iMac, MacBook, MacBook Pro, what's a designer to do?
April 23, 2009 9:48 AM   Subscribe

Time to replace the Mac. Should a graphic designer go for the economical iMac or is splurging for a MacBook Pro and external screen worth it?

I desperately need a new computer and have been putting it off until the new Mac models came out. I have a G4 tower that's probably from 2002 or so and a cheap 17" screen. This is my work computer (I'm a print & web graphic designer —self-employed) but, since this is my only computer, it's my personal computer too.

I miss my old 12" iBook which died a few years ago. Ideally I would have a desktop with a big screen for work and a small laptop for personal use but I really can't afford two computers (and wouldn't want to deal with syncing). My screen is way too small when working in CS3. Please don't suggest any non-Apple solutions. I just keep going back on forth on a desktop vs a laptop. I'll be using Adobe CS4 most of the time and usually need to quickly switch between Illustrator, Photoshop & InDesign and also have mail, Firefox, iTunes running at once—sometimes Acrobat or another small program will be running as well.

The way I see it I have two options:

1. 24" iMac. This gives me a huge screen and a powerful computer and seems like the best value for my money. I don't work with video and don't use millions of layers in Photoshop so a Mac Pro tower is overkill. The only drawbacks to the iMac is portability and the glossy screen. It would be nice to have the option to bring it to client meetings (although this would probably be a rare occurrence), work on invoices etc. in a coffeehouse or hook it up to my TV.

iMac 24"
2.93 GHz Intel Core 2 Duo
4 GB 1066 MHz DDR3 SDRam
640 GB Serial ATA Drive
ATI Radeon HD 4850 512 MB
iWork & Applecare

Pros: economical, powerful, good value
Cons: portability, glossy screen

2. MacBook or MacBook Pro and an external screen. This gives me the portability I like but is significantly more expensive. Its also less powerful and just seems like an extravagance. Most of the reasons I really want a laptop are for personal use (hooking up to my TV, working away from home). I can certainly get around not having a laptop and I'm seduced by the huge iMac screens with isight built in. I haven't figured out if I can use iSight on the laptop with an external (non-Apple) screen.

Buying an external screen would probably be a good idea because I've heard all of the complaints about the glossy iMac screens. I don't sit in front of a window but 50% of my work is print and color calibration is already a mess without adding in a glossy screen. I've really been leaning toward an iMac but I keep going back and forth about the screen and the convenience of a laptop. I have looked at the screens in the store but I can't know how the glossy screen will work for me until I get it in my house and work with it a bit. It also seems that any non-Apple screen that's 24" and decent quality is going to be pricey. If Apple just made a non-glossy screen I would happily get it so everything works well together and isight is built in.

MacBook 13" (if I have a laptop I prefer a 13" or smaller but MacBook Pros don't come that small, arg!)
2.4 GHz Intel Core 2 Duo
4 GB 1066 MHz DDR3 SDRam
320 GB Serial ATA Drive @5400
iWork & Applecare & adapter
$2,130 + screen (24" Apple cinema screen = $899)


MacBook Pro 15" (this is pretty big to be portable in my eyes)
2.93 GHz Intel Core 2 Duo (-$300 for a 2.66GHz)
4 GB 1066 MHz DDR3 SDRam
320 GB Serial ATA Drive @5400
iWork & Applecare & adapter
$3,255 ! + screen

Pros: portability, pick any screen I want
Cons: expensive, more money for less power

I tend to keep my computers for a long time so I want something that can grow with the next Adobe CS update. My friends seem to think the iMac is the obvious choice, but I'm not so sure. Obviously this is tax deductible (I'm in the US) but money is money. Please help me with my indecisiveness and give me some solid arguments for either option. I also welcome any comments on the specs I've chosen.
posted by Bunglegirl to Computers & Internet (42 answers total) 2 users marked this as a favorite
This antiglare film for the macbook is pretty great. You should consider that as an option for the macbook.
posted by bigmusic at 9:59 AM on April 23, 2009 [1 favorite]

If you're looking at the newest generation of Apple laptops, you are limited to the 24" LED (Glossy) Apple Cinema display (b/c of the mini displayport connector). You might look for the Apple refurb store for bargains on the previous generation laptops if you want to be able to use a third party monitor.

