Fixing clamshell mode external display issue on an M1 MacBook Air

Here’s my public service for the week. It happened to me, it could happen to you! (If you have the right combo of hardware).

The problem: When putting my M1 MacBook Air into clamshell mode, the 27″ external monitor it was connected to would go blank. The Air was still on and otherwise running, but was not getting a signal from the monitor.

Attempted fixes included:

  • Updating macOS
  • Swapping cables
  • Swapping HDMI ports
  • Cussing randomly

The fix: I found the fix in this Reddit post: https://www.reddit.com/r/mac/comments/knrcof/m1_macbook_air_in_clamshell_mode/

Unlike the author, I believe the issue isn’t related to the cable, just the fact that macOS does not support variable refresh rates and when closing the lid on a monitor with variable refresh rates, it would switch to a rate it didn’t actually support. In my case, I have an Asus VG27A, which has a max (without overclocking) refresh rate of 144Hz. I run it at 60Hz on the MacBook, but when putting it into clamshell mode, it switched to 72Hz, which doesn’t work, causing the display to go blank.

Step-by-step solution

Here’s my step-by-step for the fix in case something happens to the Reddit link:

What this applies to:

  • Any M1 MacBook connecting to an external monitor with a variable refresh rate (typically a monitor with built-in support for G-sync or FreeSync). I can’t verify if this would apply to the same issue on an Intel-based MacBook, but it might.

What you need:

  • M1 MacBook Air or MacBook Pro
  • Another computer (preferably with its own with display), can be Mac or PC
  • Remote desktop software

The steps:

  1. Install the remote desktop software on the MacBook and the other PC. I used TeamViewer, which is free for personal use, but there are lots of options. NOTE: Make sure the remote desktop software has appropriate permissions in the Mac’s security settings. TeamViewer prompts for this, but some software may not.
  2. Set the MacBook to display on the external display, and keep the lid on the MacBook open
  3. Use the remote desktop software to connect to the MacBook and make sure you can control the MacBook
  4. Close the lid on the MacBook. The external display should now go blank, but you should still be able to see the Mac desktop through the remote connection.
  5. From the other computer, go into Displays under the Mac’s System Preferences and change the refresh rate to 60Hz. Once this is done, you should see the external display work again.
  6. Test the new configuration by closing the lid on the MacBook. If the external display remains on, you are done!

Apple is adding variable refresh rate in macOS Monterey, which is due in Fall 2021 (probably a month or so from now as of this writing, but this will likely continue to be an issue on Big Sur. Story on MacRumors

Mac vs. PC, Round 846

I can’t decide!

A comprehensive overview of my thoughts on the strengths and weaknesses of both systems coming soon.

In the meantime, an animated image for your enjoyment:

Who is Matt Black and what does he have to do with the next iPhone?

Matt black looks amazing.

Matt black yes plz

Matt black color option? YESSS!

(Quotes from the discussion of a possible matte black color option for iPhone 13 on MacRumors. Sometimes I am easily annoyed. Or amused. Or both.)

The incomplete list of websites that force dark mode on you (if you are on a Mac)

  • Six Colors
  • MacSparky
  • 512 Pixels

And probably others I’ve forgotten or haven’t visited. By coincidence, these are all Apple-related sites (though not officially affiliated with Apple).

I’ve written about this before, but after seeing multiple sites doing this, I am compelled to once more highlight this as bad design.

It’s bad design because dark mode should be an OS-level choice, one that provides a dark frame around content that may or may not be dark itself.

A good example of doing this right is the writing program Ulysses. Here’s how it handles dark mode:

  • It lets you toggle dark mode on or off, regardless of the OS setting
  • It lets you choose to match the OS setting if you prefer
  • It lets you set just the outer UI elements to dark mode
  • It lets you choose to make the “inner” elements dark as well–in this case, it’s the actual area where you write, which can be dark or light

A bad example is the iOS Maps app, which simply matches the OS setting, turning the map backgrounds into a dark gray mud that is hard to read. On the Mac, you can sensibly toggle this on/off. On iOS, you can’t because Apple is a trillion-dollar company and can no longer function properly (see also: the mind-bogglingly inept Safari beta that rolled out this summer as part of iOS 15 and macOS Monterey).

