Help me buy a MacBook Pro.
October 18, 2012 2:42 PM   Subscribe

Help a lifelong PC user who Knows Computers and considers himself a Savvy Consumer buy himself a non-retina MacBook Pro. Technical and budgeting questions inside.

For reference, my current laptop PC is an i7 1.6 Ghz quad-core with 4 GB of RAM. I don't need to get into backstory, but I'd like to purchase a non-retina MacBook Pro, and I'd like to buy it before Apple starts soldering them shut, which seems to be inevitable at this point. MacRumors' buying guide has it as a yellow, which is good enough for me. I've been on the periphery of the Apple scene for a while (less peripheral now that I have an iPhone and an iPad) so I'm not totally up on the tech and I want to be as well-researched before making this purchase as I can. I'm the sort of guy that puts up with all sorts of crap to get the best tech for the best price. Give me the gory details, and please don't be afraid to get technical. Anything I don't understand, I can look up.

The non-retina 15' MBPs seem to come in 2.3 ghz quad-core or 2.6 ghz quad-core. I can't imagine that 0.3 ghz/core is going to make a difference in anything I'm doing (I don't use any Heavy Duty software and I don't game too much) but maybe I'm missing something? I've really very rarely done things with my current PC and thought this could stand to be more powerful."

The base model comes with 4GB 1600MHz DDR3 SDRAM and is upgradable to 8 GB for $100. Will I save any money by purchasing and upgrading the RAM myself? Should I get better RAM because the base MacBook RAM isn't great? I haven't bought RAM in ages and I'm not sure what to even look for anymore, double-especially for a Mac. I know that MBPs are unofficially upgradable to 16GB, but I think I'll cross that bridge when I get there.

If I want an SSD, I assume the smart thing to do is get it with the cheapest HD it comes with an purchase and install the SSD myself. Is that right? Upgrading to a 128 GB SSD at purchase costs $200, which seems absurd even for Apple's markup. Which SSDs are best compatible with MBPs and won't cost too much money? What's the biggest SSD size that isn't bleeding-edge priced because it is the New Hotness?

Should I get the glossy or anti-glare screen? I'm thinking the latter, but maybe it sucks? Am I going to miss 1920x1080?

New or refurbished? Drag my ass down to the Apple store and have it now now now or order online and wait? I know Apple sales are rare when they happen, and not particularly exciting when they do, but should I be waiting for some sort of recurring deal? I'm not a student, if that matters.

Anything else I should know (including questions I should be considering/asking) would be great.
posted by griphus to Computers & Internet (23 answers total) 3 users marked this as a favorite
Opening the Macbook Pros, even the older not soldered shut ones, is not a trivial task. You might find the iFixit teardowns helpful, they talk about how to add RAM and/or a harddrive
posted by Wretch729 at 2:48 PM on October 18, 2012

Response by poster: Yeah, I took a look at those. I have a few friends who know what they're doing and if they're not up for helping, I was just going to bite the bullet and take it down to TekServe and have them do it.
posted by griphus at 2:49 PM on October 18, 2012

Processor is really dependent on what you will use it for. That said, even the lowest CPU option is more than fast enough for most users.

RAM - upgrade it yourself. You can get 8GB for under $50.

SSD - upgrade it yourself. Best bang for the buck is 128gg or 256gb which you can regularly get for $80/$150.

Screen is up to you. I have used both, not really worth $100 IMO for matte.

Get the refurb. No reason not to unless they don't have the mode/config you want.
posted by wongcorgi at 3:00 PM on October 18, 2012

My wife recently got the 13" MBP. She decided the matte screen wasn't for her, somewhat to my surprise. She maxed out the RAM and processor, and got the minimum hard drive. We swapped in an SSD at home, which was easy (a bit tedious, but easy).

The place I go for RAM, drives, etc, is Other World Computing. I got their own-label 6G SSD for her (6G refers to interface speed—obviously you want faster here). They have another one that supposedly has faster throughput for certain file types, but I decided that wasn't worth it. The SSD in general really is worth it, and for certain operations, my wife reports that she is doing tasks in minutes that she previously had to spread out over days. OWC will sell you a drive upgrade kit that includes an external enclosure, which you'll use for cloning the old drive mech to the new, and then swap mechs so that the old one can serve as a backup drive. Make sure to get an enclosure with a USB3 interface, which is stupid-fast. OWC can answer your specific compatibility questions. They'll sell you the torx wrench and fine-point Philips-head screwdriver you'll need for the swap.