Incidentally, you asked how the laptop iSight works with an external monitor--it just does, have no fear. It actually is better, in my mind, b/c you can position the iChat window in the external monitor in such a way that it looks like you are looking into the camera, but you're really watching the screen.
posted by Admiral Haddock at 10:06 AM on April 23, 2009

Best answer: I have a 24" iMac, it was top of the line when I got it, but as we all know, that only lasts for about 30 minutes these days. It's an amazing computer, and I can't sing its praises long or loud enough.

You can get the 17" MacBooks with anti-glare screens these days, but that's not one of the configs you mention above.

If your work deals with color calibration, which is difficult enough when you're comparing screen colors to print, and then print colors under different light sources, etc, the computer system is going to be more about the monitor than about the computer itself. If you're not processing video, nearly any system is going to have the horsepower to run graphics software. Focus on finding a monitor which has the color-matching specs you require, and then get the system after that.
posted by hippybear at 10:08 AM on April 23, 2009

Best answer: macbook white 4GB RAM $1099 + DELL UltraSharp 2408WFP 24-inch Widescreen Flat Panel LCD $499

= $1600

if you are really concerned about color the iMac screen is going to cause you problems.
posted by geos at 10:10 AM on April 23, 2009

I'm a software developer (one man company) which uses a MacBook Pro and 23" monitor (non-glossy). This works perfectly for me as the MBP is powerfull enough and I can grab it when I visit customers, and I can't stand glossy screens at all.

I would:

1) go for the 2.66 GHz MBP (or even 2.4) to reduce price as the speed difference isn't noticeable in everyday use.

2) eBay, Apple refurb or some other 2nd hand to get a non-glossy 23" screen instead of the new Apple LED display which is glossy.

3) Drop AppleCare. The current MBP is stable enough, and since you seldom bring it along, I think you'll loose money on AppleCare.
posted by flif at 10:10 AM on April 23, 2009

If you're looking at the newest generation of Apple laptops, you are limited to the 24" LED (Glossy) Apple Cinema display (b/c of the mini displayport connector).

This isn't the case - you can get adapters to plug in any DVI or even VGA display you want.

You may also want to keep in mind that the 13" MacBooks are much smaller, and while the glossy screen stinks, you can just get a very-big external screen that isn't glossy; my own setup for photo editing is a big external that's acceptably color-accurate, with a glossy 13" macbook display that just hosts pallates and the like, but also is acceptable for personal use on the road.
posted by Tomorrowful at 10:11 AM on April 23, 2009

...and it occurs to me now... why not look at the MacMini with a really good display?
posted by hippybear at 10:11 AM on April 23, 2009

Tomorrowful: This is not true. The largest Apple Cinema Displays have "too many dots" for the video drivers in the MacBooks to run at full resolution.
posted by hippybear at 10:13 AM on April 23, 2009

if you think you can work with an iMac screen then there are a lot of cheaper screen options...

also, with the macbook white you can throw in a 1TB firewire external hard drive for ~$150
posted by geos at 10:17 AM on April 23, 2009

Oh, and, get the computer with the base memory and buy new chips to install from a third party. The Apple Tax on memory upgrades is ridiculously large. You'll save real money.
posted by hippybear at 10:23 AM on April 23, 2009 [1 favorite]

Your problem really is thinking that you need an apple cinema display....get a cheaper display (non glossy probably) and just get the macbook pro....Once you have a laptop you'll find that the portability of it is just too good to give up.
posted by The1andonly at 10:24 AM on April 23, 2009

Response by poster: I've heard about anti-glare films and suppose there must be one out there for the iMac 24" screens. That's a possibility to consider.

With a laptop the glossy screen doesn't matter. In fact, it might be nice because I would like a glossy screen when I'm watching movies/TV on it and would have an external matte screen for work. I wouldn't design much on my laptop without an external screen. Fooling around on logos, working on proposals, writing or making small changes at a client would be fine on the small screen, and in those cases the glare wouldn't be such a big deal.

For me a laptop has to be portable and the 12" iBook was the perfect physical size for carrying around. Honestly, the 15" is much larger than I'd like so a 17" isn't an option for me.

