Reconfigure existing (old) Mac hardware

Let me preface my post by saying, “No. I cannot afford to get a new or upgraded Mac. I have to work with what I have.”


What I have is a 2011 Mac Mini Server (2 500GB internal drives and 8GB RAM) and a 2012 MacBook Air (240GB drive with 4GB RAM; RAM is hardwired in this model with no upgrades available). I have been using the Mini as my desktop computer and only use the MB when I travel, which is not that often, especially now. I also have several external drives that I use for the storage of various media and backup files.

The Mini has worked very well and been quite enough for my home needs (no heavy graphics usage other than occasional photo editing). However, it is dead-ended at High Sierra and I’m starting to run into a few occasions where apps I would like to use require at least Mojave. The MB will handle Mojave and Catalina, although I didn’t get great performance out of it with Catalina when I tried it. Right now, it is running Mojave and seems to be doing well.

In the past, I have occasionally run the MB with video output to my external monitor and an external keyboard and mouse…essentially as a desktop computer. It seems to handle that very well. I am thinking about doing that again, but integrating my Mini into the configuration. I assume I would use it as a server, but my knowledge of this process is nil.

After all that preamble, I’d like to get your input. Am I on the right track to do this? If so, can any of you point me in the right direction to set it up? If not, what would you suggest?

Thanks for your help.

Stay well and stay isolated!


Let me see if I understand what you want to do: You’re going to continue using your MBP as your travel machine, you’re going to start using your MBP with an external monitor as your desktop system, and you want to transition your Mini to a server. Is that right?

I have that same model of Mac mini server. It has mostly been reliable, with an occasional oddity, but I can’t bring myself to replace it either, so it hasn’t been replaced.

Running your MacBook Air as a desktop computer should be fine. It may work a little better if you use it in “clamshell” mode when using the external monitor.

As for using the Mac mini, it’s very capable, but I’m not clear what you want to do with it. Backups? Time Machine? File server?

Using the MBA as a functional desktop might not be the most optimal thing, but given what you have and your constraints it’s probably your best option.

I would, however, encourage you to get the idea of “server” out of your vocabulary temporarily, as it seems like it might be hanging you up. “Server” is usually properly understood as a computer that feeds data to other computers. Any computer can do that, and you can have a network where every computer is a server in some capacity.

Long story short, now you have two computers. The question isn’t about desktops/clients and servers nearly as much as it is about tasks. And if you can wire the Mini to the MBA via ethernet you can use Screen Sharing and even cut/paste between machines. So many tasks can effectively be split among your two machines.

Personally, I just went through this with my setup.

I had a 2012 Mini that was my primary work computer, then I upgraded to my 2018 Mini. I still have my 2012 Mini, and it sits on the desk right next to the other one. It’s connected via ethernet to the 2018.

I divvied up my workload into tasks, and picked which computer I want to handle them. Basically, I do web development, and the 2018 is now my main “development” machine. So I wanted to offload anything that’s not related to my work and that’s going to tie up I/O or my processors.

Therefore, the 2012 now handles my Plex / media library, and has a few drives plugged into it that it’s responsible for backing up via BackBlaze. If I have a bunch of audio/video conversion to do, I do it on the 2012. It would probably be faster on the 2018, but the 2018 is the machine I use for my day-to-day work - so the 2012 can grind full-throttle on stuff like that without impacting my workflow. I have a number of automations (shoving files in/out of Dropbox, that sort of thing) that the 2012 does as well.

In your situation you could do something similar. Find anything/everything that doesn’t have to be done on the MBA, and see if you can offload it. Think outside the box here. You can even run a web browser via Screen Sharing. So if you have a lot of non-video tabs that you keep open, those can literally live on the Mini and be accessed via Screen Sharing.

Incidentally, I realize you don’t have upgrade cash right now, but for about $100 you could double the RAM in that 2011 Mini as well. That might be a useful upgrade, depending on what your workflow winds up being - and it’s definitely much, much less than the cost of a new Mac. :slight_smile:

Wishing you the best of luck!


First, thanks to all for your replies.

@tjluoma and @jec0047: I’m not really sure how I want to configure what I have. I had a couple of thoughts, but I was really casting about for a reasonable solution.

