Monthly Archives: November 2013

Macbook Pro with retina display first impressions

I am now the proud owner of a 13 inch MacBook Pro with retina display. The latest addition to my computer setup.

The laptop arrived at lunchtime today but I didn’t have a chance to unpack it until this evening. These are initial thoughts having had a couple of hours to try it out.

The first thing I notice is how quiet it is. This is my second ever laptop. My first one was a MacBook – the first generation white plastic model. It’s been in regular use since I bought it in 2006 – not a bad lifespan for what was marketed as an entry level laptop; the slot that’s inhabited these days by the MacBook Air. The batter went in it after about 5 years and although my wife has continued to use it regularly (with a replacement battery from Amazon) I’ve tried to use my iPad on the road for the last couple of years.

Good as an iPad is for surfing, it’s useless as a business tool – although that’s just my opinion. With specifically written business oriented apps it would work well (and I’ve written a few of those for my customers and they seem very happy with them) but I’m talking about design, programming and editing (of photos and video). A laptop is the only answer for that.

Anyway, I was talking about the noise – or rather the lack of it. My original MacBook had a 20GB spinning hard disk and the fan was noticeable too. This new machine uses PCIe based Flash storage and has no noticeable noise whatsoever. It’s as quiet as my iPad and all the better because of it.

Because it uses Flash storage, it’s also very fast. When opening applications it’s almost instant. Very pleasing. The processor is a 2.4GHz Intel Core i5 and it uses some of the 8GB of RAM for the graphics (in this case 1GB). I carried out a quick experiment earlier – not a very scientific one, but a test nonetheless. I took a 30 minute .ts format video stream from my Freesat DVR and copied the same file to both my Mac Pro 1,1 (that’s the 2006 model – the first Intel version of the cheese grater Mac) and my new MacBook Pro. I then ran the video file through Handbrake to convert it to Apple TV 3 format. Both machines took almost exactly the same time. So, on the face of it, my late 2013 MacBook Pro has the some computing power as a 7 year old Mac Pro.

Makes you think.

Of course, there’s a good deal more to it than that My MacBook wasn’t running any other apps, whereas my Mac Pro was running quite a few (including Windows XP under Parallels Desktop 8 which uses 1 of the 4 cores on the machine). My MacBook Pro was in the process of doing a Time Machine backup over my network to my NAS. So, arguably, both machines could’ve performed a bit better. Perhaps I’ll do a closer comparison at some stage but suspect the timings won’t be much different between the two machines whatever I do.

There’s a good reason for this. Both my 2006 Mac Pro 1,1 and this 2013 MacBook Pro just use the CPU for processing and don’t offload anything to the graphics card. The former just isn’t OpenCL compatible and the latter has no separate graphics capability. It shows just how much things haven’t changed if you just look at raw CPU power and nothing else.

I’ll be really interested to see what a new Mac Pro can do with the same file (assuming Handbrake can do OpenCL).

But there’s more to it…
The MacBook Pro, however, feels a good deal snappier than my ancient Mac Pro. Mission Control is always really sluggish on my Mac Pro and it feels like it’s struggling to keep up with me at the best of times. The faster internals on the laptop along with the solid state storage are no doubt helping lots with this. It shows how things have moved on in the hardware stakes even if the figures from my simple test suggest otherwise.

Retina display
The retina display is lovely, of course, and writing this blog post on my new laptop is much easier on the eyes than it would’ve been had I ever attempted to do it on my old laptop. Being used to retina on my iPad, however, means that it’s not the revelation that the high resolution display was when I first saw that. I may realise just how good it is when I get back to my 30″ Apple Cinema Display tomorrow.

Overall, first impressions are great. This is a fast, quiet, really well designed and fantastic looking laptop. It makes Windows and Chromebooks look like what they are – cheap imitations. No doubt I’ll have more to say about this hardware as I continue to set it up on my network and start to use it more.

Hardware upgrade decided

Last time, I was getting wobbly at the thought of splashing out on a new Mac Pro. “What if”, I thought, “I can get my work done on something cheaper – like a MacBook Pro – instead?” Well, I’ve worked out what to do now.

I’ve been waiting for the new Mac Pro to come out for nearly 2 years now. I desperately need to upgrade my hardware as it’s starting to affect my workflow. I’m now 3 operating systems behind (as my Mac Pro 1,1 won’t go beyond Lion) and my laptop is so old it’s stuck on Snow Leopard. But all this has been well documented by me on these pages.

