Repurposing an old iMac as a monitor and server

Repurposing an old iMac as a monitor and server

Summary: Many Mac professionals have transitioned to a workflow based around a more mobile flavor of Mac, however, those with an older iMac in the office can take advantage of the larger screen as well as extra processing cycles.

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In a recent post to his Tech Field Day blog, IT consultant Stephen Foskett runs down a good number of tips and lessons about repurposing his 4-year-old iMac into a monitor for his MacBook Pro Retina Display and into a simple file server.

I have found that a number of iMac users — especially former Windows users — may not be aware of the iMac's easy A/V expansion via support for DisplayPort or that one Mac can boot another Mac as if the second box was an external hard drive. This latter capability comes from Apple's continuing support for Target Disk Mode, which is a longstanding technology on the Mac and spans SCSI, FireWire, USB and now Thunderbolt connections.

Foskett provides a bunch of good of tips for using the iMac as a laptop display and the everyday use of this useful-but-a-bit-kludgy non-KVM setup. For example, he offers suggestions on where to keep the extra, but still necessary iMac keyboard and mouse, and warns that users must take care in plugging and unplugging devices.

Note that, if you simply unplug the Mini DisplayPort cable from a closed-lid MacBook, it will immediately go to sleep. This will disrupt anything you’re doing and might be a Very Bad Thing. To keep this from happening, open the lid first, then unplug the video cable.

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On the server front, Foskett said that it's easy to set up OS X as a bare-bones server without requiring OS X Server itself. He also offers that "a genuine iTunes instance is much more reliable than any alternative media server, and the same goes for a real Mac OS X AFP service."

One handy tip for using an iMac as a server is to reduce the screen resolution in the control panel. A lower-res screen is a huge help, since I’ll mostly be using it via VNC (with Screen Sharing from the MacBook Pro or Wyse PocketCloud Remote Desktop Pro on the iPad and iPhone). I dropped it to 1600×900, but could go further. It still looks fine when it’s running the iMac’s panel but is way better for use in VNC! Plus, it’s very "Inception" to show a screen sharing session to the iMac’s guts on its own panel via the MacBook Pro!

Check out this Tech Field Day article as well as the rest of Foskett's series on expanding iMacs.

Topics: Laptops, Apple, Hardware, Operating Systems

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15 comments
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  • Run Linux On It

    Linux makes for a much more capable and versatile server, even on old hardware.
    ldo17
    • Agreed.

      OS X Server is lacking, especially when compared to both Windows Server and Linux-based Servers.
      ForeverCookie
    • OS X is a certified UNIX

      So your statement is idiotic. Why run a UNIX knockoff when I can run the real thing instead?
      baggins_z
      • Agree with this

        And the iMac is already running OS X, which the user is familiar with. For many Mac users, Linux and Windows would be uncharted waters. If one is going to provision a server, OS familiarity is an important factor.

        Not to mention Target Disk Mode technology built-in to OS X. A great way to get more screen real estate from a MacBook as well as a larger keyboard and a mouse. Why don't we hear more about Target Disk Mode?
        Rabid Howler Monkey
        • "I agree with this"

          Your lack of "I" makes it sound like you're dictating to others what they should do.

          As a small server, an iMac is okay... especially if you leave the monitor off... but image get hot due to poor engineering of the cooling subsystem... I would not rely on it...
          HypnoToad72
          • You're wrong

            I don't care what you do.

            And it's pretty clear to me reading the article that the server bit is geared towards home users and SOHO's. Most small businesses (or departments in larger businesses) needing an Apple server (read "Apple shops") would use OS X Server on either an Mac Mini or a Mac Pro.
            Rabid Howler Monkey
      • Re: Why run a UNIX knockoff

        Let's be clear about this: everything called "UNIX" nowadays IS a "knockoff", unless it has original AT&T code at its core, which OS X certainly doesn't.

        "UNIX" is just a trademark: you get the right to use it by paying somebody a bunch of money. Which nobody in the Linux world can be bothered to do, because they're all too busy getting real work done. Like keeping their OS running on older PowerPC-based Macs that Apple has abandoned.
        ldo17
    • Nonsense

      Linux and OS X have very nearly identical capabilities. Linux, as a UNIX knock off, does the same things OS X (an actual UNIX) does.
      Mac_PC_FenceSitter
      • FreeBSD is also a knockoff and OSX is based on it...

        Nt
        HypnoToad72
        • No, FreeBSD is not a knock off

          FreeBSD cannot call itself "UNIX" for legal reasons, but is essentially the original UNIX source code by its original Berkley developers.
          Mac_PC_FenceSitter
          • Re: essentially the original UNIX source code

            Interesting, that, because UNIX wasn't originally developed at Berkeley.
            ldo17
      • Re: Linux, as a UNIX knock off

        Let's be clear about this: everything called "UNIX" nowadays IS a "knockoff", unless it has original AT&T code at its core, which OS X certainly doesn't.

        "UNIX" is just a trademark: you get the right to use it by paying somebody a bunch of money. Which nobody in the Linux world can be bothered to do, because they're all too busy getting real work done. Like keeping their OS running on older PowerPC-based Macs that Apple has abandoned.
        ldo17
    • Re: Run Linux On It

      Wow, 2 flags already for making a positive suggestion, without any hint of badmouthing Apple. Not to mention the responses trying to put me down.

      Is there any point in me continuing to be polite?
      ldo17
  • I remember when the iMac came out

    Everyone dissed it saying the monitor would die and you'd have a useless brick for a computer. Guess that prediction was wrong.
    baggins_z
    • And why am I not surprised?

      :-0
      Laraine Anne Barker