Macbook or Macbook Pro for web development.
November 21, 2008 10:19 AM   Subscribe

Macbook or Macbook Pro? I'm currently working on an older powerbook doing web development (front and back end) and it's time for a new machine.

My powerbook has treated me well over the years and I'll miss her dearly, but it's clearly time to move on. As I see it I have two options: Macbook or Macbook Pro. This will be a machine I work on everyday, running your standard adobe app's while simultaneously running tests (in memory hogging ruby) and passenger locally. I really, really want the MBP, but its really, really expensive and chances are I'll end up replacing my next rig in 2-3 years max. So my question is: can the Macbook stand up to the challenge or will I become frustrated with lagging tests and spinning umbrellas? Either laptop will be a great improvement over my 5 year old Powerbook, but I'm having a very difficult time making a decision. Any input would be greatly appreciated.
posted by bernsno to Computers & Internet (21 answers total) 6 users marked this as a favorite
If you've been getting by with a 5 year old Powerbook, a plain old Macbook will be fine. Just get max out its RAM.

Don't buy the RAM from Apple. Buy it from somewhere else and install it yourself. But remember to keep the factory installed Apple RAM and swap it back in if you need Apple to service it. Installing non-Apple RAM voids the warranty, and even Apple Care, I'm pretty sure.

I've done this with 2 different Mac laptops and have had no problems.
posted by jeff-o-matic at 10:27 AM on November 21, 2008

macbook pro—just buy one and don't look back. the macbook is not meant for a power user, and from your description that's exactly what you are.
posted by lia at 10:28 AM on November 21, 2008

@jeff-o-matic, in the other macs i've had half the RAM was permanently attached so upgrading meant having mismatched chips, is that not the case anymore?
posted by bernsno at 10:36 AM on November 21, 2008

You can buy refurbished recent-model MacBook Pros from the special deals section of the apple store right now starting at $1299. That's more or less the pro model for the MacBook price.

And as a bonus, you can avoid Apple's retarded decision to force glossy screens on all laptop customers. As well as having a 15" screen instead of a 13".

Oh yeah, you'll have a firewire port, too, if that matters to you.
posted by weston at 10:43 AM on November 21, 2008

A MacBook with lots of RAM will do just fine. The only real performance differentiator between the MB and MBP is the video card, and the difference isn't as great as it used to be now that the MB has Nvidia graphics. Since Adobe CS4 now has GPU acceleration, you may see some gains in that from faster video.

To answer your followup RAM question, all of the ram is easily replaceable on both the MB and MBP these days.
posted by zsazsa at 10:44 AM on November 21, 2008

Actually the RAM from the store right now isn't that bad a rip-off. . .. $150.

You can get 2 x 2GB from for $120 + $10 shipping, so the cost of Apple's RAM is $20 plus whatever two sticks of 1 GB DDR-3 that you are swapping out are worth to you.

oh, I totally, totally, recommend just getting the 2.4Ghz Macbook. The Pro is only necessary if you are going to play Warcraft.
posted by troy at 10:50 AM on November 21, 2008

@jeff-o-matic i believe that RAM is one of the Apple authorized user upgrades that won't void warranites, I did it on my blackbook with an apple manual

Regarding the original question, You can spec out a new aluminum macbook with the same nvidia chipset as the MBP and a similar processor, so if you can stand the smaller screen (or have an external monitor) and lack of firewire port, you would probably do fine with a new gen macbook. Make sure to buy the RAM from a third party if money is an issue.
posted by theDrizzle at 10:51 AM on November 21, 2008

I bought a Macbook Pro last January. Its RAM was not permanently attached, and has 2 slots (I'm pretty sure two slots... it's at home and I'm not).

It shipped with one 1Gig stick, and one empty slot. I upgraded it from 1Gig to 4Gig. This meant removing one 1Gig stick, and installing two 2Gig sticks (which were sold as a set).

I saved nearly $700 by buying non-Apple RAM and doing it myself. I could hardly believe there's that much of a markup. I checked the prices several times, shaking my head.

From what I've read, buy name brand RAM, like Kingston or something, and not the absolute bargain basement stuff. My 4Gig set cost around $150 including shipping.

Obviously, I'm no expert at this. But the fact that I figured it out and made it work fairly easily should make the fact that I'm not an expert pretty encouraging.
posted by jeff-o-matic at 10:53 AM on November 21, 2008

It sounds like you and I are identical users. I have two rails apps I am currently developing using Textmate and I run the development server on Passenger. I also develop an iPhone app that interacts with one of these rails apps. Performance-wise, any current Apple laptop is more than fast enough. You just need to upgrade the 4GB of RAM. The $1599 MacBook and $1999 Pro will actually perform identically, and you probably won't notice the difference with the $1299 MacBook. Their guts are absolutely the same. For Rails development, they are both fine, its easy enough to switch between TextMate, the browser, and the console.

iPhone development, on the other hand, is nearly impossible on the MacBook, and the only reason is screen real estate. There are just too many windows to juggle, and I really want to be able to see them all at once. Simulator + Code + Console + Rails Console + Debugger, etc.

For what you do, the _only_ difference is the screen. And the _best_ deal right now, IMO is to get the $1299 MacBook and the $899 LED Cinema Display. It costs a little more than the MacBook Pro, but you get a huge 24" display with the portability of the MacBook.

