I'm buying a 13" MacBook Pro. Confused & need help with specs.
December 25, 2017 12:22 PM   Subscribe

I absolutely have to replace my mid-2009 MacBook Pro. For the first time in a 30-year relationship with Apple, I'm not sure what all of the numbers and initialisms mean, or which model is best for the things that I do (TouchBar y/n?). Please lend your experience and knowledge to help me. Detailed questions inside.

Here are my current specs:

MacBook Pro (13-inch, Mid-2009)
OS X Yosemite (can not go up any more in OS) V. 10.10.5
Processor: 2.26 GHz Intel Core 2 Duo
Memory: 8 GB 1067 MHz DDR3 (up from 4, installed by me)
Graphics: NVIDIA GeForce 9400 MM 256MB
Storage: 240 GB Solid State SATA Drive (swapped from original hard drive by me with a kit)

I used to know my numbers and abbreviations pretty well (processors, memory, etc.), but I feel overwhelmed by all the new info about the new machines, and would like some guidance from people who use MBPs on a regular basis.

I want my new computer to be faster, and to be able to handle everything that I do without lag. (I also want opinions from people who have TouchBar models -- are they worth it in terms of use, or are they just cool to have?)

Here are the main things I do with my laptop.

1) Standard use -- email, documents, browsing, watching Netflix, blah blah blah. All of that works fine.

2) Tutoring via Skype - I share my screen with my student *and* talk to them through the shitty mic on my computer *and* run a Wacom tablet (USB peripheral) so that I can write and draw math problems on the screen and share them. Right now, with my MBP, this is not something that goes smoothly. I use a Bluetooth keyboard and Bluetooth mouse when I tutor (the computer is hooked up to a standalone flatscreen monitor), and I think there may be limits to how many bluetooth items you can use at once? I tried a bluetooth headset so that I could talk to my students and hear them without using the crappy 2009 MBP mic and camera, but Bluetooth headset or built-in mic and camera, my audio drops out a lot, and oftentimes, I'll draw a line on the tablet, and it'll show up slowly a few seconds later. I don't know if this is my processor unable to handle all of those things at once or what.

3) Video editing with FinalCut Pro. It works fine on my 2009 as long as I'm not running anything else in the background that takes up more memory.

4) Using iTunes "home movies" folder to hold a lot of .mp4 files of tv shows and movies that are broadcast wirelessly to my AppleTV.

5) Photoshop. Lots and lots of Photoshop.

Okay, with that out of the way, I've been looking at the specs on the new MacBook Pros, and I'm... confused?

If you look here, you can see the different specs and configuration possibilities on a new MBP. On the least-expensive model, there is a "2.3GHz dual-core 7th-generation Intel Core i5 processor."

It seems a bit weird (I'm sure because I don't understand all the details) that nine years later, they're offering a MBP with basically the same speed processor? How much difference is there actually between 2.26 and 2.3GHz? Or does the type of processor make a big difference, even if the GHz are the same? That... sounds wrong.

"8GB 2133MHz LPDDR3 memory" in 2017 vs "8GB 1067MHz DDR3" in 2009. I simply don't know how to read this except I get that the MHz has improved and someone added "LP" in front of "DDR3." But 8GB is 8GB, isn't it? so.... it's not actually faster, is it?

"Intel Iris Plus Graphics 640" in 2017 vs " NVIDIA GeForce 9400 MM 256MB" in 2009. What am I missing here in terms of how the 2017 is better/stronger/faster?

I know I can upgrade the RAM, and I plan to up it to 16GB RAM. I currently have a 256 internal SSD and it's not nearly full, so I don't feel a need to go up in storage. I also have two peripheral SSDs that I plug in whenever I need something that's on them. Also, I've been living with 2 USB ports, so I don't necessarily feel a need to go more expensive just to get 4 USB-C ports.

Any other info you might have, I would love to hear.
posted by tzikeh to Computers & Internet (23 answers total) 5 users marked this as a favorite
 
In terms of CPUs things are weird and complicated enough that basically the only thing to do is to go to a benchmark site (e.g.) and search for the exact CPU model number.