OWC used to include a program called Carbon Copy Cloner, which had been freeware but is not commercial. Not sure if they still have a deal to include it. Anyhow, that is what you'll want for the cloning process.

I don't know anything about "not-great" Apple RAM. If you want a bigger screen, get an external.
posted by adamrice at 3:00 PM on October 18, 2012

I'm a Windows guy to the core, but the 2006 and 2009 Macbooks Pro i've gotten issued at work, both 2 years old when I got them, are damn good hardware.

I've replaced a lot of hard drives on MBPs (non-soldered) and while it's not easy, it is simple. Just lots of fiddly little screws, a couple of ribbon connections. You'll need a Torx set (T5 or T6, I forget) as well as some small small Phillips-heads.

128GB is the mainstream SSD size; 256GB is still new-hotness, at least in the general marketplace. If you do buy it yourself, get Intel, or Corsair. Skip OCZ, really steer clear of Transcend. I can't speak for the economics of buying an HDD built in, plus buying an SSD on the outside. Do the numbers!

All the rest is laptop stuff: do you need converters to convert your Displayport to DVI? Do you need a spare power cable? Got a nice bag to carry it? Need a portable hub to deal with the inevitable dearth of USB ports?
posted by Sunburnt at 3:03 PM on October 18, 2012

Opening the Macbook Pros, even the older not soldered shut ones, is not a trivial task

I added memory to both my work and home MBPs this year and I would definitely call it a trivial task. I'm not handy with that kind of stuff in the least, but it was a matter of taking out screws, snapping in the new chips, and putting screws back in.
posted by drjimmy11 at 3:04 PM on October 18, 2012

FYI, Woot is selling refurbed MacBook Pros right now. Looks like all they have left is 17", i5s for $1,320; not sure whether that's a good deal.

I moved from Linux PCs to a 15" quad-i7 MBP with the high-res screen (1680x1050, not the Retina model) about a year ago and I've been pretty happy with it. I upgraded to 16GB RAM and replaced the CDROM and main drive with SSDs. Both jobs are pretty easy, although running TWO SSDs was fiddly, and I wasn't able to replace the smaller SSD with a larger one from a different maker -- the system can't tell them apart, or they conflict or something.

The screen (anti-reflective) is gorgeous, and you can get a range of keyboard covers to keep your keys clean (if you're an OCD sort and can't stand the thought of cruft inside the hard-to-clean unibody).

I use Parallels VM to run Linux and Windows programs, and that works extremely well also.

There's definitely an annoyance curve coming from Linux/Unix, but I'm mostly used to (or resigned to) the fact that you can only interact with ONE APPLICATION, even though you can see the others on the screen.
posted by spacewrench at 3:16 PM on October 18, 2012

I just bought a refurbed July 2012 model, 13" 2.5GHz MBP (non-retina), for $1,019 directly from Apple. Love it. It was cheaper than the educational discounts. They refresh the available refurbs pretty much every day.
posted by Madamina at 3:25 PM on October 18, 2012

I doubt you'll be able to notice the difference between the 2.3GHz and the 2.6GHz processors unless you're doing extremely heavy-duty stuff (i.e. video encoding) on a regular basis.

You will definitely save money upgrading the RAM by yourself. One 4GB piece should cost around $25 and 2x8GB pieces should cost around $85. You should get 8GB at the very least. 16GB is not really necessary unless you use virtual machines a lot, in my opinion. I have 16GB on my iMac and I always have over 8GB of free RAM.

The performance SSD pick for the Mac would be one of the following:
Samsung 830 [what Apple uses when you upgrade through them]
Samsung 840 PRO [the new hotness]
Crucial m4

These choices will be similar in $/GB whether you go for 128GB or 256GB.

Ideally, you should go to an Apple Store and figure out whether you prefer the matte or the glossy screen. Either way, you should get the high-resolution screen, which is 1680x1050 versus the 1440x900 resolution of the standard screen.

Refurbished if your configuration is in stock.
posted by ccrazy88 at 3:42 PM on October 18, 2012

Sorry, I rambled a bit and this got kinda long -

Processor: Yeah, the difference between the 2.3 and 2.6 on the 15in is pretty minimal - is has the same L3 cache, FSB speed, etc. Not worth it. The 2.7Ghz however gets a L3 cache boost in addition to the clock speed. This is mostly important in heavy data crunching in combination with your RAM, and this doesn't sound like it should be an issue with you - It shouldn't really affect gaming as you are more likely to be graphics card limited these days. If you're doing lots of parrellizeable tasks (and some specific gaming) this changes, but you always pay an usurious premium for the highest end processor that they let you customize to so it is probably not worth it.