The technology changes all the time and since I plan on having the computer for a long time I'd rather start off from the newest thing than last generation. I didn't realize that the new laptops don't have a connector. I'm not surprised. Apple really is trying to price designers out between that and the glossy screens. I won't go off on that tangent.

I hadn't seriously considered the Mac mini... haven't looked at the new specs. I'll take a look and see if its powerful enough. In that case I'd have to find an alternative to the iSight. It seems stupid to even consider that but you know us designers, we like everything all nice, matching and built in and I've been waiting to video Skype and chat with my friends overseas.

When you install new memory yourself (I've taken apart iPods and my iBook before so I'm comfortable with that) it doesn't void the warranty?
posted by Bunglegirl at 10:25 AM on April 23, 2009

flif: AppleCare is the best extended warranty service on the planet. I've known MacBook owners who have had their system fail at the 2 year 9 month mark, and have shipped it in to Apple for repair and found themselves with a brand-new, up-to-date laptop in its place rather than a simple repair. It's such a small amount of money compared to the entire purchase, there is no sense in skipping it.

Case in point -- the hard drive in my iMac failed at the 9 month mark. No AppleCare? I have a paperweight. Because I had it, I still have a working computer.
posted by hippybear at 10:25 AM on April 23, 2009

Best answer: When you install new memory yourself (I've taken apart iPods and my iBook before so I'm comfortable with that) it doesn't void the warranty?

No! This is one of the only consumer mods that Apple allows without voiding the warranty. They even have built-in special little doors where you can access pretty much ONLY the memory chips. I have maxed out the memory on Macs by dropping $80 at Fry's Electronics, whereas Apple wanted hundreds of dollars to ship a computer with the same memory.
posted by hippybear at 10:28 AM on April 23, 2009

Response by poster: The1andonly, you're probably right. I had an iBook for personal use when I worked for a design firm and I loved it. I have an iPhone and using it to look stuff up when I'm watching TV or in bed has been working okay. Man, the Pro is $3,000+ though, that's steep. I was hoping a MacBook would be powerful enough but I wasn't sure. I know the Ram should be maxed out and I can always buy more external hard drives.

I've used AppleCare in the past and although it seems pricey I think it's worth it, especially for portables. Most basic repairs are in the hundreds of dollars.
posted by Bunglegirl at 10:30 AM on April 23, 2009

hippybear this is true, but my main point was to make it claer that Bunglegirl is *not* limited to an Apple 24" tube. Also, anyone on a budget is not going to be looking at an Apple 30" tube.

Bunglegirl: Have you considered iMac + netbook? $300 or so can buy a damn nice little Linux netbook for travel and personal use, at the expense of doing work on the road.
posted by Tomorrowful at 10:42 AM on April 23, 2009

Tomorrowful: yes, I agree. The Apple displays, while gorgeous, also carry the Apple Tax.

Seriously, shopping for the display specs which meet the exacting eye of a graphic designer will the paramount. Everything else is just finding the hamsters to drive the engine.
posted by hippybear at 10:49 AM on April 23, 2009

Decent 24's go around ~$450

I'd go for a refurb 24" iMac ($1200) and a Dell 2408FPW ($500 full price)
posted by wongcorgi at 10:56 AM on April 23, 2009

Best answer: For what it's worth, I'm a designer and I switchend from a 17'' MacBook pro to an 24'' iMac - and haven't looked back. It works for me, not because of the specs or the price tag, but simply because of the lack of electronic clutter on my desk. It's an all-in-one, extremely beautiful machine and I really really enjoy working on it.

If you need your computer to be portable, there's only one sensible solution: MacBook + non-apple monitor. If not, I'd recommend the iMac.
posted by Sourisnoire at 11:03 AM on April 23, 2009

Response by poster: Tomorrowful, I have fleetingly considered a netbook. It would work for playing videos, goign online, writing etc. but I couldn't run design programs on it (yeah, my invoices are in InDesign, I know...) and it wouldn't benefit me on a professional level, just for fun stuff. And I'm pretty seriously anti-Windows. Linux I could go with I suppose and I don't men to be an Apple snob but I'm very, very happy with OSX and have been a Mac user for 15 years. That shouldn't make a difference for surfing the net but I just really hate Microsoft products that much.

