Old Dog Needs New Mac
September 18, 2012 8:57 AM   Subscribe

Graphic Designer asks: Can I use a laptop as my "main" computer? I've been a designer for 20+ years and have used every mac since the original, but I've always had a desktop mac as my go-to machine. Now, it's upgrade time, and I'm thinking of using just a laptop for everything. More inside...

What I really want to know is, can I use a laptop with an external monitor, mouse and keyboard (when I'm in my office), and on the road, and expect it to be as reliable and long lasting as a desktop machine?

I have an older laptop and it has been great (but going from PowerPC to Intel... yes that old... so I can't use this one). With a new MacBook Pro, is the smaller framework really suitable for every day, external monitor use? Is the machine as "tough?"

Probably a weird bias of perception on my part, but I have this feeling that I need a desktop machine for the day-in-day-out stuff ... I really don't know, but I'd rather not replace both my desktop machine and my laptop... so a single machine solution would be best.
posted by ecorrocio to Computers & Internet (17 answers total) 1 user marked this as a favorite
I'm a photographer and I use a 13" MBP as my main machine. I have it hooked up to a 27" monitor, external keyboard and mouse, and it does just fine for my needs (mostly Lightroom and PS).

I use the laptop screen for secondary processes that don't need all my attention or screen real estate (things like email, iTunes, Evernote, etc.).

I don't see any reason why something similar wouldn't work for you. If you're worried about performance at all, make sure you max out RAM on the machine and consider getting an SSD in it for extra zip.
posted by gmb at 9:06 AM on September 18, 2012

I do web development and a little bit of graphic design, a 2010 MacBook Pro hooked up to a 23" external monitor is my day-to-day machine. It's more than sufficient for Photoshop, Dreamweaver, etc.

The only caveat I can give is this: you can lose or damage a laptop in many, many more ways than you desktop. Make sure you keep good backups.
posted by Oktober at 9:08 AM on September 18, 2012 [4 favorites]

I'm a grad student, not a pro, but I've been doing a mix of graphic design (Photoshop/Illustrator) and software dev (Netbeans, Eclipse, XCode, etc) on my 2010 Macbook Pro (15", i7). At home, I have a 24" Dell external display; at my desk I use a MiniDisplayPort cable to run a 27" iMac in target display mode. The external monitor is pretty much a necessity for big stuff. I recently upgraded to 8gb RAM, the max for this machine, but even before that it was mostly snappy for all the kinds of things you want to do. Beware that if you get one of the new Retina Macbook Pros, RAM is soldered to the mainboard and cannot be upgraded. I'm pretty sure the old-style MBPs still have user-upgradeable RAM, though.

If you're the sort of person who likes to tinker/upgrade, then the laptop will be an issue. Mac Pros still have user-replaceable graphics cards, etc. The GPU is soldered onto the laptop mainboard, so you're stuck with whatever was installed when you purchased it. This is my main beef with my current machine (but only because I develop in OpenGL, and play some games on the weekends).

Oktober is right on about keeping backups -- I have a 1TB external sitting on my desk at home, which in theory gets to do an incremental backup every week-ish. I personally have not yet wrecked a machine, though the previous two machines I owned before this one did have their optical drives die. There's definitely more opportunity to break a laptop: a colleague of mine dinged hers' pretty badly pushing it off her desk once. Data was recoverable, but it was an expensive fix and never looked as nice again.
posted by Alterscape at 9:16 AM on September 18, 2012

Yes. In fact, you could get the 13" Macbook Pro with the slower chip and you'd be perfectly OK (probably even super-awesome). My wife's a graphic designer and she's been using a laptop + monitor since 2007.

Also, a SSD is spendy but worthwhile upgrade if you're concerned about speed. We installed an aftermarket SSD in my wife's new-ish laptop and for some operations, the difference is astounding. We got the SSD from Other World Computing along with a USB3 enclosure. Install the SSD in the external enclosure, clone internal drive to external, swap internal and external drive mechanisms (this is easy), then wipe external drive and use it as a Time Machine backup. Backups that had taken several minutes under USB 2 are taking about 10 seconds under USB 3.

+1 to Oktober's point of a laptop having more failure modes, though.
posted by adamrice at 9:17 AM on September 18, 2012

I believe the new 15 inch Retina MacBook Pro is currently the fastest machine Apple sells. You can get it with 16 GB of RAM. You may want an external hard drive if you need lots of storage, but other than that the answer 'yes, this can be your primary machine'.
posted by alms at 9:17 AM on September 18, 2012

My experience with buying laptops and computers at work (for a group of about 2 dozen) suggests that while you can get reasonable levels of performance out of a laptop compared with a desk unit, that does come at 1) increased cost and 2) at a shorter life.

The cost premium for laptops is 50% to 100%, mostly depending on the accessories you get, screen, docking station, additional storage, etc...

For longevity, we get about 3-5 years out of most laptops. Desktops tend to last 5-8 years and seem to be in the shop quite a bit less. Laptops need new batteries roughly every 2-3 years---I budget one replacement per laptop over it's expected lifecycle. Fans and screens are common failure points in our experience too.

Laptops are worth it for the portability and flexibility, if you can afford the cost of purchase, both initially and more frequently, and a bit of extra on-going repairs.
posted by bonehead at 9:17 AM on September 18, 2012

Absolutely. I'm a professional designer and I've been using a laptop and monitor as my setup for 4 years.