"8GB 2133MHz LPDDR3 memory" in 2017 vs "8GB 1067MHz DDR3" in 2009. I simply don't know how to read this except I get that the MHz has improved and someone added "LP" in front of "DDR3." But 8GB is 8GB, isn't it? so.... it's not actually faster, is it?

The MHz is how fast the RAM can talk to the CPU. How much that matters varies tremendously between different tasks. But the faster MHz will show a measurable improvement for some things. The difference between DDR3 and LPDDR3 is LPDDR3 is designed for laptops and uses less power. Apple usually trades that kind of gain for making the computer smaller and lighter, so the actual amount you can use it between charges is kind of a wash.

"Intel Iris Plus Graphics 640" in 2017 vs " NVIDIA GeForce 9400 MM 256MB" in 2009. What am I missing here in terms of how the 2017 is better/stronger/faster?

Again this is something to just look up the benchmarks. here it looks like the new GPU is about 10x as fast as the old one.

Also, I've been living with 2 USB ports, so I don't necessarily feel a need to go more expensive just to get 4 USB-C ports.

Bear in mind that the new MBPs do away with the magsafe connectors, and (aside from headphones) every other connector other than USB. They get power over USB. So with 2 ports you can only plug in one thing if you also want to charge the computer. Maybe that's fine for you!
posted by aubilenon at 1:13 PM on December 25, 2017 [1 favorite]


Oh also, I think the touchbar is annoying to have, not cool.
posted by aubilenon at 1:14 PM on December 25, 2017 [2 favorites]


The Touch Bar is cool but the first generation of them were apparently really buggy; I wouldn't consider that a must-have.

I would look at Apple certified refurb MPBs that do not have the Touch Bar.

From my experience, one of the big things that makes a Mac slow down is not having enough hard drive storage. When the drive starts getting full, it starts choking on difficult tasks.

Rather than getting tooooooo into the weeds on exact specs, I'd suggest looking at reviews and benchmark sites that are geared toward your high-impact tasks: Skype with multiple Bluetooth peripherals, Photoshop, and video editing.

I suspect that the big difference for you is going to be in the VIDEO memory and processor more than the general processor/memory. I would spend on pushing your graphics card as good as you can afford over pushing other stuff (you can use external hard drives, SD cards, etc.). Look up benchmarks on the GRAPHICS chips for the models you are comparison shopping, because that is what's going to crunch the numbers in your photo and video editing stuff and make your renders go fast and smooth.

Also, pro tip for the MBP: you can buy little SD cards that fit into the SD card slot and fits flush to the body of the computer, and then they act as a second hard drive that you can add aftermarket. Just make sure you get the one that is made for the computer you end up getting.

Also re the Bluetooth: the new Apple bluetooth chip (in the new phones) is outstanding and headsets that work with it are really great. May be worth looking into whether the new MBPs have the same technology and getting a headset, etc., that works with it.

Good luck!
(also, I think I know you from Elsewhere Online, so HI!)
posted by oblique red at 1:22 PM on December 25, 2017


Yes, if you were used to computers 30 years ago you need to forget all the stuff about GHz comparisons with processors across families. There's been a bit of a plateau in the need to speed these things up recently, principally because of cost but also because there are so many other more significant gains to be had.

The difference between the processor in your 2009 and a new Macbook is going to be very significant, regardless of their similar clock speeds. As mentioned above, you could check them out with a benchmark site. I'd guess the new one would be 3-4 times quicker than your core 2 duo.

But there are many other very significant differences. The SSD speed in the new macbook is much much faster than the one you have in your older machine. The memory speed ditto. And although the one you're looking at doesn't have a separate graphics chip (the Intel Iris Pro is an integrated video chip), it is streets ahead of what used to be available to mobile computers eight or nine years ago.

In short, even the base model you mention will run rings around your 2009 MBP, despite the upgrades you have made and despite the apparent similarities with the figures.