Ram: *Technically* as far as I know, only RAM with identical clock speeds and CAS latencies to the manufacturer ram are supported. This means that quality wise it shouldn't really matter if you as long as you get a defect free stick or two. However, in practice, typically lower CAS ram will function in a MBP and net you a small performance increase. (The Apple ram speed is DDR3 - 1600 as is as fast as you can get). In my experience though, outside of heavy duty gaming or performance computing/over-clocking you will never notice a performance difference with upgraded CAS Latency. 8 Gb should run you ~50$ aftermarket, with 16gb at ~100 for comparable CAS/speed. The typical use cases for 16gb over 8 Gb are if you run virtual machines, or use a ram-disk for caching or computational purposes. Also most current games assume max ~8gb of ram so you don't see a performance boost from more unless you ramdisk to cache and it sounds like that is probably your most intensive application type. If you choose to install it yourself I would personally tend toward the excessive and just go for 16gb to never have to think about it again as it is a fairly small price boost (given that today you would probably not notice much difference between 8 and 16 gigs in most casual use cases with a SSD). But, I'm excessive in these things so maybe just go the 8gb upgrade or live with 4Gb and see if you need to the boost at all since that is where you are now? Corsair/G-Skill/Crucial/Kingston are all pretty reliable manufacturers (for that 'no defect' part!).

SSD - definitely upgrade it yourself if you want one and are comfortable with it. Samsung 830/Crucial M4/Intel 520's are pretty much top of the line right now and are all fast, mac compatible, and reliable. They each also have slightly different strengths and weaknesses, and they will *probably* have their replacement lines coming out soon (samsung just did). I tend to favor Samsung for consistent speeds and reliability, but ymmv, and they are all three fast and reliable. 256 Gig is a pretty good size/price breakdown these days(~200 $ for 256, just over ~100 for a 128 Gb one), above that your price per GB ratio starts dropping fast and it gives you enough space in case you decide that you want to bootcamp or hold other large file size items - lots of music, movies, games, etc. If you rarely use your optical drive like me, possibly consider swapping out the optical drive with an enclosure to put your mechanical HD into so that you have extra storage, and if you do this I would then get a 7200 rpm drive, not a 5200, because that is a noticeable difference. You can then put your optical drive into an external enclosure if you do this. So that you now have a USB DVD drive. (this will run you ~100$ for the drive conversion kit/external enclosure). If you keep an eye on the major retailers you can semi-regularly find decent sales on SSDs - Amazon has Samsung 830s on sale for 70/155 for the 128/256 Gig SSD's today for example. The major differences between the major brands relate to how the controllers work, if you google around Tom's Hardware has some articles that do a pretty good job of explaining the differences with and performance aspects of this and the major competitors. Ars technica also did a major how SSDs work and what the Pros/Cons are omnibus a while back which is good semi-technical reading if you are inclined.

Screen - I love anti-glare screens in comparison to the glossy. It is so much nicer to work on/watch things on even indoors in my experience. Also, unless I am missing something I thought that the 'high res' anti-glare and glossy screens had the same resolution at 1680 x 1050 for the non-retina MBP? Either way make sure to get the high-res.

Refurbished is a pretty decent deal as long as you dont care about the unboxing thing and they have what you want.
posted by McSwaggers at 4:15 PM on October 18, 2012

Response by poster: Unboxing thing?
posted by griphus at 4:21 PM on October 18, 2012

Sorry, they don't come in the fancy/stylish apple retail box packaging as far as I know. My partner got one and it showed up (safely protected) in a plain cardboard box that is not what you might see on youtube 'unboxing' videos. I don't care about this, but some people (apparently) do. Ymmv. The refurbished laptop has functioned perfectly fine for the last year.
posted by McSwaggers at 4:27 PM on October 18, 2012

It's worth noting that even after the flip to an all-Retina lineup, the old machines are still available as refurbs for a long time. They're still selling refurb MacBook Pros introduced in February 2011.
posted by wnissen at 4:41 PM on October 18, 2012

Response by poster: Is there a (good) reason the 17" models were discontinued? I'm thinking more "horrible hardware problems" than "we can't sell them."
posted by griphus at 5:30 PM on October 18, 2012

I think the only thing non-trivial about opening up a unibody macbook pro to install the HDD and memory is not loosing all those tiny screws.