The best part is the fix for the three websites mentioned above if you don’t want to be forced into dark mode and don’t want to have to toggle an OS-level display setting every time you visit: Check them on a Windows PC, because even if you have Windows 10 set to Dark mode, the sites will not display as such–it only happens if you’re using a Mac, where these sites take an Apple-like approach of “our way or get out.”

I should point out that all three sites are quite fine in and of themselves, content-wise. I even pay for Six Colors! You should read all of them if you are a Mac geek.

The solution as I’ve mentioned before, is to offer a user toggle. The 9to5Mac website (among others) does this and it works just fine. There’s no reason the others listed can’t do the same. That two of them actually went through recent redesigns and still omitted this is not insanely great.

Ghost in the machine: Apple edition

Tonight, the Apple TV turned itself on (technically it woke up, as it actually doesn’t have an actual on/off switch) and started silently streaming music from my music library (the receiver that powers the speakers was off at the time–it does have an on/off switch).

The last time I streamed music on the Apple TV was…I don’t remember when, actually. More than six months ago, I’d guess. Maybe longer. And I’ve done it maybe twice or three times in total.

But there was the Apple TV, doing its thing, unbidden and unwanted.

This happened a few days ago, too, but in that case it didn’t actually do anything, it just sat there until the screensavers kicked in.

A quick search suggested that having Background App Refresh set to ON might be responsible in it waking on its own. That doesn’t explain why it also started running some random app, though.

I updated the software, set Background App Refresh to OFF, then took the most important step:

I unplugged the power cord on the damn thing.

With all the streaming apps on the Xbox One (including Apple TV+, the confusingly named streaming service Apple offers), the Apple TV hardware is redundant. With it also acting squirrelly, it’s now actively annoying.

Having compared the streaming experience between the two platforms, I prefer the Xbox One, anyway. Maybe I’ll use the Apple TV as a very expensive paperweight–it’s actually about the right size and heft for that job.

I’m linking to Jason Snell’s charts because everyone else is

white android tablet turned on displaying a graph

Really, I challenge you to find a Mac or Apple-specific website that hasn’t linked these charts.

I guess that means these are good charts (they are).

Also, Apple made another giant pile of money in the last quarter, thanks to the rush to buy those last few original HomePods.

Just kidding.

I guess they sold a lot of iPhones. Weird, I know.

Jason Snell’s charts for Apple’s record $81 billion third quarter

(Six Colors is also a good Apple site. I adore the way they do tooltips. I know it’s an incredibly odd thing to focus on, but they just look and feel right, sort of like a well-designed Apple product. I want to know how they do them and steal them and use them here.)

Making the Mac tolerable

As an experiment, I decided to try going Mac-only for work, to see what the experience would be like.

Ho ho.

In the end, it worked…surprisingly well!

Here’s the hardware I am using for this:

  • MacBook Air M1 (16GB ram, 512GB SSD)
  • CalDigit 3 Thunderbolt dock
  • CTRL mechanical keyboard
  • Logitech G203 mouse
  • Blue (now owned by Logitech) Yeti microphone
  • Asus VG27A 27” monitor

You may have noticed something about some of the hardware listed, particularly the keyboard and mouse.

Both are wired.

The CTRL keyboard being wired is in a way more convenient than if it was wired. It has two USB-C ports, so to switch from PC to Mac, all I have to do is unplug one cable and plug in the other. Easy.

The G203 mouse I bought on sale—it’s Logitech’s cheapest gaming mouse and doesn’t look freakishly weird like some of their other gaming mice. It uses G HUB software to control its settings and the software works decently, though I had to use the macro function to get the side buttons to work as forward/back in Firefox. The real key here, though, is the mouse is wired and therefore is perfectly stable, working just as I’d expect. It still doesn’t feel quite as good as it would on Windows, but it’s fine. My experience with wireless mice on Macs has been chronicled here before, but suffice to say that even on the M1 chip, wireless mice are garbage—at least every one I have tried. Wireless receivers are incredibly janky and Bluetooth, while better, still feels far from smooth, it just doesn’t have the cursor actively skip and judder across the screen. This was probably the biggest usability fix for the Mac setup.

The next was adding a cheap Dlink switch that let me connect the MacBook to the Ethernet port on the CalDigit dock. The Wi-Fi is not bad, but a wired network connection is far faster and stable. This was big fix #2.

