Need MacBook advice.
February 17, 2011 7:15 AM   Subscribe

Looking for advice on 1) which Mac laptop to buy (yes, I know the rumors of a MacBook Pro refresh in early March; we'd wait for the new models) and 2) how to integrate a happy home network of Macs.

My lovely GF is in the market for a new MacBook to replace an existing MacBook Pro that's on its last legs. I have a 2009 8-core MacPro and an old, but solid, 2006 MacBook. Lovely GF currently uses her machine mostly for web/email, but she has a background in digital content creation (videos, photo manipulation, whatever) and may want to go back to that at some point. I use my MacPro for web/email, and a lot of digital photography work. I use my MacBook for web/email. Even though it's relatively heavy, the 2006 MacBook is what comes with us when we travel (which, admittedly, is not all that frequently) because it's the only one that has a working battery.

Two questions:
First: what's the calculus on a MacBook Air vs. one of the new MacBook Pros that are expected to drop any day now (waiting isn't an issue)? I've seen this prior thread on 11" vs. 13" Airs (and MBPs). If everyday portability is not your main concern, do Airs make any sense whatsoever? Lovely GF has almost filled her current machine's HD, and would be a bit cramped by the Air. Plus, the Air is not much of an upgrade from her current model--though the SSD would obviously make a big difference. At the end of the day, the main attraction of the Air is its portability, though portability is not something we'd expect to need every day. If we go this route, we'd give her an account on the MacPro if she needed to more demanding work. Is this a reasonable approach for a couple of heavy users (but whose need for the big machine probably won't overlap all the time)?

Which brings me to the second question: If we give her an account on my MacPro, but she does most of her work on the Air, what's the best way of keeping all of the files available to the different machines (i.e., she loads photos onto her laptop but wants to edit them on the desktop)? Of course, there are kludgy ways (emailing files, USB sticks), but you could end up using the wrong version if you're not paying attention. Some sort of local server setup on a Mac Mini? (If so, how?) Is there something that would automatically sync the work that she had done on the road, either when she connects to the internet, or when she comes back to our local network? Pogo Plug? (There seem to be mixed reviews.) Right now NO sharing of any kind is set up on the various machines, and we each have only our own accounts.

Top secret bonus question: would a MacBook Air be usable for tethered shooting for a Canon 5D Mark II, or would that really be a job for a MacBook Pro? The old 2006 MacBook just doesn't have the juice to deal with the big RAW files.
posted by Admiral Haddock to Computers & Internet (11 answers total) 1 user marked this as a favorite
Best answer: 1. I would not get the Air in this case. I have both the Macbook Pro 13" and the Macbook Air 11" (so I have an impulse problem, shut up) and I use the Air book only when traveling. The Pro is definitely pretty heavy, though. But in every other respect it is superior. It's also nice to be able to play CDs and store a lot on the hard drive. The Air is cute and nice and she would love it, but no, it doesn't make as much sense if you're not taking it somewhere all the time.

2. Have you considered DropBox accounts? That's how I keep my work files up to date on all of my computers and it works very, very well. I used to shuffle things around manually over a wireless connection and there is no comparison to having it done via DropBox. It's great.
posted by theredpen at 7:20 AM on February 17, 2011 [1 favorite]

Oh, it's Dropbox, not DropBox. [/ocd]
posted by theredpen at 7:21 AM on February 17, 2011

Best answer: I'm a fan of the Macbook Pro. I think that the aluminum shell and FW800 are worth having. The Air is awfully attractive, but as you point out, you're very constrained on storage, and I'm also a fan of being able to put all your stuff on one hard drive—especially with laptops. You can get 1 TB laptop drives now, and I just installed a 7200-RPM 750-GB drive in a friend's Macbook Pro. I think the hot setup would be a 13" MBP and a decent-quality, large, external monitor.

If she does get the Air, she could just mount the hard drive from your MacPro as a shared disk and get at her files that way. She could use Dropbox (or MobileMe or whatever) to sync between multiple devices. Adding an extra box as a server is another option, but strikes me as a needless complication and expense.
posted by adamrice at 7:26 AM on February 17, 2011

Best answer: Seconding Dropbox. It’s the best.
posted by him at 7:42 AM on February 17, 2011

Best answer: We use shared network drives at our house, and I occasionally work on Photoshop on the shared drive, but this is kind of a pain in the ass and I can't recommend it. I'm also looking at upgrading my MBP when the new models come out, and my number one priority is the biggest damned hard drive I can buy so I can stop using the shared drive as a working drive and relegate it to backups.

We're an all-Apple household using MBPs and an Airport with 802.11n to drive the networks, and we don't have massive torrents tearing up local bandwidth, either. It's a combination of drives/network/everything adding up.

