Please advise me on a forthcoming computer upgrade
March 26, 2015 12:50 PM   Subscribe

My vintage 2008 Macbook is eagerly gazing at the pasture that has been beckoning it for a few years now. I have replaced the hard-drive and maxed out the RAM, but the poor little guy is simply ready for a well-deserved rest. So - what's next for me and when? Macbook Pro? Air? iMac? iPad? Difficulty level: incorporating moderate music production, Netflix, general web use, somewhat limited funds, and massive over-thinking.

Mostly I use a computer for surfing the web, email, and watching Netflix. I don't own a television. Prior to Ye Olde Macbook I owned a few PowerMac G4s, and the difference between a laptop and a desktop was clear - I initially liked not being chained to my desk if I wanted to be online, but these days I find myself resenting how computer activities have spread throughout my apartment. I romanticize the days when my computer use was spatially limited to my desk and thus offered fewer opportunities for distraction.

I'm a professional musician and have used computers for songwriting quite a bit in my day, although not for some time. My goal has never really been to produce final quality, ready-for-consumption recordings - it's more about demos and songwriting. Ideally I'd like have the headroom to expand in to higher quality recording whatever machine I buy, but it's not an immediate concern - for now I'd just like to be able to run ProTools and Reason or something(s) similar.

I don't own a television, but I am considering buying one, along with Apple TV. As I intimated earlier, I am prone to distractions (which is why I have held off on buying a television in the first place) - but it feels semantic at this point, the difference between a television on the one hand versus a laptop with a Netflix account on the other. I think I'd enjoy watching things on a television more than on a laptop.

I realize I'm a bit of a Luddite, but I'm not a cloud-user. I suspect that will need to change, but I have yet to take the plunge. I mention that because of hard drive capacity. Currently my Macbook has a 500 gig hard drive that comfortably contains all of my media. I prefer it that way - as opposed to being dependent on an external drive or else only being able to access certain files when I have a wifi signal.

In terms of timing - I'm leaving town for a 3-month gig in about a month. Afterwards, my employment situation is a little uncertain - ie, maybe sooner would be a better time to absorb such an expense. That said, I'll need something to get me through the next 3 months, whether it's a new machine or my trusty but tired old MacBook.

The options I've been considering:

-Macbook Air. Pros - portability. Cons - portability. Smaller hard drive capacity even if I buy an upgrade. Also no disk drive. Unclear how much headroom it will give me if I want to expand my music production activities.

-Macbook Pro. Pros - more hard drive space. Disk drive. More heard room for possible music production use. Portability. Cons - portability. Expensive! My understanding is that Apple is phasing out non-solid state hard drives, so it feels like committing to a technology whose days are numbered.

-iMac. Pros - hard drive space! Less expensive. Less intrusive in terms of space (ie, no sitting on the couch aimlessly watching youtube when I should get to sleep). More headroom in terms of music production? Cons - I'd need to buy a television unless I was willing to watch Netflix at my desk only (which I'm not). Also, in view of my impending 3-month gig out of town, I'd need to hope that my current MacBook has another 3 months in it and put off purchasing a new computer until after I return.

Wise denizens of AskMe, will any of you lend an objective eye to my circumstances and help me weed through my indecisiveness? Thanks so much!
posted by fingers_of_fire to Computers & Internet (15 answers total) 11 users marked this as a favorite
I vote Macbook Air and an external harddrive.
posted by axismundi at 1:03 PM on March 26, 2015

Definitely rule out the non-retina MbP, it's a terrible value compared to the rest of the current product line. A superdrive (if you really need an optical drive), an external hard-drive, and either the MbA or retina MbP will meet your needs in spades, and outlast the non-retina MpB by a couple years.
posted by a box and a stick and a string and a bear at 1:11 PM on March 26, 2015 [6 favorites]

I replaced my similarly-aged Macbook with a Retina screen Macbook Pro last summer. A few notes:

-My Pro is far more portable than my old Macbook, mostly because the battery life is absurd. I can use it steadily almost all day without needing to plug it in. It's heavier than an Air for sure, but for me it was worth trading off for a machine that in my opinion feels sturdier and more pleasant to use. Obviously YMMV, but I found the Air sort of flimsy feeling. I also was willing to invest in a somewhat better computer since I would like to get another 4-6 years out of my laptop the way I did with my Macbook.

