Finding the perfect Mac laptop for an indecisive Windows-based web developer
December 15, 2012 5:13 PM   Subscribe

I'm a web developer / eLearning developer on Windows 7 looking to: 1) Get a Mac because I need to be able to test sites quickly and easily on my own; 2) Get a Windows-bootable unit that can act as my backup machine when my Asus throws a tantrum as it did this week; and 3) Get a reasonably portable Windows-bootable laptop that can handle Photoshop and other resource hogs so that I can work on it at client sites without having to barely squish the Asus (aka "The Clydesdale") into my largest backpack. Ideally, I could get all three in one machine that wouldn't cost the earth. Please join me as I anguish over the MacBook Air, the MacBook Pro, the Mac Mini, and other options.

What I do with my computers:

- Adobe Creative Suite CS5 and CS6 / eLearning Suite 2 and 6 (Captivate, Photoshop, Flash, Dreamweaver)
- Some work in Illustrator CS4
- Other elearning tools (Camtasia 7 and 8, Articulate Storyline)
- Office 2010

I don't do any heavyweight video editing (just web-based work in Camtasia and the like). I don't produce graphics for print, just the web. Typical eLearning file sizes to open, save and convert to Flash are 25-90 Mb (Storyline files with videos can get huge, Captivate files typically max out at about 50-60 Mb).

I'm mostly happy with my Asus (Windows Home Premium, i7 quad core, 16 Gb DDR 1333 RAM, 750 Gb HDD at 7200rpm). I do find that when I was at 6 Gb RAM that I would have problems running Photoshop and Captivate or Storyline at the same time. My video driver is a little flaky, but it hasn't actually crashed in front of me since the last update a couple of months ago.

What I'm considering at Canadian pricing:

Laptops that could (maybe) do it all with Bootcamp and Windows 7 Pro OEM.

1) MacBook 13" i5 dual core (3rd gen/Ivy Bridge) with 4 Gb RAM that I'll upgrade to 8Gb on my own. Small enough to fit in my smallest backpack, too.

Performance: I'm assuming mostly OK: any feedback?
Price: It's on sale this week for $1049. 4 Gb more of RAM will be about $60 more.
My concerns: The HDD spins at 5400 rpm, and all my recent Windows machines have been at 7200. Will I find this unbearably slow? Plus, at 4.5 pounds versus the Asus 6 pounds, it is an improvement but not all that lightweight.

2) Some kind of 13" Mac Air (can't do 11" because the SSD drives only go to 128 Gb).

Performance: I could work with a 256 Gb SSD because that will hold all my apps and some data. It would certainly be faster than the 5400 HDD on the MacBook Pros. I know that I already get impatient with the 7200 rpm HDD on my Asus when opening, closing and saving 50-90 Mb files. But the importance of the processor speed is where I'm really confused.

a) Ivy Bridge i5 versus Sandy Bridge i5. Is the latter significantly slower than the Ivy Bridge? It looks as if the RAM is slower, too, at 1333 Mhz instead of 1600 Mhz.

b) How does the i7 (dual core) Ivy Bridge compare to the i5 Ivy Bridge? If I have the same fast RAM and an SSD in both, is the bump in processor speed worth it?

a) i5 Sandy Bridge: $1249 at Future Shop
b) i5 Ivy Bridge: $1499 with 4 Gb RAM. If necessary, I could add more 4 Gb more after I put it through its paces, so that's about $60 more.
c) i7 (dual core) Ivy Bridge: $1599 with 4 Gb RAM, plus $60 or so upgrade to 8 Gb on my own.

I haven't paid more than $1300 for a computer in years. These prices are a little above my comfort level. OTOH, I don't know if I could live with an HDD spinning at 5400 rpm. Apple can offer me an SSD or a potter's wheel, but nothing in between.

More complicated options:

1) Mac Mini (i5 or i7 dual core, 500 Gb or 1 Tb HDDD at 5400 rpm). These are pretty cheap at $599/$799, but that slow HDD concerns me. Plus, I would still have to deal with the laptop problem, so I may end up spending anywhere from $500 to $1000 for a reasonably small but gutsy Windows laptop.

2) Sell the Asus for $400-500 and use the proceeds and what I have budgeted for The Perfect Mac Laptop to get a desktop like this (I would still have to add memory) and a 13" MacBook Pro. Approximately $2050 for these units minus the CL proceeds works out to $1550-1650 to get a more powerful desktop and a good but not great laptop.

All this typing and now I think I know my answer, but any feedback, useful questions or a boot to the head would be appreciated. Thanks!
posted by maudlin to Computers & Internet (16 answers total) 1 user marked this as a favorite
I have a Macbook Air, and the flash memory means it's by far the fastest computer I've ever used. It's several times faster than my Macbook Pro; both are about 18 months old.
posted by professor plum with a rope at 5:22 PM on December 15, 2012

Get any of the three with an SSD. I know it's possible for the portables, it might even be possible for the mini.
posted by oceanjesse at 5:43 PM on December 15, 2012

This may be a bit fiddly for you but you could do what I did with my 13" unibody MacBook. Pull out the CD drive, replacing it with a regular laptop drive cage. Then you can put an SSD in the machine in addition to the platter. The OS lives on the SSD and my data on the platter. Fast!

