At some point early on in the digital era, the world decided that Apple was the way to go for serious photographers and graphics professionals – granted, there were applications that were Mac-specific or just worked so much better on a Mac than a PC that it made sense. I’m sure some of that was image and hubris, too pricing be damnmed, the hardware just looked sooo much cooler. There was also a point in not so distant history at which we weren’t held hostage by Apple’s upgrade options, either: you could buy the base version, and upgrade certain components yourself if you were handy with a screwdriver, which brought the cost of performance down. The cost of ownership wasn’t (and still isn’t) as bad because Macs maintain their resale value – probably because the new machines are never much cheaper than the old ones. But a) does Apple hardware still make sense for photographers, and b) if so, what hardware?
I switched to Apple in late 2006, with a 15″ Macbook Pro pre-Unibody. Having come from a Sony Vaio and a couple of Dells. I admit, I was seduced by the hardware, and the prices weren’t so bad compared to the equivalent Vaios – even if the screens weren’t quite as good and the processors a little slower. In use though, I think it was all justified – the experience was so much smoother, and the hardware felt bulletproof. Except for my expanding battery pack. And the fact that it went through battery packs at a horrendous rate – I think five in all, during the five years I had the machine. I did like the fact that it was upgradeable and I kept extending its life with ram and drive upgrades; it served me far longer than I’d expected it to. My next machine was an easy choice – the first generation unibody 15″ that stayed home as the photography computer, and subsequently in late 2011, I added a 11″ Air for business travel. The early part of this site was written almost entirely on that machine, too. In late 2012, I consolidated on a newer 11″ Air for travel, and a Mac Mini server with 27″ Thunderbolt Display for the primary desktop – the latter which is still serving currently, and still plenty fast enough.
Let me explain the rationale here: I went from one machine that had to be powerful enough for all tasks, and sometimes portable, to two machines, one of which scarified power for portability and battery life. That worked well enough that I decided to go with a maxed out version of the 11″ Air – which has only just left me, actually – and essentially a desktop. The Mini was a no-brainer: the relatively low (for Apple) prices; plenty of power with the 2.6G quad-core i7; easy upgradeability of components with plug and play ram and dual drive bays which only required removal of a few screws. It now has 16GB of RAM and dual 500GB SSDs, and still flies. For those interested in the numbers, the Xbench scores are something like 3,200/12,000 or thereabouts.
I have found of late that my portable machine needed more horsepower. (It would also be nice if my desktop could drive 4k, but that’s another story.) I am spending increasingly more time on the road as my clientele gets increasingly international; if those long hours spent on airplanes could be productive, then I could at least spend more time with the family when back home, or decompressing between assignments. Whilst the late-2012 11″ Air (2.0G i7, 8GB, 256 GB) was good enough for files up to 16MP, and not too bad for 24MP, the 36-50MP monsters I’m dealing with now were definitely laggy. Not so much in basic operations as waiting time to open, less-than-fluid brushes, and the screen gamut left a lot to be desired. It took many attempts to calibrate, still didn’t feel quite right in the end, and if a file looked good on that monitor, it would definitely be within gamut on just about anything else. The Airs are more than adequate for people who are casual photographers, which is a mark of just how far portable computing has come; but if you’re a power user, think again. And forget about video.
So what did I replace it with? We currently have no less than six main choices: Macbook, Macbook Air, Macbook Pro, iMac, Mac Mini and the Mac Pro. For those of us who travel often, the three desktops are out of the question (though if you always have a power supply, then a 13″ Wacom Cintiq and a Mac Mini might actually be a workable choice for tethering on location). The 12″ Macbook Retina is today what the Air was in 2008: pushing the design envelope at the expense of performance. It drips with want, but is dry on practicality. I say wait a couple of years, and we’ll have acceptable performance in that kind of form factor. The price, specification and single port are simply not practical unless you value weight above all else. As militant as the airlines are, even I wouldn’t go that far. The main board, however, is an incredible piece of design – the whole computer including storage is not much larger than a credit card. I looked into another 11″ or 13″ Air; after all, there’s probably 30-40% more power to be had compared to what I was running previously, but there’s no way it would solve the horsepower problem. And the 13″ Air has a pretty big footprint because of the thick screen bezel, meaning all of my current packing solutions would not work.
