Why the old Macbook Pro is better for me, and probably for you too

Why the old Macbook Pro is better for me, and probably for you too

Summary: The new Retina Macbook Pro is nice, but it isn't what most people need.


Next month, I'm moving into my new home in Florida and I'm going to be outfitting my office with new equipment. For the last six months, I've been waiting to give my wife my Mac Mini server and one of my HD monitors, and to replace it with a newer Mac and a Thunderbolt display.

The intention is to replace both Der Frankenputer (which will serve out the remainder of its life as a server) as well as the 2010 Mac Mini, clearing off a ton of desk space in the process.

Like many folks, I was salivating over the gorgeous and powerful 15" Macbook Pro with Retina Display that was announced this week. It has the power of a desktop, but the ultraportability of a notebook computer. And of course, that gorgeous Retina display.

I was originally going to pick up a Mac Pro desktop, since I really don't need another laptop. My employer provides me with a company-owned laptop, and I have another personal Lenovo laptop for when I travel on vacations and such and need something for actual writing and content creation, as opposed to my iPad, which actually ends up being used the most anyway.

Problem is, the Mac Pro ended up being a snoozer. No USB 3.0 or Thunderbolt upgrade, just a processor boost. And it's still way overpriced. I was hoping this time around they would do something exciting with the desktops, such as perhaps create a "Mac Mini Pro" or a "iMac Pro" but no such luck.

Apple's CEO, Tim Cook has stated that a refresh is due in 2013, so maybe we'll get lucky next year.

So now I'm looking at a Mac laptop as a possible desktop replacement. I need something with a fast processor, good graphics performance, fast I/O and can take 16GB of RAM.

I need this high-end config because I'm looking to replace two systems with one machine -- I run VMWare on the Frankenputer and also because I use Aperture, Photoshop and iMovie on the Mac Mini and am likely to start using Final Cut Pro.

On the surface, the new Retina Macbook Pro looks awesome. Problem is, my wife would probably divorce me if I priced it out and actually bought one.

I went through the Apple Store to see what the thing would cost. I bumped it to a 2.7Ghz processor, boosted it to 16GB of RAM, added a 27" external Thunderbolt display and Applecare.

What's the war damage? $4,597.00.

Holy Crap.

Okay, maybe I need to re-think this.

The Retina display is gorgeous, but if I'm going to keep this laptop more or less permanently docked on my desk and attached to the Thunderbolt display, I don't really need one. And frankly, I may hold off on the Thunderbolt screen and just use my existing HD monitors off a Moshi Mini Displayport to HDMI connector for a while.

If I configure a refreshed, old-style Macbook Pro with a 2.7Ghz CPU, a 750GB SATA drive, a regular 15-inch display and an Applecare plan, it comes out to $2798.00.

And if I want to upgrade the machine, I can go right over to Crucial.com and pick up a 16GB memory kit for $173.99 and a 512GB m4 2.5" 6GB/s SSD for $399.

What's that run? $3370.99.

Now, granted, if I do add that Thunderbolt display, that's going to bump the price up to $4369.00. Which isn't that far off from the Macbook Pro with Retina I configured.

So why not just go with the Macbook Pro with Retina? Or even a souped-up iMac? Well, there's this nagging little upgradability thing.

First, you can't put an optical drive in the new Retina Macbook Pro. It's too thin. And yes, I still burn DVDs, and I'd rather not use an external device if I can avoid it. I'm already going to hook it up to external storage as it is, and I want to minimize my desk clutter. Plus, if I do need to travel with it, I'd rather not carry an external DVD drive.

Second, the RAM is soldered onto the Retina Macbook's mainboard and the SSD uses a proprietary daughterboard which nobody has licensed yet. That's a total no-go for me and you're paying a premium to configure it with Apple's RAM and SSD.

Yes, you're going to get some speed advantages that way, but not enough to make a serious difference in my opinion.