-It doesn't really make sense to buy a non-solid state Macbook Pro- I think Apple is phasing them out and they're not getting the updates the new Pros are getting so you're getting an outdated machine. Also, the Retina screen is so so so nice to look at, seriously it's ruined me for old screens. And the disc drive- you can get an external disc drive if you really need it, but be real with yourself how often you use your disc drive now. I've never missed it and frankly didn't when I had my old machine.
posted by MadamM at 1:17 PM on March 26, 2015 [4 favorites]

Were I you, I'd also forgo the non-retina MacBook Pro for a MacBook Air. They're very capable machines, and will give you pretty much anything you need. I use a 2013 model for recording music, and it runs Logic with no problems (its lightness means I can bring it sometimes to do some low-fi recording in our rehearsal studio). Just make sure to get at least 8GB of RAM. I just offload projects to an external. You're going to love having something so light on your trip out of town.
posted by General Malaise at 1:44 PM on March 26, 2015

Because you want to do Music Production.

MB Pro Retina with Maxed out memory.
posted by Mac-Expert at 1:46 PM on March 26, 2015 [5 favorites]

If you haven't put an SSD in your 2008 Macbook Pro, you might well find that doing so gives it a new lease on life. I added one to my 2008 MBP about 2 1/2 years ago and I've been more or less content with the thing since. I even do some music production on it (remember that people, probably including you, were producing music on this very model just fine back in 2008).

If you're angling back towards desktops and your laptop isn't actually failing in some way, maybe you ought to buy a desktop to use as your primary working machine and keep using the laptop you have when you travel.
posted by weston at 2:03 PM on March 26, 2015 [2 favorites]

If you haven't put an SSD in your 2008 Macbook Pro

To be clear, the OP is describing as far as i can tell, a 2008 macbook. The non pro variety, with the terrible intel graphics that stutters even on youtube videos nowadays.

My personal recommendation for everything you want is a 13in retina macbook pro. The base model, even. The huge price bump to double the storage isn't worth it, just get an external drive. I see that you're fairly against that, so if you really must then go for it.

The macbooks airs have comparatively crappy screens to basically any model in apples lineup besides the non-retina little macbook pro(which is a horribly outdated machine now. it has a mechanical hard drive and a 2012 CPU). Every retina model has an IPS display with real glass over it, rather than glossy plastic.

The pro isn't even really much heavier OR thicker than the air. It's a very thin, light machine.

You also get a superior CPU(that is capable of running much harder for a longer period of time due to superior cooling and a higher TDP/power draw limit), superior graphics, a superior keyboard with more travel...

Any of the retina macbook pros will have more than enough power for music production. I went all out and bought the biggest baddest 15in model of the first series, and my friend got a generation newer one of the 13in model. They both run ableton, logic, reason, garageband, whatever you want super smoothly. Like better than any desktop i've owned, even.

I'm also seconding how much more portable the new machines feel. The battery life is INTENSE, they're light, and just easy to pack up/carry around. The screens are also so much brighter, contrastier, and clearer than they were in 2008. The macbook had a stunning screen then, but a stunning screen now feels like the difference between the interior of a car from the 90s and a car now.

The imacs are harder to buy because the 21.5in base model is TERRIBLE with the dual core CPU and mechanical hard drive. It uses the CPU from the macbook air, while the other models use a real desktop CPU(it wouldn't be faster than your current machine, it's BAD), and even the base quad core model still isn't a great deal. They use laptop hard drives! slow! the first model worth buying is one of the ones with a fusion drive(basically you get an SSD and a hard drive, but the OS and your primary applications and some data are stored on the SSD automagically). The absolute CHEAPEST imac worth buying is $1500. The cheapest macbook pro with "enough" storage is the same price, and the 512gb one is $200 more.

Bear in mind that the macbook pro will be a faster feeling machine, despite not having a quad core CPU. The SSD in it connects with PCIe and transfers at way over 1000mbps, whereas the drive in the imac is limited to less than half that and runs over SATA. This is everything in how fast a modern computer feels. CPUs have been really fast for 4-5 years now to the point of near overkill.