It sounds like a laptop (not sure if a 13" MacBook would be enough) and a killer screen might be the way to go. If I could get a screen for $500 that would work for me. I need something that's good but it doesn't have to be the highest end one possible because those are crazy expensive. If it was big, had uniform color and was a bit better than regular consumer level it would work, I think.

Suourinsnoire, were you using the MacBook Pro with an external monitor? I too love the sleekness of the iMac (although I need the extended keyboard which doesn't come wireless, I don't think) but have a pretty big desk. Why did you switch and do you like the screen? I guess my issue is I don't need the computer to be portable as much as it would be really convenient. Since I work for myself I can be anywhere and sometimes I need to do a bit of work but could otherwise me visiting my family in the suburbs. This has come up a few times where I've felt tied to my desk but it isn't a necessity. I guess I'm gauging if the convenience is worth paying more or having a less sleek, streamlined setup.
posted by Bunglegirl at 11:12 AM on April 23, 2009

Case in point -- the hard drive in my iMac failed at the 9 month mark. No AppleCare? I have a paperweight.

Not really. All Apple computers come with a one-year hardware warranty.
posted by Blazecock Pileon at 11:14 AM on April 23, 2009

Blazecock: up to a point... without an Apple Store within 400 miles, AppleCare demanded that I have an active account before they would give me telephone support. And without telephone support, I couldn't have anything diagnosed well enough to get clearance to take the computer to the local barely competent AASP.

It was a strange conundrum, that the hardware was under warranty, but without having purchased AppleCare, I'd have had a hell of a time getting it repaired.
posted by hippybear at 11:20 AM on April 23, 2009

I should have said, of course, that Apple's phone support expires after 90 days without AppleCare.
posted by hippybear at 11:25 AM on April 23, 2009

i don't know any serious designers who work on an imac.
posted by violetk at 11:38 AM on April 23, 2009

The Apple Tax on memory upgrades is ridiculously large

The $1299 MacBook ships with 2GB, which should be enough for anyone.

But bumping that to 4GB is $100 extra. 2 x 2GB is $75 at newegg, so you're saving $25 + the resale value of the 2GB.

The question has a lot of answers. I'm typing this lying on my side on my couch on a MBP -- try that with an iMac or mini!

I also got a 24" LCD, and it rocks too. I love the small connectors that simplify docking the MBP for when work calls.

If one can deduct the purchases against income just get the MBP + 24" display. They're great and I love the glossy.

The 2.0Ghz 9400M Macbook offers the best bang for the buck perhaps.
posted by mrt at 11:42 AM on April 23, 2009

hippybear: not true any longer. The latest MacBooks with the "NVIDIA GeForce 9400M" is able to drive the 30" display.
The MacBook Specs page says "and up to 2560 by 1600 pixels on an external display" which is what the 30" display has.

The plural of 'anecdote' is not 'data': yes, some people gets good money out of AppleCare, but on the average people loose money on AppleCare for the latest MacBooks, the MacBooks don't have baby-problems like some of the old Macs.
posted by flif at 11:42 AM on April 23, 2009


24" iMac - This gives me a huge screen and a powerful computer and seems like the best value for my money.

MacBook or MacBook Pro and an external screen. - Most of the reasons I really want a laptop are for personal use ...I can certainly get around not having a laptop.

I think you answered your own question. If this is for work, then get what's best for work, excluding other personal reasons.

Basically you have a battle in your mind between the practical, functional, utilitarian option; and the fun, exciting option.

You are buying a tool, not a toy. If the macbook is less powerful as you admit, that will sting you when you actually try to work with it.

Just my ideas.
posted by thermonuclear.jive.turkey at 11:45 AM on April 23, 2009

I noticed that you selected the fastest machines in both categories. Is the type of work you do processor limited? There are some tasks, like rendering, that absolutely benefit from the fastest machines possible (or at least practical). If you aren't doing those types of tasks it doesn't make as much sense to spend the extra on the faster processors. I do understand you want to keep the machine a long time, but the seven or so years you got out of the G4 is pretty exceptional and, unfortunately, both the iMac and MacBook lines have very limited expandability. For long term viability the Mac Pro is much better in that respect. If you do need that kind of power you can find deals on the refurbished models, and maybe that would end up being less money over the long term compared to replacing an iMac or MacBook in the interim.

