Help me budget and plan for a laptop lifestyle

Hey folks! This is going to be a bit of a long post, so bear with me.

Before the Bad Old Days of the butterfly keyboards, I used to be a laptop-only person. I’d plug my MacBook Pro into an external display and deal with the weird bugs that accompany that, but I’d have the benefit that all my stuff lives on one device.

During the Bad Old Days, I switched to an iMac Pro after my 4th keyboard replacement on a laptop. I have a MacBook Air for when I need to be portable. The screen on the air is small, and managing my work on two machines is time consuming and laborious, so I’d like to just get one of the 16" MacBook Pros and an external display. But I don’t know what to get here.

The laptop part is easy:

  • 16" MacBook Pro (I like bigger screens, even if the machines are heavier, for my graphic design and photography work)
  • M1 Max, 64GB of RAM for future proofing, 4TB storage

I need help with other things:

Which external display should I get? The Ultrafine 5K, which I’ve owned before, is not a nice monitor. I’d love to get the Pro Display with the matte option, but it’s nearly $8k in Canada, and that seems exorbitant. It feels like both displays have incoming replacements in the next few months. Should I just get the Ultrafine and replace it in a year or two once the dust has settled on the display story? (Also: My wife works from home with standard-issue Windows machines; can she use the Ultrafine too?)

What about external hard drives? I’ve had some small Seagate drives plugged into my iMac for backups and extra storage. I won’t be able to do that all the time with the laptop, so I was looking into a NAS, but I really don’t know where to start. My understanding is that the NAS allows for Time Machine backups, and if you wanted to, you could get multiple NAS hard drives and back them up to each other automatically for redundancy. But I really don’t know what I’m getting into here. I’d like to have wireless Time Machine backups, and it’d be great to have long-term storage for finished projects that’s accessible easily, but I’d also like to have Backblaze take care of redundancy.

I’ve always been a fan of having backup drives for my backup drives (I’ve had catastrophes in the past that I’d like to avoid forever in the future). So as ridiculous as two NAS drives sounds, I’m kind of leaning towards that right now, but like I said, I really don’t know what I’m getting into here. I just know I won’t always be able to plug in to a desktop hard drive going forward.

I’d love any perspectives and insight on all this; I need to budget for my business this year and this is going to be the biggest expense by a country mile. Thanks all!

External displays are really universal (any computer or OS as long as the interface is compatible). So you don’t have to restrict yourself to what Apple sells. It’s personal taste and budget.

When you say two NAS drives, I’m assuming you aren’t meaning two NAS drives in one NAS but two NAS boxes, with one backing up the other. Search out lots of discussions here about backups and the difference between backups and sync. (I won’t go into that here) And a backup drive should not also be used for general data storage. I am suspicious of your idea to backup drives to each other.

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You are correct; I mean two NAS boxes. My thought was to partition it so I could have one 8TB section for storage and one 8TB section for archival. Then backup the 8TB archival to the secondary NAS box. Is this a terrible idea?

Rather than a secondary NAS backup consider an offsite backup. or in addition to if you want but offsite might be more valuable to manage your risks.

i have a very big usb drive connected to my NAS and i send backups to Backblaze. other external services available.

Dumb Q because I’ve never owned a NAS, but can you plug another hard drive right into the NAS, make your backup, then bring it offsite?

Why not? takes effort and must remember to do it. i prefer to have the computers do this work. but you could say use two and swap. would have to work out how the software works to make the backups and what to backup.

Nothing really special about a NAS. usually a box running Linux with the vendor doing their own configuration and features. I used to use Drobo but gave up on it years ago and now have a Synology box.

How would I go about automating an offsite backup? Is that even possible?

There are services, such as Backblaze, which I and rms both use. There is an application that runs on your computer that transfers data to Backblaze. This is the offsite backup. The data is moved offsite, not the drives.

There are other such services as well.

I recently had a hard system failure, as a result of a direct lightning strike. Backblaze sent me a hard drive with the last backup. I had the data before I had the replacement Mac.

I use the cloud sync software provided by synology. see their website for documentation. i send the files to Backblaze B2. other places are possible. investigate their websites for documentation and how-to.

Ah, OK. I do use Backblaze now, but after years of use, I still like having physical backups near me. I don’t mind having an offsite thing like Backblaze for crises like a burned down house — in that case, I have bigger problems and can wait for a hard drive to arrive in the mail.

But if one drive fails at my home, that becomes my largest crisis at that moment, and I want it resolved quickly. Which is why I was thinking I would just have two on-site NAS bodies.

But BackBlaze won’t backup a NAS.

I know Backblaze B2 or whatever will, and it’s not crazy expensive (for my use case), so I’ll probably do that, but I’m open to other options if there are any.

B2 is cloud storage, i.e. a big bucket of bytes. You can certainly fill up that bucket with backups but it’s not a backup system like BackBlaze. There are other members of this forum that use B2 as a backup destination for Arq and they seem happy with it. I agree the price seems reasonable.

Oh. Hmm. That makes this harder. How on earth do other people do this? Do they still plug their laptops in sometimes? I’m so lost.

What’s not nice about the Ultrafine? (not a photographer/graphic designer so I may be missing something about requirements there, apologies if that’s true).