Last time, I was wondering whether a Mac Pro might be overkill. After all, one of the things that first attracted me to the device back in 2006 was the internal expansion. That and the ability to plug in whatever monitor I wanted to use which was originally a 20″ Dell and is now a 30″ Apple Cinema Display.

The new Mac Pro is doing away with 50% of the reason why I like the machine – the internal expansion. It’s been the main stick with which prospective buyers have been beating Apple ever since the new equipment was unveiled at WWDC 2013. As I’ve stated on these pages before, however, my personal opinion about the lack of internal expansion in the new Pro is somewhat at odds with these nay sayers. I don’t have a problem with it. Think about it, back in 2006 having all your data on your local machine wasn’t a problem, in fact it made sense. These days, however, storing data elsewhere (whether that be on a network, in the Cloud or in an external expansion device with a fast bus) makes much more sense. For me, having my data on a fast gigabit network so I can access it from any device at home, or use it as a Cloud storage node when on the road is by far the best thing to do. So I bought a NAS.

So why bother?
Ironically, the lack of internal storage on the forthcoming new Mac Pro is precisely why a few weeks ago I decided to inspect my reasons for wanting one at all. If I don’t need the internal expansion and there isn’t any provided, can’t I just get something cheaper?

The iMac isn’t an option for me. As I’ve already stated above, I like having the ability to plug in my own monitor, or even perhaps more than one. I feel sure that during the lifetime of my next main desktop computer I will upgrade to some kind of retina or 4K display. If I bought an iMac I’d be stuck with whatever it came with.

The Mac Mini also isn’t an option. Don’t get me wrong, it’s a good, fast machine but it won’t have the sheer power that comes with dual OpenCL cards. Remember, I want a machine that will improve my workflow, not just keep it the same but under a more modern OS.

So what about laptops? Last time I was talking about whether a MacBook of some kind could be the only machine I need. On investigating further, it appears that the MacBook Air and 13″ MacBook Pro both have integrated graphics. You need to move to the 15″ Pro model to get separate graphics capabilities. This makes a notable difference if you’re rendering video footage or processing ultra high resolution or HDR images. As with the Mac Mini, a MacBook Air or 13″ MacBook Pro will be fast, but won’t make much of a difference from what I’m running already. It also has no way to access the internals. You’re stuck with the RAM, CPU and storage that’s in there when you buy it. You can’t even get to the battery.

Why upgrade at all?
So that begs the question, why bother upgrading at all? The answer to that one is simple. My machine reached the end of it’s useful life about 2 years ago. As I said earlier, it won’t run Mavericks (or Mountain Lion) and I need the latest OS otherwise I can’t develop for iOS 7.

The upgrade strategy
So, my decision is made. I will be getting a Mac Pro. Quite what specification I go for remains to be seen. But that’s not the whole story. As I mentioned in my last post, the MacBook Pro’s  dropped considerably in price when they were updated last month. I wanted a new laptop, but couldn’t justify buying one when I’m about to throw a load of money at a new desktop. However, these new prices are difficult to resist.

I’ve not bothered with a laptop for a couple of years. I’ve tried to use my iPad as a replacement and for surfing the web or reading a magazine-like app it can’t be beaten but for working on the road it’s no good at all. I’ve found myself out and about several times over the last few months with my iPad wishing I had a laptop instead so I could get some work done. My old MacBook is past its useful life (it’s a bit slow now, only has 20GB of RAM and is stuck on Snow Leopard) so, a laptop replacement has been in the back of my mind for a while. It just didn’t come to the fore until the new pricing for the MacBook Pro’s was announced in October.

As my power workstation will be my desktop, a MacBook Air would be fine as a replacement for my ancient first generation white MacBook. This costs £849 in the UK. However, that only has an 11″ screen and 1.3GHz processor. To step up to a 13″ screen takes you to £949. For just another £150 you can get a MacBook Pro with a 13″ screen and a retina display, 2.4GHz dual-core i5 processor, PCIe storage, Thunderbolt 2, SDXC card reader and an HDMI port. A no-brainer, I think, so I’ve ordered one although I went for an upgrade to 8GB of RAM. I’ve also got some cables coming so I can hook up my Firewire camera, connect to my gigabit network and plug in my 30″ display. I ordered last Thursday and delivery should be some time this week, or next Monday at the latest.

Plans are, at the moment, to switch to the laptop until I can get my hands on a Mac Pro. It’ll ease the pain of waiting (and enable me to get some work done that needs the new OS).