I'd also recommend not paying the the premium on an Apple display.
posted by 6550 at 12:12 PM on April 23, 2009

Best answer: I considered opting for a MacBook Pro for my main work machine, but then realised it'd have an external keyboard/monitor/mouse plugged in 95%+ of the time as I rarely work away from home and need good ergonomics for comfort. So I went for an iMac, and although there are times when portability would be useful I can't fault it as a trusty workhorse.

It's a tricky thing to weigh up though, and I'll be facing that decision again when upgrading in the next year or so.
posted by malevolent at 12:13 PM on April 23, 2009

I'm an artist. I've been using laptops for all my work for the past several years - first an oldish refurb 15" g4, then a 15" MBP I bought last December. (2.4 gHz, factory defaults)

If I did 3D or video work I might find myself wishing I had more processor grunt - but if I was doing that I'd be looking at a tower, not an iMac. Any of the machines you're looking at have more than enough grunt to run the apps you mention for several upgrades - my then-five-year-old g4 laptop could run the CS2 suite pretty well.

I am also making my hardware decisions partly based on trauma: the last machine before the laptops was an oooold dual G4 tower that was destroyed along with most of my other stuff when I moved to New Orleans three days before Katrina and my stuff sat in a flooded warehouse. Luckily I'd pulled the drive and had it in my suitcase... but next catastrophe, I'll be able to take my whole damn machine along with me.
posted by egypturnash at 12:46 PM on April 23, 2009

The Mac Mini is surprisingly powerful. I just got one to replace a dead dual G5 tower, and I think it'd handle your needs as long as you're not doing video editing. Be aware that you need to BYO keyboard and mouse.
posted by mkultra at 12:48 PM on April 23, 2009

Oh, and I find the portability of laptops is awesome; I can get out of my house, go to a cafe with pay internet, and use that as a reason to keep myself the hell off the net and get something done. *grin*

Basically it does come down to "is portability worth about a thousand bucks for you?" It is for me.

(oh yeah, sometimes the glossy screen bugs me, sometimes it doesn't. *shrug* also it is pretty handy for gluing on my cosmetic horns in the morning as a black screen becomes a handily-placed mirror.)
posted by egypturnash at 12:50 PM on April 23, 2009

Anyone have an issue with the shared memory arrangement on the MacBooks and the base MBP? 256MB of DDR3 SDRAM shared with main memory.
There's no option on the MacBooks to upgrade to a dedicated graphics processor, as there is with the MBPs.
posted by Thorzdad at 1:40 PM on April 23, 2009

Response by poster: I think you answered your own question. If this is for work, then get what's best for work, excluding other personal reasons.

I noticed that you selected the fastest machines in both categories.
Actually, there's a 3.06GHz iMac and I really feel that 4MB Ram is important for running CS4. I think 4 years isn't too much to ask out of a machines, and I understand that 6-8 is asking a lot and probably won't happen. I guess I could go to 2.66 and same a few hundred dollars if it won't make a big difference. I don't do any motion (aside from Flash infrequently) or 3D work but do use Photoshop for retouching (I keep to under 50 layers usually).

I'll look at the Mac mini. I already have a keyboard and mouse so that's not a big deal.

Anyone have comments on the ATI Radeon HD 4850 512MB in the iMac? I'd heard good things about it and thought that it would put a plus in the iMac column compared to the graphics in either laptop.
posted by Bunglegirl at 1:53 PM on April 23, 2009

Response by poster: I think you answered your own question. If this is for work, then get what's best for work, excluding other personal reasons.

