Tips for Using a MacBook (Air, Pro) in Clamshell Mode

On this page, I will compile all the knowledge, tips and tricks I have for using a MacBook, MacBook Pro, or MacBook Air as a desktop replacement, in clamshell mode.

I've used a variety of Mac laptops in the past few years (starting with a PowerBook 100, moving on to a 190, then a 1400, a 5300c, a G3 Wallstreet, an iBook G3, iBook G4, PowerBook G4, MacBook, MacBook Pro, MacBook Air, and back again to a MacBook Pro. With all of these laptops, I tended to use them most often at my desk. And what better way to sit at a desk on a computer than with a huge 20"+ display and a full keyboard and mouse?

Along the way, though, I've learned a lot about effectively using these Macs while their open next to the main monitor, and while they're closed—in 'clamshell' mode.

Convenience and Stands

One of the great advantages of having a laptop is being able to take it with you on a moment's notice for some mobile computing. However, many of the stands and I've used to help me get the most out of my laptop while at my desk made it very hard to grab the laptop and go.

I'll quickly review the three stands I've used the longest, why I liked them, and why I hated them:

  • Griffin Elevator Laptop Stand (~$30, Amazon.com)
    I've used this stand the longest, with two iBooks and a MacBook Pro. It raises your laptop to eye level, and provides a place under the laptop to place a keyboard or other accessories (I had a center channel speaker there). However, it's best for people who still want to use the Mac's display as a main or secondary display, and ends up taking about as much space on the desk as the Mac itself.
  • LapTuk Stand For MacBook/Pro 13" & 15" (~$35, Amazon.com)
    This stand has, by far, the smallest profile of any stands I've ever used; it goes directly under your monitor. It's also rock solid However, it was difficult to access the ports on my Mac when it was in the LapTuk, and every time I had to hit the power button or reset my Mac (rare, yes, but it happens), it was a chore having to unplug everything, slide out the Mac, turn it on, then slide it back in...
  • Twelve South BookArc Stand - MacBook Air (~$40, Amazon.com)
    Twelve South also makes stands for other models of MacBook. This is what I'm currently using, though with my MacBook Pro standing upside-down, so the heat can rise out of the top, instead of the bottom. It's really easy to use, and even displays your Mac prominently on your desk. The only disappointment is that the stand doesn't hold a MacBook as snugly as I'd hope.

Heat Dissipation

When your MacBook is operating normally, the entire keyboard area dissipates heat, though the main vents for all MacBooks are in the rear, around the hinge. This means that if you operate the MacBook closed, and do lots of intensive tasks like watch online videos, play games, etc., the inside of the Mac will get toasty. I combat this problem by using the BookArc vertical stand, with my MacBook Pro's back end at the top.

I also make sure the Mac has at least 3" of space around it and is in a relatively open area, with air circulation. I have had a couple laptops (one Mac, one PC) burn up on me due to tight quarters and a lack of ventilation, so I'm not going to make that mistake again!

If you must put the laptop in a closed space, make sure you put some sort of fan in the area. I bought a cheap $10 internal PC fan (12 volts), cut a hole in my desk's backboard, and mounted the fan in there. It provides excellent ventilation.

USB, FireWire, ThunderBolt Devices

Know that some USB devices will wake up your Mac randomly. I typically only leave a few devices (they keyboard, a hard drive, and my printer (which is usually off) plugged in. Devices like flash drives, TV tuner cards, speakers, etc. have a tendency to wake up a Mac for smoe reason.

Always make sure to unmount any mounted USB flash drives, USB, FireWire or ThunderBolt hard drives before you unplug them from your Mac. It usually won't cause a problem if you don't... but always better safe than sorry.

Finally, if you have a monitor plugged into your Mac, and you plug or unplug any USB device or hub to your Mac, it will wake up. One way I work around this (if I want to keep the Mac sleeping) is I'll unplug the monitor as well, or I'll put the Mac to sleep, and immediately unplug the USB devices. I can trick my Mac into going to sleep anyways :-)

Booting and Bluetooth

One of the greatest tragedies to befall the Apple USB keyboards over the years is the newest models' lack of power buttons. On older Macs, you could hit a power button on the keyboard to turn on a connected Mac. This is not possible nowadays (sadly), so you have to open the MacBook, press the power button, then close the MacBook again.

If anyone knows of an easier way to turn on a closed MacBook, let me know!

If your MacBook is locked up or frozen, and you need to force quit something or restart, the keyboard shortcuts Option + Command + Esc (for force quit), or Control + Command + Eject (for restart) can often come in handy.

Bluetooth Woes

Every once in a while, to conserve battery power on the go, I'll disable Bluetooth. Problem is, though, that I have only a Bluetooth mouse! When I get back to my desk and plug everything back in, I can't use the mouse anymore! (Luckily, I have a USB keyboard, so I at least have one way of providing input)

To fix this without having to open up the Mac and enable Bluetooth using the MacBook's trackpad, you can do the following:

  1. Press Command + Spacebar (to open Spotlight), and type in 'Bluetooth File Exchange' - press return to select and open it.
  2. Bluetooth File Exchange will ask you if you'd like to turn on Bluetooth. Press return to say 'yes'.
  3. There you have it! Bluetooth working again.
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