Untethering the MacBook

My previous post was written as I was working out how best to use my new Mac setup — in addition to my MacBook I now have a first-generation mac mini.

The primary boon I wished to score was that of freeing my laptop from the desk. There were several conspirators keeping the laptop on the desk.

Firstly, most of my data is stored on a large LaCie usb hard-disk, meaning if I wish to access it my macbook was tethered to the disk and so the desk. The LaCie is designed to sit below a mini, so my first move was to place it there. The mini acts as a file-server, using afp to share the disk. The laptop wirelessly connects and mount the disk.

Secondly, I used the line-out on the macbook to output sound to my hi-fi; a second wire tethering the laptop down. Ideally, the laptop would be able to play sound through the hi-fi without being attached to a wire. Again, the mac mini, along with two focused pieces of software, came to my aid.

The first step was simple: connect the hi-fi directly to the mini. The second step was the more complex: how to forward sound from the laptop to the mini so the mini could forward it on to the stereo? My first inclination was to see if anyone had come up with a manner of making the mini look like a set of AirTunes speakers.

After drawing a blank on this, I widened my search and came across a fantastic piece of software, SoundFly. SoundFly does a single thing: it takes the audio from one mac and plays it on another, along the way using a loopback audio driver called Sound Flower. SoundFly comes as a pair: a receiver and a sender. Fire up the receiver on you output-mac and the sender—along with Sound Flower—on your input-mac, and the sounds from the sender will find their way the the reciever. There is no configuration to this, I presume bonjour auto-discovery is at work.

I have discovered SoundFly is able to send using different compression schemes, including Apple Lossless, so the bandwidth it requires can be adapted to your network specifics to avoid stuttering. To access these settings, hold Alt whilst launching the sender.

A third cable keeping me desk-bound was a DVI cable connecting the macbook to an external monitor. This was so I could watch films using the monitor; the macbook’s screen has dreadful viewing angles. Hooking up the monitor to the mini was obviously a no brainer, making short work of this obstacle.

With the third problem banished, the mini is tied to the desk no longer.

I am left with a final problem, however. The mini is first generation, meaning it has no remote control or bluetooth. My quandary is how to control it (I refuse to connect a keyboard or mouse except as last resort).

I have VNC and the wonderful Teleport set up, which provide excellent options when I have the laptop on my knees. They are not so great, however, mid-film when I wish to pause to pour a second glass of wine. Waking and connecting to the mini with the laptop is not the seamless experience required.

There are several third-party remote controls on the market, all of which unfortunately look to have been designed by persons rather less accomplished than Apple’s. Presuming they work with Front Row, iTunes and VNC, these controls are probably the way to go.

And so the reasoning behind my lauding of SoundFly and Teleport last post is revealed. If your setup is similar to mine, I recommend you try them out along with the other pieces of software mentioned.

Sitting on the sofa, streaming music files into and decoded sound out of the laptop as I write this, the freedom from the desk is beautiful.