Comparing new MacBooks

Okay, a rare not really professionally related post, but it’s still about computers.

I’m overdue for a new personally owned MacBook, my ~four year old white MacBook isn’t cutting it anymore, and the fan seems to be dying again even though I replaced it once myself.

I’d been holding out for the new macbook releases that just came a couple weeks ago; okay, now they’re here, what are my options?

What I used to do, and changing options

In the past (twice), I’d buy the cheapest current-line refurbished 13″ macbook  from the (refurbished) apple store (both times about $1000 or even less I think), then upgrade it myself with maxed out RAM and HD for just a few hundred more.  That ended up being pretty good for my needs — I don’t do much that needs fast CPU (I don’t think hardly anyone does), but maxed out RAM seems to matter more for perceived responsiveness, and I have a large music collection (thus want sufficient storage).

This ended up being the best price point for what I needed, and got me a pretty good machine relatively affordably.

Those days are gone, with my new lust for an SSD (faster CPU, meh, but SSD really does make a huge difference to perceived speed).  I want at least 350GB of storage (500 even better) to hold all my music with some room to spare, and there’s no way to do that cheaply with SSD.

In addition, that some of the macbooks now come with SSD’s as standard makes the DIY third party storage upgrade less attractive from an affordability standpoint. You’re already paying for an expensive smaller SSD included in the price, so buying your own really expensive third party larger SSD seldom ends up putting you at a lower ultimate cost. But even worse for a value-conscious buyer, the Air and 15″ Retina that come with SSD stock don’t use a standard 2.5″ HD SSD form factor, they use a custom on-a-card flash/SSD instead of standard 2.5″ form factor — there’s only one third party vendor for compatible storage (OWC, not yet offering for the 15″ Retina), and it’s not as cheap as the standard 2.5″ form factor SSD (which is already not as cheap as spinning disks).

Plus the Air (and the Retina too I think?) has soldered on RAM, no DIY RAM upgrade possible, doh!  I think the days of saving money with DIY replacements of RAM/storage are gone, for now anyway.

The Options

I went to the apple store to day to check em out in person.

The new 15″ Retina Pro is pretty awesome. I actually don’t care about too much about the double resolution, but it’s much  smaller/lighter than the ordinary 15″ MacBook. It actually seems nearly as thin as the Air, although it doesn’t taper. And it’s weight is the same as the 13″ MacBook — a pound and change lighter than the 15″ non-Retina MacBook, but that makes a pretty big difference in how heavy it feels.

Oh, and confirmed in practice, SSD really does matter. iTunes boot time was near instantaneous with an SSD (Air or Retina, in the store models), much faster than even on the high CPU non-Retina 15″ Pro’s they had in the store.

13″ MacBook Air, with 500GB Flash/SSD, and 8GB RAM, winds up being $2100.

  • You could buy the 128GB Air with 8G of RAM for $1300. Then get a 480GB proprietary flash-on-a-card upgrade from OWC for $800 (not sure if it officially works with new 2012 Airs) — for total cost of still $2100. Yeah, you’ve got an extra 128G flash-on-a-card you could put in an enclosure from OWC for external storage (for another $50) — but really not worth the trouble.

15″ Retina MacBook Pro, in order to get 500GB SSD you’ve got to get the faster one, no upgrade option on the slower one, both already come standard with 8GB RAM. $2800.

13″ MacBook Pro (choosing the slower 2.5Ghz CPU option), upgraded to 500GB SSD and 8GB RAM, $2300.

  • Alternatley, if you take it with 500GB ordinary HD, only $1300. Then you could buy a standard 2.5″ form factor OWC 480GB SSD for $600, total price $1900 and you’ve got an extra 500GB HD to stick in an enclosure to boot.
  • Can’t really make the same savings with the 15″ Retina, since even the ‘base’ 15″ Retina comes with a 256GB SSD and costs $2200.  If you could add on a third party $600 SSD, you’d be back to $2800, but have an external 256 SSD. But you can’t, it doesn’t take a standard 2.5″ form factor SSD, it’s proprietary flash-on-a-card like the Air, and even OWC doesn’t yet offer a third party option (and when they do, it’ll be more expensive than 2.5″ form factor, like it is for the Air).

I think I’m leaning toward the Air, even though the 13″ Pro with DIY SSD upgrade would be the slightly cheaper option. The smaller/lighter form factor of the Air is just nice.  Even without firewire (oh well), or an optical drive (I’ll get an external one).  (Actually, what I’ll miss most is an infrared sensor for an Apple Remote on the Air! I totally use that, for switching music at parties! The 15″ Retina also lacks this, consistent with it’s general Air-like form.)

The 15″ Retina is almost as nice — yeah, it’s heavier, but you get 15″, and it doesn’t seem much larger — but rather significant price premium at the moment.

