ScreenCastsOnline Studio Revamp

If you follow my twitter account, you may already know I’ve had a busy weekend.

I’ve been using my 11″ MacBook Air as my main production machine for quite a while now, recently acquiring a 27″ Thunderbolt display to go with it. The 27″ Thunderbolt display was a game changer in conjunction with the 11″ MBA – the responsiveness of the machine, the clarity of the display not to mention the convenience of the ports built into the display – all accessible via a single Thunderbolt connector.

I still used my 2008 Mac Pro for encoding and storage as despite the 11″ MBA being a little powerhouse, the Mac Pro still outperformed it on encoding. I also use a Mac mini as a dedicated development machine for Xcode and publishing the SCOtutor Apps.

Consequently, I had a triple monitor setup – 1 x 15″ for the Mac mini, 1 x 15″ for the Mac Pro and the 27″ for the MacBook Air.

The only thing is, the two 15″ monitors were not used. I’ve started to use Remote Desktop and it works like a dream. I can view the desktops of both machines in high resolution on my 27″ monitor. So both monitors were superfluous.

The only three issues I had with the MacBook Air were:

  • Lack of Memory – the MBA maxed out at 4GB
  • Lack of Screen Real Estate – for video editing on the go, the 11″ screen didn’t really hack it
  • Lack of Grunt – It’s a super responsive machine, but for really processor intensive tasks, it could use a touch more horsepower

The solution to all three issues was the introduction of the new MacBook Pro with Retina Display – ordered! I placed an order for the following configuration – 2.7GHz Quad-core Intel Core i7, 16GB 1600MHz DDR3L SDRAM, 512GB Flash Storage

At the same time, I started to think about a revamp to the studio.

The two 15″ monitors had to go, but I decided to replace them with a second 27″ Thunderbolt display. The new MacBook Pro can drive two monitors at full resolution via Thunderbolt plus a third display via HDMI. I can continue to use Remote Desktop to the other machines with plenty of screen real estate.

Usually with a laptop and 2 x 27″ displays, you’d tend to use the laptop in clamshell mode and just used the external displays. With having the Retina Display, I didn’t want to do this and thought of a way to utilise the 15″ display also (See photo). I’m not sure if this is the way to go but I’ll use it in this configuration for the next week or so.

I also wanted to tidy up and move some of the more noisier components into a rack. This would both give me a quieter environment and give me lots more under desk storage. So a new rack was ordered and duly installed. This now contains:

  • 24 port Gigabit Ethernet Switch (no more daisy chained switches around the office)
  • DBX 226XL Limiter/Compressor
  • 2 x Mac Mini – Xcode machine & Media Server
  • 1 x 4 bay Drobo
  • 1 x 8 bay DroboPro – I didn’t bother with the rack-mount kit – £150!!!

The Drobos are starting to show their age and are the noisiest bits of kit in the room. I think they will be the next things to go when I start looking at Thunderbolt rack mounted storage.

So most of the new equipment is in place and I now need to spend a couple of days tidying up the inevitable boxes of cables and detritus that seem to accumulate when you take on a job like this.

Oh and by the way, the MacBook Pro outperforms my 2008 8 core Xeon Mac Pro in encoding. I’ll do some tests later in the week and post some comparisons.

If you want to see the flurry of activity over the past two days, checkout the embedded YouTube video below (looks like the 1st version won’t work on Mobile devices such as iPad as I’ve included some music YouTube identified as copyright – use the second version for iPad/iPhone)

Desktop Version


iPad/iPhone Version

Replacing My Mac Pro with a MacBook Air – Part 3

This is the third and final (for now!) update on my experiment of using my 11″ MacBook Air as my main production machine, in place of my 2008 Mac Pro.

Since taking delivery of the 27″ Thunderbolt display, the MacBook Air has been performing admirably as my main machine, and the experience has been surprisingly positive!

27″ Thunderbolt Display

The display is a joy to use. Pinsharp with glorious colour.

The ability to connect all my desktop peripherals to my MacBook Air with a single cable is fantastic. I do feel Apple have been a bit stingy with the number of ports. Ideally, I’d have like more than three USB ports and just the single Thunderbolt port seems an oversight, two would be better!