Are you bonkers?
Some people may think I’m mad to spend out on a posh laptop and also a mega desktop in the space of a few weeks. However, I last purchased a laptop in 2006 followed in 2007 by my Mac Pro 1,1. Both of these devices are still in use 7 years after buying them. I haven’t bought any other computer hardware (other than phones and tablets) in the intervening years. Yes, these computers ARE expensive, I don’t disagree. But when you get such a long lifespan out of them then, for me, it makes sense to throw lots of cash at these beasts and then watch while everyone else buys cheap PC’s and has to replace them after a couple of years (or be miserable because their hardware is rubbish and they can’t afford to replace it).

A bit harsh? May be, but I know I’m right! 😉

The update dilemma

As regular readers of this drivel will be well aware, I’ve been waiting for the new Mac Pro to come out for some time now. This post is about me starting to wonder if I really need to get one after all.

My existing machine is a Mac Pro 1,1 and it’s been awesome – a really useful tool for a good number of years – coming up for 7 in fact. I first started considering upgrading about 18 months ago but as history has since told us, Apple were busy coming up with a brand new design for their Pro line of computers at the time so updates to the current model ceased.

We didn’t realise that back then and it wasn’t until June 2012 that we all found out that a new machine was on the way. That new beast was announced at WWDC in June 2013 with further details and a rough launch date following at an event in October 2013.

It’s something else that happened at that October event that has got me wondering if the Mac Pro is the way to go after all. I almost can’t believe I’m thinking this having waited so long for the new machine, but it’s something I need to think about carefully before deciding which way to jump.

My dilemma is the announcement of the new retina based MacBook Pro which has a new, lower price and some really impressive internal hardware. My thinking is that most of what I do on a day to day basis is to create web sites and write code neither of which is ultra CPU intensive (although some of the graphic design can be as can the video editing I do as and when required). Even the new MacBook, however, is well capable of handing most of this with only really intensive HDR photography and unencrypted high def video likely to send the laptop fan into overdrive. This is making me wonder if the new Mac Pro is overkill for my needs.

Perhaps I should just get a MacBook Pro, hook it up to my 30 inch Apple Cinema Display and then when I go on the road I can unhook it and take it with me? My data is gradually being moved off to my NAS device so the lack of internal storage isn’t a problem now. Ironically, it was the Mac Pro having no internal data storage that made me get the NAS in the first place.

I’m hesitating slightly over this as one of things I liked about the Mac Pro sat under my desk at the moment is that when I bought it, it was one of the fastest Mac’s Apple made. It was over 4 years before the iMac caught up with it speed-wise. That gave me a machine that wasn’t out of date for 6 years which is a very good life span. I’ve kept using it without issues for nearly 7 (and if you count back to when that hardware was initially released it gives that box 8 years of useful life).

However impressive the MacBook Pro is, it won’t be the fastest Mac out there and with no access to internals at all (not even to the battery) the lifespan of the unit is likely to be 3 or 4 years with a good few years after that as a usable backup/surfing computer. If the machine dies at any point, then I’d be completely stuffed while I wait for it be repaired.

It’s true that I’d be in the same boat with a new Mac Pro – if that dies then I’ll be similarly up that creek without that paddle, but in either case my old Mac Pro could very well act as a warm standby. Not an ideal solution, though, as I’m also moving off the Creative Cloud at the moment and some of the software I’m replacing Adobe apps with won’t run on my old hardware; a situation that’s only likely to worsen over time.

Don’t panic! Don’t panic!
One option would be to get both a MacBook Pro and a Mac Pro, which sounds more than a little extravagant but would kill two birds with… er… two stones.

An entry level Mac Pro (boosted with a larger PCIe drive) would be a great desktop computer with a long life ahead of it. I can easily see 5 or 6 years useful life for that computer. Having a MacBook Pro too would give me an instant warm standby which wouldn’t have an out of date OS like my Mac Pro 1,1 and would be something I could take on the road too. I’d be able to ditch my ancient first generation white MacBook (which is still on Snow Leopard) and also my current Mac Pro (which is stuck on Lion). I may be able to sell those old units to help pay towards the upgrades.

Perhaps one sobering thought in all this, is that the Geekbench score for the new MacBook Pro 13″ with retina display is only a tad faster than the 7 year old Mac Pro 1,1 I have under my desk. Astonishing, but that shows how purchasing the fastest Mac you can afford at the time pays dividends in the long run. The base line new Mac Pro is 8 times faster in Geekbench terms than the new MacBook Pros. Makes you think! Perhaps I should stick with my gut instinct and go for the “Darth Mac” after all!

This all sounds a bit barmy to me, but I clearly need to work out what I’m going to do before the new Mac Pro launches in just a few short weeks.

Watch this space!