Buying a new Mac: The problem is solved, for now
From time to time I’ve written about my Mac computing setup and touched on the thorny problem of whether to have two machines, one tethered to the desk and one for travel. Up to now, I have been working with a 27in iMac on the office desk and a slim, light 12in MacBook for travel purposes.
For several reasons, which I will cover in more detail in a moment, I have finally made up my mind to replace the iMac with a 15in MacBook Pro. Yet I still believe in the convenience (and the safety net) of having two synchronised computers. So for the time being the old MacBook will soldier on in tandem.
Why the 2018 MacBook Pro and why the larger 15in model? For starters, the latest MBPs, introduced last month, are much improved and are now ready for the mainstream. The earlier, first-generation MBP with Touch Bar received some bad reviews, especially because of the new keyboard which many found to be too shallow and lacking in feedback — not to mention the recurrent problem with sticking keys which frustrated many users. I have read some very positive reviews of the 2018 models and its revised keyboard. So much so, in fact, that I decided now was the time to invest in a new laptop. With the Apple product cycle, it is always a fine decision as to when to jump on the bandwagon.
While the desktop iMac with the 27in screen is still a magnificent computer to use (although it had become a tad slow), I decided to “downgrade” to a laptop for three specific reasons.
The first consideration is that it gives me the opportunity to move around office and home with the main computer rather than having to use a second computer whenever I am not at the desk. However good modern cloud synchronisation performs, there is always something different — or plain missing — on a second computer. And docking a laptop is now so much easier, as I detail below.
The second consideration is one to do with age and eyesight. Since I installed the old iMac four years ago I have been plagued with problems when trying to focus on the big screen (which has to be a certain distance from the eye because of its size). I found this distance to be just outside the reading lens of my varifocals but too near for the upper distance sector to be able to focus.
This is definitely a case of change through age. I thought I had solved the problem two years ago by buying a pair of “computer glasses” with the prescription tailored to the circa 30in distance between eye and screen. Increasingly, however, I have been frustrated by continually having to change glasses. Occasionally, too, I have left home and driven halfway down the road in the car before realising I am still wearing the computer glasses. But worse, constantly changing glasses can tire the eyes and lead to strain and some difficulty in adjusting focus. Even, I found, the occasional dizziness was an unwelcome byproduct of the process.
The solution, I thought, would be to adopt a smaller screen nearer to the eyes, one which could be adjusted easily for distance comfort. That’s where the MacBook Pro comes in. Admittedly, the 15in screen is indeed small compared with that of the old iMac, but at a normal reading distance, this isn’t as much of a problem as it might seem. And the new retina True Tone display is absolutely excellent. A smaller screen nearer to the face seems to be a solution, at least for the time being. Since I changed over to the new laptop my eyes have given no problem.
Ease of focus
I can use the MacBook Pro comfortably with my normal glasses, without worrying about straining to focus. This problem is one that usually comes only with age and younger readers might be forgiven for wondering what all the fuss is about.
The third consideration is that the latest MacBook Pros can be “docked” with just one Thunderbolt USB-C cable. In the old days, desk-bound laptops had to be tethered with a depressingly wide range of disparate cables, including one for power. Now, both power and data travel over the one cable. And that solitary cable occupies just one of the four USB-C sockets (all of which now work at identical speeds on the latest models whereas on the first-generation Touch Bar machines two ports were hobbled).
The ONE CABLE is plugged into an OWC 12-port OWC Thunderbolt 3 dock which in turn accommodates connections for USB-C disk drives, Ethernet and Thunderbolt drives. It even has a fast SD card reader, which is essential for photographers because modern Apple laptops have discarded this facility. I have a USB-C dongle with SD slot for use when not at the desk.
The only snag is that if you have a few backup disks mounted (through that one cable and the dock) and I have eight, unplugging can be unkind and productive of error messages — although I am not convinced that unplugging disks without going through the ejection procedure is all that dangerous. Ejecting the disks manually in the Finder is a chore. I solved this by installing a small (and free) toolbar utility called Semulov from Kainjow.com which allows selective or universal ejection at the click of the cursor. This works well and the disks don’t appear to object. When the main cable is reconnected the drives re-mount seamlessly.
External local storage is another matter and needs careful thought and planning. My setup is currently a work in progress, having been pobbling along without attention for several years. I have a motley collection of drives which store and back up all my data, including an 8TB USB 3 drive for the Lightroom database (which of course is far too large to fit on the internal drive in the computer).
All of this is backed up to other drives using Carbon Copy Cloner. For the time being, I have simply reconnected all the existing drives, but once the dust has settled I shall be looking for a simpler and more effective solution — possibly a 16TB RAID drive. Or, perhaps, a simple 8TB Thunderbolt 3 external drive for the primary Lightroom database would do the trick. It would be much faster than current USB-3 drive which could then be used as a backup. But that’s for the future and I’m not losing any sleep over it for the moment.
