New MacBooks: Which is the best choice for the photographic road warrior?
I am in the market for a lightweight travel computer and it has to be a Mac. At base I am well served by the wonderful new iMac but my existing MacBook Air is three years old and showing its age in terms of speed. It has been a good companion and the only real gripe I have is the lack of an SD card slot.
Last week's announcement of the ultra-light, wafer-thin 12in MacBook with retina screen gets the juices flowing. It is beautiful and highly desirable, but does it pass muster as a road companion for photographers?
If it were not for my need to handle large numbers of RAW files I would have been tempted to go for the new MacBook. It ticks all the portability boxes and, despite the above comment about the missing SD port on my current Air, there is something compelling about the single USB-C interface of the new model. It handles power, USB, video, SD reader and almost anything else you care to throw at it (albeit via a positive festoon of dongles). Above all, the idea of a computer weighing under a kilo, with a magnificent retina screen, is a severe temptation. The early adopter will love it.
On the downside, this is likely to be one slow little computer. The Core M processor, as seen on a slew of netbooks, is certainly a power miser but is never going to break any records. It is likely to be much slower even than the 2GHz i7 processor of my old MacBook Air. And there is no option to add more RAM to supplement the native 8GB, something that most photographers would be looking for. Perhaps it is time to look for a more practical solution?
The existing MacBook Pro with retina screen is the most likely alternative. It is heavier (1.68kg compared with the 0.92kg of the MacBook) but is also much faster, more customisable and has a full set of ports, including that important SD slot.
The main factor working against the MacBook Pro is that it has just had its mid-life refresh and I suspect there is a new model on the stocks. Could it be out of date within six months?
The Pro even wins on price. The fastest new MacBook with its 1.2GHz Core M processor (turbo boosted to 2.6GHz), with 8GB of RAM and a 512GB solid-state storage weighs in at £1,299. But the base 13in MacBook Pro with retina screen is £300 cheaper and is much faster even without any tweaks.
Spec out the Pro, which is an irresistible temptation, and you could spend upwards of £700 more. But you do get a great deal of power and performance for the extra money.
For £1,729 (see the panel on the left) you get the much faster and more capable, if more power hungry, dual-core i7 processor with its 3.1GHz boosted to 3.4GHz. A 512GB disk is adequate for a road warrior in my opinion, but the memory is doubled to 16GB. This alone offers a tremendous boost in real-world performance, especially when it comes to processing RAW files.
Of course you do not have the novelty of the new USB-C port. But you do get a good complement of traditional interfaces, including two Thunderbolt ports, two USB3 and that useful SD slot.
I have no doubt the new MacBook will be a major success for Apple. Eventually, with a few performance tweaks, it will supplant both the MacBook Airs. What's the point in both an 11in and 13in Air when the 12in MacBook will eventually offer a bit of everything and in a smaller package. For the moment, though, the MacBook isn't for the performance user, especially not for the keen photographer with a stack of RAW files to process in a hurry. It reminds me very much of the original MacBook Air with its 64GB solid-state disk: Intensely desirable but with all the disadvantages of a first-generation model.
All this makes for a difficult choice. Both these computers are good road warriors and, if all you want to do is a bit of web browsing and email the MacBook could be perfectly adequate. While the heart definitely tells me to go for the all-new, minimalist MacBook, the head insists that the MacBook Pro is the more sensible choice.