Oh, and I have one of the new MacBooks, which is what I use at home for Rails development and iPhone development in a pinch. At work, I have a Mac Pro with two 20" displays, which is much nicer for iPhone development, but really doesn't offer any noticeable productivity improvement over the Mac Pro for Rails development.
posted by AaRdVarK at 11:11 AM on November 21, 2008

You can spec out a new aluminum macbook with the same nvidia chipset as the MBP

No you can't, the MBP has a 9400M/9600M which is not available with the MB.

I saved nearly $700 by buying non-Apple RAM and doing it myself. I could hardly believe there's that much of a markup

Like I said above, the present difference is $20 plus whatever you can craigslist the two old 1GB sticks for.
posted by troy at 11:16 AM on November 21, 2008


the "NVIDIA GeForce 9400M integrated graphics" is the default and only config for the aluminum MacBook and an option for the MBP, according to's comparison chart. But yes, the MBP has the higher 9600 option available.
posted by theDrizzle at 11:26 AM on November 21, 2008

The 9400M/9600M argument is irrelevant to what bernsno wants to do. There are two issues with it. 1) On the Pro, you have to choose between the 9400M or the 9600M. Switching requires logging out as a user and logging back in. Huge pain in the ass. The 9600M performs better, but you lose an hour of battery life. 2) None of web development is graphics intensive and you're only juggling a handful of windows, so there's never a reason to use the 9600M. Its just sitting there taking up space.
posted by AaRdVarK at 11:34 AM on November 21, 2008

With the previous generation, it was a trade off between size and speed (and price). The Macbook Pro's graphics were markedly better and it had more bells and whistles.

Now? Definitely the Macbook unless you:
A) Are doing 3D work or gaming
B) For some reason feel the need to have the larger display on your laptop
C) Need Firewire

IMO, the best combination is the Macbook plus a big LCD for when it's desk bound. You can't overstate the importance of portability. My Macbook Pro really only leaves the house when I'm traveling...I don't walk down to the coffee shop with it, 'cause it's just too big for comfortable carrying.
posted by paanta at 11:41 AM on November 21, 2008

Installing non-Apple RAM voids the warranty, and even Apple Care, I'm pretty sure.

This is incorrect.
posted by Blazecock Pileon at 12:32 PM on November 21, 2008

Unless you need the larger screen when not at your desk, firewire, a faster GPU, or the fastest possible CPU (the 2.5GHz with 6MB cache is only an available option for the Pro), get the MacBook, rather than the Pro. Other than the difference above, the components are pretty much exactly the same between the machines.

If you want a larger screen and/or firewire (and probably a faster GPU), consider a refurb of the last generation MacBook Pro. The CPU will be plenty fast, and you can stuff it with 4GB of memory.

The GPU is probably a non issue for what you've described. CS4 will use it to accelerate some operations, but it can use the integrated GPU on the base MacBook too.

The only other difference I see is that the Pro gives you the option of ordering it with a 7200rpm hard drive, which can give you a boost in speed, but 4GB of RAM will help a lot in that regard. Also, you can buy a 320GB 7200 laptop drive from NewEgg for $50 less than apple charges for the upgrade. The HDD is supposed to be pretty easy to install on the new machines, and you could use the original drive as an external backup drive for time machine with a $20 case.
posted by Good Brain at 12:50 PM on November 21, 2008

If you are doing straight development, the only difference between the Pro and standard Macbook is 2". The upper specs for the Pro are overkill.

However if you are doing design work, the screen on the Macbook (even the new alum) is fairly bad in color reproduction, contrast and viewing angle. See this gizmodo review for examples.

I've even tried color calibrating the Macbook display and it wasn't up to par for me.
posted by wongcorgi at 1:30 PM on November 21, 2008

I got a refurbished macbook pro (2.4 gz last gen with 2gig of RAM) last week for the same price as a new model macbook from the apple store. I did have to keep looking at the store for one to come up, and even then
the batch of refurbs that mine came from were only up on the store for 2 hours.

It's very very fast (I'm running multiple virtual machines, and doing graphics intensive stuff within a windows virtual machine using virtualbox ), the screen is very high quality, and everything seems great.
posted by singingfish at 1:57 PM on November 21, 2008

Get the refurbished recent-model MacBook Pros 2.4 Ghz. That's what I have for web development and its great. Running virtual machines for testing in IE.
posted by mac-way at 3:32 PM on November 21, 2008

Ditto-ing everyone on the refurb MacBookPros -- I finally gave up my beloved PowerBook G4 this year for one, because I run a lot of Adobe apps, too, and I LOATHE the keyboards on the regular Macbooks... loving this one so far!
posted by at 7:15 PM on November 21, 2008

I'll second everyone that has said a standard macbook (potentially with more ram) will be more than adequate. I got my macbook in December 2007, and while I've since max'd the ram out to 4GB, it does everything I need of it in terms of web design & development. Like a couple of others here, I run a bunch of virtual machines on it (Windows XP, Xubuntu, etc), which is kind of a godsend for testing in multiple browsers.

Its also, hyperbole aside, the best development environment and workflow I've ever used, in terms of consistency and ease of use.
posted by Smoosh Faced Lion at 3:45 AM on November 22, 2008

The MacBook screen argument: I recently bought a Macbook and I'm highly satisfied with the quality, it's certainly a improvement over my old first-gen Macbook Pro. Don't let the Gizmondo pictures scare you, they are just cheap digicam snapshots and it's not half as bad as it looks there.
posted by kolophon at 11:44 AM on November 23, 2008

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