Wednesday, April 14, 2010

GADGETS: How to Choose a MacBook Pro

A week or so ago, someone I follow re-tweeted a message from @autumnbuck, and it was hilarious so I started following her too. She quickly followed me back and there was some mutual excitement over being new nerdfriends. Then, a few days later, she tweeted something about it being time for her to buy a new computer, and I leaped into action.

She needed to record her band, which threw up a giant glowing sign: GET A MAC! But at the time, I didn't know much about choosing a Mac, mostly because I assumed if you were getting one, you had tons of disposable income, and would just go with their Cadillac model. I have since done some research into choosing a MacBook Pro, and found that there are a lot more options and choices to make than I previously thought.

 (Not actually a Mac... The sticker is surprisingly effective hipster-camouflage.)

Last week, when I started researching this, the MacBook Pro CPU was still the nearly decade old Core 2 Duo. Today they released new models featuring the Core i5 and i7 CPUs, so I can feel a little better about offering recommendations. However, for some reason they did not release a 13" model with a new CPU, so I cannot in good conscience tell you to buy a $1500 computer with an ancient CPU. Sure, it's still pretty fast. But if you want something small, buy a PC with better specs for half that price. See my previous articles about choosing a Netbook or Laptop.

Before we get into the meat of how to choose, you need to re-ask yourself this critical question: Do you ever intend to play a video game on this computer?

If yes, then see my aforementioned Laptop article.

If no, continue on.

Having examined the configuration options for the 15" and 17" models, here's what I recommend. If you're going 15", get the least expensive one possible. Take it stock with no upgrades, except possibly pushing the 320gb hard drive up to 500gb. I have a hard time counseling against extra hard drive space in your laptop at any price, because there's virtually no such thing as too much storage space. Don't worry about RAM. 4gb is plenty unless you're editing videos hardcore, and if you're doing that, you're going to want to spend a lot more on your machine anyway. The 15" model is going to run you around $1800-$1900 depending on what you decide to do with hard drive size. Take the cheapest processor. Again, you're probably only going to notice the speed difference between the i5-2.4, i5-2.53, and i7-2.66 if you're doing some crazy video editing.

If price tag is not within the scope of your decision making, get ready to SPEND. Get a 17" model with the i7 CPU. It'll be worth every penny of the $2500 bucks. Maybe even spring the extra $50 for the 7400rpm hard drive. In practice, your hard drive RPMs are not that big a deal, because data retrieval is bottle necked by seek time and bus speed. Also, most files you're going to be pulling down off the drive are not huge. But screw it, you're buying a Cadillac. You're spending $2500 on this beast. Another $50 at this point isn't going to break your bank. I generally wouldn't advise going with more than 4gb of ram, but hey. We've established that price is no object, and maybe you're looking at doing video editing, so that extra 4gb might come in handy. At this point, it's up to you. But definitely spring the $200 for the i7 if you're going all the way on a 17". You're shelling out so much cash, there's no reason not to.

A little more info: If you're hoping to record your band, you're going to need a MIDI-input device that connects to your computer with USB or Firewire. I wouldn't spend more than about $200 on one unless your band earns money. Something like the M-Audio MidiSport should do the trick for 4-track recording. All Macs already come with Garage Band installed on them, which is pretty robust for being free. Again, you probably don't need to upgrade to ProTools unless your band makes money.

Whatever size hard drive you select, you may still want to consider an external hard drive for all of the reasons I mentioned in my netbook article. They're super useful, and not awfully expensive for a bunch of extra storage space.

Good luck on your multi-media adventure!

@nerdsherpa (I'm still a PC, but Macs are computers too.)


  1. If you do end up doing a segment on digital audio interfaces for your tools, get me involved. I've used a lot of the hardware and a lot of the software.

    I will say that the very expensive Pro Tools rig sounds far, far better than any of the other systems.

  2. Jim,

    As far as hard drives go for Macbook Pro's, some of the best advice I can really give is to avoid HDDs altogether and go for a solid state drive. Anyone doing ANY type of heavy lifting on an MBP such as running Adobe applications will want the performance of a solid state drive.

    However, it's best to order your MBP with a stock drive and purchase an aftermarket SSD. Apple has very inflated prices for that particular component.

  3. thank you for the post! it's exactly the explanation i was looking for a while. i will use you recommendation to pick the bast MacBook Pro.

  4. excellent advice and great comments