Desktop Performance In A Custom Mac Laptop

Most of us either own or have used a laptop at some point. For traveling, as a student, or even for browsing Hackaday on the couch in front of the TV, they are pretty much indispensable. They do tend to have a sharp performance reduction compared to a desktop though thanks to the thermal and battery limitations of a portable form factor. [Scott Yu-Jan] wanted to solve that in his own life by building a custom Mac laptop with none of these downsides.

Noticing that a modern iPad Mini has exactly the same width of his Mac Mini, [Scott] set about combining the two devices into a single unit that he could assemble when traveling. A 3D printed case with a traditional laptop clamshell design takes care of physically combining these two devices, and a USB-C cable between the two takes care of combining them in software thanks to Apple’s Duet program. While this has better performance than a Macbook Pro it might actually have some perks, since Apple continues to refuse to make a laptop with a touchscreen.

There are some downsides, of course. The price is higher than a comparable Macbook Pro for the iPad and Mac together, plus it doesn’t include a keyboard or mouse. It also has no battery, so it needs to be plugged in. In the follow-up video linked below, though, [Scott] notes that for him this still made sense as he uses the Mac and iPad individually already, and only works remotely at places that have power outlets readily available. For the average person, though, we might recommend something different if you really need an esoteric laptop-like machine.

Thanks to [Varun] for originally sending in this tip!

17 thoughts on “Desktop Performance In A Custom Mac Laptop

  1. All-in-one machines such as the Mac Mini do suffer from the same issues – they are after all just laptop parts stuffed inside a different case.

    I don’t see any advantage from this build except for the touchscreen display.

    1. Erm, the M1 CPU is in everything from iPads to desktops these days, and has performance equivalent to a mid-range desktop system. The M1 Max and Ultra variants are just scaled up M1 processors that match or beat top-end desktops. There is no point in distinguishing Desktop and Laptop parts when the two are equally as capable.

      As to the build, a MacBook Air doesn’t give you a touch screen, but solves the other limitations. It’s slightly slower under high load due to passive only cooling, but other than that it’s at the same level of performance in a much better form factor and with true portable, on battery capabilities.

      1. There is point: laptop parts tend to be permanent additions to a system because of size constraints, whilst desktops don’thave the same constraints. Upgradability suffers because of this.
        For the M1 you might argue that RAM on-chip has serious benefits, which it does, and being so integrated you might argue making it socketed isn’t a real pro anymore either, as the sockets would likely need to change more often.
        For storage or extra GPU(‘s), or other exotic hardware not everyone needs but still a number of people regularly use, something like PCIe is one of the big pro’s of desktop systems.

        tl;dr: comparing cpu/gpu/ram – there is indeed no point in distinguishing as both are equally capable. Repairability and extendability: there is point in distinguishing, as they have different capabilities.

        1. Granted that you are somewhat lacking in upgrade options, so much of the M1 system being on package, but the idea that laptop parts (and the M1 in particular) should be dismissed as not serious compute devices because of their lower TDP shows a distinct lack of understanding over just how capable these machines are.

      2. The thermal solutions in the mini are exactly like a laptop. Same heat pipe and tiny copper fins. That’s the point – it is just a mac laptop stuffed in a different case. Maybe the case helps a little bit with thermal throttling – who knows – but in principle it’s exactly the same.

        1. I have no interest in getting one but I’ve heard these things just don’t thermal throttle and have the power delivery to sustain running flat out as well (which is perhaps not surprising with mains power – but still not a given on these sort of things).

          The huge efficiency of the M1 series, (much as I hate to say it being a hater of all things Apple on principle as much as anything) gives them in many workloads a vast vast advantage over AMD or Intel offerings from what I’m reading. The M1 stuff looks far from perfect, but for the right user its hands down the right tool for the job at the moment, being fast AND efficient, and thus quiet.