Personally, i bought a 256gb machine and i still haven't filled it up. I have all my music projects and lots of media on it. I did, however, start from scratch. I only copied over stuff i truly needed and weedled my way down from around 400gb of files to maybe 70gb and have built up from there. I'd recommend the same.

So yea, 13in midrange retina macbook pro. I have the 15in right now, and if/when i upgrade i'm just buying... another retina macbook pro. Probably the next generation that comes out after this current one. It's the best laptop anyone makes right now, and i feel really strongly about that.
posted by emptythought at 3:05 PM on March 26, 2015 [3 favorites]

Just pointing out, since you mentioned iPad early on and not this, that the Apple is coming out with a new 12" Macbook line, which is lighter than the 11" Macbook Air yet has Retina. It'll be out on April 10th, with some major differences: different keyboard and touchpad mechanisms, and removal of all ports except one USB-C port and one audio jack. I'm not that knowledgeable about it; I don't know how upgradable it will be, and right now storage is capped at 512gb.
posted by halifix at 4:06 PM on March 26, 2015

Would you consider not getting a Mac? You would probably spend less money and still be able to do everything you want, according to your post. You will also be able to customize a lot more -- many different screen sizes, hard drive sizes, prices, etc. will be at your disposal, and Apple TV is really just Apple's version of Chromecast, Roku, Amazon Fire TV, etc. If you want something portable and small that has enough ports for you to hook up music production equipment, I personally would be looking into a PC. Apple loves skimping out on useful ports.
posted by AppleTurnover at 4:24 PM on March 26, 2015 [2 favorites]

I wouldn't screw with a PC laptop. You might save some money. You will have more options, but you'll also spend a lot of time figuring sifting through all those options. Once you do, you can deal with all the little shit thats different between Mac and Windows, and, perhaps, buying Windows version of software you already own. Then after that, you'll get to see if you made the right choices, or whether you got a lemon from a manufacturer who falls far short of Apple in the customer service department.

I'd suggest an Apple refurbished 13 or 15" Retina Macbook Pro. The savings is substantial, the performance differences vs new aren't going to be very significant, and they are in like-new condition, complete with the standard 1 year warranty and option to buy AppleCare (if that is what you are in to). They'll have enough ports too.

The new MacBook is intriguing, but it seems a lot like the original MacBook Air (only a lot cheaper): The shape of things to come, but perhaps 6-12 months too soon to be a no-brainer.
posted by Good Brain at 5:45 PM on March 26, 2015 [3 favorites]

I got the base 13" MacBook Pro retina this past summer to replace my 15" 2008 MBP. It came with a solid state drive.

It's not as light as the Air but holy crap, it's way more portable than the 2008 model. I'm pleased so far.
posted by bonobothegreat at 8:26 PM on March 26, 2015

Response by poster: thanks, everybody!

assuming i go with a macbook pro - can i get by with 8 gigs of RAM, or should i upgrade to 16? it means the difference between new and certified refurbished - a fairly significant price jump. i'll do it if i need to, but - do i need to?
posted by fingers_of_fire at 10:08 PM on March 26, 2015

You need to. You can't change your mind later. Just do it.
posted by oceanjesse at 10:25 PM on March 26, 2015 [1 favorite]

Get the extra memory now.
posted by a lungful of dragon at 11:58 PM on March 26, 2015 [1 favorite]

I'm on the edge on that one. I got 8gb, and i wish i had gotten 16. However, it's mostly because you can't upgrade. I've used variants of the same machine i have with 16 and they definitely felt faster... but the one i have hasn't ever felt slow.

Will it still be fine in several years? I'm not sure. If i was buying it again i would have tried to hunt down a 16gb one though.

If you're going to buy new to get more ram anyways, i think there's other reasons to do that. They just upgraded to significantly more efficient CPUs that will give you a lot more battery life, and better storage(as i mentioned above). It's not just the increase in ram you're buying there. A 16gb version of the model that just came out a few days ago should be future proof as hell though. I have the 2012 model, and it's 2015, and it's barely starting to not feel bleeding edge. I've been using my imac for 8 years now and it's still... well pretty good. If you really want the longest life you can possibly get, i'd go for the upgrade.
posted by emptythought at 4:54 AM on March 27, 2015

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