With respect to your specific tasks, if you are suspecting Bluetooth remember that in 2009 that was a pretty new thing. Modern bluetooth systems are much better at handling multiple devices at speed. Assuming that your Skype is not limited by poor wifi/internet speeds, there should be no problem doing what you describe. It's almost certainly not your processor, as what you describe isn't a lot of computing effort. But it is a lot of communications effort, through both bluetooth and wifi.

I'm surprised that you find your existing machine good enough at FCP and for Photoshop, but if you do, you'll be delighted how much better it is on a modern machine.

If you're on a budget, check out the Apple refurbished store. There are plenty of 13" MBPs on there at good prices. Go to a store and play with the Touchbar for yourself. Some people can't stand it or think it's a waste of time. Others love it. It's entirely your choice in that area. You might find it quite handy for running Photoshop or FCP at least.

But my final suggestion is that if you want your computer to last another eight years, you might want to bump up a few of the specs higher than you might originally have wanted. Perhaps to the next SSD size, or more powerful graphics at least. Remember that you can't upgrade anything once you've bought it, like you did with your previous machine.
posted by tillsbury at 1:45 PM on December 25, 2017 [5 favorites]


Touch bar would be good for video editing. It’s basically designed for “scrubbing” type behavior. Trackpad isn’t as good for that because you have to click and hold and lock into an x axis motion when you swipe.
posted by oceanjesse at 2:21 PM on December 25, 2017 [3 favorites]


I adore the Touch Bar, and I upgraded from a Macbook Air mid-2012. Get the highest specs that you can afford, it'll be sufficiently future-proof that it should last for another 5 years extremely well.
posted by yueliang at 3:01 PM on December 25, 2017 [2 favorites]


I made the leap from a 2012 Macbook Air to a MBP (3.1 GHz Intel Core i5, 16GB RAM) this year and am so glad I maxed out my budget to get the best specs possible. The speeds are absolutely blazing compared to my old machine, and I can have Photoshop, AfterEffects, and iMovie open with complex files without fear of hanging or freezing. The only software that seems to stress out the machine occasionally now is Photos, for some reason.

So far I haven't figured out how to include the Touch Bar into my workflow. The only reason I got this MBP version with Touch Bar was to have the 4 USB-C ports, (instead of 2) which were essential to me. I like to have many peripherals plugged in for work: External monitor, ethernet adapter, external hard drive, trackball, keyboard, and power cable. Two USB ports (capacity of the other MBP models) just wasn't going to cut it. Be sure to buy plenty of USB-C adapters so you can use old your old USB-A devices.

Also beware of the keyboard. It's got very low action, which requires more pressure when typing. After almost 3 months, I still don't like how it feels compared to the older laptop keyboards.
posted by oxisos at 3:34 PM on December 25, 2017


I have the touchbar and wouldn't get it again. I didn't need any of the (small) functionality it has. On top of that, there are significant downsides. Since it's touch, there's no physical feedback - I have to look down to use it. Also, since it changes depending on what program is in focus, I have to actively switch to iTunes to pause my music (rather than there being a dedicated button).

I imagine some people love it, but unless you have a specific use case you know it covers, I'd get the non-touchbar.

It's also possible for the touchbar to freeze. This hasn't been a big issue for me, but it's something to consider. It does add an additional thing that can break.
posted by Kutsuwamushi at 3:45 PM on December 25, 2017


One other note about the Touch Bar. I had mine freeze once (along with the screen) and I was totally mystified about how to even power the machine off since there is no power button. Turns out there is a secret UNLABELED physical button at the very right side of the Touch Bar, which is what you need to hold down for ten seconds to recover from a freeze. The event that triggered the freeze was: Trying to connect an ancient (2014) GoPro camera and use its obsolete software to extract video.
posted by oxisos at 4:11 PM on December 25, 2017


Okay, so I like the touch bar. I didn't think I would.

There absolutely is still a dedicated play/pause function etc. Just hit the "more" arrow to show all the options. I actually am starting to like it for Photoshop too. You can change brush features, colors, etc. right on the bar. Affinity designer has options in the bar too which is great. Some other design programs (ArtRage, Lightroom) don't have that functionality at the moment. I've also found it useful for workflow as it has all the click options. So I can just touch instead of having to mouse over multiple options. It's very useful in Lightroom to hit "delete" the select the "delete from disk" option on the touch instead of mousing over to it (or trackpad-ing over to it I guess?)

