Wednesday, 21 March 2012

Connecting up a Mac

I guess everyone knows by now that I use a MacBook computer - best in the world! However sometimes it takes a bit to figure out how to connect it up to other devices. Here's a few hints:


Apple's strategy for display or video connections has changed a lot over the years, sadly this brings confusion. But then the video industry has also invented lots of different standards over time - S, RGB, VGA, DVI, Display Port, HDMI… and a huge number of different connectors to go with them.

1 Apple Display Connector, was the first Apple choice from about 2000 on, on Power Mac G4 & G5 computers. This combines USB, Video and Power in one connector. ADC converts to DVI using a Adapter, no longer available from Apple, try eBay.

2 DVI, used from 2004 - 11 on displays and desktop Macs, MacPro and some laptops. The DVI connector is a bit huge, so Apple introduced the mini-DVI on some models. There are adapter from Mini-DVI to DVI and to VGA, depending on your display needs.

3 Display Port, from 2009-11 Apple used a Mini Display Port. This connects to any display or projector with a Display Port input. There are Mini to Normal Display Port adapters. Display Port can also connect to a DVI or HDMI input display (or TV…) using an adaptor.

4 Thunderbolt. And now another update to Intel's Thunderbolt. New Macs use it for connecting Displays, Audio devices, HDD's… It replaces Firewire and can carry data and video on the one cable. The port is identical to a Mini-Display Port connection and the Mini-Display Port to normal Display Port adapter can be used. It can also connect to VGA, DVI or HDMI devices using the appropriate Mini-Display Port adapter.

To summarise

DVI -> DVI display

Mini-DVI -> Adapter -> DVI or VGA

Display Port -> Display Port display

Mini Display Port -> Adapter to Display Port, DVI, HDMI or VGA


Networks work through routers which interconnect devices, either by wires (Ethernet) or wireless (WiFi). Most router have built-in modems to connect to telephone lines. Apple has three products for networks, these are:

1 Time Capsule. This is a storage devices (1-2TB), a WiFi interface, an Ethernet interface with a router built in. It can be used just on your WiFi network as a NAS (Network Attached Storage), or as your main router and WiFi source with a modem connected between it and your phone line for internet access. Time Capsule has an additional USB output for a printer.

2 Airport Express. This is a wondrous device with many applications. Connected to your WiFi it has outputs for a USB printer and for 3.5mm analog or SPDIF digital audio (at max 16bit/48kHz though). Computers on your WiFi network can send documents to your printer or stream audio via it to your HiFi system. iPhones and iPads can dream audio to you HiFi. It can be used as a WiFi adapter with WiFi in and Ethernet out, for example to connect a games console or TV to the internet. Or for Ethernet in and WiFi out to create a wireless network - the Ethernet in can come from a modem and your phone line. It can also be used as a WiFi re-distributor to extend the range of your network.

3 Airport Extreme. This is a full blown router with a very high spec. It has Ethernet input and a USB port for a printer.

Music and Audio

Macs have analog audio outputs of very good quality from internal DACs. Many also have audio inputs to internal ADCs. The audio output and input 3.5mm plugs also carry SPDIF digital audio up to 24bit/96kHz. Digital audio output is also available from Thunderbolt ports via an HDMI adapter. There are many ways to play audio: by Bluetooth, by direct analog output, by direct digital output, by USB output or by a WiFi connection to an Airport Express or Apple TV. When using direct digital output you can get up to 24bit/96kHz, but over WiFi/Apple TV or Airport Express this is down sampled to 16bit/48kHz. USB interfaces can provide digital or analog input/output and MIDI connections.


A special mention should be made about the Apple TV, a small box which does four things: Connects to your TV via an HDMI cable, connects to your WiFi, provides a digital audio output and connects to the internet for streaming video, audio and your photos.

The Apple TV can receive audio and video inputs from your Mac or from an iPad or iPhone. Notably it can receive over its system called Airplay, video received over the internet from web site, including the BBC's iPlayer, thus making a very simple and effective way of getting iPlayer on your TV.

Camera/iPhone pix

Digital cameras input photos using USB inputs, the iPhone is different. Apple's new iCloud (remote storage over the internet) means that a new feature called Photo Stream can bring your iPhone pictures straight to your Mac, or any other connected device. Just shoot a photo on your phone, and when it find and connects to a WiFi network the picture will be sent to the cloud, and from there to you MAc, iPad etc.


Finally there is syncing. Apple's iCloud can be used to synchronise many things: photos, email, web browser bookmarks, calendars. It all happens silently with no action on your part. And it is a joy to find, for example, a book mark in Safari on your Mac that you just made on your iPhone, or a picture in iPhoto that you shot that morning on your iPhone. Photos are the one thing that does not sync over 3G, but needs a WiFi connection (hopefully Apple will remove this restriction for those of us with 3's unlimited bandwidth…).

iCloud sync is used for music purchased from iTunes, when you by a song Apple's servers know you have bought it and offer it on all your devices for download and listening to.

Lastly your iOS devices can today be entirely independent of a host Mac/PC, as they can buy/load apps and update the iOS over the air directly from Apple's servers.

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