When buying a new Mac, any Mac, I tend always to go for a high specification. The reason is that while the base model might be totally adequate at the time of purchase, it will age less well than a top-spec model. With the exception of the SSD, which I keep to 1TB because that is all I really need for local storage, I ticked all the boxes when it came to upgrading memory and processor speed. The result is a specification that includes a 2.9 GHz Intel i9 processor with 32GB of RAM. This should be enough to see me through to the next computer in two or three years’ time.
I feel it is a mistake to load too much SSD storage into a computer because of the cost. External (SSD) drives can be added and will operate at the same speed as the internal disk, so there is no disadvantage. And USB-3 mechanical drives often do the job, though more slowly, and are far cheaper. Using external disks is a cheaper option and, of course, you still have the disks when it is time to sell the computer.
RAM, RAM and more RAM
With a lower specification, I would undoubtedly be chafing at the bit long before sale time because of the increasing demands of upgraded operating systems and software. By the way, while processor speed is a vital component, one of the biggest favours you can do yourself when buying a new computer is to max out on the RAM (Random Access Memory or, usually, simply "memory"). Most computers these days come with 8GB as standard, though I would argue that 16GB is the absolute minimum for lots of photo processing or video handling. But 32GB is better, involving less memory swapping, and 64GB is better still, although expensive and possibly only for the real pros. With the 2018 MacBook Pro 15in 32GB is the top spec and I went with that.
I can also travel with the MacBook Pro, even though it is bigger and heavier (1830g compared with 920g) than the little MacBook. But, at least, I have everything to hand and, since I intend to keep the MacBook, fully synched, I can use it whenever I wish to travel lighter.
For the past four or five years, I have always set up a new computer from scratch rather than using Apple’s migration system. For a start, Migration Assistant, as it then was, became increasingly temperamental and often failed after several hours’ endeavour. It became exceedingly frustrating. Secondly, there is always the danger of transferring problems and excessive library clutter from the old to the new machine.
In the clouds
A clean install used to be a big pain before the days of cloud servers. Now, almost all my non-photo data is stored on iCloud or Dropbox and, after setting up the machine, the data will migrate itself back to the new computer, usually slowly but without incident.
Reinstalling software still takes time, although the vast bulk of software is automatically downloaded from the Apple App Store. However, directly purchased software must still be obtained from the developers’ sites and it’s important that you have the registration details to hand (I use 1Password to store all this information although there are dedicated databased for the purposes if needed). There are now so few programs I need to reinstall manually that it really isn’t a big issue. Adobe CC is one of those that must be downloaded and, since the licence extends to only two computers, it is important to re-register one of your machines.
After seven days I now have the new MacBook Pro up and running. I haven’t installed every last bit of software I had on the iMac, preferring to wait until I see if I need it before going to the trouble. This piecemeal approach works for me, provided I have ensured that all the vital stuff is available from the start.
While iCloud data downloads quickly, I have around 600GB of Dropbox storage and this took around three days to finish. It is tempting to copy the Dropbox folder from one computer to another and then attempt to synchronise. But this can lead to problems and I got myself into trouble with that approach in the past. So I now let Dropbox do its thing in the background even though it does take several days. Of course, if you are on the standard 2GB Dropbox plan it will take minutes, not days.
It is wise to use Dropbox’s selective sync facility, incidentally. This allows you to decide which folders you wish to store locally. Since my new MacBook Pro has a 1TB internal SSD, it wouldn’t be practical to store all the Dropbox data locally. I did an assessment of the folders I really need to have readily to hand and settled on about 350GB out of the 600GB. The remaining 250GB is always there and can be brought down when needed. A word of warning, however: Make sure you specify the folders you need on the new computer before setting the synchronisation in progress. It can be disruptive to fiddle with the settings during the initial synchronisation and this can result in conflict folders on Dropbox which can be a pain to sort out. Despite all this, the installation went smoothly.
A further proviso on selective sync is that you must make sure that any Dropbox-stored databases or synchronisation files are downloaded to local storage. Some sync files are hidden and do not appear in the Dropbox folder, so if you start from the premise of downloading no folders, intending to add the ones you do want, the hidden files will not be resident on your computer and this will break the synchronisation of specific programs (my accounts package, Moneydance, is a case in point). So it is best to start from the basis of having "all files" stored locally, then untick those folders you wish to keep solely in the cloud. Control of this is via the local Dropbox preferences on your computer rather than on the Dropbox website.
For the moment, then, my computing needs are being satisfied. I am enjoying the new found freedom of being able to move my main computing platform around the house and office. I am no longer tied to a desk. And my eyes have settled down and are finding the distance-adjustable screen of the MacBook Pro so much less of an annoyance than the fixed, more distant 27in monitor of the iMac.
Oh, and I forgot to mention: Touch ID on the new MacBook Pros is brilliant, although it is mildly disappointing that Apple didn't go the whole hog and adopt Face ID as on the iPhone X. But fingerprint recognition is a big improvement over having to type in a password several times a day. Touch ID also serves to unlock some programs and confirm actions that would otherwise require a password, and it works with Apple Pay.