Anyway, I just upgraded to a refub mid 2016 / 3.3 ghz / dual core i7 / 16gb memory / 512 SSD and love it. (This one.)

I often run lots of programs and haven't run into an issue. (Lightroom and photoshop and browser and itunes, etc.) It runs really quiet and cool. Definitely keep an eye on refurbs. I think this was at least $400 less than new with the same (upgraded) specs.

If you do upgrade, get yourself a BULK of USB to USBc converters and just plug them ONTO the things you use most often, then you don't have to swap them out or leave it in the side of the computer. I got these. (They're on my wacoms, printer cables, etc.) Same goes for USBc to HDMI if you use an external monitor or TV.

And, if you don't like the lack of tactile touch you can remap your ESC key for example to the tilde or something. (My husband is a programmer, so they use all those weird characters so it's not his favorite.) There are lots of ways to map and remap the touch/keys.
posted by Crystalinne at 4:18 PM on December 25, 2017 [2 favorites]


I know I can upgrade the RAM, and I plan to up it to 16GB RAM.

Just to clarify (since this statement is slightly ambiguous to me): you can pay Apple extra money to upgrade the RAM when you buy the computer, but once you order it, you’re stuck with that amount of RAM for the life of the machine. The RAM on the new MBPs is no longer user upgradeable, so you can’t add more RAM youself like you did for your current machine.
posted by Betelgeuse at 5:52 PM on December 25, 2017 [2 favorites]


You can get the last prior non-touchbar MBP for a big discount compared to the touchbar MBP. Which is what I feel I should have done. I've had multiple Mac laptops since the mid 90s MBs, MBPs, iBooks), my current MacBook Pro with Touchbar is probably my least favorite. Which is not to say it is not a good laptop. What annoys me?
- the touchbar - it requires an increase in cognition and manipulation to interact with. This is because the physical buttons have disappeared and you need to look at the touchbar to see what you are pressing. In fact you need to interact with the laptop to get the touchbar to light up so you can interact with it.
- the keyboard - for me it's a terrible feel, the keys can get gummed up with small bits of dust, I guess it's an argument for me 'keeping it clean' but I'd rather treat a laptop as a portable tool, and not a sensitive piece of designer tech that I have to worry about when I drop it in my inevitably dusty backpack.
- the trackpad (has increasing numbers of functions crammed into increasingly fine distinctions in how you interact with it).
Overall it's a good laptop, the screen is great, but for me it's noticeably slow, and there is also a noticeable and frustrating uptick in cognitive load involved in using it - such as figuring out how multiple extra features are being crammed in - which gets in the way of what I want to do.
posted by carter at 6:15 PM on December 25, 2017


Also, I've been living with 2 USB ports, so I don't necessarily feel a need to go more expensive just to get 4 USB-C ports.

Remember, too, that USB-C is a whole new connector. If you have anything that is old, vanilla USB, you'll need to use a very clunky dongle.
posted by Thorzdad at 8:34 PM on December 25, 2017


It seems a bit weird (I'm sure because I don't understand all the details) that nine years later, they're offering a MBP with basically the same speed processor? How much difference is there actually between 2.26 and 2.3GHz? Or does the type of processor make a big difference, even if the GHz are the same? That... sounds wrong.

In short: that "seventh generation Core i5" is seven processor generations newer than the Core 2 Duo. It does a lot more in a single cycle and a lot of work has been done to make sure that the processor spends fewer cycles waiting for the next instruction. For general use, as suggested above, the new computer will seem to be about four times faster. It sounds wrong, but it's (generally*) right.

* There are a few edge cases where performance is constrained by GHz more than anything else, and in those cases the processor's "Turbo Boost up to 3.6GHz" will come into play, but so will the thermal constraints of Apple's design choices. Basically it can ramp up all the way to 3.6, but it might not be able to stay at 3.6 for very long. It's complicated.