My understanding is that it's possible to create a fusion drive partition manually, so you'd actually be able to get the best of both worlds like the fusion drive option on the brand new iMacs. I've been thinking about repartitioning my MacBook to give this a go.

I got my drive cage from iFixit. $50? There was some fiddly dissasembly but it was overall fairly painless. And of course one needs to reformat the drives, which is no big deal assuming you're using an external drive Time Machine backup.


In lieu of attacking a new computer with a bunch of tiny screwdrivers, just buy the best machine you can afford that has a large SSD and lots of RAM already in it. The SSD will make much more difference in the operational speed of the machine than the speed of the CPU unless you are encoding video all day. True Fax.
posted by seanmpuckett at 5:50 PM on December 15, 2012

Get a Mac because I need to be able to test sites quickly and easily on my own

Is there a reason you need to test sites on a Mac vs. a Windows machine? Perhaps your users are mostly on Macs...?

I'm in the same line of work as you, and the one thing that jumped out at me about your laptop choices is the monitor size. I'm on a 17" laptop, and I still feel cramped when I have all my various windows and tabs and stuff open. Maybe you have access to external monitors at your client site, though, so it's a non-issue for you?
posted by nacho fries at 5:52 PM on December 15, 2012

I use 13" Macbook Pros for web dev work. I have 8gb RAM and want to upgrade to 16 (supported, despite what Apple might try to tell you.)* RAM is always the bottleneck that slows me down, especially when I'm testing things in multiple browsers and/or running a local sever for the site I'm working on.

I am never clear on the obsession with SSDs, or how fast disc access could possibly make a difference when you're maxing out the RAM, but maybe I'm missing something.

*Note that the latest generation of MBPs are apparently not user-upgradable, so watch out for that.
posted by drjimmy11 at 6:41 PM on December 15, 2012

MBP is the standard in your profession for a reason. Light, dependable, Unix flavorful, tough as nails, and good support these days for all the VM software you might need. I consider the Air a slightly flimsier, lighter version of the MBP. Get an Air if carrying a full size notebook is really a deal breaker, but honestly the smallest MBP is not very heavy at all, so I don't really understand the appeal.

As for VMs, you have a few options. VMWare Fusion is great for running your own sessions of WinXP/7/8 locally. Another good option is to get an account at Sauce Labs and use their web interface. Testing your own stuff privately takes a little extra knowledge of networking but otherwise you have remote access to your VMs from anywhere in the world. Sauce is awesome. It has changed how I do frontend development. (And I swear, I'm not on the payroll.)

If money is tight, you could get a Mac Mini and plug in your own peripherals, but you lose the portability.
posted by deathpanels at 8:33 PM on December 15, 2012

If you're okay with a bit of screwdriver time, it is pretty easy to replace a non-retina MacBook Pro's hard drive and RAM. I love a good poke around so if it was me spending all your coin, I'd go for the 13" i7 MacBook Pro then purchase (separately) a good sized SSD or a 7200rpm HDD and do the old swapperoo like seanmpuckett suggests above. As well as checking out iFixit, have a look at OWC's DIY Kit bundles -- you can grab a new drive, an enclosure to house your old HDD, and all the screwdrivers and fiddly bits you need, and they offer to ship same-day. Replacing the HDD and boosting the RAM should be cool with your warranty. Replacing the optical drive will void it.

I just had a peep at the customisation options for the 13" MBP on the Apple Store and they want $500 to add a SSD and $100 for the 8GB RAM. Yow.

For regular everyday stuff and simple Photoshop I don't think you'll find that the i5 holds you back, but since you will be spending some time with Photoshop, video and Craptivate (and presumably doing a bit of bouncing between them while you're at it) I'd suggest you might notice some improved performance from the i7. I don't honestly know how much more performance you might get in the apps from the i7's hyperthreading capabilities but it should make swapping between them somewhat more bearable.

AppleCare should be on your must-buy list, by the way.
posted by raena at 9:50 PM on December 15, 2012

Response by poster: Thanks for all the feedback so far (and for the patience you all have shown with that huge question.)

I really neeeed a fast drive. I do a lot of work in "rapid" (ha!) authoring tools like Storyline and Captivate. While these output relatively small Flash/HTML or HTML5 files, the file format used to build and edit content makes very large files. The programs themselves don't exactly turn on a dime, either. It can take 45 seconds to launch one of these applications, and opening or saving a typical large file (50 to 90 Mb) can take another 45-60 seconds. That is: it takes that much time to launch and save programs on a Windows machine with a quad core i7, 16 Gb of RAM, and a 7200 rpm HDD.