Oops, forgot to answer that one. It is for work but also for personal use. Obviously, I work most of the day so it seems like it's more for work I guess but there are legitimate reasons to have a laptop for work. Since I'm home alone all day it would be easier to get out among people if only for an hour. I don't have air conditioning so I could pop over to the library (free wifi) across the street for an hour if it gets unbearable. I could get some quick work done when I'm not in town. I could bring it to client meeting to show concepts, my portfolio, make changes, etc. I appreciate the honesty though and your comment hits pretty close to home. I'm just good at convincing myself of the benefits of both options.
posted by Bunglegirl at 1:58 PM on April 23, 2009

Anyone have comments on the ATI Radeon HD 4850 512MB in the iMac? I'd heard good things about it and thought that it would put a plus in the iMac column compared to the graphics in either laptop.

posted by Thorzdad at 2:15 PM on April 23, 2009

Best answer: I use a Macbook Pro 17" (April '08 model 2.6Ghz/4GB Ram) with an external Samsung 22" monitor, Apple bluetooth keyboard, and Wacom Intuos3 6x11 tablet.

IMO, there's no reason to buy an Apple monitor. There are much less expensive monitors that will serve you perfectly well.

My MBP sits on a laptop riser, which puts my MBP at roughly the same level as the monitor.

I've been using a laptop for my main computer for about 7 years now, and there's no way I'm going back. At the end of the day, I unplug and take my laptop in the living room for casual use. It can come with me to coffee shops, on trips or to job sites.

Personally I value the freedom that comes with a laptop over the extra computing power that a desktop can offer. However, this equation can only be answered by you and what your needs and preferences are.
posted by Fleebnork at 2:18 PM on April 23, 2009

It would take a bit of extra effort, and would violate the OS X license, but you can run OS X on a netbook.
posted by JiBB at 2:20 PM on April 23, 2009

I think the iMac screen is just about perfect - for me. It does seem to be a bit of a matter of opinion though. The only way to judge is to try one out, really.

I didn't have an external monitor and simply used the 17'' inch screen on the laptop which was big enough for what I did. So if you decide to go for laptop/monitor combo you'll have more screen estate than I had.
One drawback of my Macbook was that it was a rather huge beast. 17''s are portable, but not exactly practical. You'll need an XXL-bag for it is well. If it's going to be a macbook, make it a smaller one.

Personally I found that the whole portabillity thing turned out to be overrated. On a few occasion is was practical, but most of the time I just worked at my desk and never went anywhere. Apparently I'm one of those persons who works best in one dedicated working space. If I could work anywhere, I wouldn't have any places left to get ideas in.
Don't base your decision solely on what seems to be the most cost effective, or the most practical solution. Base it on the way you enjoy working.
posted by Sourisnoire at 2:26 PM on April 23, 2009

Best answer: If I only had one computer, it would be a MacBook Pro 17" and I would pick up an external 24" monitor. The iMac is actually less upgradable than a MBP. On the iMac, it's only easy to replace the RAM. The new MBPs have easily upgradable RAM and hard drives.

I like iMacs but the truth is they are laptop machines inside and so there isn't any technical advantage to them.
posted by chairface at 5:32 PM on April 23, 2009

Response by poster: This was a hard decision to make. I decided that since the iMac had laptop parts and a glossy screen it might not be so much better than a laptop. I didn't go with the Pro because I wanted a smaller screen and the difference in price for the specs wasn't worth it as long as I had tons of ram. I ended up getting:

Dell Ultrasharp 2408WFP 24" monitor (The glossy for work just wasn't going to cut it)

MacBook 13" (I wanted a small one. 15" is not portable in my eyes)
2.4 Ghz Core 2 duo
4Gb Ram (buying 3rd party would not have saved that much
320 Gb HD @5400 rpm
Mini Display port to DVI adapter

Airport Express
posted by Bunglegirl at 9:34 AM on May 25, 2009

Response by poster: UPDATE: If anyone was interested, my order was delayed forever and I received it on the day of WWDC. Although tempted, I didn't open it and was glad when the new 13" MacBook Pros were announced. I am returning it for:

MacBook Pro 13"
2.53 Ghz Core 2 Duo
4Gb Ram
320 Gb HD

Mini Display port to DVI adapter

Apple suggested I go through the Apple store I purchased the first one at so I could get a business discount. The first time around I was given a 3% discount, this time 5%. So if you are using it for business it might be worth your time to talk to the business customer support before ordering.

I'm also loving my Dell Ultrasharp. What a huge difference!
posted by Bunglegirl at 11:49 AM on June 9, 2009

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