If you wanted a 15″ (and were willing to pay for it), I think there’s little reason to not get the Retina – even if you don’t care about the actual retina display, just for the smaller and lighter device with SSD. Upgrading a non retina 15″ MacBook to SSD and 8GB RAM, you end up spending about as much as on a Retina, but still have a much heavier device which seems much larger too (that extra .3″ or whatever of thickness doesn’t sound like much, but it makes a big difference to how bulky the thing seems). And without the double density Retina display, of course.

Future of MacBooks

It seems rather likely that the 15″ Retina is a preview of MacBooks to
come — I’d expect the 15″ non-Retina will get phased out and the 13″ will follow suit. The future of macbooks is: Smaller form factor, lighter, no CD drive, proprietary flash-on-a-card SSD standard.

If price were no consideration, I might go with the Retina — the 15″ screen is nice,  and you don’t pay as much of a size/weight premium since they’ve kind of Air-ized the form factor.  It’s not clear to me if the actual double-density Retina display will matter, but it can’t hurt. Although it’s still obviously heavier and bigger than the 13″ Air; if price were no consideration, I might have trouble choosing.

But it comes rather dear at the moment. I suspect this will change, but I don’t want to wait, or wait for a future 13″ Retina-ized Air, or a future Air-ized form factor 13″ Pro. I’ve been holding back on a purchase waiting for this round of releases already.

Either way, the emergence of SSD’s and small Air-form factors (with their soldered in un-upgradable RAM and proprietary form factor flash-SSD storage) seems to have pushed at least me out of the MacBook ‘economy’ price range. I’m not going to be spending only $1200 on a new macbook anytime soon, alas, Apple has succeeded in getting a lot more of my money one way or another.  I’ve never cared about having the fastest CPU possible (I don’t think it matters much), but the tiny light/thin air-like form factors (whether the actual Air or the new Retina 15″) are awfully nice, as is an SSD drive.

Which also means third party vendors like OWC are going to be in trouble. They were the only ones selling compatible on-a-card flash-SSD for the Air — and previous to the recent releases, that was the only way to get more then 256GB of storage in an Air. But now you can get 500GB factory installed in an Air, and even though the price-per-GB is more from Apple — since you can’t buy a mac with no installed storage and have to pay for some that you’re just going to take out and not use much (unless you really want an external 128GB SSD — and want to pay for an enclosure that works with Apple’s proprietary flash-on-card!) — Apple’s per-GB price isn’t enough more to let you save much money with OWC.

Both the Air and the Retina’s move to proprietary flash-on-a-card SSD form factors cuts out the market for standard 2.5″ form factor SSDs too — you can save good money by doing that with the 13″ MacBook Pro where it’s still an option, but I’d expect it won’t be an option on subsequent MacBook releases, as with the Retina.  Will an industry standard for flash-on-a-card SSDs emerge, bringing down the cost premium compared to 2.5″ form factor SSDs? That’d be nice.  Quality 2.5″ form factor SSDs are down to like $600 for 500GB — but you’ve still got to pay $800 for the only third party vendor that sells Apple’s proprietary flash-on-a-card SSD.

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4 Responses to Comparing new MacBooks

  1. C Cole says:

    Great piece. I felt the new MB isn’t quite enough of an improvement to jump for from my current 15″ MB. But it got me thinking–if only they’d come out with a 17″ MB retina display–now that I would jump for. The previous 17″ was far too heavy to carry around.

  2. jrochkind says:

    I expect we’ll see a 13″ retina display next (whether branded as Air or Pro, either way without an optical drive)…. but I don’t know about a 17″ retina display, word is they needed a bigger battery even for the 15″ retina, I don’t know if a 17″ is even feasible.

    But you’re excited about the retina display, eh? That actually doesn’t much enter into the equation for me at all, I like the 15″ Retina for it’s smaller/lighter form factor and SSD, but it’s not clear to me that the retina display would matter to me at all. For what uses are you excited about it?

  3. bencomp says:

    Please excuse my digression towards non-Apple products, but after my experience with Apple products and support to me it makes sense to look at other options.
    I have a MBP from 2008 (My First Apple, bought for €1499 with €300 end-of-life discount) and I’ve liked it very much, until things started to break after the one year warranty period. In short: I recognize the phrase “Apple has succeeded in getting a lot more of my money one way or another.” I don’t know about your reasons for choosing Apple and don’t want to argue about them :)

    I configured a 15.6″ 720p, Core i5, 16GB, 512GB SSD with Ubuntu for $1477 in a webshop. My MBP still works, but if I ever need to get a new laptop and had that money for it, I’d consider it.

  4. Jolly says:

    i’m going back to windows. have fun with your 128gb ssd, but apple’s non-upgradable future isn’t going to cut it for me. my research alone takes more space than that.

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