Beware of the glossy screen, it really is very reflective, but I’m used to it now and hardly notice.

Mounting the Display

I have a custom built “Triple Boa” stand made by Monitors in Motion. This allows me to have three monitors, all hanging off an articulated cross member, raised off the desk by a single post. The 19″ screen on the left is connected to a Mac mini running Mountain Lion, the central monitor is the 27″ Thunderbolt display connected to the MacBook Air via the Thunderbolt connection, and the right 19″ monitor is connected to the Mac Pro.

The “Triple Boa” utilises standard VESA mounts, so in order to attach the 27″ Thunderbolt, I had to purchase an optional VESA adapter from Apple. To fit the VESA adapter to the Thunderbolt display, you have to remove the original one piece stand using the kit supplied with the Apple VESA mount. A fairly simple process, once I’d tracked down a YouTube video showing me how to do it. The VESA mount went on just fine, and I had no installation issues.

I decided initially to just temporarily install the cabling so it was all a bit of a mess. Now I’m happy that my experiment will work out, I’ll dismantle all the monitors over the next week or so, and re-cable for neatness plus remove any unnecessary cables. Will post some photos when it’s all nice and tidy.

Screencast Recording & Editing Configuration

With the 27″ Thunderbolt connected to the MacBook Air, I have the perfect screencast recording configuration – recording the screen capture off the MacBook Air display, and having ScreenFlow running full screen on the main display. This way, I can record a segment, then immediately edit in ScreenFlow. The video capture files get saved straight to the LaCie so I’ve no worries about running out of disk space, or filling up my SSD.

I use a couple of peripherals when editing, namely a Contour Shuttle Pro and Wacom Intuos 5. The Contour Shuttle Pro is an editing jog wheel with programmable buttons, and the Wacom is a pen tablet, useful for precision editing. Both are USB, so can connect to the Thunderbolt display, or to the USB ports on the MacBook Air.

Interestingly, when I used a standalone keyboard previously for the Mac Pro, I used the Wacom as my mouse replacement. Now with the MacBook Air, I find I’m hardly using it, and relying on my MacBook Air trackpad more.

Storage and File Transfers

The performance of the LaCie is great, allowing me to boot easily from multiple builds, use as a separate RAID 0 partition for saving my project video capture files, and acting as a file store for encoding jobs when encoding on the MacBook Air. With the Gigabit ethernet permanently connected, if I need to transfer the large video files or Screenflow project files to the Mac Pro, file transfers are very speedy.

The only extra step I need to do when disconnecting the MacBook Air is to make sure I eject all the partitions on the LaCie first. I found a neat little script/application called “Undock” that allows me to do that with just a couple of keystrokes in “Alfred”.


As an added benefit, with the MacBook Air, the LaCie and the Intensity Extreme, I very nearly have the ideal portable screencasting studio (once I get a solution for high quality audio recording on the go). The only downside is the size of the 11″ screen. It’s extremely portable, but perhaps a little on the small size for video editing, especially in vertical height. Perhaps an excuse to buy a new 13″ or 15″ new generation MacBook Pro if they follow the styling of the MacBook Air when released.

It’s certainly a workable desktop solution in conjunction with the 27″ Thunderbolt display, and one I’ll continue to use instead of my existing Mac Pro.

New Mac Pro?

It’s pretty much a given that Apple will release revised laptops soon, most likely restyled to match the MacBook Air. But what about the new Mac Pro?

The jury is out on whether Apple will produce a new Mac Pro at all.

The previous reasons for the existence of the Mac Pro included performance and expandability. The advent of Thunderbolt and the eventual release of more and more affordable Thunderbolt enabled peripherals may well remove the “expandability” justification.

Leaving performance as a justification for the new Mac Pro.

For pro video and graphics users, there will still be the requirement for a high power machine with lots of memory and many processors. The issue is, with the power and potential expandability of the latest consumer machines, the target audience for these monster machines must surely be shrinking.

Whether it’s feasible for Apple to create a new Mac Pro to service this possibly shrinking market, it’s difficult to say. If they do, it’s most likely going to be hugely expensive and very much a niche product. My gut feeling is that we probably will see a new Mac Pro this year, probably in early summer.