I then turned to the 15″ Retinas: if I had to buy a new bag, and carry more weight, why not go the whole hog and replace the desktop, too? I could then have a dual monitor setup for even more real estate. Simple problem: footprint, again. It wouldn’t fit into most of my bags and the whole dock-undock procedure makes me concerned for the longevity of my ports. Not to mention the pain of migrating portable device sync from the Mini to a new machine. I’ll have to deal with that eventually, but why start now? Retina makes me hesitant mainly because of retouching: it’s too easy to miss a dot your client won’t because they’re not on Retina, and it makes it very difficult to judge critical sharpness/focus/adequate sharpening. But, having tried intermediate screens settings via SwitchResX (critical for Retina users, I think), there’s a workable balance somewhere in the middle which isn’t eye-fatiguingly small, nor is it so smooth you can no longer sharpen accurately or see minor blemishes. Retina problem solved.
We are then by default left with the 13″ Macbook Pro: it lacks the quad core processors and dedicated graphics card of the 15″s, but it also lacks the weight and is significantly cheaper. Forget the non-Retina; it’s crippled with slow processors, lots of weight, and a very low resolution, limited-gamut screen. Even if you really need a DVD drive, you’re better off buying an external one. I honestly have no idea when the last time I used mine was, incidentally. Once again, Apple has not just carefully tiered pricing options, but also continued to move towards ‘sealed’ systems which are basically not user serviceable at all: you must choose the configuration you want at the time of purchase. As tempting as it is to pick the 13″ Retina and tick all of the option boxes, look carefully: that 1TB SSD upgrade is a whopping $500; the faster processor is $200, and 8GB more RAM is also $200. You cannot change the processor or RAM later, and both are pretty critical to speedy operation. The processor bump goes from a 2.9 i5 to a 3.1 i7, and I think is worthwhile. The storage is not. You can buy a 1TB SSD off Amazon and a SATA-USB3 cable for about $350 – giving you 1.5TB in total, a very fast scratch or transfer disk, and leaving $150 in your pocket. You can probably guess about now I’m writing this on a 13″ Retina with the 3.1 i7, 16GB RAM and 512GB SSD…
It’s too early to say whether this is speedy enough to replace the Mac Mini, though the Xbench scores are actually a bit faster on the 13″ Retina for single core work (Photoshop is still single core, sadly). But I do know that at least working away from the office is going to be more efficient.
At this point, it’s worth mentioning that I seriously considered moving back to Windows/PC when looking at this new machine. Dell has the XPS13″ which has a similarly nice panel, much smaller footprint and lighter price tag; unfortunately the machine just doesn’t feel as nice, and I’ve been out of the Windows environment for so long that there have been enough changes I’d feel like learning a new OS – and I honestly don’t have the time for that. But for those of you who do use both platforms, I’d give it a long, serious look. And there’s no question that on the desktop side, unless you want the 5K display, then between the very premium pricing and/or lack of upgradeability, it’s very difficult to justify another Apple machine. The new Mac Mini is pretty much not user accessible anymore. iMacs are glued shut with copious adhesive; if they’d at least let us access the hard drive in addition to the RAM, I’d probably bite – even if it means paying for a screen I don’t really need. And the Mac Pro is gorgeous but absolutely terrible value for money.
It is probably important to remember that few people need the kind of computing power beyond even the most basic laptops; tablets and phones are now powerful enough to serve a lot of users computing needs entirely. Even amongst photographers, how many are chunking through hundreds of 80MB+ RAW files on a regular basis? Or stitching gigapixel images? I suspect very, very few, and even for the majority of still photography work, that mid-2012 11″ Air was more than sufficient. Think of it this way: it’s a case of matching the back end to the front end; you’re not going to be very happy if you’re capture-limited or workflow-limited. That said, chasing the bleeding edge in any discipline has always been costly; it’s just that the edge is a little closer and a little duller, but clothed in oh-so-seductive CNC’ed aluminium. MT
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