We are continuing our series on how to choose and buy computer hardware for photography needs and today we will be providing suggestions on what Apple laptops are worth looking into. First, we will do a quick overview of the Apple line of MacBooks, then we will provide our top recommendations for doing post-processing work. This article has been written in collaboration with our team members who use Apple’s MacBook products exclusively and extensively for their photography work.
Apple makes a total of three different lines of laptops. First, there is a regular 12″ MacBook, then there is a lightweight MacBook Air line with both 11″ and 13″ display size offerings and finally, there is a MacBook Pro line, which also comes in two sizes: 13″ and 15″. For someone who is shopping for a solid Apple laptop for photography needs, all these choices might be overwhelming and confusing, so if you are wondering about which one to pick, below you will find a summary of each product line.
One of the most basic Apple laptops is the 12″ MacBook. Although it comes with a pretty attractive price, a nice Retina display and can host up to 512 GB of fast flash storage, this is the model you want to avoid for post-processing work. Why? Because its processor is pretty under-powered and its RAM is limited to 8 GB.
The best CPU you can choose on a 12″ Macbook is the 1.2 Ghz Dual-Core Intel Core M, which is good enough for basic browsing and office applications, but will surely suffer when using both Photoshop and Lightroom. For these reasons, we recommend that you skip the 12″ MacBook.
2) MacBook Air 11-Inch and 13-Inch
Next we have the MacBook Air line of laptops in both 11″ and 13″ sizes. These are extremely lightweight machines and they also might look attractive at first. As you know, when something is this lightweight, there have to be compromises somewhere and that’s the problem with the MacBook Air line – they are pretty underpowered machines overall. The CPU capabilities are fairly good and you can get up to 2.2 Ghz Dual-Core Intel Core i7, but RAM on all MacBook Air models is limited to 8 GB, similar to the regular MacBooks. Both Photoshop and Lightroom will function, but you will need to arm yourself with some patience, especially when working with large, high-resolution RAW images and opening multiple applications at once.
If lighter weight is more important for you than performance, I would suggest investing in the 2.2 Ghz Intel i7 CPU and 8 GB of RAM. Anything less won’t cut it for post-processing software. I would also get the 512 GB flash model, although you will have to shell out another $300 for that…
3) MacBook Pro 13-Inch
The MacBook Pro is a whole different beast. The Pro line is what everyone wants, since these machines are much more powerful for heavier post-processing workloads. The MacBook Pro 13″ is a nice and compact machine – it can host fairly good CPUs up to 3.1 Ghz Dual-Core Intel Core i7, up to 16 GB of RAM and up to 1 TB of PCIe-based flash storage. Both Photoshop and Lightroom will run fine on these specs.
However, the 13″ has one limitation – it does not have a dedicated GPU and cannot host one. With a lot of applications moving towards GPU acceleration for better speed and now both Photoshop and Lightroom being able to take advantage of it, if you are planning to make the MacBook Pro your primary machine, I would suggest considering the bigger 15″ model.
But if you are after small size and lighter weight, here are the theee configurations we would recommend:
- Apple 13.3″ MacBook Pro Retina with 2.8 Ghz Intel Core i5, 16 GB of RAM and 512 GB PCIe Storage – $1,897
- Apple 13.3″ MacBook Pro Retina with 3.1 Ghz Intel Core i7, 16 GB of RAM and 512 GB PCIe Storage – $2,089
- Apple 13.3″ MacBook Pro Retina with 3.1 Ghz Intel Core i7, 16 GB of RAM and 1 TB PCIe Storage – $2,549
4) MacBook Pro 15-Inch
Now let’s talk about the Mercedes-Benz of Apple laptops, the MacBook Pro 15″. I had a chance to play with these machines a few times in the past and they are truly superb. The 15″ Retina screen is great for photography work and you don’t have to strain your eyes, because the screen is nice and big. You can beef up the MacBook Pro 15″ with a very powerful 2.8 Ghz Quad-Core Intel Core i7, 16 GB of RAM and up to 1 TB of fast PCIe flash storage.
In addition to the built-in Intel Iris Pro Graphics, the higher-end MacBook Pro 15″ models come with a dedicated AMD Radeon R9 M370X video card, which is powerful enough to not only run post-processing software, but also render 4K videos in Premiere Pro, or even play graphics-intensive games. In short, this thing is a powerhouse!
Here are the two configurations we recommend for photography needs:
- Apple 15.4″ MacBook Pro Retina with 2.5 Ghz Intel Core i7, 16 GB of RAM, 512 GB of PCIe Storage and NVIDIA GeForce GT 750M – $1,799
- Apple 15.4″ MacBook Pro Retina with 2.5 Ghz Intel Core i7, 16 GB of RAM, 512 GB of PCIe Storage and AMD Radeon R9 M370X Video Card – $2,249
- Apple 15.4″ MacBook Pro Retina with 2.8 Ghz Intel Core i7, 16 GB of RAM, 1 TB of PCIe Storage and AMD Radeon R9 M370X Video Card – $2,959
I will be honest with you, if I were buying a MacBook Pro for myself, it would be the first choice. Yes, this is the older Mid 2014 model, but with an instant savings of $500, it is a deal that is hard to resist. The next option is $450 more expensive for a newer model and AMD video card instead of NVIDIA. In fact, I prefer an NVIDIA video card, because Adobe’s support for NVIDIA is often better. If you use Premiere Pro, NVIDIA is definitely the way to go for GPU acceleration.
The high-end model is quite expensive at $2,959 and I don’t see as much value in that offering, but if budget is not an issue, by all means go for it – it is a beast of a machine!
By the way, don’t forget to grab this Samsung T1 1 TB SSD puppy. Trust me, you will need it!
5) Is Skylake Worth the Wait?
With Intel Skylake microarchitecture already out, Apple so far has only refreshed its iMac line, as explained in my previous How to Buy an iMac for Photography article. So you are probably wondering if the new Skylake MacBooks are worth the wait.
When comparing the Surface Pro 3 (which is based on the Haswell architecture, same as the current Apple MacBook line) to the new Surface Pro 4 based on Skylake, the performance difference in CPU benchmarks averaged between 15% to 19%, which is significant. Skylake CPUs have higher clock speeds and they have greater overall efficiency, which explains the performance difference. However, keep in mind that Surface Pro uses smaller dual core CPUs, similar to what we see on MacBook Air machines, so the performance differences between the bigger CPUs might be a bit different. Still, we should see between 5% and 10% improvement in CPU performance on higher-end MacBook Pro models, perhaps even higher. Where Skylake truly excels is better power usage and GPU speed for the built-in Intel graphics processor. So if you are after faster speed, longer battery life and better GPU performance (dedicated GPUs should also get an upgrade), Skylake might be worth the wait.
However, keep something in mind – once new products are announced, their prices are going to be super high when compared to the current offerings. So if you want the latest and greatest, you will have to pay a premium. I don’t anticipate seeing aggressive discounts as the ones listed above for a while – the first deals will probably show up in the 2016 November / December timeframe.
Hope this helps – please let me know if you have any questions!
P.S. B&H is currently offering free next day shipping for many products, including the above-mentioned Apple MacBooks!