I plug in a Samsung T7 for Time Machine backups and I love it. Time Machine itself is a bit iffy but the drive itself is fine, plugging it in once a day to do its thing isn’t much of a hassle for me. Offsite backups are limited to mostly things in the cloud at the moment although I’m working out a strategy for that.

Some users here use a dock, to which you could connect your external display and backup disc (and, as @ThatNerd said, the Samsung T7’s are a fine choice). Then you can use Time Machine to backup to the T7, and BackBlaze to backup offsite.

As @ThatNerd implied, the experiences of users here using TM has been somewhat varied, and more so when backing up to a NAS. Some people, myself included, have no problems with TM (full disclosure: I’m backing up to a Time Capsule, which is pretty old), others have given up on TM altogether. Arq is a very capable and versatile replacement.

When talking about backups I suggest the approach of enumerating the types of disasters you want to protect against. Then compare your plans to those scenarios and see how well it matches. The 3 main groups I use are “stupid user tricks”, hardware/software failure, and physical loss (theft or fire). The stupid user tricks covers things like overwriting a file or erasing the wrong disk. I’ve needed my backups twice, once for an OS upgrade gone bad and once when my MBP GPU died. Never had to deal with physical,loss but that’s where offsite can be important.

The more automatic a backup is the more protection it provides. Having to remember to plug in a drive or carry one offsite invites procrastination. There’s also the question of backup frequency. My needs are minimal so once a day backups are plenty.

How I do it: I’m only handling backups for my wife and me for our personal data as we’re retired. I have an older Synology and a 2012 Mac Mini. The Mini has 2 8tb drives in a JBOD enclosure. One drive is used for media files and archived data. The other drive holds backups made with Carbon Copy Cloner with safety net turned on. It backups up our 2 iMacs and 2 MBAs. I also have another external drive attached that backups up the media/archive drive. Both the media and backup drives are then backed up to BackBlaze. The media drive is also synced to the Synology. The Synology also serves as a backup destination for Time Machine for all the other computers. The backups are in a different part of the house from all the other computers. This minimizes noise and provides some protection from physical loss.

Lastly, be sure to test any backups you have to be sure you can recover data from them.

The colours are decent and the resolution is good. The problem is the enclosure. The one I owned, which seems representative of all of them to my knowledge, had a very creaky stand. It wobbled a lot, especially when I stood at my desk while working. The USB-C ports on the back were very unreliable, in my experience. Often, it would suddenly reset itself to 100% brightness, or no longer recognize my laptop was plugged in. Sometimes, the screen would just turn off until I unplugged the laptop, then plugged it back in. It has no headphone jack, which is a nicety for a permanently stationed monitor that I got used to with the old Thunderbolt displays. It also took far too much force to adjust my monitor’s angle. Finally, because there’s no glass aboard the screen, I found the screen difficult to clean properly, easily made dirty, and still too reflective. It’s not that it’s terrible; it’s that, for the price (nearly $2k Canadian), I expect better.

This is basically what I do with my iMac, but I don’t want my backups to happen exclusively while plugged in to my desk. I like to move around the house throughout the day (been working from home for 10 years and that keeps me focused. Keeping everything stationed at a desk would be what I prefer to avoid. (I also have not had serious issues with Time Machine, FWIW.)

@glenthompson, your whole post is great, thank you. Not quoting the whole thing to save space.

I run a freelance business, so I need reliable backups for archives and Time Machine in case something goes wrong. In the past 6 months, I needed to restore from TM because of a command line disaster on my part. Before that, my last issue was 5 years ago: we went on holiday, and I came back to find out my RAID enclosure had a disc failure, but the software had failed, and so I lost everything. I didn’t have a recent backup of that backup, and I wasn’t a Backblaze user at the time. I lost a few years of wedding photo archives from an old business that a client had just emailed me for, asking if I still had them, ironically.

That experience taught me to be thorough, so my current setup is this:

  • 1 Time Machine drive
  • my archive drive
  • a backup of my archive drive
  • Backblaze backing up my whole computer, as well as my archive drive, 24/7

My assumption was that a Synology or two might do something similar, but wirelessly:

  • 1 4-bay hard drive with four 4TB drives, with two partitions
  • 1 partition is for Time Machine backups for my computer and my wife’s MacBook
  • 1 partition is for archives
  • Either plug in another hard drive to the Synology to redundantly back up the archive partition, or set up a second smaller Synology and have it wirelessly back up the first’s archive
  • Run Backblaze / B2 on my computer to back all that data up to the cloud, including what’s on my laptop, my wife’s laptop, and my archive drive.

That way, I never have to plug in to anything to run a backup, and I have a contingency plan for a computer failure, one Synology going down, my backup archive getting fried, or my house burning down in a freak accident (knock on wood).

Am I over-thinking this? Is there an easier way to achieve this level of peace of mind without actually plugging anything in over USB?

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I’ve got a Mac Mini as well that I use as a music and Plex server. I’d love to be able to attach an external drive to it so my wife’s Macbook Pro could back up to it through time machine wirelessly. But how does one do that? I don’t see that option? Do I need to run special server software? I’m stuck on MacOS Mojave on that Mac Mini.

Attach the drive and share it via the Sharing section of System Preferences. Connect your wife’s Mac to the shared drive and tell Time Machine to use it as a destination. I mount the drives in login items so they’re mounted when I login.