If I want to upgrade to a 1TB SSD a year from now, I can do that easily with the regular Macbook Pro. If the RAM somehow needs to be replaced, Crucial will take it back, cross ship me new chips, and I won't have to send the machine back to the factory.

And the iMac? I don't really want to be without the machine if the display goes bad and I have to send it in for repairs.

So it looks like I'm probably going to pick up the refreshed "Old" Macbook Pro, and stuff it with 3rd-party upgrades.

Are you thinking about purchasing one of the new Macbooks? Talk Back and Let Me Know.

See also:

Topic: Apple


Jason Perlow, Sr. Technology Editor at ZDNet, is a technologist with over two decades of experience integrating large heterogeneous multi-vendor computing environments in Fortune 500 companies. Jason is currently a Partner Technology Strategist with Microsoft Corp. His expressed views do not necessarily represent those of his employer.

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  • Interesting

    It's really important not to confuse wants with needs, as you run into dilemmas like this. Do you NEED 16GB of RAM to work? Or a 27" Thunderbolt display? Or the highest end 2.7Ghz GPU?

    People want to be smart with their money buy Apple products new off of eBay 1-2 months after release. Saves you a ton of money off of the list price, plus no tax, and it's still eligible for AppleCare. I got my brand new early 2011 15" MacBook Pro for $1800, where as it would have cost me $2308 new from Apple. I saved $580 by waiting just a month.

    If you want upgradability, buy a desktop. Laptops are only going to get more and more integrated over time.
    Jeff Kibuule
    • RAM

      I actually do need that much RAM, as I plan to virtualize another OS on top of it as well as do photo editing with Aperture and use iMovie. The highest end CPU, maybe not, but it's worth some degree of future proofing the machine, if I intend to keep it for 3 or more years.

      I agree that the Apple outlet and eBay is great for buying certain kinds of equipment, I bought my current Mac Mini that way.
      • virtualize

        nowhere in your article have you mentioned need to virtualize. Still, you can allocate 2GB ram for each machine, having opened 4 vms at the same time and have 4GB left.

        Need - Want?
      • Want, not need

        Do you really need to run the VM and Aperture at the same time? And with an SSD, a VM can boot in 2 seconds and shut down in 4. Is that worth $200?

        RAM was really important when swapping data to a magnetic hard drive actually caused slowdowns, but with SSDs, I find it rather moot.
        Jeff Kibuule
      • Assumptions?

        "Still, you can allocate 2GB ram for each machine, having opened 4 vms at the same time and have 4GB left."

        In his article he states he needs the horsepower (hell, *I* need the horsepower), and he doesn't state what it is he needs to virtualize. If my own development envrionments are anything to go by, 2GB per VM isn't going to cut it.
      • Aperture and VM at the same time?

        "Do you really need to run the VM and Aperture at the same time? And with an SSD, a VM can boot in 2 seconds and shut down in 4. Is that worth $200?"

        But why extend the SSD cycles? And why put yourself in a compromised position where you have to choose between one and the other, when you can have both on pretty much any other manufacturer's machine?

        And yes, I can think of plenty of reasons he would run Aperture at the same time as his VMs. Maybe his virtualized OS is running updates in the background while he works on a photography project. Maybe he is working on something he wants to keep "at the ready" in the VM while he works in Aperture.

        Don't assume that people are willing to compromise to the same level as you are, especially where efficiency and productivity are concerned.
      • I haven't read through all of the comments,

        but why not go with an iMac 27"? You get the 27" display, Thunderbolt ports, and up to 16GB of RAM, plus usually you can pick up ram cheaper on Crucial for the thing.
    • "Laptops are only going to get more and more integrated over time. "

      An Alienware user disagrees with you on that point.
  • I need 16GB RAM for content creation haha!

    "I need something with a fast processor, good graphics performance, fast I/O and can take 16GB of RAM"
    Seriously? 16GB for content creation? I have $1,500 computer with 8GB of memory running at 1600Mhz and I have clocked up over 500 hours of gaming.