          1. They don’t throttle per se as just not run as fast. From what reviews I’ve seen, the mac mini initially clocks up to 4.7 GHz and then brings it down to 3.2-3.5 GHz as it heats up.

        2. The MacBook Air, with only passive cooling, throttles occasionally under heavy load. All the desktop class machines with the M1 series and active cooling (a) run near silently and (b) don’t throttle. Flat out, at the wall, a Mini will draw about 35W for everything.

          Meanwhile desktop machines use heat pipes, copper finned heatsinks and throttle under heavy load. They won’t even run at full speed for more than a few minutes (unless the board manufacturer has ignored Intel guidelines and haven’t implemented a time limit on Turbo mode, at full chat a 12900K uses 240W of power above idle). Same problems as a laptop really, but with more ability to dump the heat. The best solution is not to create the heat to start with.

          1. And I refer you to the above part about board manufacturers and BIOS boost limits. They CAN run for extended periods without throttling, but only with heavy duty cooling (does your system use a water loop by any chance) and by ignoring Intels own guidelines (which I guess you’ve done already by overclocking). Throttling isn’t a uniquely laptop thing, and plenty of desktops exhibit throttling symptoms under load.

          2. Refer to your own blanket statement:
            “Meanwhile desktop machines use heat pipes, copper finned heatsinks and throttle under heavy load.”

            I do use water cooling on my desktop, but my partner has a near identical desktop PC that uses a heat pipe heatsink. It manages the same kind of all day performance, just at a slightly lower overclock. I doubt we are “ignoring Intel’s own guidelines” since the ‘K’ variant processors we use are sold unlocked specifically for the purpose of overclocking.

          3. The big air coolers are getting really really damn impressive in shifting heat – as long as the case has good airflow you won’t throttle with one of them even drawing more than 240W, these days watercooling is almost pointless in terms of performance gains, at least in cases that understand the value of airflow. (Not to knock water cooling there are still pro’s and con’s, but the tower air coolers are so damn good now its not the only way to get great performance)…

          4. So what I’m saying is that throttling is a symptom of inadequate cooling, which can occur in desktops as well as laptops.

            Desktop Intel x86 machines, strictly speaking, are not supposed to run at full turbo speeds continuously. They are supposed to throttle back after a couple of minutes max. Many motherboard manufacturers and/or overclockers ignore this, and need large and expensive cooling solutions to cope with the resulting thermal load. AMDs processors tend to be rather more power efficient, but can still draw a fair amount of power and need powerful cooling.

            Laptops with x86 CPUs (and Intel in particular) tend to prioritise burst performance over continuous cooling capacity, partly because most tasks don’t need continuous high performance and partly because they are limited by battery capacity anyway. Combine a laptop CPU with good cooling and no power limits (in, say, a Mini PC form factor) and the need to throttle is removed.

            ARM, because of its heritage as a mobile CPU and original design philosophy, has always been much more power efficient than x86. The M1 series clocks at around 3.2GHz, but performs at around the same level as x86 running at 4.5GHz, while drawing less than 1/4 of the power. There’s no need to have a power hogging turbo boost mode, and providing you have active cooling there’s no need to throttle. The MacBook Air and the M1 equipped iPads are passively cooled, and can still run at full speed most of the time. The other M1 laptops and desktops are all actively cooled and don’t throttle at all.

    2. The iPad Mini certainly doesn’t need the Mac Mini for transcommunication or notes, but this Mac mini sure needs a display possibly for portability, video editing and design and larger software used on the Mac Mini! Sidecar should work well for this, and this addon folding gadget sure stows the slide out iPad for convenience! Apple can make more money by buying this idea before it goes viral on the AliExpress Chinese market! Just because of this design, I’ll buy the other if I had either!

    3. In the video he even said that he had the iPad and the Mac Mini and didn’t want to spend more money on a laptop. But he also states that this isn’t used everyday together just only when he goes somewhere and wants to take it with him. It’s modular so he can take it apart and put it back together when he needs to.

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