The third was the dock itself—it provides easy access to a bunch of connection types that the MacBook Air lacks, allowing it to act as a desktop, with access to audio, USB-A, DisplayPort for external monitors, and more.

The MacBook Air itself performs like a champ, always humming along efficiently and quietly. It does get warm at times, but I don’t try to minimize the number of apps I’m running, I just run whatever I need. I suspect I could probably push it to throttle if I really tried, but so far that hasn’t been the case.

The only downside right now is a glitch that forces me to keep the lid up while using it with the external monitor. If I close it, the monitor immediately turns the display off—even though the Mac still thinks it’s working. I thought the last update might fix it but no. On the other hand, it does let me use the Air’s display as a second monitor—handy, as the Air doesn’t actually support more than one external monitor.

In terms of software, everything has run without issue. Some apps, like the non-native Signal, are a bit slow to load and don’t look great, but the same can be said of the Windows version here. Almost everything else works great and has been very stable. For work I really only need Firefox and Teams, as almost all the tools I use are web-based, and Firefox is native and runs quite nicely.

The smoothness of this setup has led me to using the Mac more often, even ion the evening, but there are limits.

It still sucks for gaming. Even with Apple Arcade.

As mentioned above, the mouse is fine but still feels better in Windows. The G203 itself is a bit smaller than I’d like and the surface of it is a bit too smooth. On the PC I use the G703 and it has a grippier texture and fits my hand better.

The other issues are endemic to MacOS itself. The window management is shockingly poor for a mature OS. The ubiquitous menu bar feels like a relic on large screen displays. The dock is inferior to the more versatile taskbar in Windows.

But the dynamic desktop backgrounds are snazzy. And I’m writing this on the MacBook Air right now, using Ulysses, so it can’t be that bad.

I probably don’t need a laptop anymore, though. I’m keeping my eye on future Mac minis and the still-rumored larger iMac.

Office Lens attempts to translate my handwriting

Admittedly, it works better if you import the same thing into OneNote and convert from there, but it’s not as funny.

I am tempted to make Okan Jörnes my new pen name.

One thing macOS does better, one thing Windows does better

This week I’ve been using the M1 MacBook Air exclusively for work (I’ll post more on the experience soon) and as I’ve grown accustomed to using it for days at a time instead of hours, I’ve come to see how it does some things better than Windows.

But Windows still bests it in certain ways.

Here’s one way each is better than the other, in my opinion, WHICH IS OBJECTIVELY CORRECT.

macOS: Better font rendering. Fonts do not look bad in windows, but they look better on Macs. This is especially noticeable when you get into smaller font sizes or where color contrast is higher. Everything looks a little smoother on a Mac’s screen.

Windows: Perhaps unsurprisingly, given its name, but window management is better on Windows. It has easy to use options for snapping windows in place and resizing them, and has other handy features like window previews on the taskbar and more logical behavior on the taskbar vs. Apple’s dock.

I’ll expand more on which OS does things better in a future post, but I can confidently say that people who tout one being obviously superior to the other (without having some weird edge case or niche use) are big fat liars. For common tasks like browsing the web, listening to music, writing or doodling, they are both fine.

The 99% rule

What is the 99% rule, you may ask? I will tell you! Right now!

I have two devices which are affected by the 99% rule:

  • Fitbit Inspire HR
  • Logitech G703 gaming mouse

Both of these devices run on rechargeable batteries, so I periodically recharge them, as logic would dictate.

Regardless of how much charge is left in the Inspire HR when I begin to charge it, if I leave it charging for awhile and then check its current charge, it will always report:

99%

When I charge the G703 mouse, the same thing occurs. I can start charing it at 30% battery or 12% or whatever, when I check the status it will say:

99%

The charging for the Inspire HR seems to work something like this:

0—10—20—30—40-50—60—70—80—90—99——————————————100

I have not scientifically measured this, but it feels about right.

I am not sure why these devices seem to take a very long time to go from a 99% charge to a 100% charge. I suspect it may be related to the same technology behind the now deprecated Windows progress bar:

You may have seen this devil-in-disguise. The bar will move along at a steady pace, then abruptly or randomly slow down. Or stop. Or suddenly take off like it is sliding down a steep hill. It is, in a word, unpredictable. There are probably a multitude of technical reasons for this, ranging from variable drive transfer speed to phases of the moon, but in the end Microsoft changed to a more ambiguous way of showing progress so that people wouldn’t be afflicted by the 99% rule.

