MacBooks for pros: How to decide among several workable options

For high-end pro Mac users, the choices have been pretty barren. But with the introduction of the 2018 MacBook Pros, options open up. Here's how to decide.
Written by David Gewirtz, Senior Contributing Editor

The introduction of the 2018 MacBook Pro models just a month after WWDC has surprised everyone. What's even more of a surprise is that this crop of devices actually has offerings that are of use to high-end pro users.

What's a high-end pro?

I've been writing about pro Mac users for a while, and every so often, someone takes issue with my definition of what a pro user is. So, in this article, I'm going to draw the distinction between pro users and what I'm going to call high-end pros.

My readers are right. Even someone who just lives in a browser can be a professional user if he or she is doing work. My real estate agent, for example, who uses her phone as her primary tool, and a browser-based SaaS real estate app on her computer, is undoubtedly a pro.

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When I say "pro" in the context of hardware choices, I'm not just referring to someone who uses technology for work. What I really mean is someone who needs to push the capabilities of technology to get his or her job done.

I'm talking about developers with huge development environments, a bunch of open virtual machines, and a live simulation of a network of multiple hosts all running on a single desktop.

I'm talking about video editors who are ingesting 4K (and sometimes even 8K) video, who add effects, and then need to scrub through clips and see them render live.

I'm talking about the live streamer who has to do dynamic chroma key and process multiple video inputs, muxing them on the fly, and pumping them back out to viewers around the world.

I'm talking about scientists, 3D modelers, analytics wonks, photographers - anyone who needs a tremendous amount of processing power, lots of memory, super-fast storage, and high-speed local networking.

These are the high-end pros who can't actually do their jobs without the necessary horsepower.

"Just get a PC and stop whining"

I hear that a lot. But it's reductive for some needs.

One characteristic of a high-end pro is the need for a powerful computing platform. Another is often the need for specialized applications, or applications that streamline workflow.

I'm a good example of this. While a lot of what I do can easily be done in a browser on any machine, there is a long list of applications I use that exist only on the Mac.

In my case, most of the functionality of these applications can be duplicated on a PC. For example, instead of using Final Cut Pro X for video editing, I could use Premiere Pro.

In fact, that's a good example. I found Premiere Pro to be incredibly buggy. For one video, it crashed well over a hundred times. For almost every other, it crashed a lot. Out of desperation, I switched to Final Cut and made a few discoveries. It almost never crashes. Its integration with Motion is so natural that, in a few hours, I can develop and add my own plugins that save me hundreds of mouse clicks and keystrokes per edit. Its rendering and overall speed is often 10x that of Premiere.

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Editing projects that took seven or eight days to go from raw video to upload in Premiere Pro dropped down to one or two days in Final Cut. For someone as busy as I am, that's a game-changer. But it limits me to the Mac for video editing.

I have found similar workflow benefits for some of the tools I use in production of my huge PowerPoint slide decks and software development. The fact is, without these tools I would not be able to get my job done in the number of hours available in a week.

It's not that I love the Mac. In fact, much about Apple and the Mac annoy me to no end. It's that by using tools that exist only on the Mac, I can actually get through my workload and have a few hours leftover for sleep.

Okay, so let's talk machines.

Summer 2018 Macs for pros line-up

As of July 2018, there are three Macs that I consider suitable for high-end pros. Each of these machines is defined as such by allowing 32GB of RAM or more, and four cores or more.

The 2017 iMac Pro

This bad boy is at the top of the Mac food chain. The base model has an 8-core Xeon W, and it scales up to 18 cores. It bottoms out at 32GB RAM and can be leveled up to 128GB of 2666MHz DDR4 ECC memory.

On top of that, you've got up to 4TB of super-fast SSD storage and, only in this machine, a 10GB Ethernet connection. Pricing starts at a head spinning $4,999 and tops out at $13,199.

The mid-2017 iMac

Shockingly, both the 21-inch and 27-inch iMacs both have some game. Even the lower-end 21-inch iMac has an option for a 3.6GHz quad-core Intel Core i7 (Turbo Boost up to 4.2GHz), and 32GB RAM. At the high end, the 27-inch will take you up to 64GB RAM.

Right now, these beasts are still running the last-generation Kaby Lake Intel processors. Given that the new MacBooks were just introduced with Coffee Lake processors, there will probably be an upgrade bump just a few minutes after you buy one of these iMacs and your 14-day return grace period ends.

Pricing for the lowest-end i7 with 32GB of RAM and a 1TB SSD is $2,999, all the way up to $5,299 for a fully maxed-out machine.

The 15-inch 2018 MacBook Pro

The newest contender in the high-end pro Mac market is the surprise introduction last week of the 15-inch 2018 MacBook Pro. This thing sports a Coffee Lake CPU (Apple's first use of this newer generation processor), which you can configure with an i9 and six cores.

Unfortunately, the only ports on this thing are the four Thunderbolt 3 ports, so you're going to be buying docks or dongles. Factor it in.

Base price for the i7 model with 1TB SSD and 32GB RAM is $3,599. If you get crazy with the specs (mostly the SSD pricing, which you may not need), you're throwing down $6,699.

Build your own Hackintosh

Another choice, although a bit fraught with risk, is building your own Hackintosh. All current pro-level Mac choices include a screen. If you're willing to build your own box and use your own screen, a Hackintosh might be the way to go. I haven't priced one out, but the general feedback from builders I know is they've saved about 30-40 percent on build cost compared to buying a Mac from Apple.

Not in consideration

While Apple still sells Mac minis and trashcan-shaped Mac Pro machines, you should stay away from these. While I've derived considerable value from my four 2012-vintage Mac minis, these machines are far too overpriced because they haven't been updated in nearly half a decade.

As for the trashcans, no one has ever had anything good to say about these things.

How to decide

With the addition of the new MacBook Pros, the decision tree becomes a little more clear. I'm going to leave the Hackintosh option out of this, because it can be fitted into each of these choices in some way, but you still always run the hassle and compatibility risk.

If you need 10Gig Ethernet: If you're moving or working on huge video files across the network and you know you need 10Gig Ethernet, then the iMac Pro is your only choice. Of course, that pre-supposes you've already upgraded your network infrastructure enough to handle 10Gig traffic.

If you want portable power: If you want to do high-end pro work on the go, the new MacBook Pro is a viable choice. I'm even considering it for moving between my main working desk and the studio desk in my work environment because it's easy to move, and that means I wouldn't need two fully-equipped and expensive machines.

If you want a big, Apple-quality display: There is no doubt that Apple's iMac displays are beautiful. I don't like them because they're heavy, and so don't work well with all but the most robust (and somewhat inflexible) monitor arms. But if you want a gorgeous and big display, you can't go wrong with any of the iMac models.

If you know how much RAM you need beyond 32GB: If you need more than 32GB of RAM, you'll want the 27-inch iMac (which goes up to 64GB) or the iMac Pro (which goes up to 128GB).

If you want blistering fast on-board storage: All of the options I've discussed have very fast storage, but the iMac Pro and MacBook Pro go up to 4TB, while the iMacs max out at 2TB.

If you really, really want a space gray Apple keyboard: Go visit Colorware. $199 for a custom keyboard color is a lot less than thousands for an iMac Pro.

If you don't know why anyone would buy one of these very expensive machines: Definitely don't get one. If you need one, you already know why.

If you're wondering why Apple hasn't updated the Mac mini in four years but still insists on selling a wildly obsolete model for full price: You're not alone.

So there you go. High-end pro users now have some real options, although they're still very expensive and you're still paying for a screen you may not want to use. What about you? Are you going to buy one of these things? Let me know in the comments below.


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