Now, @webwalrus. THANK YOU SO MUCH for your extensive and well-thought-out post. You have some good ideas and I may end up trying a couple. I like the idea of screen sharing between the Mini and the MBA. I had initially thought about dual monitors with a T-switch for the keyboard and mouse (both are USB). I’m not too concerned about more RAM for the MINI. The 8GB seems to be handling the workload. As I said, the main reason I want to bring the MBA into the mix is to get the ability to run apps that require OS 10.14. Is running ethernet between the Mini and the MBA very involved or is it pretty much plug-and-play (or somewhere in between)? I’ve only used ethernet at my office with a connection that was already set up.

Again, thanks to all for your replies.


EDIT: As I look, the Mini has an Ethernet port and a Thunderbolt port, but the MBA has a only a Thunderbolt. I seem to remember seeing a Thunderbolt -> Ethernet adaptor, but can the Mini <-> MBA configuration be handled through Thunderbolt?

EDIT 2: I just started looking at KVM switches. Relatively inexpensive and may be the answer to my problem. Anybody have experience with these?

I don’t know anything about Thunderbolt to Ethernet, but I know that the hardware part of the Ethernet connection without the adapter is literally just a matter of plugging a single cable into the ports on each machine. Then I configured a network of 10.10.10.x. Give each machine a differnet IP on that network, subnet, no gateway. Works well for me, and I would assume it would work the same with the adapter you’re talking about.

As for KVM, that potentially solves the screen sharing issue.

What it doesn’t do is speed up file access between the two machines. Wi-Fi is great, but a wired connection is both faster and more reliable if you’re moving files back and forth. And using Screen Sharing allows you to do things like cut/paste between the two machines, whereas a KVM doesn’t. If you’re not doing that stuff, then that’s cool - just wanted to note it. :slight_smile:

Personally, I use a Magic Trackpad - so KVM isn’t a viable option. When I did use them back a ways, I found that cheap KVM switches, in my experience, sometimes don’t handle the switching well - so you’ll have a garbled keyboard, blank monitor, or some such thing when you switch back and forth.

I don’t have recommendations for brands - just sharing experience with some of the very inexpensive ones.

Thanks for that. I’m going back to your comment in your original post to me about thinking of the devices as 2 separate entities (getting server out of my mind). I really don’t need to transfer files, but mostly just run a few apps on the MBA that I can’t run on High Sierra. I think KVM might be the solution. Also, I think I can use iCloud or Dropbox for access to files (which I do anyway), so I don’t think there will be that much file transfer required. I think another advantage might be that I can set something going on the Mini, such as Beamer showing a movie on Apple TV, and then move over to the MBA to work in other apps.

I ordered a D-Link 2-port for about $40. D-Link has a pretty good reputation so it might be decent for what I need to do. At any rate, I’ll give a try and post the results.


I’ve never tried it but this article says you can.

As long as you’re not bandwidth-constrained in any meaningful way with your ISP then yeah - iCloud / Dropbox would probably work great. Just remember that if your Internet goes out your ability to get new files from one computer to the other will be temporarily interrupted. :slight_smile:

I agree with D-link generally having a good reputation. Wishing you the best of luck!

For really old hardware I find running it as a Linux machine always seems to work really well.
So if you don’t need the apple eco system to do work than it might be an option. (use internet interface for icloud f.e.)

FYI: Thought you might be interested in my resolution to this problem.

I got a KVM switch, although it only had VGA I/O. I had been using my Mini with an HDMI -> DVI (my monitor has both DVI and VGA inputs), and it was working very well. I went to an HDMI -> VGA dongle and the resolution was terrible. I couldn’t get it to work usably. So, back to the DVI on the Mini.

When I had used the MBA as a main computer in the past, I had used the Mini DisplayPort -> VGA (the monitor I was using at the time was only VGA, and it was fine). I still had that monitor around and so used it for the MBA monitor. I now have 2 monitors on my desk, but I have sufficient room for that.

I now have video outputs from each Mac to its own monitor. That problem solved. I decided to try to use the KVM to let me use a common keyboard and mouse. This worked very well. My KVM has an external button that I keep near the mouse. I just tap the button and it sends the K/M to the proper display. The active lights on the KVM even show the correct left/right monitor. (I know…a 50/50 chance of that and I got lucky!)

It’s a minor inconvenience, but certainly one I can live with. In one sense it’s better since I can see both monitors at the same time rather than having to use 1 monitor and switch between computers.

Thanks to all who responded. Your help sent me down this successful path.