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 13″ MacBook Air line and finally, there is a MacBook Pro line, which 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.
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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 dual-core processor is pretty under-powered for demanding post-processing tasks in applications such as Photoshop and Lightroom and it comes with a pretty basic integrated Intel GPU.
The best CPU you can choose on a 12″ Macbook is the 1.4 Ghz dual-core Intel Core i7, which is good enough for basic needs such as browsing, office applications and perhaps light post-processing, but will surely be challenged when doing more serious work in Photoshop and Lightroom. For these reasons, we recommend that you skip the 12″ MacBook. However, if you have already made up your mind to buy a MacBook, make sure to get the faster i7 CPU and 16 GB of RAM. To be honest though, with the price premium you will be paying to get those upgrades, you might as well get a lower-end MacBook Pro.
2) MacBook Air
Next, we have the MacBook Air line of laptops. Apple used to make 11″ and 13″ versions of the MacBook Air, but it looks like the 11″ line didn’t sell well, so the company discontinued it and it is now focusing only on the 13″ version. MacBook Air is an extremely lightweight machine and it also might look attractive at first. However, when something is this lightweight, there will always be compromises somewhere and that’s the problem with the MacBook Air line – they are pretty underpowered machines overall. While the CPU is limited to a dual-core Intel i5 or i7, the maximum amount of RAM on all MacBook Air models is limited to 8 GB, which is unfortunate. 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. I personally consider 16 GB of RAM to be a bare minimum today for day-to-day post-processing needs.
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, which is the top-end configuration for the MacBook Air. 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 $200 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″ (technically 13.3″) is a nice and compact machine – it can host fairly good CPUs up to 3.5 Ghz dual-core Intel Core i7, up to 16 GB of RAM and up to 1 TB of PCIe-based SSD flash storage. Both Photoshop and Lightroom will run just 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 larger 15″ model.
But if you are after small size and lighter weight, here are the three configurations we would recommend:
- Apple 13.3″ MacBook Pro, 2.5 Ghz Intel Core i7, 16 GM of RAM and 512 GB SSD Storage – $2,179
- Apple 13.3″ MacBook Pro with Touch Bar, 3.5 Ghz Intel Core i7, 16 GB of RAM and 512 GB SSD Storage – $2,479
- Apple 13.3″ MacBook Pro with Touch Bar, 3.5 Ghz Intel Core i7, 16 GB of RAM and 1 TB SSD Storage – $2,879
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 work with these machines a few times in the past and they are truly superb (see my Surface Book 2 vs MacBook Pro comparison). The 15″ (15.4″ to be exact) 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 3.1 Ghz quad-core Intel Core i7, 16 GB of RAM and up to 2 TB of fast PCIe flash storage.
In addition to the built-in Intel HD Graphics GPU, the higher-end MacBook Pro 15″ models come with a dedicated AMD Radeon Pro 560 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 configurations we recommend for photography needs (2017 Kaby Lake Models):
- Apple 15.4″ MacBook Pro with Touch Bar, 2.8 Ghz Intel Core i7, 16 GB of RAM, 512 GB SSD and AMD Radeon Pro 560 GPU – $2,699
- Apple 15.4″ MacBook Pro with Touch Bar, 2.9 Ghz Intel Core i7, 16 GB of RAM, 1 TB SSD and AMD Radeon Pro 560 GPU – $2,999
- Apple 15.4″ MacBook Pro with Touch Bar, 3.1 Ghz Intel Core i7, 16 GB of RAM, 1 TB SSD and AMD Radeon Pro 560 GPU – $3,349
And if you don’t mind a slightly older 2016 model, I would recommend those instead of the 2017, because they are currently on killer rebates:
- Apple 15.4″ MacBook Pro with Touch Bar, 2.7 Ghz Intel Core i7, 16 GB of RAM, 1 TB SSD and AMD Radeon Pro 455 GPU – $2,299 ($900 off)
- Apple 15.4″ MacBook Pro with Touch Bar, 2.9 Ghz Intel Core i7, 16 GB of RAM, 1 TB SSD and AMD Radeon Pro 460 GPU – $2,499 ($1,000 off)
- Apple 15.4″ MacBook Pro with Touch Bar, 2.9 Ghz Intel Core i7, 16 GB of RAM, 2 TB SSD and AMD Radeon Pro 460 GPU – $3,299 ($1,000 off)
I will be honest with you, if I were buying a MacBook Pro for myself today, it would be the second choice of the 2016 model that is $1,000 off at the moment, or the third choice that has 2 TB of PCIe SSD storage. The new Kaby Lake CPUs on the 2017 models are not a lot faster compared to the 2016 Skylake CPUs and the AMD Radeon Pro 460 is practically no different than its newer AMD Radeon Pro 560 counterpart. That’s a lot of money you are saving by going with an older model, especially with the high-end 2 TB model (the 2017 model is a whopping $4,179!).
By the way, don’t forget to grab this Samsung T5 1 TB SSD puppy. Trust me, you will need it to expand your MacBook storage when it fills up, especially if you decide to go for anything lower than 2 TB.
5) Is Coffee Lake or Cannon Lake Worth the Wait?
With Intel Coffee Lake microarchitecture out since October of 2017, Apple has not yet refreshed its laptop lines, so you might be wondering if new Coffee Lake laptops from Apple are worth the wait. Considering that it is already 2018 and Intel is planning to release Cannon Lake chips in late 2018, some might even speculate that Apple might skip Coffee Lake altogether and just launch the new MacBook laptops with Cannon Lake instead. So far, considering that the new Cannon Lake CPUs have been delayed due to difficulties in manufacturing processes (10nm chips are difficult to make), I seriously doubt that we will see a Cannon Lake MacBook Pro with 64 GB of RAM in 2018. Most likely, it will happen sometime in 2019.
While both Coffee Lake and Cannon Lake CPUs offer significant improvements in overall performance and battery life, don’t forget that you can never keep up with technology. There will always be something faster and better, that’s just the way it is – just like with cameras. If you have an immediate need for a solid laptop, I would recommend to go with the 2016 model of MacBook Pro. If you already have a machine that is good enough for your needs today, but you have a plan to replace it in the next 12 months, then it might be worth waiting for the next generation MacBook Pro machines. Also, keep in mind that when new products are announced, their prices are going to be high and most likely stay high for a while when compared to the older generation offerings. So if you want the latest and greatest, you will have to pay the price premium.
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!