So moving to an SSD is crucial. Thanks for the reminder -- d'oh! -- that I can install my own. (For some reason, I had thought that I couldn't change RAM or the drive in a modern MBP, but from what you guys have said and what I've seen around, I can do it, and it shouldn't violate the warranty.)

Some remaining questions:

1. Multitasking is important, but I think that 8 Gb of RAM on a Mac running Windows should allow me to have both Photoshop and Storyline/Captivate running at the same time. (Storyline is 32 bit, but the others are 64 bit.) If I am wrong, please tell me!

2. If I do upgrade to more than 8 Gb of RAM, I presume this would violate the warranty even if it does work -- correct?

3. Would an i5 let me do what I want, or do I really need to consider an i7, given what I have described? I am not encoding video all day, and the few times I do encode, it's Quicktime to mp4 in Camtasia, not Premiere.

4. My current drive is taking up about 110 Gb for the Win 7 install and my apps. If I'm getting a 256 Gb SSD, how much room should I have left over for Mountain Lion, Bootcamp, etc.?
posted by maudlin at 12:39 AM on December 16, 2012

I really neeeed a fast drive.

Then you neeeeed a SSD. You can always use an external drive to stash your big old source files.

2. If I do upgrade to more than 8 Gb of RAM, I presume this would violate the warranty even if it does work -- correct?

I don't believe that is the case.

There are many places around the world, perhaps including your province, where consumer laws will not allow Apple to restrain your ability to use third party parts.

The RAM you buy should be covered under the manufacturer's warranty. Hold on to your Apple RAM and swap it back in if you need to take it into a store.
posted by raena at 2:27 AM on December 16, 2012 [1 favorite]

Just to clarify on the user-upgradability front: you can't upgrade RAM or, as far as I'm aware, the SSD on the RETINA MacBook Pro (that is, either the 13" or 15" versions with the super high resolution screens), but you can upgrade both on the NON-RETINA versions. If you have no interest in the Retina versions, you'll be able to upgrade to your heart's content.
posted by anaximander at 2:27 AM on December 16, 2012

I don't know how available these things are in Canada, but if you don't already know about Apple Refurbished Units, it's something worth keeping an eye on. They are generally discounted from retail prices and they qualify for AppleCare (you absolutely MUST buy the AppleCare plan for whatever computer you buy -- it's Cadillac extended warranty service which gives you 3 years of full coverage and 3 years of phone support, best in the biz and always worth the money).

You might have to keep an eye on the page, as these are specific units for sale, but eventually you will find what you're looking for on that page, and then you can grab it at a better price than you normally would find.
posted by hippybear at 9:19 AM on December 16, 2012

Also, if the unit has user-upgradable RAM capability, putting in your own memory does not violate the warranty at all. Apple isn't that much of an asshole corporation.

I'd even go so far as to say that if the unit you purchase can be user-upgraded with RAM, you should buy a unit with the minimum possible RAM from Apple and get compatible RAM from a 3rd party, because paying Apple to install RAM is just throwing money away.
posted by hippybear at 9:21 AM on December 16, 2012

Response by poster: Thanks again, all. There is a Canadian refurbished computers site, so I'll poke around there as well as the upcoming December sales for anything new or refurbished that could work.
posted by maudlin at 4:34 PM on December 16, 2012

That is: it takes that much time to launch and save programs on a Windows machine with a quad core i7, 16 Gb of RAM, and a 7200 rpm HDD

This is curious to me, because I use a machine of about those specs, and am not seeing those slow times. No SSD here, but I did upgrade the graphics card, which I think is the more key component when dealing with those particular applications you mention (all of which I use on a daily basis).

Just something to consider as you figure out how to optimize your new system.
posted by nacho fries at 8:48 PM on December 18, 2012

Response by poster: That's interesting, nacho fries. I have been having problems with my display driver crashing when I have several images open in Photoshop and a couple more programs running at the same time. The Asus came with the NVIDIA GeForce GT540M graphics card, which is supposed to be decent, but it's been unstable for several months no matter which version of the driver I use. (Well, I haven't installed the December 17 update yet, so maybe that will help.) I didn't think it would be a potential root of the other problems I've been having with this machine.

I'm using a Dell U2410 as my display, which is supposed to be using the integrated Intel card (HD Graphics 3000), but all my crash messages are from the NVIDIA.

(Oh, and I bought the 13" MacBook Pro (i5) today. I'll try it out soon and will see how it performs, but I can return it by January 6 if necessary. Still have my fingers crossed that an i7 comes up for a decent price soon.)
posted by maudlin at 10:47 PM on December 18, 2012

Response by poster: I tried out the MacBook last night and today and am charmed. I'm still looking for an affordable and reliable 500 Mb SSD to slip in there before I install Windows and some extra RAM (if needed), but it's a spunky and responsive little device so far.
posted by maudlin at 4:03 PM on January 1, 2013

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