And nthing that Dropbox is awesome.
posted by immlass at 7:47 AM on February 17, 2011

Best answer: If she wanted to work on files on her laptop from the Mac Pro, you could skip all the syncing business and just mount it in firewire target disk mode.
posted by advicepig at 7:50 AM on February 17, 2011

Best answer: I think the hot setup would be a 13" MBP and a decent-quality, large, external monitor.

Nthing that. Also, if you do get a new MBP, wait until the hardware refresh and then get the middle processor option with the smallest available amount of ram. Max out the RAM with matched pairs from Crucial. It's soooo much cheaper than buying the fancy-pants maxed out version directly from apple.
posted by thsmchnekllsfascists at 8:02 AM on February 17, 2011

Best answer: While I like Dropbox I also don't like limitations. Unless you pay you can't load that much into a Dropbox folder, and if I am syncing images that 2 GB is going to fill up fast.

I use Chronosync on my MacBook Pro. $40. I also use the ChronoAgent ($10) on two other computers (home Mini server and my wife's MacBook). That's a $60 investment and I have not regretted it.

Chronosync + agent will perform a large number of rsync-like synchronizations between systems. One-way, two-way, blind mirroring, etc. - the program handles what syncs and when, the Agent runs on the other computers and offers faster syncing, better control of permissions (it will map permissions to local accounts - that is, if the file is owned by the default admin account [User 501] on computer A, it will set ownership to User 501 on computer B, even if the account names are not identical).

Dead simple to set up multiple sync files, organize them into "containers" which can be run as a batch, set scheduling to run at a given interval or automatically when a specific volume is detected, and so on. Deletions can be synced or not synced, removed immediately or archived, whichever you want.

It works wonders for me. My files are backed up - photos/videos my wife takes are synced with my computer, my images/movies are synced to hers, and all are synced to a backup drive along with our documents. I couple this with TimeMachine on a separate backup drive for incremental versioning backups and full computer restore ability.
posted by caution live frogs at 8:28 AM on February 17, 2011 [1 favorite]

Best answer: I just got an 11" air. Despite the fact that it is processor-wise a downgrade from the last 2(!) mac laptops I've owned, it feels faster in almost all use cases so far, because of the SSD/better video card. Its also worth noting that depending on the model of her previous mbp, the screen resolution of even an 11" air may actually be higher, at least in the horizontal direction (it was for me). The portability factor is amazing and hard to describe -- I think the laptop is actually lighter than my current laptop bag. I'd at least go to the apple store and play around with one for a while to get a feel for it.

Hard drive is the main concern in my mind -- for many people it may not big enough to use as a primary machine with the 128GB drive, and I'm only keeping a subset of my mp3s on it. But this is the price you pay for the amazing performance increase resulting from the ssd. The lesson is that on current machines, nearly everything that is affecting your perception of the speed of your computer is disk-bound (or in some cases gpu-bound), not cpu-bound. The video stuff might be questionable, though, and I don't plan on using my mba as my main music/audio production machine. If I had to have a laptop as my only machine for all purposes I might consider going back to a 13" mbp, but otherwise, no way.

Some sort of local server setup on a Mac Mini? (If so, how?)

This isn't for everyone, but I have all of my work in a git repository on a server, and I sync between three different machines now. It works great.
posted by advil at 9:26 AM on February 17, 2011

Best answer: If she isn't pretty sure that she's going to go back to digital content creation within the next three years, I would just get a macbook. Getting a pro (especially a 15 or 17 inch) because you "might" eventually possibly do stuff that would require the specific graphics card that makes the difference between the macbook and the pro is throwing money away.

If down the road she decides she needs it, then she can upgrade. I hemmed and hawwed about iBook vs. PowerBook back in 2006, because What If I Start Using Final Cut Or Want To Learn Animation*??? As of last year's upgrade to a MacBook, I had never even had the desire to look into doing that. I'm on mac #2, five years down the road, and still haven't felt like those were necessary skills to pick up. I'm really glad I saved my money and got the computer that was right for me, even though it looks slightly less cool on set.

(For what it's worth, I've done plenty of photo manipulation on my 2010 MacBook. CS4 runs just fine. It's video and animation I'd worry about, if anything.)

*I work in film, so this is a legitimate concern for me.
posted by Sara C. at 10:54 AM on February 17, 2011

Oh, and in re storage, I have one of these guys. 500gb of storage, fits in a pocket, no external power necessary. $75, I believe? When I bought mine a year or so ago, they went up to a terabyte, but with things being what they are I bet you can go even higher now.
posted by Sara C. at 10:59 AM on February 17, 2011

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