    It's not the size but speed! Get a decent $1,000 gaming PC (for graphics) and you will be just fine.
    • Slight problem

      1) Can't run Aperture, Final Cut or iMovie on a PC.
      2) I also require the memory for virtualization.
      • Da Hint

        Tim Cook did send that e-mail. Perhaps in a few months, there will be real MacPro updates.

        It will still be expensive, of course, Apple does charge extra for user modifiability. Bug? No, Feature! Nimrods like me can't break their iMacs by messing around with graphics cards, etc., and finding oneself lost in Driver Hell.

        Though, to be honest, this WWDC (where the audience is filled with users who need power to compile) does suggest a narrative of Apple leaving pro users behind. I think this will never be fully true. A, Apple employs lots of pro gear users and it would be quel embarrassment if they're using Dells. B, the power Mac is the Indy car: a place where cutting edge performance is engineered before bringing to the masses. Though, we have seen the consumer machines get better processors faster.

        Any way, good luck.
      • You should see the new ipad app, vjay

        It's a movie editing app and the fanboys go googoo all over it.

        Granted, on forums where people talked about it, the only ones getting voted down were ones who dared to ask about details, performance, speed, disk requirements, if the ipad got hot during processing, and other apparently useless things...
      • True, but there are alternatives, Jason...

        ..though you have to weigh the gain of more hardware flexibility with the need to run something like Avid and Lightroom instead of Aperture and Final Cut Pro.
      • For that price....

        Buy a normal iMac and a Super High end PC. Then you still save 2000.
    • 8GB for content creation?

      ..circa 2003 I was doing all that on a PowerMac G4 with 512MB of RAM and a 250GB striped RAID..

      Of course, times do change, and requirements increase in the computer world.. As they do today..

      Also, given that the new Macbook Pro doesn't have any RAM upgrade slots, I'd say the need for 16GB of RAM (or more) is pretty legit, unless you want to buy ANOTHER new computer in a year or two.
      • Too bad you can only get upvoted once.

        I'd give you at least +4 for this comment.

        Honestly though, I still remember doing video editing in middle school on a Mac LC 630 with 32MB of RAM. We had to leave it running overnight to encode 30 minutes of video.
      • Not that expensive

        I went on the Apple site and found the upgrade to 16gb of ram was only an extra $200. Not that bad at all.
    • FCP, Avid, and Vegas...

      they all run much better with more memory. My MBP has 4GB of RAM and an SSD, my frankenmac has 16GB and a pair of WD Blacks in RAID0. Both are Core 2 Duo processors. Guess which machine is twice as fast when it comes to FCP performance? Here's a hint - it's not the machine with a SSD in it.
    • What does

      "I have clocked up over 500 hours of gaming" that have to do with "content creation".

      You should have gotten an Xbox and a smartphone for all of your computing needs, and saved $1000
  • Newton [,maxwell, philip johnson] and the Apple

    Dear, 2 things in an informal way.
    The 1st:
    there is a way to go up - we say to "evolve" - seeing it as a downhill. And it is to go up walking back.
    The 2nd: when someone thinks about Apple, he has not to think about this here: http://www.backtoblog.net/wp-content/uploads/2012/05/Steve-Jobs1.jpg , but indeed at this one here: http://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/0/07/Philip_Johnson.2002.FILARDO.jpg
    [Do you see how that shape remembers the "pure design mac-likely?].

    Ok now 1, Apple goes up in the continuos effort of evolution, the climb is its but makes you struggle, teaching you how to do it in back (and 5% do); so thath everything looks more linear;

    2, Apple "philosophy of pure design" is that, going up means deconstruction of what already is [your optical burner], in place of what from now there isnt more - - doesn't this give the perception of [i]continuum[/i], and getting *galaxies*?, even if you look more and more downwards (you're looking at it since more and more time), and probably this is [s]priceless[/s].

    Saluts. j