I’ve been in the market for a new laptop for a while and have been patiently waiting on a possible spring announcement from Apple before making a decision. That announcement happened earlier this week, so now it’s decision time. Since folks often ask me what computer they should buy, I’ll share how I made my own decision this time around, particularly in light of yesterday’s news. As the title of this post indicates, it’s not going to be the new MacBook. If you’re just interested in my MacBook thoughts, you can skip down to The New MacBook section.
The Process Simplified
Selecting a new machine can often be quite a nuanced process, but it often boils down to basic questions. Here is my 8-step process, quickly stated:
- Answer the questions “Why am buying this?”, and “What are the top 3 things I need it to do?”
- Determine my budget.
- Desktop or Laptop?
- If laptop, what screen size and type? If desktop, do I need a new monitor, how big, etc.
- How much memory and CPU do I need? My rule is to buy as much of this as my budget allows (see below).
- How much storage do I need?
- What kind/how many external ports do I need?
- What machine meets all these criteria and fits within my budget (including sales tax, but without extended warranty)?
Obviously question 1 drives the answers to 3 through 8. Question 2 is the ultimate factor that helps whittle down the list and helps make any tie-breaker decisions at the end. The word need is emphasized above because when dollars count, you must be honest with yourself about needs vs. wants and nice-to-haves.
Here are my answers for this purchase:
- I need a machine for iOS development, audio/video content creation, and running Microsoft Office (yuk). There are other things, but these are the top three.
- In January I set my budget for $2,600. I tend to spend that amount almost every three years despite Moore’s Law.
- I work from multiple locations, so a laptop is the easy choice.
- For Xcode and MainStage, 15” is what works for me, especially when coding on the go. For MainStage, I’ve learned anything smaller is fairly unusable, which was an expensive lesson I can share another time. My eyes aren’t getting any younger, so the cost of Retina technology is justified. This also drives vendor selection, as only Apple has Retina-grade displays. (There are way more reasons than this for why I buy Apple, but this one is pretty objective). So at this point, I have narrowed things down to an Apple laptop with a 15” Retina display.
- 2.5Ghz i7 CPU with 16GB memory. My one simple rule is to always buy the most horsepower I can get for my budget, regardless of whether I think I need it or not. Eventually, and I say this from the perspective of buying these things for 30+ years, I always end up using all of the horsepower. I like to define horsepower as the combination of CPU and memory together. That said, I rarely opt for the very top-end processor because it never seems worth it. One notch from the top is usually perfect. I don’t compromise on memory any more, even with Apple’s ridiculous memory prices. Whenever I did so in the past, I always ended up regretting it. Since only the MacBook Pro comes in a 15” model with Retina, I started with its base configuration, which turns out to be just fine at 16GB. Also, my budget said “no more”.
- 512GB storage. I’ve lived comfortably inside 256GB of local storage for the last three years. The 15” Retina Macbook Pro’s base option is 512GB. $500 to move up to 1TB offends my Pennsylvania Dutch-rooted sense of frugality.
- I detail why below, but I simultaneously need multiple USB ports, a power connection, and the ability to hook up my Thunderbolt display.
- At $2,499 + 6% PA sales tax, things stand at $2,648.94, just a tad over budget. I’ll skip Starbucks for two weeks to make up the difference. If I would have any money left over at this point, I would go back and try to beef up the memory or storage. In regards to AppleCare, I usually wait until the one-year warranty expires. (Note to self, schedule a calendar reminder to buy AppleCare…)
The New MacBook
As for yesterday’s announcement, here’s what I came away with regarding the new 13” MacBook and why it’s not a fit for me.
- Extended battery life – Definitely and always a plus.
- Less Weight – Ditto above. In selecting a 15″ MacBook Pro, I obviously traded off on weight.
- New keyboard design – I am cautiously optimistic that the new design will feel good to the touch typist, allow for speed, and not cause any new forms of RSI.
- Space Gray color – I’m tired of silver. Really tired.
- Force Trackpad – This seems really cool, but the presentation yesterday was not enough to swing me. The practical usability of anything like this is, by nature, totally subjective, so a trip to the local Apple Store would be required for some hands-on time (pun intended). Based on the next section, however, I won’t need to make that trip.
- Dongle-mania – USB-C seems like a great idea…for a casual-use laptop. It’s not practical in my world right now as a main work-horse machine. I don’t want to deal with an external adapter every day just so I can hook up a large display and charge the battery at the same time. I also sometimes need to use more than one USB connector at a time. (e.g. When the laptop is running my music rig, I need to connect to a keyboard controller and a maddening iLok device simultaneously.
- Screen size – 13 inches doesn’t work for me unless I’m on an airplane or the Acela. I’ve been carrying a mid–2011 13” MacBook Air for about three years now, and if I didn’t have an external display, I would have retired it about three years ago. Whether I’m using Xcode or MainStage, 15” is the number that I’ve learned works best for me. I actually own a vintage 17” MacBook Pro “aircraft carrier”. I sometimes even called it The Enterprise, and it’s in dry dock now. In retrospect, it turned out to be too large for my real (vs. imagined) needs.
- No Thunderbolt Display support – I’m invested in a Thunderbolt Display, I love it, and I rely on it daily, mostly because my 13” Air is a carry-to-work machine. Odds now seem good that the anxiously anticipated 4K retina version of The Display will be USB-C, but regardless, there’s no known availability date. Moreover, unless it comes with some sort of reverse Y-cable like the current Thunderbolt Display has for power and video, I’m still left back in dongle-mania.
- Gold color – Oh please, no.
- No SD card slot – I still have camera gear that uses SD cards.
So based on my needs, my decision on the new MacBook is a very clear “No”. A wise friend of mine pointed out on Twitter that this is probably a transitional machine for Apple, and I agree. The new MacBook is targeted at an audience with less rigorous demands than mine, in particular, an audience that can live without all of the external connections I require.
So for my hard-earned cash, I’ve decided to stay within the current MacBook Pro product line. It has the screen size and all of the ports I need, the Retina display will be kind to my aging eyes, and the i7 with 16GB RAM and 512GB Flash storage will (90% probability) deliver the horsepower I need for the next three years. It will weigh more, and that’s the only real trade-off. But, it’s all within my budget if I skip Starbucks for two weeks. Now where is that credit card…