Will I get one?

Probably not, but never say never!

For my purposes, I feel it would be more cost effective for me to stick with a high performance, Thunderbolt enabled laptop moving forward. The experience of moving to just one primary machine has been very refreshing. I’ll be very interested to see how Apple update the MacBook Pro range in line with the current rumours of adopting some of the design principles of the MacBook Air.

I may be tempted to upgrade to a MacBook Pro/Air with a 256GB SSD, 8 or 16GB RAM, new Ivy Bridge processor and a 13″ or 15″ HiDPI Retina Display.

That would do nicely!

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.

Replacing My Mac Pro with a MacBook Air – Part 1

Interesting experiment for the last week or two. I’ve been using my 11″ MacBook Air as my primary work machine – for everything!


I use two Macs on a regular basis, a Mac Pro as my primary desktop work machine and a MacBook Air as my secondary machine. The Mac Pro is an 8 core 2008 Model with 16GB RAM hooked up to a 30″ Dell monitor.

The MacBook Air is a 2011 model with an Intel 1.8Ghz Core i7 processor with 256GB SSD and 4GB RAM.

I’ve been hedging my bets on when (or if) Apple will release a new Mac Pro as I’ve always assumed that I would replace my existing Mac Pro with a new Mac Pro as my primary desktop machine.

The main Dell monitor on my Mac Pro has been starting to display some intermittent faults, so I’ve been contemplating what to do when it needs replacement. I’ve always been a bit concerned about paying the Apple tax on monitors, and I’d anticipated getting another Dell monitor for the Mac Pro.

However, with the advent of the 27″ Thunderbolt display, I’d started to consider buying an Apple monitor, especially in view of the built in Thunderbolt connectivity and the ability to connect Gigabit Ethernet, USB and FireWire, as well as the built in HD camera and audio.

All accessible from a single Thunderbolt cable.

The thing is, this wouldn’t work with my 2008 Mac Pro, even with an updated graphics card. But it would work with my 11″ MacBook Air, the only machine I have with a Thunderbolt port. In fact, the 11″ MacBook Air would drive the 27″ Thunderbolt display at its maximum resolution as well as using it’s own display.

That got me thinking…

Single Machine vs Desktop & Laptop

Using a separate desktop and laptop does involve some challenges in keeping data and apps in sync. Dropbox goes along way to sort this out, but my ideal configuration would be to use a single Mac for everything. Ideally, a portable Mac, so when I travel, everything goes with me. No alternate configuration, no making compromises, no realising that an app or data wasn’t on my machine when working away from home.

MacBook Air Performance

I’d previously done some benchmarking on the 11″ MacBook Air, and have been impressed with it’s overall performance.

In normal day to day activities, I really can’t tell the difference between the MacBook Air and the Mac Pro. Obviously, with extremely processor intensive tasks such as video encoding, the eight cores of the MacPro are going to beat the MacBook Air every time, but even then, the difference isn’t as dramatic as you might expect. Real Life Encoding Blogpost

I’ve been using the MacBook Air as my primary recording machine since I’ve had it. All my screencasts have been recorded on the MacBook Air and recently, I’ve been doing my preliminary editing on the Air as I record. I use ScreenFlow as my recording tool, and for doing the preliminary edit. As ScreenFlow has matured and grown in functionality, I’ve recently started using ScreenFlow for my full production workflow, including producing the final version of my screencasts.

I’d been wondering for a while if I really needed the power of the Mac Pro for 95% of the time, and if the overhead of trying to use two machines was warranted.

What if I could use my MacBook Air as my main machine?

Formulating A Plan

So, I decided to buy the 27″ Thunderbolt Display and try using the 11″ MacBook Air as my primary machine for general computing tasks, as well as recording and editing. The Mac Pro would remain as a fallback, as well as being available to offload encoding jobs to, when working in my studio. If it didn’t work out, the next desktop machine I get will have Thunderbolt, so I could always use the 27″ Thunderbolt display with that.

But what about the other subsystems I use with the Mac Pro, how would I replicate my Mac Pro’s capabilities?

I’ll post part 2 of the saga over the next few days detailing how I replicated the storage and video capture components of my Mac Pro, and fill you in on how successful the process has been.