Buy your own RAM and SSD. Personally, I would just do a little research and buy the 3rd party RAM and SSD (Samsung 830 is a great choice) on NewEgg, rather than going to OWC, but that's me.

And yeah: don't buy a faster CPU unless you *know* you need it, and , refurbs are generally a great deal.

I know 4-5 people with 17" MacBook Pros. None of them have had any complaints about their 17" MacBook Pros, except, perhaps, that there is no way to fit a 17" screen in a laptop the size and weight of a 13" MacBook Pro (or Air).
posted by Good Brain at 5:43 PM on October 18, 2012

I've seen tons of technical folks with 17" MBPs, and they are not the type to put up with inferior hardware. I'm almost certain that Apple's discontinuance had more to do with the positioning of the 15" retina model as the top-of-the-line than anything else. Manufacturing those high-res screens is very tricky (defects are proportional to panel size and pixels), plus getting a graphics card to drive the pixels but still give 8 hour battery life is another challenge. Doing all that with the larger, higher resolution screen in the 17" was just too much. So, Apple dropped that model rather than have an awkward lineup where the 15" retina was the flagship despite a 17" non-retina model that was in the same price range. My completely amateur guess is that we'll see the 17" return next year in both flavors.
posted by wnissen at 8:27 PM on October 18, 2012

Opening the Macbook Pros, even the older not soldered shut ones, is not a trivial task

I keep a few around for spare parts for our home jukebox and find them relatively easy to open, but I would recommend that DIYers use the right jeweler's drivers as the screwheads are easy to strip.
posted by Blazecock Pileon at 9:56 PM on October 18, 2012

They discontinued the 17"? That sucks.

But speaking as an owner of a 17" MacBook Pro, it is an awkwardly large computer. For example, if I want to use it in my car, I have to get out and go sit in the passenger seat, because I can't open it in the driver's seat.
posted by ryanrs at 3:58 AM on October 19, 2012

No, the tiny bump in CPU speed won't matter. I strongly suggest getting whatever is tops in the video hardware though. Apple's entire screen rendering system makes agressive use of the GPU and they'll be pushing that even harder as time passes. You may be unable to upgrade to future OSes if your GPU isn't up to snuff.

Refurbs: I've bought 2 of them and I'm not a big fan. Both were reliable but you aren't saving all that much money and both had sufficient case damage that the machines were just weird to use. In addition, you get what they have instead of exactly what you custom order.

Your own SSD: Up to you. If you do install your own, you'll need to enable TRIM support via 3rd party hackery. It's not hard but don't forget. Another option with the class of mac you're looking at is to keep the hard drive in there and swap out the optical for an SSD in a carrier.

Your own memory: I haven't done this on any of my Macs. I buy them maxed out. It's not worth my time and the possible risk of damaging new hardware.

I bought the high-res matte screen and love it. It's totally a personal preference thing though so no one can really answer that for you.

The current generation of non-retina MBPs are actually pretty easy to crack open and work on. The previous ("bath-tub") versions were a nightmare though.
posted by chairface at 12:52 PM on October 21, 2012

Response by poster: If I'm going to be swapping out the internal hard drive for an SSD and using the swapped-out drive as an external hard drive (in an enclosure) will 5400 vs. 7200 make a big difference? I know it does when you're loading the OS off the drive, but I'll only be using it for storage. I am not 100% sure where the bottleneck will be, nor what the best interface is (Firewire? USB 3?)
posted by griphus at 11:32 AM on October 22, 2012

A 5400-rpm drive with USB3 will be way, way faster than a 7200-rpm drive with FW800. The interface is the limiting factor, in my experience.

Thunderbolt should be faster still, but thunderbolt enclosures are as scarce as hen's teeth and disproportionately expensive.
posted by adamrice at 2:08 PM on October 22, 2012

Response by poster: Okay, I'll be getting a USB3 enclosure then. Is there a significant difference, in this scenario, between 5400 and 7200 on USB3? I have v. little experience with externals, so I know it makes a big deal when it is your main HD, but I'm wondering if it is even worth paying for the 7200 if I'm going to be using it primarily for archiving.
posted by griphus at 2:12 PM on October 22, 2012

Response by poster: (i.e. most of the time things will be on the SSD until I need more space, and then I will move the media I never look at onto the external.)
posted by griphus at 2:14 PM on October 22, 2012

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