But it lingers on in devices that do not have progress bars. I’m not sure why, but I think it speaks to the persistence of the universe, so maybe in some perverse way it’s a good thing.

This concludes my desperate attempt to put a positive spin on some weird behavior for today.

These are a few of my favorite (browser extension) things

I use Firefox because Google sucks and I have a soft spot for the underdog, which Firefox very much is in this era of Chromium-or-bust browsers. Also, Apple doesn’t make Safari for Windows (anymore) and I’m sorry, Apple, I don’t use your devices all the time! So Firefox it is.

These are the extensions I use regularly and that I find useful. The list is a lot shorter than it used to be, as browsers began integrating a lot of features that previously required extensions.

  • Pocket. Save web stories to read later. Also converts text to a reader view, which makes the layout look nicer (and kills ads as a bonus side effect). Mozilla (makers of Firefox) owns Pocket, so it is integrated into Firefox, though it’s available for other browsers, too.
  • Font Finder (revived). I am always on the lookout for good fonts because a) I am always thinking about what will look good on my blog b) I have a fascination with fonts and typefaces and c) I’m just kind of weird in that I want to know the name of the font I’m looking at. Font Finder lets you reveal a font on a site with a simple click. You can even select a section of text and get it to render in whatever font you want, which is even more of a niche case usage that I’m looking for.
  • Dark Reader. Does its best to intelligently switch any site over to a dark mode. Handy for glaringly bright websites that don’t offer alternative views for those late night sessions. You can customize the color choices it makes, too, if you don’t like what it comes up with.
  • uBlock Origin. Yes, I block ads. Considering how they have become a vector for malware, tracking, slowing down page loading and breaking up page layout into nonsense, I feel no guilt in blocking ads. I pay for a lot of the sites I read regularly–when the option is present. It usually isn’t.
  • LanguageTool. This is the dullest name for a decent grammar and spell-checking extension ever. Similar to Grammarly, it offers to spell-check on the fly and has a nice single-click UI that please me. Like Grammarly and others, it gates some features behind a subscription, but the free version works well for me. My one complaint is it wants to insert commas everywhere.
  • OneNote Web Clipper. I don’t use OneNote that much anymore, but when I did, this extension worked well in letting you easily clip stuff for later use. Think of it as a more interactive version of Pocket.
  • NelliTab. Replacement for the New Tab page. After I found FVD speed dial started bogging down Firefox (it could take 30 seconds to start up) I sought out alternatives and the nice thing about NelliTab is it uses your bookmarks, so if you later decide to stop using NelliTab you still have your bookmarks all neatly organized into folders. The icons it uses look nice, too, and there’s a host of options for layout to help customize it just so. I may find I eventually bog this down, too, but for now it’s fine.

Clipboard history is strangely useful

Apparently I copy and paste a lot of random things, so the Clipboard history feature in Windows 10 (accessed by the Win + V combo) is surprisingly handy. I’m not sure if using it makes me a power user, but I’m going to pretend it does.

Here’s a few other random small utilities I use with Windows (I may make a Mac list if I’m not feeling lazy–and the Mac actually has a more dire need for these sorts of things, so take that, Tim Cook!):

  • Greenshot. The included Snip & Sketch actually works pretty decently now, but I’ve gotten used to Greenshot. It works great for grabbing screenshots and has a nice assortment of editing features that turn it into a mini image editor. And it’s completely free. Sadly, the not-free Mac version is not nearly as good.
  • Sizer. This program lets you assign keyboard shortcuts to predefined window sizes. I currently use a horrible piece of software at work that opens windows to something like 80% of your screen size, which may have made sense back in 2003 when everyone had 15 inch monitors, but is super-obnoxious when your monitor is a widescreen 27 inch model. I can only imagine what these windows would look like on a 34 inch ultrawide. Anyway, with one swift key combo I can resize the window to something sane and move it to exactly where I want it on screen. Also free!
  • EarTrumpet. Goofy name, but it acts as a replacement for the standard Windows volume control, making it a lot easier to control audio from multiple devices.
  • PowerToys. Yes, they’re back. It’s the 90s all over again! This is a nice collection of small utilities that let you do things like remap keys, quickly resize images, includes a color picker and more.