with this story that popped up in my RSS feed as I neared the end of this post: Dave Mark at the Loop posts about this project to DIY a portable Mac Mini! Similar to what I’ve been thinking here though I would stress the value of a screen that is NOT attached.