"8GB 2133MHz LPDDR3 memory" in 2017 vs "8GB 1067MHz DDR3" in 2009. I simply don't know how to read this except I get that the MHz has improved and someone added "LP" in front of "DDR3." But 8GB is 8GB, isn't it? so.... it's not actually faster, is it?

The memory is twice as fast, and it consumes less power so it can run for longer on the same amount of battery power. From Apple what that means is they can make the computer thinner and lighter because they don't have to pack as much battery in.

"Intel Iris Plus Graphics 640" in 2017 vs " NVIDIA GeForce 9400 MM 256MB" in 2009. What am I missing here in terms of how the 2017 is better/stronger/faster?

This is a little of a mixed bag. Intel's integrated graphics used to be pretty terrible, so Apple incorporated discrete GPUs. The state of the art has advanced, Intel doesn't lag as much as they used to, and middle of the pack now is better than class leading was in 2009. But still, integrated graphics is maybe a ding against Apple. That said, I haven't had any complaints with the previous generation of Intel Iris graphics in my 2015 13" MacBook Pro.

And as somebody pointed out above, the SSD will be much faster than what you're used to. It's kind of crazy since SSDs already felt fast.
posted by fedward at 9:03 PM on December 25, 2017 [1 favorite]


carter: You can get the last prior non-touchbar MBP for a big discount compared to the touchbar MBP.

Which one is it? Does it have four USB-C ports?
posted by tzikeh at 9:05 PM on December 25, 2017


Hmm I don't recall the exact details re. USB-C (because I did not buy one) but when I was in the Apple store late summer this year looking at the touchbar MBPs, there was a quite pushy sales guy trying to get me to buy a function key MBP like these, at about this price point.
posted by carter at 9:14 PM on December 25, 2017


I’d say all the same things that carter did. My 2016 MBP is...fine, but definitely my least favorite Mac. The obsession with thinness took a lot of the enjoyment out of the design, and the Touchbar adds nothing that’s useful to me. (Though I don’t do any video editing, so perhaps that’s a consideration.) If I could do it again, I’d max out a 2015 MBP instead. Coming from a 2009 MBP, you’ll still notice an enormous improvement but without as much future shock in terms of connectors and feel.
posted by chimpsonfilm at 6:34 AM on December 26, 2017


chimpsonfilm: If I could do it again, I’d max out a 2015 MBP instead.

You wouldn't be able to get AppleCare, though, right? And how would you max it out if you can't get inside it? Or did that "you have to get everything you want when you order it" start with the 2016 models?
posted by tzikeh at 7:55 AM on December 26, 2017


Anything you buy from the Apple Store - whether a new version of a last-gen machine or a refurb - will have Apple Care available. You may be able to customize a last-gen model if you order online; you can’t customize a refurb but you can often find customized models available as refurbs.
posted by devinemissk at 9:10 AM on December 26, 2017


And I just checked the Apple Store online and you can order a non-touch-bar MacBook Pro, upgraded with 16GB of RAM. You can even upgrade to a slightly faster, 2.5 GHz processor for an additional $300.
posted by devinemissk at 9:14 AM on December 26, 2017


Yeah, on the Apple website you can customize a non-touchbar MBP — they give you the option to bump up the processor and storage before you buy. And there’s no reason you couldn’t get AppleCare with it.
posted by chimpsonfilm at 11:31 AM on December 26, 2017


I'd have said that the touch bar is completely unnecessary except that it also comes with the Touch ID fingerprint sensor, which has become one of my favorite features on my 15" MacBook Pro. I literally use it dozens of times a day (mostly to unlock 1Password) -- it's a huge timesaver.
posted by sriracha at 12:26 PM on December 26, 2017 [1 favorite]


If you want more time to think about options, I have the same Mac you do and I replaced the HD with a SSD and it was like getting a brand new machine that is going to give me a few more years. And I use Premiere Pro, Garageband, some Photoshop and I'm pretty happy with it.
Just a suggestion.
posted by drinkmaildave at 3:56 PM on December 27, 2017


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