Using your 27″ iMac as a Display – How it works.

Well…  I did it.  I was trying to decide whether I wanted to buy a 24″ LED Cinema display to hook to my 17″ Macbook Pro, or whether I just wanted to buy one of the new iMacs and do the same.  Silly, I know, but then again – so is Apple’s new pricing model.  I’m kind of excited to see what kind of product lineup they come up with for their cinema display line – because now that the 27″ iMac contains a beautiful 2560×1440 LED Backlit display at a pricepoint $100 below the 30″ Cinema display – one has to wonder who would actually buy the 30″ display now.

Well – at least, that’s how I justified it.  The iMac is a great machine and I’ve already installed Windows 7 RTM on it, but 90% of the time I’ll be using it as a display for my MacBook Pro.  Since they announced this new product line – I’ve been searching for information on how the single Mini DisplayPort will function as both an input and output.  Scouring around the net – I saw that many people had the same simple question that no-one (even Apple dweebs in the stores) can answer…. “When you use it in display mode, does the iMac have to be turned on?”

Well – For me – that was the $1600 question…..  and here is the answer – Yes, the iMac must be turned on.  In fact, you must actually boot completely into Snow Leopard before it will “switch” into display mode.    I’ve run through a couple of different scenerios, and it seems that in all of them – the graphics card in the iMac is actually performing the input/output translation – and it appears that it is doing so with the aid of drivers present in Snow Leopard.  So… to summarize – here are some of the scenerio’s I’ve tried – and what happens:

  • MacBook Pro off, iMac off.  I Connected the MBP to the iMac via Belkin DisplayPort cable, and powered both systems on.   Both systems booted independantly into their default OS (Mac OS in my case) and the MBP did not recognize the iMac as an external display until I unplugged the DisplayPort connector and plugged it back in, at which time everything instantly switched to the iMac as an external monitor.
  • MacBook Pro on, iMac off.  I Connected the MBP to the iMac and then powered the iMac on.  The iMac swiftly booted into MAC OS, and again, did not switch to display mode until I unplugged and replugged the cable.
  • MacBook Pro on and booted into Leopard, iMac on and booted into Snow Leopard.  Plugged in the cable – iMac instantly switched to display mode and the Macbook instantly recognized it.
  • MacBook Pro on and booted into Windows Vista 64-bit, iMac on and booted into Windows 7.  Plugged in the cable – nothing.  nada.  zilch.  Which is what lead me to my conclusion that something in the drivers in Snow Leopard make this a possibility.
  • Macbook Pro on and booted into Windows Vista 64-bit, iMac on and booted into Snow Leopard.  Plugged in the cable – iMac instantly switched to display mode and the Macbook instantly recognized it….. Yup…. Snow Leopard definately has something to do with it.

So.  Before I bought the machine tonight – the dweeb at the apple store assured me that when you plug in the iMac, it “sleeps” the PC and only runs the display.   I might buy that it sleeps the hard drive – but from everything I can tell, the iMac brain is still running, and needs to be running, in order for the display hardware to receive, decode, and display the digital DisplayPort connector.  It seems that this is also the case simply due to the amount of heat coming out of the vents on the iMac – if it were only the display – I can’t imagine it would be running as hot as it is.

Unfortunately, I’m pretty sure that’s not what most people want to hear.  It’s certainly not what I wanted – but…. at the pricepoint (slightly less expensive than the 30″ studio display with only 3″ diagonal and 160 vertical pixel defecit) – it’s definately worth a look still.  You get yourself a kick ass monitor that includes a kick ass PC that performs very well in Snow Leopard and Windows 7.

Hopefully I’ve taken some mystery out of the $1600 question for you πŸ˜‰

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