The retina display on the MBP definitely helps if you're not hooked up to a monitor. And it's fast as hell.
posted by thirdletter at 9:18 AM on September 18, 2012

I will nth the 'yes, absolutely', but do want to add that the one thing (other than perhaps a good, big monitor) I find to be missing from my laptop setup is a number pad. It may not be true of the software you use, but if you ever do any motion stuff, you lose a lot of the basic key commands if you don't have a number pad.

I don't think HP is still making them, but their 'touchsmart' models they were making a few years ago let you have a pretty good laptop with a pressure-sensitive (256 levels) touchscreen built in. I'm completely converted to the drawing-on-your-screen approach, so if you don't already have a Cintiq, it might be worth looking to see if there are any similar models on the market now.

Though of course the latter part of this advice does not apply if you want to stick with Mac.
posted by matcha action at 9:31 AM on September 18, 2012

I've been a designer for 10 years and haven't used a desktop since my art school days. I use a 17" MacBook Pro.
posted by violetk at 9:50 AM on September 18, 2012

Personally, I've always found trying to accomplish delicate work (like, in Illustrator) to be a royal PITA on a laptop, due to my simply not being able to be as exact with a trackpad as I can with a mouse. Of course, you can carry a mouse with you and use it with your laptop, but you're starting to get away from real portability then.

I would really suggest going down to an Apple store and test-driving an MBP. They usually have the usual Adobe apps installed. See if you're comfortable with the trackpad. Get the screen set-up the way you're used to, with all the palettes and whatnot arranged the way you like, then see if you think you're going to be comfortable with the environment.
posted by Thorzdad at 9:54 AM on September 18, 2012

Great! Thank you all... looks like a go. That's good and will work well for my budget and my setup. I do some work at my home office, some at clients', and so being able to go portable from time to time is perfect. I will take the caveats about back up seriously. Part of the reason for my upgrade is a system failure... and good thing I had a recent backup.
posted by ecorrocio at 9:58 AM on September 18, 2012

I'm not a Mac user. I used to use really big tower PCs just so I could get the most compute power possible, and huge expensive monitors. Ten years ago I spent $7000 on an HP workstation plus the best monitor on the market.

But now I'm using an ASUS notebook as my main computer. 6G of RAM, quad-core CPU, 1920*1080 display, and 1 TB of hard drive, running Win7-64. (And my keyboard has a number pad.) Frankly, I could only match that in a tower, not really exceed it, and it would take more space and be less convenient. And I think it would probably cost more, too.

The days when desktop machines were drastically faster than notebooks is over.

The notebook I purchased (ASUS G-series) is a purpose-built gaming machine. (Mine's a couple years old, but here's the latest one.) It's designed for people who attend LAN parties. It isn't intended to be carried around at a school, for example; it's too big and too heavy. I'm not a gamer, and I've never been to a LAN party in my life. But the fact that it's a gaming machine means they stuffed it with power, and so it works great for me.
posted by Chocolate Pickle at 10:09 AM on September 18, 2012

I'm a designer of six years and have always used a G5 or Mac Pro tower (with five years prior in art school). This is the first year I've regularly used a Macbook for design work. In fact, my 2011 Macbook Air encodes video at the same speed as my 2006 Mac Pros at home and at work.

I only use a Mac Pro because:

1. I can output to two full size monitors
2. I can fit way more memory (for rendering in After Effects mainly)
3. I can fit multiple drives (different drives for different jobs)

If I could get past all of these, I'd definitely just use a Laptop or iMac.
posted by stackhaus23 at 10:55 AM on September 18, 2012

Just how old a dog are you?

One side effect of using a laptop is that sometimes you will be on the move and will want to just use the laptop screen. The nice thing about some new laptops is that they can fit in an ever higher number of pixels without losing their portability. The corollary of this is that you will need better vision than before to make sense of all the details. If you are anywhere north of 40 then check you can see those little pixels you are paying for properly then the laptop is placed where it would be in your working setup,
posted by rongorongo at 12:48 PM on September 18, 2012

rongo: well... middling old (north of 40, south of 100), but they eyes are good, and the companies I work in-house for have monitors i can hook up to. So I'll probably go with the most portable option... 13". Not good for design on it's own, but with the monitors should be fine.
posted by ecorrocio at 2:21 PM on September 18, 2012

You are the user the 13" Retina MBP was made for. Quick google suggests it's likely to be available within a few months (its screens are in production now).

Longevity: nothing to worry about with unibody laptops. My current Mac is 14 months old. It's traveled a lot, in a typical thin padded sleeve, and it's in flawless condition.

I'm not a designer, but I have some similar concerns because I spend lots of my worktime using music notation software (where tiny details and big picture are equally critical). Even with a non-Retina display, I can do real work while traveling.
posted by kalapierson at 9:50 PM on September 18, 2012

and the companies I work in-house for have monitors i can hook up to. So I'll probably go with the most portable option... 13".

Since you are a fellow designer, I'm assuming you will be doing color-critical work. One thing a lot of people who go portable and hook-up external monitors forget to do is to create a color profile for the external monitor, and then activate it when it's hooked-up.
posted by Thorzdad at 4:13 AM on September 19, 2012

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